This is my review of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin.
After somehow failing to appreciate Mary Wollstonecraft’s importance, perhaps because of the anti-feminist backlash which arose after her death and dominated British society until the C20, I have at last been won over by Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography, rightly praised by the historian Plumb: “There is no better book on Mary Wollstonecraft, nor is there likely to be”.
Mary is portrayed very honestly, warts and all, as often controlling and opinionated, in her youth prone to dominating less intelligent and assertive girls, yet demanding their affection. Once she had discovered the sexual attraction of men, she could repel them with her intensity, even naively suggesting on at least two occasions some kind of “ménage à trois”, and in turn was bitterly disappointed by their preference for relationships with pretty but less clever women, although they seem to have enjoyed the stimulus of her conversation. On finding herself pregnant for a second time, her insistence on marriage to the philosopher-writer Godwin seems in contradiction to her feminist principles, but she cannot be blamed for seeking some security after being driven to attempted suicides (she was prone to depression) over the humiliation of abandonment by her fickle lover Imlay, leaving her with a small daughter.
On a more positive side, Mary was courageous if foolhardy, setting off alone to experience first-hand the French Revolution in Paris despite the danger of the psychopathic Robespierre and the guillotine, or to Scandinavia with a baby and nursemaid in tow, to help solve Imlay’s financial problems. An original thinker on the basis of experience of unfair treatment as a girl and of her reading rather than formal education, she displayed a surprising confidence, being one of the first to launch into print against Edmund Burke’s attack on the Dissenters as a dangerous force likely to bring dangerous revolution in England: her “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” brought her instant fame, on a par with Thomas Paine. Determined to support herself, she was not afraid to approach her influential publisher Johnson with a request for work.
Ironically, her widowed husband Godwin not only tarnished her reputation by his frankness over her practice of “free love” but belittled her in stating, “The strength of her mind lay in intuition….yet in the strict sense of the term, she reasoned little”. In fact, what shines out across the span of more than two centuries is the coherence of her thoughts, her wry wit and eloquence. For instance, while acknowledging the violence of the French Revolution, she justified the need to achieve greater quality: “to preclude from the chance of improvement the greater part of the citizens of the state…can be considered in no other light than as monstrous tyranny…. for all the advantages of civilisation cannot be felt unless it pervades the whole mass.”
The death in childbirth of a vigorous, healthy woman who had recently found happiness was very poignant, but Mary would have been furious had she lived to read such observations from female writers as “ “in the education of girls we must teach them more caution than is necessary for boys…they must trust to the experience of others… must adapt themselves to what is”, “girls should be more inured to restraint than boys”, “must soon perceive the impossibility of their rambling about the world in quest of adventures”.