A Passionate Rationalist

Mary Wollstonecraft

Juicy life; dry read. That was the club verdict on Vindication, the recent biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon.

Grade — B- (C readability; A- subject matter)

Barbara was taken with the historical and literary aspects, most particularly Mary Wollstonecraft’s friendship with John and Abigail Adams. To augment Gordon’s biography, she read Wollstonecrafts’s most famous work — A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — as well as three other biographies. The one she’d recommend for general readers is The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin, which is shorter and more focused.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was marked by obstacles and adventure — a violent father, financial strains, needy siblings who constantly beg for money, a love affair with a charming but faithless American spy (Gilbert Imlay), life in France during the Terror, travels with a baby in tow through Norway and Holland on the trail of stolen silver.

Despite these ills, she produced many influential works including the first declaration of women’s rights, a history of the French Revolution, and books on the education of daughters, child-rearing, and travel. Many of her ideas are still current after two centuries. She was one of the first advocates for mothers’ breast-feeding, for example.

Sadly, when she found and married a possible soul-mate*, William Godwin, she died in childbirth, leaving two daughters without a mother.

I felt the book went overboard describing the romantic and sexual aspects of Wollstonecraft’s life and shortchanged her intellectual contributions. We are too often reduced to our sexual and emotional selves.

Terry felt Gordon went off on a tangent at the end — connecting the lives of the daughters and a student Margaret King (who dressed as a man in order to study medicine) to Wollstonecraft’s ideas.

Others felt Gordon made poor transitions, went on and on about irrelevant details, and left out connecting information leaving the reader feeling lost or bewildered, scratching her head and saying: Where did this character come from?

That said, we found plenty to talk about — the horrors of childbirth in the 18th century, the shocking practice of the French aristocracy of sending their infants off to a wet nurse to be reared (where they often died), and the absolute legal rights of men over wives and children. It was wrenching to read about women being forced to give their very young children to the father upon separating, and about wives having no recourse if physically or psychologically abused by their husbands.

We touched on Rousseau (education, child-rearing), the fact that Wollstonecraft can be seen as a transitional figure between Enlightenment rationalism and the Romantic / Sentimentalist movement (Sorrows of Young Werther; poets Shelley and Byron), free love and its consequences in a world without contraception (free love is free only for men), and Wollstonecraft’s daughters (Fanny Imlay who commits suicide; Mary Godwin Shelley who writes Frankenstein and lives in a menage à trois with the poet Percy Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont).

Yes, great topics of discussion…if you can make it all the way through the book!

*Point of contention — was he indeed the right man, or a cold fish?


Barbara adds —

Vindication is truly fascinating. It is a feminist classic but its feminist concerns have more to do reforming marriage and motherhood than in winning political or sexual freedoms. In particular, Wollstonecraft wants mothers to become the nurturers and educators rather than turning their children over to hirelings. Here’s a money quotation: “To be a good mother, a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands.”

By the way, Gilbert Imlay’s novel, The Emigrants, is still available in a Penguin classic edition.


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