Mary Wollstonecraft: a revolutionary life
by Janet Todd
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25)
THERE'S A living doll on the cover of this biography. She is about 20, with dreamy eyes, a rosebud mouth and a hairdresser who has gone overboard with highlights. This is Mary Wollstonecraft, horribly mutated from a magnificent portrait of 1797, the year Mary died at the age of 38.
She was one of the group for which the term radical was coined; it included William Godwin, Thomas Paine and William Blake, writers and artists connected through the publisher Joseph Johnson.
Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) attacked feminine preoccupations with beauty, dress and romantic love. She wanted girls' education to be as rigorous as boys'. Her work began the shift of consciousness that would enable women to define themselves by profession rather than partner. So the cover girl makes her own sly comment on Wollstonecraft's patchy achievement and our continuing ambivalence about women.
Inside, though, the book deprettifies reverential biographies. Todd quotes from Jane Austen's Persuasion: "No private correspondence could bear the eye of others." Wollstonecraft's has to. She was the unloved second child of a bullying father and a needy mother, and seldom broke from those models. It's embarrassing to read some of her letters, alternately abject and hectoring. We are used to finding that great male writers were complete dorks; it's worse when their female counterparts turn out to be as silly.
Todd's biography looks at the psychological roots of the writing. That old cliche "The personal is the political" was fresh in 1792. Wollstonecraft lived it, turning her struggles into a luminous feminist politics, supporting herself on the proceeds. There's a quality of largesse in her writing that can get lost when the focus is on the "unfair seed-time" of her youth, but …