Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman of Some Importance

Magazine article The Spectator

A Woman of Some Importance

Article excerpt

A woman of some importance MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: A NEW GENUS by Lyndall Gordon LittleBrown, £25, pp. 576, ISBN 0316728667 £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The writer William Mayne has said, 'I don't know why there are supposed to be only two sexes. I can think of at least eight, even before you get to women.' Mary Wollstonecraft, though no wit, would have been pleased with this. She saw herself as neither male nor female but 'a new genus', one who must always 'follow her own track', and be 'tender' but intransigent. She could not see herself as of the same species as other girls who seemed to live for marriage - any marriage - to escape the shame of poverty and spinsterhood. She herself had been the child of a terrible marriage; her father a violent drunk and her mother a passive depressive. She burned with zeal to change things.

This painstaking, full and very readable biography with 100 pages of notes and bibliography looks a great block of a book for a life that lasted only 37 years, but Wollstonecraft, or 'Wt.', as her second husband, the philosopher William Godwin, called her, lived a sensational life, as peripatetic as her predecessor in feminism, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 70 years earlier. She was involved in the politics of America, travelled in France, Ireland and Norway and was brought up in England north and south. She wrote on education, morality and the French Revolution and lived for a time in Ireland. After an emotional scandal with the artist Fuseli, a dreadful-sounding man, she took off to Paris to view the Revolution first-hand at exactly the time when most English intellectuals were hurrying home. She saw the king on the way to his execution and the streets running with blood. Her travels to Norway in search of the Bourbon treasure reads like a crazy mystery story. Her time as an Irish governess connects with the last section of the book on her posthumous influence on women. Her pupil, the 12-year-old aristocrat Elizabeth King, who adored her, was to become virtually the first woman doctor.

Wt. had no normal education but had the knack of picking up aging learned men, usually clergymen, to direct her reading. She ran a school. After being a governess where she felt patronised - though the Kings sound very nice and as turbulent as she was - she began to write, and had the supreme luck to find the publisher Joseph Johnson, who spotted her genius and gave her a room in his house. She wrote novels, letters, travels, The Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Man. She was penniless but frugal, healthy and beautiful (no make-up, no hair powder), large and forthright with strange eyes. She kept her Yorkshire accent. At her very lowest times she blazed with confidence for her cause on behalf of women. The first time she met Godwin, who was not interested in the subject and wanted to listen to the other dinner guest, Tom Paine, he couldn't get a word in.

Her feminism was different from today's. Until this book I had imagined Wt. as heavily masculine, an atheist and a believer in free love and she was none of these things. Although she often made an ass of herself and was as embarrassingly innocent as Germaine Greer, she admits it. She 'constantly re-invents herself. Unlike today's feminists she adored children and considered them to be the heart of a woman's life. She insisted on breast-feeding and education at the mother's knee. Two centuries before Boulby she had invented the Attachment Theory and believed that the mother should be in charge of childhood illnesses. …

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