Mary Wollstonecraft

(1759 - 1797)


Vindication of the heart

Mary Wollstonecraft is notorious for her turbulent romantic life, which has often overshadowed her revolutionary ideas. But, argues Barbara Taylor, it is for her enlightened theories about love, sex and 'universal benevolence' that the 18th-century feminist deserves our attention

Saturday April 12, 2003
The Guardian

The popular image of Mary Wollstonecraft - pioneer feminist, author of the seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) - is of a woman in love. In love with liberty, with justice and equality - especially for her own gender - but above all with men, whom she loved injudiciously, disreputably, without the slightest regard for conventional morality or public reputation. As a lover, which for two centuries has been her leading persona, Wollstonecraft is a scandalous figure - so scandalous that feminists have often balked at claiming her as a political ancestor. Mid-Victorian feminists sharply repudiated her, viewing her (in the words of Harriet Martineau) as a "poor victim of her passions", whose life, far from exemplary, symbolised womanhood at its most degraded. And even today her sexual career raises eyebrows. Writing in the London Review of Books in 2001, the critic Susan Eilenberg lambasted Wollstonecraft for her romantic histrionics, her taste for "heart-rending" sexual martyrdom. Similarly, Melanie Phillips, in her new book The Ascent of Woman , declares Wollstonecraft's love life "disastrous", as much at odds with her feminist ideals as "her enthusiasm for French revolutionary liberty" was with "the bloody carnage on the guillotine". Why take seriously a political thinker with such a calamitous emotional history? The question haunts Wollstonecraft's story now as it did in the 1790s.

Sex has always been a treacherous arena for women seeking independence. What role should love, particularly love for men, play in the life of a liberated woman? The question, in this age of smart-casual eroticism, may seem too earnest to merit consideration; yet it is precisely on this score that Wollstonecraft continues to fascinate. Biographers probe her romances in exhaustive detail; every popular account focuses on the events of her love life. Meanwhile, her ideas about sex and love, which

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (National Portrait Gallery, London) (c1797)

were complex and innovative, remain relatively unexamined. Yet it is as a sexual theorist that Woll stonecraft truly deserves our attention. To modern minds, unlicensed sex seems very up-to-date, signifying a woman - as Wollstonecraft is invariably described - "ahead of her time". But the air of modernity is spurious. In her sexual conduct and, even more, in her thinking about sex, Wollstonecraft was a woman of the 1790s.

Theory and practice didn't always mesh - in this at least her predicament was eternal - but both were shaped by her social circumstances, her intellectual inheritances (especially her religious convictions), and, above all, by her visionary political aspirations. Mary Wollstonecraft was a utopian, a world-regenerator, and nothing in her life escaped her zeal for innovation.

She was born in London in 1759, into a middle-class family that in the course of her childhood sank into poverty, leaving her with three survival options: dependence on a husband; dependence on her older brother (a lawyer); or supporting herself. "Struggle with any obstacles rather than go into a state of dependance [sic]," she wrote to a woman friend at the age of 21, "I have felt the weight, and would have you by all means avoid it."

The misery of her parents' marriage had burnt into her soul, and she was resolved to make her own way in the world. No self-respecting woman could do otherwise, she insisted: "To marry for a support is legal prostitution," she wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , the manifesto in which she set out her programme for women's social and moral advancement. "Love is not to be bought," as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Wollstonecraft's son-in-law and disciple, later declared; and all of Wollstonecraft's romances were framed by this conviction. The first of these began in the late 1780s when, working hard at her literary career, she met and fell in love with the painter Henry Fuseli. The choice was a bad one: Fuseli was married; he was also a misogynist who enjoyed quoting Rousseau on the perfidy of womankind. The adoration of a bright young author tickled him however, and he strung Wollstonecraft along for several years until, determined to bring matters to a head, she proposed to his wife that the three of them form a ménage à trois. She was shown the door, and the romance crashed to a close.

