Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life 
by Janet Todd.
Weidenfeld, 516 pp., £25, April 2000, 0 297 84299 4
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Mary Wollstonecraft’s defenders have always found their task difficult. Writing her life to disastrous effect in 1798, intent on establishing her as one of those beings ‘endowed with the most exquisite and delicious sensibility, whose minds seem almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs, to whom pleasure is transport, and disappointment is agony indescribable’, an ‘incomparable woman’ than whom ‘perhaps no human creature ever suffered greater misery’, a ‘female Werther’, even a second Goethe, the still grieving widower William Godwin was forced to concede that his improbable dear was ‘what Dr Johnson would have called, “a very good hater”’. ‘Indignation,’ he noted, ‘was an emotion of which she was strongly susceptible.’

This was tactful understatement. She was susceptible to indignation, and to arrogance, self-pity, hypocrisy, histrionics and hypochondria as well. It is hard to write about her even sympathetically without seeming hostile. The more a biographer tells – and the more she cares about her subject, the more she can tell – the worse the story sounds. Janet Todd has been a champion of Wollstonecraft for the length of her scholarly career. Unsurprisingly, she has taken exception to works that treat her with less respect than Todd believes her to have deserved. When Claire Tomalin’s biography appeared (one of several) during an upsurge of interest in this founding mother of feminism a quarter of a century ago and spoke of Wollstonecraft’s ‘imperfect heroism’, as Todd has it, she was annoyed; and when Richard Cobb’s review of that work subsequently appeared using the occasion to charge Wollstonecraft with silliness, egotism, envy, rancour, meddling, mediocrity and bad writing, she was furious. Describing these events a few years ago in Gender, Art and Death, Todd made it clear her anger was still very much alive. So, presumably, was her sympathy for Wollstonecraft. There is, then, a formidably well-exercised and industriously benevolent exculpatory intention behind this biography. But unless one counts the considerable amusement of a tale well and wittily told, it all goes for nothing – nothing, that is, to the purpose of exculpation. For after decades of devoted feminist interest and patient, genial scholarship, Todd finds in Wollstonecraft’s life just what her old antagonist found: silliness, egotism, envy, rancour, meddling, mediocrity and bad writing – imperfect heroism indeed.

This may seem horribly unfair. It did to Todd when other people’s accounts of Wollstonecraft’s life were at issue. Taken by themselves, out of emotional and especially epistolary context (for it is the letters more than anything else that do her in), the events of Wollstonecraft’s life suggest passionate, selfless generosity and courage in adversity. Born in 1759 to a violently tyrannical father ruinously fond of gambling and alcohol and a passive, sickly, emotionally negligent mother, the second child in a family notable for its incomprehensible snobberies and jealous resentments, Wollstonecraft grew up keenly aware of what her failure to have been born an eldest son had cost her materially and emotionally. Although she hoped that friends might love her as her family never did, she spent most of her life being disappointed by friends who died (Fanny Blood) or refused to make room for her as a Platonic third within a passionate marriage (Henry Fuseli) or abandoned her with an out-of-wedlock child (Gilbert Imlay) or otherwise failed to value her with the intensity, constancy and perseverance she required.

