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?

At least the plaque arrived, in 1979. Her name and dates (1759-1797) are now to be seen, rather high up, on the flats in Polygon Road. At about the same time a mural appeared in Somers Town, in which she figures, as well as her husband William Godwin, their daughter Mary Shelley, and a crowd of later locals which includes Dickens, who lived there as a child, though sadly not Hazlitt, whose Liber Amoris is set in Somers Town. The mural is the work of the artist Karen Gregory. It’s on the side wall of a school, above a bit of waste ground, and I’m told it is under threat, because someone has plans to build on the waste ground. But it really should be preserved, for it is a remarkable and beautiful piece of work, and celebrates an important strand of London’s cultural history. If you go to look at it, you can take in old St Pancras churchyard at the same time, with its gardens done over by Baroness Burdett-Coutts, and the square memorial stone put up by Godwin to Mary still standing. This was where Shelley and young Mary did their wooing; the bones beneath it were moved to Bournemouth when the railway was cut through in the 1860s, but the monument remains.

When I started to research Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, her books were hard to find outside the British and London Libraries. Only A Vindication of the Rights of Woman could be readily bought, in an Everyman, bound up with John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women. In a second-hand shop I found a 1906 edition of her Original Stories (for children), with an introduction by E.V. Lucas and five of the Blake plates reproduced. The other modern edition I acquired was called The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, and had a biographical preface by Roger Ingpen. It was a reprint of Mary’s letters to her lover Gilbert Imlay, first published by Godwin among her posthumous works, and then by Kegan Paul in 1879. Ingpen wrote of her life and sufferings tenderly: ‘Pathetic and lonely, she stands out in the faint mists of the past, a woman that will continue to evoke sympathy when her books are no longer read.’ Evidently he had no doubt of their ceasing to be read, all but me love letters.

Of her other works, I found Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Denmark and Norway in an 1802 reprint, and her translation of Salzmann’s Elements of Morality in an edition of 1821, published in Edinburgh by Oliver and Boyd. A bookseller friend got me a copy of the single edition of her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, and both editions of Godwin’s Memoir written after her death, which caused such a scandalous stir when they appeared one after another in 1798; none of these had ever been reprinted. Two out of the four volumes of the Posthumous Works edited by Godwin also surfaced, with a page pasted in from a French translation, which I have never seen, or heard of, though there must be copies hidden away in France.

Since then, Oxford has reprinted her novel Mary and her fragmentary novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman in a single volume. Her Collected Letters have also been edited by Ralph Wardle, in 1979; he expressed his view then that she had written ‘two valuable books’. Penguin has brought out the Letters written in Sweden and Godwin’s Memoir. This represents a fairly steady trickle of interest, if not a flood. Now, in a magnificent gesture, Pickering and Chatto offer us a seven-volume Complete Works, placing Wollstonecraft alongside Darwin, Babbage and Malthus in their Masters series, and allowing us to consider her as an intellectual being rather than Ingpen’s lonely and pathetic heroine of romance.

How does she stand up to this bold treatment? Very well indeed, and far better man Ingpen and Wardle predicted. Here in all its glory is the record of the serious and passionate young woman who pursued her independent life and thinking in the face of an almost total lack of encouragement, support or approval, and made herself into a fluent journalist, a tremendous polemicist and a serious sociological thinker as well as a novelist. Some glory goes, too, to Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher who took on the role of good father, brother and supportive friend, giving her work when she needed it and publishing everything she offered. This inevitably included some hack work; and she might have been still better served by her modern publishers if they had discarded this, and given us five volumes rather than seven.

Mary rose to fame as a writer through great difficulties. Her family were sliding down from the affluence acquired by her grandfather, a master weaver, into poverty. She had no inheritance and little education. She worked as a companion, schoolteacher and governess, travelled alone to Portugal to nurse a dying friend, helped her unhappily married sister to abscond from her husband. She started writing in the mid-1780s, in a hurry to raise money to help friends, and got £10 from Johnson for her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, a prim manual couched in the moral phraseology of the time, and for the next five years she showed little sign of breaking out of this narrow convention. She wrote an indifferent novel, Mary; chiefly she worked as a translator and reviewer for Johnson; it was her bread and butter, but no more. The French Revolution, and Burke’s Reflections on it, fired her to a riposte which brought her some notoriety, and her true originality appeared in 1792, with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Just about everything she wrote after that is interesting, and often surprising.