A miserable, humiliating episode: but the woman who emerged from it was much changed. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 had transformed Wollstonecraft's political universe, and her life with it. During the 1780s she had become involved in leftwing Protestantism in Stoke Newington, north of London, where the radical preacher Richard Price presided over a congregation of reform-minded Unitarians. Wollstonecraft never became a Unitarian, but she was profoundly influenced by Price's radicalism and by 1789 had become an ardent advocate of liberté and egalité . Her first political work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), written in response to Edmund Burke's counter-revolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France , was favourably received, encouraging her to follow it up with the much more successful A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Female authors of political works were rare in the late 18th century. Women writers were common in some genres, notably the novel, children's fiction and moral advice literature, and in the 1780s Wollstonecraft tried her hand, with some success, at all of these. But for a woman to champion political causes was highly unorthodox, particularly when the cause was popular democracy. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Men Wollstonecraft savaged aristocratic rule and trumpeted the overthrow of the French ancien régime as heralding a new age of universal citizenship. But if political despots' final hour had struck, what about tyrants of other sorts? What about men's dominance over women? Emboldened by having survived her first foray into the political ring, Wollstonecraft took up the theme two years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , turning the case for democratic governance into a systematic assault on male supremacy. Why, she demanded, in prose crackling with anger and hope, should men become free while women remained slaves? If God granted natural liberty to all His creatures, why should one sex be subject to the "arbitrary, illegitimate power" of the other?

American editions of the book rapidly appeared, along with French and German translations. Readers everywhere, excited by the arguments, debated them fiercely. By the autumn of 1792, with Fuseli exiting her life, Wollstonecraft had become a radical celebrity, famous in progressive circles across Europe and America. It was with this new status that she travelled to Paris at the end of that year, to recover from her heartbreak while witnessing the Revolution firsthand. France provided Wollstonecraft with a terrifying education in political realities. It also gave her the chief love of her life, an American revolutionary-turned-businessman named Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft was probably a virgin when she met Imlay (her relationship with Fuseli, despite much erotic posturing on his part, doesn't seem to have been consummated). Within a short time she and Imlay were lovers, and by the summer of 1793 she was pregnant. She was overjoyed - by Imlay, by her pregnancy, by her newly discovered sensualism. "I like to see your eyes praise me;" she wrote to him rapturously, "and, Milton insinuates, that, during such recitals, there are interruptions, not ungrateful to the heart, when the honey that drops from the lips is not merely words."

Imlay too was happily in love - for a time. But he was a restless, money-hungry man, and soon took off on commercial travels. Alone, pregnant, anxious, Wollstonecraft berated him for the abandonment and then followed him, first to Le Havre (where her daughter Fanny was born) and eventually to London, where she hoped they would establish a home. The hope was futile. Imlay was preoccupied with business, and beginning to see other women. "I have not only lost the hope, but the power of being happy..." Wollstonecraft wrote to him, "My soul has been shook, and my tone of feelings destroyed." She was "nothing", she told him. She swallowed an overdose of opium but was soon discovered by a servant, who managed to rouse her. "[G]rief has a firm hold of my heart," she wrote to Imlay, miserably.

Shaken by the suicide attempt, and desperate to get her out of his hair, Imlay persuaded her to travel to Scandinavia to sort out some financial matters. The trip, recorded in her 1796 romantic travelogue, A Short Residence in Sweden (a favourite with the young romantic poets, especially Coleridge), was a wildly adventurous one for a new mother accompanied only by baby and maid, and its excitements revived her. But the return to London was devastating. Imlay had another new mistress, an actress. On getting this news (from her cook), Wollstonecraft walked to Putney Bridge and threw herself into the Thames. Only the arrival of two passing watermen saved her. Abandoning her last vestiges of pride, she continued to persecute Imlay with pleas for reconciliation until finally hope died. "I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell," she wrote in her last letter to him in 1796, "I part with you in peace."

In 1792, Wollstonecraft had fiercely condemned women who enslaved themselves to men through love. "Women, subjected by ignorance to their sensations, and only taught to look for happiness in love, refine on sensual feelings... until they plump into actual vice," she wrote sternly in the Rights of Woman . "I cannot discover why females should always be degraded by love or lust." Her strictures against "licentious passions" were so harsh that present-day critics describe them as puritanical. But now, three years and much passion later, Wollstonecraft knew herself to be as vulnerable as any woman to love's imperatives.

"On examining my heart, I find that it is so constituted, I cannot live without some particular affection - I am afraid not without a passion..." "Love is a want of my heart." Severed from the man she had adored, how was she to fulfil these amorous cravings? Many women would have asked themselves the question; few at the time would have answered it as Wollstonecraft did. She had met the radical philosopher William Godwin on several occasions and they hadn't got on. But now she went calling on him. Very soon they were lovers. Here was a man, a "tender affectionate creature", a sweet and "sapient Philosophership", in whose love she finally found that emotional reciprocity for which she yearned.