These disappointments made her bitterly unhappy. They did not stop her from carrying on with what she had to do to support herself (working as a lady’s companion, a seamstress, a schoolmistress, a governess, a writer) or from making bold efforts to protect others from harm or what she saw as harm. As a child she slept outside her mother’s bedroom door, thinking (‘mistakenly, or with reason’, Godwin wrote) to protect her from her father’s beatings; when grown she allowed her father, in financial and perhaps criminal straits, to rob her of her legacy. When her married sister Eliza fell into a postpartum depression that declared itself in a mad, violent loathing for her husband, Wollstonecraft, reminded perhaps of her victimised mother, perhaps of her psychotic younger brother, organised Eliza’s escape from her husband’s house. She then opened a school and established a household in Newington Green in North London to support this now helpless and homeless sister, taking in not just Eliza but her younger sister Everina and her delicate friend Fanny Blood as well, whose marriage to her dilatory suitor Hugh Skeys Wollstonecraft meanwhile actively promoted in the expectation that Skeys would take Fanny to live in Portugal, a climate she hoped might restore her friend to health. Two years later the married Fanny sent word from Lisbon that she was about to have a child. Wollstonecraft sailed alone to Portugal to attend her lying-in; and she was with her when, a few days later, Fanny died, together with her infant son. Though Wollstonecraft could not preserve the life of this friend for whom Godwin reported she had felt ‘a friendship so fervent, as for years to have constituted the ruling passion of her mind’, she could nevertheless preserve the lives of others. During her voyage back to England, her ship encountered a French vessel in distress. The captain of her ship wanted to leave its passengers to their fate: Wollstonecraft threatened and bullied him until at last he consented to take on board those who would otherwise have drowned. Then, home once more, she resumed responsibility for her sisters and for Fanny’s grieving and hapless family, even for their in-laws, and even for their in-laws’ in-laws, at one point taking in Fanny’s widower’s second wife’s niece. Everywhere she recognised obligation.

After Fanny’s death Wollstonecraft’s life diverged from storybook heroism and showed a more eccentric or idiosyncratic courage. Not knowing what else to do – the Newington Green school had gone to pieces under her sisters’ management during her unhappy journey to Portugal, and she discovered that she was unable to behave in anything like the approved manner for a governess – she began to write. Her earliest efforts hint at what was to come. Both Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Mary: A Fiction express a painful and very immediate awareness of the problems confronting women, particularly those ‘unfortunate females’, like Wollstonecraft herself, ‘who are left by inconsiderate parents to struggle with the world, and whose cultivation of mind renders the endeavour doubly painful’. The Education of Daughters, a Wollstonecraftian jumble concocted largely from letters she had written to her sisters and to Fanny’s brother George, suggests the need to prepare young women to make their own way, but it cannot quite reject the social conservatism that Wollstonecraft would continue to find intermittently attractive all her life: her prescriptions are tame and include (among other things) the fostering of a pleasing feminine bashfulness. Mary, Wollstonecraft’s first, semi-autobiographical novel of sensibility, offers no more promising idea of what is to be done. It conducts through a disappointing world a heroine in whom the author has far too much invested, teaching her that none but the doomed or dying are fully worthy of love, until at last it sends her ‘hastening to a world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage’.

Wollstonecraft threw herself on the protection of the publisher Joseph Johnson and joined a circle that counted Dr Richard Price, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, William Blake, Horne Tooke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Holcroft, Henry Fuseli and Godwin among its members. She was not an unqualified success. Her literary efforts – a little ‘touched with the torpedo of mediocrity’, as even Godwin would later confess – were for a time very small-scale: reviews, translations, abridgments, children’s literature. Having studied neither charm nor grammar, she aroused Godwin’s irritated dislike, and the outcome of her prolonged, absurdly high-minded pursuit of the notoriously lascivious Fuseli so humiliated her that she ran away to France. (The voluptuous Mrs Fuseli refused to share her husband with this strangely forward former prude and threw her out of the house, an experience that taught Wollstonecraft how to behave when, years later, a married woman herself, she had occasion to forbid an importunate Miss Pinkerton from harassing her not altogether unwilling husband with improper attentions.)

By the time she ran away, however, she had been transformed: no longer a failed and frumpy governess, she was now the determinedly attractive and almost famous author of the two great Vindications. Her Vindication of the Rights of Men had been a reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, one of the first of some forty-five replies to be published, and for all its flaws (apparent even to those who shared Wollstonecraft’s indignation at Burke’s sentimental and manipulative tactics), it was a major achievement, presenting in language at once rational and passionate a challenge to the power of a political and rhetorical tradition that had represented itself as wholly engrossing both reason and right feeling. More important, however, in part because it was followed by no train of seconds, was the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This was harder. The anonymity of the first Vindication had given Wollstonecraft sexual immunity and enabled her to speak as though she were the man and the worthy opponent to Burke that her readers had believed her to be. The second, signed Vindication allowed no simple impersonation of authority. In order to argue for the necessity of developing female intellect and moral independence Wollstonecraft believed that she had to write as if in despite of her sex and in defiance of vulnerability. Protection from the imputation of weak-minded femininity required her, she seems to have thought, actively to repudiate its associations. She could afford no confession of fellowship with other women; she could afford no sympathy with dependence. Self-reliant duty must absorb passionate disruption. It must have seemed to her entirely feasible.

