A visionary who took no prisoners

Mary Wollstonecraft
March 2, 2001

This most impressive work is a psychologically acute biography that will attract much attention. Janet Todd deals with a much scrutinised individual and does not offer, nor claim to offer, a radical new approach. Instead, there is a steady competence that makes valuable use of Mary Wollstonecraft's published works, her letters and the psychological insights suggested by them. Partly as a consequence, this is a dramatic biography. Wollstonecraft was never one to write calm or calming letters. Todd cites them extensively, but there is an understated irony in her employment of them. Indeed, the juxtaposing of the narrative and Wollstonecraft's alternative authorial voice led me to laugh out loud on occasion.

Most of the life, however, is bleak. Todd portrays superbly a world of poverty and precarious status, and the responses in the forms of desperate expedients and wild hopes. This was Wollstonecraft's world and it helps account for her emotional dramas. Yet, as Todd shows, far more was at stake in Wollstonecraft's feelings of deprivation. There was, in her strong awareness of her family's decline, a powerful feeling that she had been let down by her parents, especially her father, and by her brother Edward. Todd shows that Mary had good cause for her resentments, but that did not extenuate the extent to which they took over her life. Also at stake was a posing in which Wollstonecraft related to the sentimental convention that emotions should be displayed. There was scant polite reticence in her conduct.

This makes Wollstonecraft a biographer's dream. Her husband, William Godwin, described her letters to Gilbert Imlay as "the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world", and, though Todd is aware of their self-indulgent quality, she draws attention to their extraordinary character as both an open exposure of raw need and also wilfully blind.

Part of the interest in this biography is the relationship between author and subject. In the case of Todd and Wollstonecraft, there is a beautifully written, dry, ironic wit at the expense of a subject who needed hyperbole much of the time. However, the absence of any overview ensures that no concluding account of Wollstonecraft in the round is offered. This is the principal drawback of the book and leads to a slight sense of deflation at the close. Yet possibly this is appropriate, both because the range of Wollstonecraft's activities cannot be readily described and because her life was cut short as a consequence of medical negligence.

If Todd is ironic with her subject, Wollstonecraft was often savage with hers. She could be tactful, pretending, for example, that a disobedient cat she had drowned had run away, but in general she was quite happy to stab in the front with her pen. Wollstonecraft did not warm to Baroque culture during her travels to Lisbon to see her friend Fanny, who died soon after childbirth. She referred to Portugal as "the most savage part of Europe, where superstition still reigns". Convents were the product of an "absurd" religion. In Gothenburg, Wollstonecraft deplored gluttony, the swaddling of babies and the harsh treatment of female servants. However, she thought poor Swedish women lewd and promiscuous, like their Irish, Welsh and American counterparts. The greater refinement of English women was attributed to the advanced state of the country.

Living in France for part of the revolutionary period, Wollstonecraft reacted more favourably to moderate republican bourgeois women than to street revolutionaries. The market women's march to Versailles moved her to fury: "That a body of women should put themselves in motion to demand relief… is scarcely probable… the lowest refuse of the streets, women who had thrown off the virtues of one sex without having the power to assume more than the vices of the other." Later, she described the news of the execution of Madame Roland as "one of the most intolerable sensations" she had ever experienced.

The different milieux Wollstonecraft encountered in the British Isles moved her to criticism or complaint. Manners and conventions, both male and female, were castigated. The vigour of her published works had nothing on the spleen and energy of her letters. Governess in the household of the Kingsboroughs, she was offended by Lady Kingsborough's passion for dogs and dress: "All her children have been ill - very disagreeable fevers - Her Ladyship visited them in a formal way - though their situation called forth my tenderness - and I endeavoured to amuse them while she lavished awkward fondness on her dogs - I think now I hear her infantine lisp." Ironically, Lady Kingsborough sought to be kind and friendly, but Wollstonecraft did not respond: "She offered me a present, a poplin gown and petticoat, I refused it and explained myself - she was very angry." Wollstonecraft herself could be very self-centred in her relations with others, especially her family.

Writing for money suited her more than acting as a governess.  It allowed her to be bold. In her address to parents that accompanied her adaptation of Christian Salzmann's Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children; with an Introductory Address to Parents , Wollstonecraft declared impurity would be eradicated if adults spoke to children about "the organs of generation as freely as we speak of the other parts of the body, and explain to them the noble use which they were designed for". This passage was to be attacked, but accorded with Wollstonecraft's views on education.

Her family stayed in touch by often hurtful letters, but the strain was heavy. The letters reveal how dependent the family were on each other; how much of a burden the moody James, the charming Charles and their feckless father were to Everina and Eliza, not just to Wollstonecraft; how much the sisters lived projected lives; and how much all of them fantasised rescue. In her case, this could be seen in her fictional writing as well as in her letters. Her personal relationships revealed the difficulty of any rescue, but also her determination not to accept terms that would compromise her sense of independence and integrity. Todd provides a fascinating account of this determination and of how it relates to other female strategies in this period.

Todd's biography can be located not only in terms of Wollstonecraft studies, where it is unusually clear sighted, but also in those of major biographies of 18th-century women. Recent years have been fruitful in this sphere, although it might be helpful if more writers tackled hitherto little-known figures.

 Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.


Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

Author - Janet Todd
ISBN - 0 297 84299 4
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 538

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