Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life

By North, Julian | The Byron Journal, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life


North, Julian, The Byron Journal


MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT: A LITERARY LIFE. By Caroline Franklin. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. xx + 240. ISBN 0-333-97251-1. £50.00.

Mary Wollstonecraft's work has always been viewed through the lens of biography. This was already the case in her lifetime and Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), published soon after her death, ensured it would remain so. His revelations had, of course, initially disastrous consequences for her reputation as a writer, but, in the long term, they have been one of the reasons for her survival. The Memoirs is still the only source of information for some parts of her life and, like all good biographers, Godwin brings the reader into intimate contact with his subject - the death-bed scenes, once read, are never forgotten. New biographies have continued to appear, all in some measure indebted to Godwin. It may even seem that Wollstonecraft has by now garnered an excess of biographical attention - as Cora Kaplan notes, there were six Lives published in as many years in the 1970s. But Wollstonecraft's work demands an understanding of her life. Janet Todd argues in her recent biography that this is partly because of '[t]he huge sense of the "I"' in her writing. There is also, of course, a huge sense of the 'we' - of the fact that her thinking was rooted in the culture of her times, the communities in which she lived. It is this that comes across most powerfully in Caroline Franklin's Literary Life.

In Franklin's account, the personal and the public are enmeshed as Wollstonecraft is described moving between circles at once social and intellectual - the Dissenters of Newington Green, the Girondins of Revolutionary Paris - and participating in the wider community of the printed word. The book, one of a series which focuses on the writer's working life and aims 'to trace the professional, publishing and social contexts which shaped their writing', represents Wollstonecraft as a self-educated woman, liberated from social and economic disadvantage by print culture. Even after her experience of the Terror in France, she believed 'that the role of print culture was to question the authority of all hierarchies and argue for a community of equals'. Each stage of her life, from the early years to her literary afterlives, is charted by Franklin and each of her major works discussed, from its inception to its reception. The result is, on one level, an effective synthesis of existing material - there are useful potted sections on subjects such as 'Women writing for children', 'Women and journalism', 'The press and the genesis of revolution'. But the book has its own critical agenda too. Franklin refuses to see Wollstonecraft as part of 'a separate women's arena' in the way of Anne Mellor and Mitzi Myers. She rightly emphasizes the religious differences that divided women writers, and stresses that Wollstonecraft must be placed 'amongst the whole range of writers and thinkers, male and female'. Centrally, Franklin seeks to present us with a more radical Wollstonecraft than previous critics have done, hoping

to problematize the assumption of critics such as Gary Kelly and Isaac Kramnick that Wollstonecraft cam be grouped together with all those 'Bourgeois' writers who criticized feudalism and court culture and distanced themselves from the lower classes . …

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