Wollstonecraft was established in Paris and at work on a history of the French Revolution when she met a shady American speculator and writer of undistinguished fiction called Gilbert Imlay, fell in love, and discovered that passion might not be so easily tamed and dismissed as the severe author of The Rights of Woman had recommended. Although her joy was as brief as Imlay’s devotion, soon she was a mother and could not quite persuade herself that Imlay’s increasingly lengthy absences and epistolary silences meant what inevitably they did mean. In the midst of emotional devastation, between suicide attempts, she set off with baby Fanny and a maid for the near-wilderness of Scandinavia where, acting as Imlay’s business envoy, she meant to recover a ship laden with silver that an unscrupulous captain had effectively stolen from him and his partners. This display of strength was no more seductive than her earlier displays of helplessness and distress had been. She returned to London to find Imlay cold to her still. Recovering from her second suicide attempt, she learned that he had begun living with a new mistress. Thus – after only a brief interval during which she toyed with the idea of a ménage à trois – she came at last to understand that she was and long had been a deserted woman. She swallowed no more poison, made no more plunges into the Thames. She had resources still. She took the letters she had written Imlay from Scandinavia – desperate, furious, shrewish, extortionate, tedious letters – and transformed them into the immensely appealing Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. She offered not just unfamiliar landscapes and small adventures among out of the way people with curious customs but, even better, her own intelligent interest and amiably melancholy musings about it all. Everyone read them and everyone (except Imlay) fell in love with her. Godwin reconsidered his objections to her grammar and her manners and allowed himself to grow starry-eyed. When the author herself appeared on his doorstep, he let her seduce him. They worked out a scheme of comfortable domesticity combined with provisions for writerly independence, and Wollstonecraft began work on a novel, The Wrongs of Woman, that was to carry on from where The Rights of Woman had left off, demonstrating not only the variety and evil effects of men’s oppression of women but also women’s collusion in their own oppression. For the first time in her life, she enjoyed happiness, security and productivity all at once. Or perhaps there just wasn’t time for things to go wrong. In rapid sequence Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant, married Godwin, gave birth to her second child, the baby who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, and died, killed by an infection introduced by a doctor’s attempt to remove the placenta she could not expel.

If there were no more to it than that, no more to her life than the pathos, the bravery and the books, we would have enough material to supply any number of heroines. Wollstonecraft did her best to live up to the ideals of virtuous self-possession and generous maternal strength she prescribed in The Rights of Woman, and from a certain perspective – that of Godwin, for instance, when, half destroyed by grief, he gave himself over to hagiography – she seemed to have succeeded. From other perspectives, however, she did not, and her failure exposes her to the risk of the same pitiless judgment she showed to others who could not or would not be strong: ‘Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man, for she must grow more perfect when emancipated, or justify the authority that chains such a weak being to her duty. – If the latter, it will be expedient to open a fresh trade with Russia for whips.’

Todd never quite reaches the point of whipping – not quite. But that she refrains is evidence of her self-control, for Wollstonecraft close up, Wollstonecraft in the motives and consequences of her adventures, Wollstonecraft especially as she comes out of her own mouth, tries her biographer severely. This may have been inevitable. With more information about Wollstonecraft, her family, her friends, her acquaintances, her writings and her culture than is reasonable for even an exceptionally well-informed biographer to have, Todd focuses on Wollstonecraft’s presentation of herself. She gives us an epistolary Wollstonecraft, a self which, as Todd describes it, ‘valued and reflected endlessly on its own workings, refusing to acknowledge anything absurd in the stance’, full of a ‘need to display itself for the attention of others’. Todd characterises these qualities as ‘undeniably modern’, which sounds as if it were meant to suggest admiration. But not even the most determined admiration can survive a full-length recitation of the ways in which Wollstonecraft ‘dedicates herself to expressing her Self’.

