The First Feminist

 

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

By Lyndall Gordon

New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 562 pages, $29.95, hardcover.

 

Reviewed by Kimberly Palmer

 

 While I was studying abroad in England during college, I was in search of role models who could show me how to live life as an independent woman. On a trip to Paris, I discovered Mary Wollstonecraft’s travel memoir, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, on a dusty shelf in tiny bookshop in the Latin Quarter. While I didn’t know the details of her writing or her life, I knew Wollstonecraft’s name. It conjured up an image of a strong, adventurous woman and a feminist before her time. I was enthralled.

 I didn’t realize it, but her reputation also had a less pristine side. As Lyndall Gordon writes in her new biography of Wollstonecraft, her detractors (and even some well-meaning supporters) spread misinformation about her almost immediately after she died in 1797. As a result, she was incorrectly perceived as depressed, atheistic, unattractive, and simultaneously prudish and promiscuous. As the book’s title suggests, Gordon’s goal is to set the record straight. For her, that means defending Wollstonecraft against all negative charges.

 Gordon explains Wollstonecraft’s early depression and her two suicide attempts by connecting them to emotionally challenging circumstances. She uses portraits to demonstrate Wollstonecraft’s beauty. In response to accusations that Wollstonecraft tried to insinuate herself into the marriage of the artist Henry Fuseli and his wife, Gordon produces a letter to argue that Wollstonecraft just wanted to stay with them in Paris as a visitor.

 This pro-Wollstonecraft perspective is refreshing, although somewhat suspect. Could Wollstonecraft really be so unblemished? Over 200 years after her death, how are we to know the truth? Fortunately, Gordon does not spend the whole book on defense. She unravels the narrative of Wollstonecraft’s life, and regardless of the debate over Wollstonecraft’s faults, her greatness is impossible to deny. Born into a family with an abusive father, Wollstonecraft supported herself and her sisters by becoming a teacher and a governess in her twenties. Then, she discovered writing. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which argued that a constitution should protect women’s rights as well as men’s, turned her into a celebrity. She wrote articles attacking the abuse of women, the medical establishment that so misunderstood women’s bodies, and the marital difficulties women faced in an era when a divorce required an act of Parliament.

 Almost completely self-educated, Wollstonecraft developed her own theories of education, which leaned toward giving children freedom and encouraging creativity. Gordon writes that while Wollstonecraft’s contemporary Hannah More, “a purveyor of popular pieties,” believed in suppressing a “bold, independent, enterprising spirit” in girls, “Wollstonecraft recognized that it was through such misteaching that ‘daughters’ internalized their subjection. Education was therefore central to her message.”

 Gordon reveals the importance of Wollstonecraft’s close relationships with other women, who became her friends and mentors. When, in her twenties, Wollstonecraft started a school outside of London, it was run by women who supported themselves, a somewhat unusual thing in the 1700s. One especially close friend, Fanny Blood, taught her what would be a life-changing lesson: “[U]ntil she met Fanny, she had not thought of writing as an art. This struck her now with the excitement of possibility – a passion to excel,” Gordon writes.

 The need for money – for herself and her family– led Wollstonecraft away from teaching and into life as a governess. This actually benefited her writing, explains Gordon:

Cut off from friends and family affections, she picked up her pen – and found some release. Alone at night beside her fire, listening to the wind or lifting her eyes to the hills, she would dash down letters where she freed herself to say what she saw and heard.

 

 A financial gift from an unknown source—Wollstonecraft agreed to keep the name a secret and it remains a mystery to this day, though Gordon suggests it was a wealthy Irishman she met as a governess—eventually allowed Wollstonecraft to leave her governess post and move to London to write. “At the age of twenty-nine, she had a new ‘plan of life’: to live entirely by her pen as few women had done without a supporting career in theatre or the drudgery of low-grade publications,” says Gordon.