"I am never so well pleased with myself, as when I please you," she told Godwin. "If the felicity of last night has had the same effect on your health as on my countenance, you have no cause to lament your failure of resolution," she wrote to him in November 1796, "for I have seldom seen so much live fire running about my features as this morning when recollections, very dear, called forth the blush of pleasure, as I adjusted my hair." She loved "acting the part of a wife", she told him, although actual marriage wasn't planned. But finding herself pregnant again, she insisted they wed to avoid public opprobrium. They did so, in March 1797. "A husband is a convenient part of the furniture," she teased him in a note sent over from the separate rooms they maintained even after their wedding. "I wish you from my soul to be riveted in my heart; but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow." They enjoyed a few months of this eccentric conjugality before Wollstonecraft died, aged 38, from puerperal fever following the birth of her daughter Mary (later to become famous herself for her elopement with Shelley and authorship of Frankenstein ).

At the time of her death, Wollstonecraft's personal history was known only to her intimates. But six months later Godwin - an inveterate truth-teller - revealed all in his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman . With the Memoirs he published the novel Wollstonecraft had been writing when she died, Maria or The Wrongs of Woman , a gothic tale of an heiress who, imprisoned in an insane asylum by her wicked husband, falls in love and then into bed with a male prisoner, and ends up defending her adultery in court. Why shouldn't women follow their hearts, the novel proposed, instead of being forced to share their beds with cruel or repellent husbands? "Truth is the only basis of virtue; and we cannot, without depraving our minds, endeavour to please a man, but in proportion as he pleases us. [A] woman must be allowed to regulate her conduct by her own sense of right."

The simultaneous publication of The Wrongs of Woman and Godwin's Memoirs blasted Wollstonecraft's reputation. In a nation at war and gripped by fear of revolution, she immediately became a symbol of radical depravity, a "revolutionary wanton", a "Jacobinical whore". Rightwing propagandists gloated over her downfall while former admirers turned away in dismay. "A woman who has broken through all religious restraints," the Reverend Richard Polwhele sneered, in a popular anti-Wollstonecraft squib entitled "Unsex'd Females" (1799), "will commonly be found ripe for every species of licentious indecorum." Wollstonecraft's writings were "scriptures... for propagating w[hore]s", the Anti-Jacobin Review declared. So noxious did her reputation become that, reading the Rights of Woman a half-century later, George Eliot was astonished by its piety and sexual austerity. Was this really, she wondered, a woman notorious for godless promiscuity?

Modern readers find the permissiveness of The Wrongs of Woman much more congenial than the asceticism of the Rights of Woman. Clearly the shift of attitude between the two works was significant. But it was not as great as it seems. For while love was allowed freer physical expression in Wollstonecraft's final book, its ultimate agenda remained constant throughout: to transform human existence and women's place within it. Concupiscence may have been derogated in the Rights of Woman , but the power of love to remould human character and relationships was emphatically celebrated. Nor was the ideal merely theoretical. Writing about Wollstonecraft's liaison with Imlay, one astute Victorian admirer described her as having entered it "not wantonly or lightly, but with forethought, in order to carry out a moral theory gravely and religiously adopted". Like everything else in her life, Eros for Wollstonecraft was a field of conviction politics.

What was Wollstonecraft's "moral theory" of love? In one sense it was simply a strong restatement of a long-established Protestant ideal of marriage as a union founded on divinely approved bonds of mutual affection rather than the profane, fragile ties of carnal attraction. Marriage was a "holy friendship" between man and wife, a host of 18th-century opinion-makers declared. Bodily pleasure had a role in such partnerships, but heart and soul must be in ascendance. "My friend," Wollstonecraft wrote to Imlay, "I feel my fate united to yours by the most sacred principles of my soul, and the yearnings of a true, unsophisticated heart." Could he not foreswear his "vulgar excesses" in favour of this purer attachment? This ideal of a soul mate had enormous appeal to women (particularly mothers or would-be mothers) long before Wollstonecraft, and has continued to do so, with variations, up to the present.