Wollstonecraft’s benevolence had strict limits and her daring deeds sometimes perilously jagged edges. She acted out of rancour rather than charity, narcissism rather than love. She liked the abstract idea of bravery, its potential for justified self-assertion and self-display, but the objects and indirect objects of these displays of heroism did not always matter much to her, and her desire to be admired as a rescuer sometimes compromised her care for their welfare. It was largely for the sake of gaining domestic possession of Fanny Blood, Todd suggests, that Wollstonecraft broke up her sister Eliza’s marriage: though the spectacle of Eliza in the grip of frenzy worried Wollstonecraft, she saw in the possibility of inducing her sister’s flight from her husband a chance to establish, as though for Eliza’s sake, an independent female household that might house Fanny Blood. Whatever her motive, and despite her lifelong insistence on the necessity of mothers nursing their own babies (she had never forgiven her own mother for failing to nurse her), she left Eliza’s baby behind when she snatched Eliza away; the child never saw her mother again and was dead before she was a year old. This was not an isolated mistake. The seven-year-old niece of Fanny Blood’s widower whom Wollstonecraft took in to raise lasted only until she was discovered to have stolen some sugar. Nor was her own baby safe: suicidal self-pity brought Wollstonecraft twice to the point of abandoning Fanny, a selfishness that shocks Todd more, perhaps, than anything else Wollstonecraft did.

Todd suspects that other people, even people Wollstonecraft believed she loved, seemed less real to her than she seemed to herself – so very much less real that she could not bring herself entirely to believe in them. For all her efforts on behalf of those in apparent need, for all her anguish over the real or fancied lessenings of her friends’ devotion, she behaved as though she valued people chiefly for the poses they enabled her to strike. Her treatment of Fanny Blood, particularly her treacherous posthumous representation in Mary as (in Todd’s apt words) ‘an object of faintly contemptuous compassion and desire’, suggests that Wollstonecraft was (again in Todd’s words) ‘infatuated less with her friend than with her own image of herself loving her friend’. Her curiosity about Gilbert Imlay, Todd believes, was confined to his part as her treacherous lover, the audience to her agonies and target for her reproaches. She was incapable of understanding intimacies other than the ones she was intent on establishing – hampered by no scruples in her attempts to secure Skeys for the needy Fanny Blood, impeded by no imagination of marital privacy when she approached Mrs Fuseli, shocked and mulish at the discovery that Lady Kingsborough resented her attempts to turn the children she was governessing against their mother and secure their favour herself.

Until she herself fell passionately in love, she held romance to be not merely dispensable but a threat to the only respectable end of marriage, parental responsibility: ‘In order to fulfil the duties of life, and to be able to pursue with vigour the various employments which form the moral character, the master and mistress of a family ought not to continue to love each other with passion,’ she wrote in The Rights of Woman. ‘An unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and … the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother.’ Behind such pronouncements lay no intention to console the emotionally bereft; young and heart-whole when she wrote these words, she had no time for women who fancied themselves injured by the loss of love and no idea that she might ever feel that way herself. ‘Many ladies,’ she informed the readers of The Education of Daughters, ‘are delicately miserable, and imagine that they are lamenting the loss of a lover, when they are full of self-applause, and reflections on their own superior refinement. Painful feelings are prolonged beyond their natural course, to gratify our desire of appearing heroines, and we deceive ourselves as well as others.’ Other people’s pain, whether mental or physical, generally either bored or disgusted her – when she believed in it at all, that is. Much of it, she suspected, was the product of weakmindedness. Female delicacy she regarded as particularly blameworthy, convinced as she was that women’s sickliness was the result of laziness, evidence of an indelicate attentiveness to the physical, proof that women were ‘slaves to their bodies’ and to their sensuality. Even the pains of childbirth, she decided after her first experience of it (the easy one), were exaggerated by what she called ‘the ignorance and affectation of women’.