Her editors, Marilyn Butler and Janet Todd, have chosen to include all her known translations, her anthology The Female Reader, and her book reviews. This generosity does not work entirely in her favour. Elements of Morality, Young Grandison and the Reader have been hard to find: but how many readers are in quest of them, or likely to get through them, outside academic departments? I can’t see many ploughing through her translation of De l’importance des opinions religieuses, though it is by the father of Madame de Staël. Even if she did amend and rewrite as she translated, there is little of the Wollstonecraft we value here. I notice that the editors remain silent on their virtues; and that they fill up an awful lot of pages.

Then there is the question of her book reviews. Their attribution can be argued about but not certainly established, as Dr Todd admits, because she signed them with a bewildering variety of initials, sometimes shared with other contributors to the Analytical Review. They show a lively mind, a witty pen and a wide range. Yet, as she said herself, many of the books were ‘trash’. They are of some interest to the specialist in late 18th-century fiction – but then the specialist is likely to go straight to the Analytical. They are sometimes entertaining, with their brisk formulations: ‘The Happy Recovery is an heterogeneous mass of folly, affectation and improbability,’ or, faced with a flaccid translation of Goethe, ‘Werter is dead from the beginning.’ But they do not demand revival in hard covers, and, with the translations, they must have pushed the price of the Collected Works up by something like £100.

This is a pity, because everything else is splendid including an index which will be blessed by all future scholars in the field of 18th-century studies; and we owe a real debt to both editors and their assistant, Emma ReesMogg, for their labours. Professor Butler provides a clear, sharp and stimulating introduction, and raises some interesting ideas on the subject of Wollstonecraft as Romantic auto-biographer, and the influence of her Letters written in Sweden on later Romantics. Mary’s presentation of herself as a solitary spirit, a wandering and suffering lover, looks back to Rousseau’s promeneur solitaire, but also, she suggests, points towards Byron’s Childe Harold, Shelley’s Alastor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris; and demonstrates that ‘subjective egotistical Romanticism’ is as much a female as a male mode, pace the masculine critical establishment.

The point is worth considering, and it’s true that Letters written in Sweden were her most popular work, and that readers who found the polemics of the two Vindications too rugged were delighted by the melancholy self-portrait of the Letters. All the same, there is a lot more to them than subjective egotistical Romanticism, or the delineation of a wandering female writing to a faithless lover. The thread of interest is always a double one, and the outer world is more fully documented than the pathetic inner one. The journey, like all Mary’s journeys, was undertaken for practical reasons – in this case, business; unlike her Romantic successors, she has to worry about a small child, a servant and language problems. She is always part of a social arrangement, and thinks about food, and manners, and church-going. ‘The people of every class are constant in their attendance at church,’ she writes in Letter IX: ‘they are very fond of dancing: and the Sunday evenings in Norway, as in catholic countries, are spent in exercises which exhilarate the spirits, without vitiating the heart. The rest of labour ought to be gay; and the gladness I have felt in France on a sunday, or decadi, which I caught from the faces around me, was a sentiment more truly religious than all the stupid stillness which the streets of London ever inspired where the sabbath is so decorously observed.’ Writing of this kind points towards the sociological thinkers of the 19th-century – Robert Owen, John Stuart Mill, Charles Booth – more certainly than towards the Romantics; and the same preoccupations are found scattered in her View of the French Revolution and in the fragments of her novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, with its striking attempt to draw a sympathetic and human picture of the prostitute Jemima. Wollstonecraft is much more than a literary phenomenon. Her best writing springs from the way she used her own experience, and what she observed of other classes and nationalities, as a basis for describing and attacking the abuses and follies of society. Her passion and indignation always encompassed others.

Not that this tough sociological Wollstonecraft, who believed that mind has no sex, and was not afraid to take on Edmund Burke, ever rid herself of her romantic other self; but it was this self who did her best to kill them both off – once by overdose, once by drowning; and these ventures certainly impressed themselves on later imaginations, starting with her own daughter Fanny and even, I suspect, her son-in-law Shelley. George Eliot modelled the attempt by Mirah in Daniel Deronda on Mary’s attempt to drown herself in the Thames. The roll-call of Charlotte Mew, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath is a reminder of other women writers who have preferred oblivion to the burden of great gifts and great unhappiness, as Wollstonecraft twice thought she did.

Professor Butler ends her introduction with a quotation from Gladstone, who said that Wollstonecraft was ‘one of the women of whom all should be known that can be known; a chapter of human nature in herself’. The words are well said of this ardent and tragic woman, who developed in so few years from a young Amazon into a warmly imaginative and sympathetic observer of the real world. The Collected Works shows this development at every stage and reaffirms her importance as the emblematic leader of the feminist movement; it will do very well instead of a statue, and will perhaps banish the ghostly ‘Mary Who?’ for ever.