After she became a full-time writer, Wollstonecraft moved into London’s intellectual circles. She met William Godwin, Henry Fuseli, and other leading intellectuals at the dinner table of her publisher. That’s also when her man troubles began. She met Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman, and was drawn to his ambition. While she was in Paris writing about the French Revolution, she “married,” him—although the authenticity of that marriage remained in question. She was pregnant and living in a dangerous city: other British citizens, including Thomas Paine, had been imprisoned and some were killed.

 Wollestonecraft’s letters to Imlay reveal her emotional fragility. She doesn’t think he is paying her enough attention. She is so depressed that she comes close to suicide. These letters, which Gordon has impressively tracked down and quoted from generously, do more to give us insight into Wollstonecraft’s personality than any outsider’s description of her could. One, dated May 20, 1794, written a few days after her daughter Fanny’s birth, is typical: “My little Girl begins to suck so manfully that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the [Vindication of the Rights of Women].”

 Still, in Gordon’s view, Imlay almost destroyed her. “The interior drama of the Imlay years was to see destroyed the independent and desiring creature she had become. Her two suicide attempts were temporary capitulations to that denial.” Around the time that her relationship with Imlay was falling apart, the writer William Godwin read one of Wollstonecraft’s books and fell in love with her.

 Gordon describes their courtship as a seventeenth-century version of a Sex and the City episode. Their courtship is my favorite part of the book, because it relies almost completely on letters between Godwin and Wollstonecraft. The couple, who lived in separate London apartments within walking distance from each other, wrote each other up to three letters a day.

 Wollstonecraft makes a sexual overture that is not well-received, and the couple experience several awkward first attempts at intimacy. When they finally get it right, Godwin writes,

Let me assure you that you are not only in my heart, but my veins, this morning. I turn from you half abashed—yet you haunt me, and some look, word or touch thrills through my whole frame—yes , at the very moment when I am labouring to think of something, if not somebody, else. Get ye gone Intruder!

 

Wollstonecraft’s love letters, which don’t usually get as much attention as her political writing, show how deeply emotional she was.

 Gordon produces historical details that bring the period alive: After Wollstonecraft gives birth to her daughter, puppies suckle at her breasts to relieve their pressure. A woman was considered to have violated her “modesty” by publishing her writing. Condoms, which were tied on with pink ribbons, were so expensive that Wollstonecraft and Godwin relied on the rhythm method. Because they misunderstood when during her cycle a woman was most fertile, Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant with a daughter, Mary, who would become famous in her own right as author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft, like so many women of her time, died during childbirth, most likely because of a poor medical care. Her doctor ripped out her placenta, which caused excessive blood loss and probably an infection.

 Although at some points, Gordon’s relish for detail veers into the excessive—do we really need to know the historical background of Protestants in Ireland, or of Edmund Burke and the royal family?—the book generally gathers momentum from Gordon’s diligent research and narrative writing style. Scenes unfold moment by moment.

 Almost immediately following Wollstonecraft’s death, the struggle to define her began. She was held up as a warning to women of the dangers of independence. Novels based loosely on Wollstonecraft’s life featured women whose lives were wrecked by too much freedom. The next generation of feminists distanced themselves from Wollstonecraft. However, such disdain did not last. The last three chapters of Gordon’s book assess Wollstonecraft’s legacy of “intellectual ambition and independence through work”—the same legacy I was so struck by when I discovered Wollstonecraft in Paris. “She looks beyond rights as an end in themselves, beyond the feminist goals of the last two centuries, toward an evolving intelligence—listening, sensitivity, tenderness—still untapped in public life,” writes Gordon. This analysis of Wollstonecraft’s lasting impact on what we conceive as possible for women not only helps us to appreciate her life and thought but also inspires us to challenge the boundaries of our own era.

 

Kimberly Palmer, a reporter for Government Executive magazine in Washington, DC, is author of the memoir Not a Geisha (Booksurge, 2004).

 

 

 

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