Her own headaches, tears, modest loathings and fatigues were different. So were her emotional sufferings. A different set of evaluative rules applied here. (It did in everything to do with Wollstonecraft, whose very grammatical errors, darling ‘little negligences & rudenesses’, had in their author’s eyes a ‘charm as well as sanctity’ that pleaded against correction.) Like the bruises the princess suffered seven featherbeds above the pea, her distresses were signs of an exquisite sensitivity. Todd suggests a comparison with the spiritually validating infirmities of medieval mystics and Renaissance prophets. Wollstonecraft clearly wanted her agonies to mean something, and while the general utility of such pain for the building of character might be recommended to others, she was insistent that in her case it represented a proof of altruism, a mark of spiritual status. It was not enough to be heroic: one might be pitiable as well. Feeling that pain had the power to add a certain something to one’s appeal, she seemed almost to envy victims the credit of their pain. ‘A benevolent mind often suffers more than the object it commiserates,’ she admonished her readers in The Education of Daughters, ‘and will bear inconvenience itself to shelter another from it.’ Or perhaps it is the other way around. Sometimes the bearing of inconvenience is more significant, more praiseworthy, than the sheltering of any adjunctive, nominally pitiable others – as when the Wollstonecraftlike heroine of Mary feeds beggars in order to ‘feel gratified, when, in consequence of it, she was pinched by hunger’.

This was a gratification very much to Wollstonecraft’s taste. If she gloried in her power to save, she gloried even more in her ability to suffer. She took pride in the number of things by which she was capable of being injured, collecting and displaying her sufferings as other people might collect and display butterflies or teapots. It was a family tradition. She, her sisters and her mother were all expert and competitive hypochondriacs, producing not just headaches, side aches, languor, trembling, spasms, sore eyes and disturbances of vision, but also hysterical deafness (Eliza in her postpartum depression), loss of hair (Eliza again, when unhappily convinced that Wollstonecraft would not invite her to France), convulsions (Wollstonecraft, on learning that Imlay was seeing another woman). Wollstonecraft often depended on her ailments to illustrate her grievances and enforce her demands. When they inconveniently failed her – as they did, for instance, during the strenuous journey through Scandinavia, which she seemed to have crossed rosy-cheeked and radiant – she was compelled to supply sad reports of falls, nauseatingly rich foods, offensively soft feather beds instead.

Rich in distresses (‘I am agitated – my whole frame is convulsed – my lips tremble, as if shook by cold, though fire seems to be circulating in my veins’) and pleased to think herself a female Lear (‘my naked bosom has had to brave continually the pitiless storm’) and thus entitled to fits of rage, as well as impunity for pettier forms of bad behaviour, Wollstonecraft nonetheless suspected that she could maximise emotional gain by converting anger into sorrow and not asking for pity directly. Her pain, her tears, would speak for her. At the age of about fifteen she wrote in reproach to her friend Jane Arden, who had disappointed what Wollstonecraft called her ‘romantic notions of friendship’: ‘I have a heart too susceptible for my own peace … I spent part of the night in tears; (I would not meanly make a merit of it.) … I cannot bear a slight from those I love.’ Her heart continued to be too susceptible for either her own peace or that of the friends whose slights she continued to be unable to bear, and although she went on making a merit of not meanly making a merit of it, the noise she made muting her misery was often greater than the natural sound of misery itself. The commotion reached its climax during her affair with Imlay, in which she flowered both erotically and rhetorically. Occupatio became her favorite figure. ‘In the bitterness of my heart, I could complain … but I will be silent for ever –’; ‘there is nothing I would not endure in the way of privation, rather than disturb your tranquillity. – If I am fated to be unhappy, I will labour to hide my sorrows in my own bosom’; ‘Forget that I exist: I will never remind you’; ‘I am silent – Be happy!’; ‘I disdain to utter a reproach’; and so on.

