This edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's letters works well at a number of levels. It is ably and extensively annotated and is supported by a lengthy and helpful introduction, a detailed provenance and a comprehensive index. Aesthetically, it is a pleasure to use. The type is generous, the pages are not too crowded and the notes appear at the foot of the page.
As a revelatory correspondence about a fascinating individual, the collection has much to offer, but it also provides particular insights not only into Wollstonecraft's character but also into how conventions of 18th-century self-expression, never as rigid as sometimes suggested, could be reshaped in response to the new currents of the closing decades of the century, and with regard to particular demands (and Wollstonecraft's were apt to be pressing). As such, the collection is an ironic counterpoint to the shaping of character in epistolary novels. Some of the early letters display the observation of manners and relationships seen in much writing of the period: "I have just read your account of the oddest mortal that ever existed, and can't help approving Miss C-'s choice, as the contrast will be very entertaining, - her over-giddiness and his over-graveness must be superlatively ridiculous; - in short, you must allow me to laugh."
This, though, is no novel. The plot recorded in the chronological format of this work may have the tragic-sentimental end of a death in childbirth and, prior to that, such novelistic tropes as "the sinking of a broken heart", but it is more fractured by the pressures of life en route.
As the editor Janet Todd, author of the first-rate Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life , points out, the main impression given by the letters, thanks to Wollstonecraft's devotion to self and to candour, is one of self-absorption but not lack of self-awareness. Compared with her published work, the letters are, as Todd suggests, more revolutionary and, also, more concerned with engaging with her problems and experiences as a woman (though the problems of an 18th-century letter-writer are not forgotten: "my candle gives such a dreadful light").
The letters allow us to chart the development of their writer's political views. In November 1792, in the aftermath of the September Massacres in Paris, she urges William Roscoe "not to mix with the shallow herd who throw an odium on immutable principles, because some of the mere instrument of the revolution was too sharp. Children of any growth will do mischief when they meddle with edged tools. It is to be lamented that as yet the billows of public opinion are only to be moved forward by the strong wind, the squally gusts of passion; but if nations be educated by their governments it is vain to expect much reason till the system of education becomes more reasonable." By July 1794, however, in consequence of the Terror: "My blood runs cold, and I sicken at thoughts of a Revolution which costs so much blood and bitter tears".
Other letters concern feminism. Anger and dependence are painfully clear in the correspondence with Gilbert Imlay, the following all coming from the same letter: "Amongst the feathered race, whilst the hen keeps the young warm, her mate stays by to cheer her; but it is sufficient for man to condescend to get a child, in order to claim it. - A man is a tyrant... The casual exercise of social sympathy would not be sufficient for me... It is necessary to be in good-humour with you, to be pleased with the world... I do not want to be loved like a goddess; but I wish to be necessary to you."
Wollstonecraft was prone to emphasise distinctions between herself and other women: "With ninety-nine men out of a hundred, a very sufficient dash of folly is necessary to render a woman piquante , a soft word for desirable; and beyond these casual ebullitions of sympathy, few look for enjoyment by fostering a passion in their hearts. One reason, in short, why I wish my whole sex to become wiser, is, that the foolish ones may not, by their pretty folly, rob those whose sensibility keeps down their vanity, of the few roses that afford them some solace in the thorny road of life."
William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married in 1797, suggested that the letters to Imlay contained "possibly... the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world", superior to Goethe's Werther . Wollstonecraft's relationship with Imlay, Godwin, her sisters and her friends revealed her needs with an immediacy that helps make this volume a real page-turner. One of her correspondents, the publisher Joseph Johnson, for whom Wollstonecraft worked as an author and reviewer, would have been most impressed by the result. He was certainly aware from their correspondence of Wollstonecraft's demanding standards for journals and equivocal comments about public opinion. "As I am become a reviewer, I think it right, in the way of business, to consider the subject... The Critical appears to me to be a timid, mean production, and its success is a reflection on the taste and judgment of the public; but, as a body, who ever gave it credit for much? The voice of the public is only the voice of truth, when some man of abilities has had time to get fast hold of the GREAT NOSE of the monster. Of course, local fame is generally a clamour, and dies away. The Appendix to the Monthly afforded me more amusement, though every article almost wants energy and a cant of virtue and liberality is strewed over it; always tame, and eager to pay court to established fame... surely men were born only to provide for the sustenance of the body by enfeebling the mind!"
Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.
The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft
Editor - Janet Todd
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 478
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 07139 9600 5