The virtue, victimhood and vital passions of our grandmothers

Before Victoria - Mary Wollstonecraft
September 16, 2005

It seems as if an expectation has always persisted that women should be exemplary. In the 18th century, women carried the double burden of excelling both in virtue and in modesty. As the idealised embodiments of moral value in the period, they were required to set an example to men of chastity, good sense and politeness, while at the same time not outshining them or, indeed, drawing any undue attention to themselves at all.

Since the beginning of the modern feminist movement in the 1970s, they have found themselves co-opted as examples of a quite different kind of virtue.

Now the same women are sought as role models for their abilities to challenge oppression, transgress conventional constraints and anticipate the demands of their sisters, 200 years later, for independence in the bedroom and the workplace. Inspirational women, it appears, must walk the tightrope of expected integrity and exaggerated idealisation over an abyss of contradictions and disappointment.

Two books on every good feminist's wish list this year are products of this contradiction. Elizabeth Denlinger's Before Victoria and Lyndall Gordon's much anticipated biography of Mary Wollstonecraft both tackle the issue of our need for role models while subtly confirming the demand at the same time. They are alive to the prejudices and distortions that have shaped our perceptions of women's lives and reputations. But they are also concerned themselves to iron out the unattractive or compliantly conservative qualities in women of past eras in order to look for the "grandmothers" (in Elizabeth Barrett's Browning's famous phrase) they desire. "Women of the present generation, in the choices and opportunities open to us, are heirs of the 'new genus' that came to life... during the 50 years before Victoria," Gordon writes.

Denlinger's book, published to accompany an exhibition at the New York Public Library, is subtitled "Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era". It uses the notion of extraordinariness to cover both those who transgressed convention and those who supported it. "Some women are extraordinary because they refused to abide by the conventions of their time, others because they embody them to a surpassing degree". So Denlinger is able to include both the bad girls - the prostitutes, courtesans and mistresses - and also the good ones who wrote conduct books and pioneered respectable education. The notion of uniqueness justifies the focus of the book on individual lives. History, in other words, becomes a series of vivid biographies that capture the imagination by their individual achievements and tragedies. We have the familiar stories of well-known women such as Mary Robinson, Wollstonecraft, Emma Hamilton and Charlotte Bront , but there are also the lesser-known stories of scientists and visual artists, such as Caroline Herschel and Lady Diana Beauclerk. The origin of the book as an exhibition means that the work is lavishly illustrated, and the images of these women - drawn from satirical cartoons as well as sympathetic engravings and paintings - become part of the argument. Their ability to be exemplary was monitored by contemporary image-makers and judged accordingly. If they walked the tightrope successfully, they were idealised in portraiture; if they wobbled, they could be savagely caricatured.

One unexpected delight of the book is the colour reproduction of one page from Anna Atkins's exquisite Photographs of British Algae from the 1840s, effectively the first British book illustrated with photographs.

But there is an underlying doubt about the inclusion of some women in the book, which goes to the heart of the debate about "exemplary" women. Queen Victoria, the penultimate case history, is "extraordinary" for her ability to take ordinariness to an extreme, very public level: "She built a model of monarchy that took in all the virtues of the middle class - conventionality, truthfulness, the wish to be good - and made them royal as well." If ordinariness becomes a qualification for extraordinary standing, where does that leave the feminist movement in its search for grandmothers?

While some women in Denlinger's book might be surprised by their promotion to "extraordinary" status, Wollstonecraft, in the new biography, has been relocated to a more ordinary, or at least normal, category.

Traditionally, her life has been held to be almost more the stuff of fiction than of the everyday. She is thought to have lurched from one love affair to the next, from the intense relationship with her childhood friend Fanny Blood, to an unrequited passion for the Gothic artist Henry Fuseli, to a scandalous cohabitation with the unfaithful American playboy Gilbert Imlay, to an unconventional marriage, four months pregnant and aged 37, with the leading anarchist philosopher William Godwin. After Imlay abandoned her, she twice tried to commit suicide, the second time jumping off Putney Bridge into the Thames. But she had also, prior to this, thrown herself into revolutionary fervour, travelling to Paris in 1792 to experience the French Revolution, befriending leading radical thinkers - Tom Paine, Richard Price, William Blake - and publishing arguably the first feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman . Hers has been a tale of a life lived on the edge, fluctuating between hope and despair, paying a high emotional price for the privilege of intellectual independence.

Gordon, however, shows that this tale owes more to the early memoirs and biographies of Wollstonecraft's life than to the facts. Beginning with Godwin's memoir of his wife, written in the weeks following her death and guided by his understandable sense of her as a tragic victim, Wollstonecraft's life was distorted by particular agendas and prejudices.

She appeared riddled with contradictions: a woman who advocated the use of reason and yet was a slave to her passions; someone whom one should admire for her commitment to the plight of women and yet who was supposedly flawed by self-absorption.

Instead, Wollstonecraft emerges from Gordon's biography a strong, assertive, rational woman, able to control her life despite the great pressures to which she was subjected. Drawing on new evidence, Gordon proves, for example, that Wollstonecraft's relationship with her sisters was much more sensitive and responsible than previously thought. More important, she goes to great length to prove Wollstonecraft's shrewd business sense in her work for her lover, Imlay. Wollstonecraft's trip to Norway, Denmark and Sweden in 1795 to find out information about one of Imlay's ships resulted in one of her best works, a travel book that also charts the tortured journey of a heart that is breaking. Until now, it has always been assumed that Wollstonecraft understood little about the boat and that Imlay just sent her to Scandinavia to get rid of her, scoundrel that he was. This assumption has lent poignancy to the passion of Wollstonecraft's writing.

But Gordon reveals that Wollstonecraft was fully aware of Imlay's business and equally keen to ascertain the reason for the loss of his ship, criminal as it turned out to be. The consequence is to make A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , which claimed that women should educate themselves to think more rationally if they were to be treated as the equals of men, a more coherent document. It is backed up by the example Wollstonecraft set in her private life, rather than undermined by it.

"Each age retells this story," Gordon declares at the beginning of the biography. For her, Wollstonecraft "speaks differently for us in this century, less on women's rights and more on both sexes striving to integrate private needs with family responsibilities". So we are supposedly inspired by Wollstonecraft's ability to juggle all aspects of her life successfully, to make it all cohere, and now have a suitable example to follow. Personally, I have always found Wollstonecraft's so-called failures - the fact that she was not able to practice what she preached - more endearing. Janet Todd's biography, which this one is arguably designed to counter, portrayed a woman riven with contradictions and self-obsession, irritating and captivating in equal measure. In that interpretation, Wollstonecraft dazzled with her ability to develop a Romantic sensibility, an uninhibited, passionate, confessional self. And certainly some of the vividness and vivacity of Todd's heroine is missing in Gordon's account, ironed out by her need to exhibit the subject's good sense, intelligence and self-control.

But nothing can take away from Wollstonecraft's own voice. She composed some of the most moving love letters in the English canon, and Gordon has included many lengthy extracts in her story of Mary's and Godwin's burgeoning sexual and intellectual relationship: "Fancy at this moment has turned a conjunction into a kiss: and the sensation steals o'er my senses."

If this kind of writing is relished for its own sake, then Wollstonecraft can be admired not as an example to feminists according to their current priorities but simply for her unique sensibility; for her determination, as she said, not "to tread in the beaten track".

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Author - Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 188
Price - £25.50
ISBN - 0 231 13630 7

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