Wollstonecraft felt compelled to point out her own word-strangled grief, her heartbreaking silent dignity, her generous forbearance from accusation. She would die stifling her sorrows within her bosom, but she could not resist commenting on the wrenching significance of such brave self-effacement. ‘There are misfortunes so great, as to silence the usual expressions of sorrow. – Believe me, there is such a thing as a broken heart!’ Imlay, hardened to a rhetoric of ultimacy applied without discrimination to intimations of mortality, threats to stop pestering him, and anticipations of boat trips, failed to respond with the terrified loving remorse Wollstonecraft desired. Who can blame him? There is something uncharmingly pedagogical about her love-making, the exhibitions of her unselfconsciously estimable self so many dreary demonstrations before an inattentive class, the love letters angry rappings on a blackboard. Since no untutored adoration of herself was likely to rise to the standard she set, instruction was required: ‘It is my misfortune, that my imagination is perpetually shading your defects, and lending you charms, whilst the grossness of your senses makes you (call me not vain) overlook graces in me, that only dignity of mind, and the sensibility of an expanded heart can give.’ She would exact homage, even if only from herself, and tears as well. She painted what she meant to be heart-rending pictures of herself driven by the pain of ‘wounds that never can be healed’, that ‘fester in silence without wincing’, to madness or to death (‘the tightened cord of life or reason will at last snap, and set me free’). She warned darkly of a time when Imlay would come to regret his cruelty: ‘May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.’

The letters are disturbingly like the autobiographical fictions, platitudinous and imperfectly private, offered as if to a readership discernible to no one but the writer as she regards her reflection on the page. Though they pass themselves off as intended for Imlay’s private reading, they seem not quite to have a fix on their recipient. Wollstonecraft can have had no imagination of what the letters sounded like in any ear other than her own; and yet, oddly, when it was time to revise and publish them as Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, to realise their obliquity of address, she knew how to achieve the effect of breathing affection that had eluded her when her audience was an individual man. In effacing the identity of her original addressee and substituting a public readership for a private one, Wollstonecraft managed to write the letters that might have brought her lover back to her. What was false and haranguing in the original becomes natural and intimately affecting in the professional revision. Perhaps she simply required more admiration, more loyalty, than any single friend or lover could supply. Perhaps she simply lacked the ability to converse.

She wished to be remembered as a victim, a martyr, retrospectively adored, immortal in the guilt she would inspire. We know how her wish was answered. Imlay would have nothing to do with it. It was Godwin who responded. The uxorious biography, the comparisons with Goethe, were not enough to fulfil his desperate need to make reparation for having survived her. He must publish a selection of her letters, too – including the letters to Imlay – together with her unfinished works. He thought the letters entirely winning, ‘the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world’. Readers disagreed. Though our reasons are not theirs, we disagree, too.

Wollstonecraft’s power to dismay has survived a shift in values and defied a revolution in perspective. Her once offensive radicalism now appears a disturbing conservatism. Her complexity seems to be incoherence. One might speculate that her sex, her feminism, her exhibitionism complicate the sealing off of private vulnerabilities from public virtues that is so necessary a part of the normal programme of heroism and so leave her contradictions unprotected. But this leaves too much unexplained. A readerly encounter with a figure whose private life has been thrust into prominence does not usually end in bewilderment. Wollstonecraft was hard to take, but there are many eminent figures whose capacity to annoy has (unlike hers) done nothing to diminish their stature and whose greatness has (also unlike hers) swallowed down disgrace.

Wollstonecraft’s incoherence resists simplification. Her ambiguity will not be resolved. She wasn’t just a manipulative whiner or just an electrifying prophet: she was both, the whining self-display and the eloquent inspiration equally characteristic and equally real. Todd shows us one and she show us the other, feebleness and strength, mediocrity and power. Chronology requires a special emphasis on mediocrity, but conversion from one to the other is unimaginable, simultaneity outrageous. The juxtaposition shocks. Wollstonecraft seems to have lived two lives in ironic parallel, the first crudely misunderstanding the second, the second strenuously idealising the first, with no reasonable relation between the particulars of her experience and her heroic portraiture. She does not add up – and yet, mysteriously, she must have.

