The Sage of Polygon Road

Claire Tomalin

  • The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Vols I-VII edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler
    Pickering & Chatto, 2530 pp, £245.00, August 1989, ISBN 1 85196 006 6

Mary who? was the person I mostly seemed to be dealing with in the early Seventies, when I wrote a biography of the extraordinary woman whose works have now been collected for the first time, nearly two hundred years after her death. And ‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people. Her nephew Edward Wollstonecraft, an undistinguished and illiberal businessman who emigrated to New South Wales, had a whole district of Sydney named after him, and Australians don’t seem to find it difficult to pronounce: so why do we have so much trouble with his aunt?

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