That the arithmetic is bewildering and Wollstonecraft’s importance resistant to narration became apparent two centuries ago. It cannot be blamed on Todd, who means to be loyal and wants it all to make sense and whose only fault, a Godwinian one, is a failure to explain why Wollstonecraft’s weaknesses ought not (as she believed they ought not) finally to tell against her. She means to show that what she calls ‘the huge sense of the “I” in Mary Wollstonecraft’s work’ is also the earliest modern instance of a self ‘sure of its significance, individuality and authenticity’. But whatever is to be made out amid the emotional murk, the artificial amplification, the incessant and incorrigible martyrising of Wollstonecraft’s melodramas, it isn’t authenticity: Wollstonecraft spent her life arguing for the right to something she couldn’t achieve herself nor recognise in others. But how else to account for her furious defiance of plausibility, for the violence and absurdity of her demand that her demands be met? That remains a puzzle.

Not even Todd, faithful though she tries to be, can resist the ironies of her guiltily amusing tale. But if there is no simple authenticity here, there is something that matters to us far more: its difficult imagining. Against that unlikely achievement the embarrassments of even so irrational, accidental and self-deceived a life count for little.

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Vol. 23 No. 1 · 4 January 2001

Mary Wollstonecraft, if Susan Eilenberg is to be believed (LRB, 30 November 2000), was an exceptionally feminine feminist, a woman positively overflowing with stock female attributes. Silly, egotistical, histrionic, narcissistic, envious, rancorous, petty-minded, meddling, intellectually mediocre: this Wollstonecraft is a misogynist’s pin-up. The portrait, Eilenberg insists, is Janet Todd’s own, unsoftened by the biographer’s natural partiality for her subject. This is nonsense. Where Todd is careful and balanced – seeking, as she said in her letter (Letters, 14 December 2000), to reveal a woman of everyday complexity – Eilenberg rushes to pop-Freudian interpretations. Wollstonecraft, we are told, was so egotistical that other people, even lovers, existed for her only as mirrors, opportunities for self-display. A ‘rancorous’ solipsism coloured everything. The tone in which Eilenberg delivers these verdicts may be intended to be dryly humorous, but what it most closely resembles – eerily echoes – is Wollstonecraft’s own harshly satirical censure of her fellow women who, according to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, are silly, ungenerous, ‘brimful of false sentiment’ and, above all, selfishly indifferent to others.

Wollstonecraft regarded these female follies as products of oppression, and thus remediable. Eilenberg, on the other hand, sees Wollstonecraft as a pretty hopeless case. Expecting to meet a feminist heroine – an ‘electrifying prophet’ – she encounters instead a ‘manipulative whinger’ whose ‘power to dismay’ overwhelms her ‘greatness’. The terms are depressingly familiar. For over two hundred years Wollstonecraft has been bouncing on and off her pedestal. Ever since Godwin’s Memoirs revealed her stormy emotional history she has attracted constant criticism from those who insist that famous women intellectuals must be more than ordinarily human. Other interpreters, Wollstonecraft’s ‘defenders’, as Eilenberg dubs them, rush in to explain, exonerate, idealise. Her icon rating rises, falls, rises again.

Can we now come at her differently? Because if not – if the only options really are Silly Woman or Heroine – then Wollstonecraft is in trouble. For she certainly could be silly, and she was neither an intellectual giant nor a great prophet. She was instead a troubled, determined woman who, in the late 1780s, became a type of thinker unique to the late Enlightenment: a radical philosophe, one of a small group of left-wing Protestant aufklärer who, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, sought to turn the ‘liberty of reason’ to libertarian political ends. Self-educated in advanced thought and also deeply pious, Wollstonecraft was preoccupied with issues that still resonate politically – individual rights; material and cultural inequalities; the social consequences of sexual difference – as well as with others that require some stretch of historical imagination for their significance to be grasped: theodicy and the workings of Providence; the Christian-Platonic ideal of erotic transcendence (with which she hoped to remodel female sexuality); the Rousseauist critique of civilisation. To all these matters, Wollstonecraft brought an enormous appetite for innovation and disputation – leading impulses behind her feminism – while to her career as a revolutionary propagandist she brought a passionate utopianism, an absolute faith in the eventual arrival of a ‘perfect age’ of universal freedom.

What, then, are we to make of Eilenberg’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s ‘once offensive radicalism now appears a disturbing conservatism’? Is this a reference to Wollstonecraft’s proto-socialist critique of commerce (which led her to speak favourably of Babeuf, and prompted Robert Owen to claim her as ideological soulmate)? Or her fierce attack on the sexual double standard? Or her opposition to slavery? Or her exploration (in her final novel, Maria) of the interrelation of class and gender inequalities? Wollstonecraft’s times are not ours; her attitudes are often alien, her prejudices frequently grate. Her prescriptions for women (in common with those proffered by virtually all progressive moralists of her day, including other feminists) are dauntingly stern. But if we want to understand her these are differences to explore, not to deplore or to ridicule.

Wollstonecraft, I think it is safe to say, was not a Nice Woman (although many people of both sexes liked her very much). But she was undeniably a person to reckon with, both in her lifetime and after.

Barbara Taylor
London N7

Vol. 22 No. 24 · 14 December 2000

Susan Eilenberg’s review of my biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (LRB, 30 November) berates her for not living her theories or being entirely lovable. I stand accused of displaying a character whom no one will like. Wollstonecraft desired to control her own image, and I suspect that, when she wrote herself as an ideal mother in her works, she would not have wanted a biographer to juxtapose her pictures with her letters, as I have done, so revealing her as the everyday sort who likes a child more when cleaned and comforted by someone else. Yet, had she been a biographer, she would have described the warts. She criticised Boswell’s Life of Johnson for varnishing the doctor’s ‘overbearing ferocity’ and calling his ‘intellectual cowardice’ by the kinder name of piety. According to her, the biographer should not shift the boundaries of virtue and vice.

Wollstonecraft has always provoked extreme responses. In the 1970s (as Eilenberg reveals by haunting me with my past words) we did not care to have her dissected. But now we can stand back a bit and suggest that to be revolutionary one needs immense self-confidence, assertiveness, immodesty and competitiveness. Wollstonecraft was no more modest and easy to deal with than Kate Millett or Germaine Greer.

Eilenberg seems to discredit her for personalising issues. Wollstonecraft did constantly refer to her body, nerves and depressions in her letters, while in her early published works demanding response only to her intellect. Both tendencies, however, suggest that she would not give up the body to pleasure the mind or vice versa. Though her thoughts are at times contradictory, complex, unstable and variously committed, she always took herself seriously as a thinker and conveyed the excitement of the examined life. Although tempted, ultimately she did not wallow, like some 1970s French and American feminists, in unreason or dismiss reason as male and therefore suspect. As for the dangers of romance, to which she herself so spectacularly succumbed, there is no evidence that her views changed as a result: her own experience deepened them. She was also amazingly frank and not always self-indulgent. Even in novels, that zone of wish-fulfilment, she would not give her alter egos (and I agree with Eilenberg that she rarely detached a heroine from herself) what she had not experienced – unlike Charlotte Brontë or Geraldine Jewsbury.

Wollstonecraft is remarkable for her constant effort to express a predicament. This is what I meant by her modernity: with a few changes of language, she could be an ambitious and self-obsessed Post-Modern woman demanding it all. Probably Wollstonecraft – and certainly Godwin when he revealed her life to the public – misjudged the price of unconventionality. But, although she was in some ways foiled by her own flaws and more by cultural shifts, she tried – almost uniquely – to be true to her sense of common female needs for education, legal and political significance, as well as for affection, esteem and sex.

Janet Todd
University of East Anglia

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