But there was a further utopian dimension to Wollstonecraft's love philosophy. For it was amorous passion, she believed, that, by leading individuals to identify their happiness with that of others, lit that "glowing flame of universal love" that would revolutionise the world. It was "affection for the whole human race" that moved her to champion women's rights, she claimed, just as it was "universal benevolence" that had inspired the architects of the French Revolution. "Physical affections" had a part to play, she conceded in her 1795 history of the Revolution, but it was time now that fleshly love should sublimate into "a more enlightened moral love of mankind", the emotional foundation of a new world or der: "In my eye all feelings are false and spurious that do not rest on justice as their foundation, and are not concentred by universal love".

This faith in the transformative powers of love was a blend of traditional Christian teachings and Platonism. Christian-Platonism, which taught that love of God was the core human instinct, was a brand of Protestantism that found strong minority support among 17th- and 18th-century enlightened thinkers. In Wollstonecraft's case, its influence derived principally from Rousseau and Milton, especially Paradise Lost . In Paradise Lost , Adam, meeting Eve, finds himself overcome with lust and (in words quoted repeatedly by Wollstonecraft) is scolded by the archangel:

What higher in her society thou find'st
Attractive, human, rational, love still;
In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which to heav'nly Love thou may'st ascend,
Not sunk in carnal pleasure...

Adam's fleshly desire for Eve must transmute into divine love if he is to fulfil his spiritual telos. In Milton's poem, as in virtually all Christian-Platonist writings, the flesh to be transcended was female, the transcender male. However, in Wollstonecraft's version, women too were deemed capable of sublimation, of transforming earthly love into heavenly, so as "to prepare [ourselves] for a more exalted state". This may not seem much of a gain now, but in an age when "woman" was virtually a metonym for moral infirmity, it was no small claim. Revolutionary rhetoric in the 1790s was frankly misogynist, shot through with antagonism to women in general and sexual women in particular, who were depicted as avaricious, corrupt and parasitic. Like a decadent aristocrat - a favourite analogy of radical propagandists - the erotic woman embodied anti-social egoism: why should she be accorded the equal place in state and society that feminists were demanding?

Wollstonecraft's response to this evocation of the eternal Eve was not - to the dismay of some modern readers - to deny her existence but rather to blame men for it. It was men who, by forcing women to barter their charms for money and protection, made them into sexual egoists, she insisted. The corrupt female sensualist was man's creation, not God's. But, "supposing... for a moment, that women were, in some future revolution of time, to become, what I sincerely wish them to be, even love would acquire more serious dignity, and be purified in its own fires..." In an equal world, feminine Eros too would sublimate into a dignified, self-respecting altruism, and women and men achieve perfect virtue and happiness.

High ambitions indeed, as Wollstone-craft's personal struggles were to show. The early 1790s were years of fervent experimentalism, as radicals in France and Britain sought to turn libertarian pre cepts into practice. Revolutionary Paris, where divorce had been legalised shortly before Wollstonecraft's arrival, was the epicentre of this innovative spirit, and Wollstonecraft only one of several British radicals - Wordsworth was another - to seize its opportunities. Bliss indeed it was to be young and alive in those days, but the pain of failed dreams was correspondingly intense. By the end of her affair with Imlay, Wollstonecraft had lost her prudishness. To a Frenchwoman who boasted to her that she never experienced lust, her response was brusque: "Tant pis pour vous, madame, c'est un défaut de la nature." [The worse for you, madame, that's a defect of nature.]

But if natural desires deserved respect, so too did desiring women - and this was to prove incredibly hard to achieve. In William Godwin, Wollstonecraft finally found a love that combined erotic pleasure with mutual respect, and for this too she was vilified. Contemptuous of the "forms of the world", the world repaid her in kind, until finally her political daughters began to protest. "We have had enough women sacrificed to... sentimental prating about purity," the American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared in the 1860s, "We have crucified the Mary Wollstonecrafts..." Other feminists, emboldened by the gradual warming of the sexual climate, agreed and the transformation of Wollstonecraft's status from pariah to heroine got under way.

Pregnancy, motherhood, economic and physical vulnerability - even today these make sexual freedom an edgy proposition for women; in Wollstone-craft's lifetime they presented serious dangers. But writing about female moral education in 1792, Wollstonecraft argued that it was only by taking emotional risks - by giving "free scope to grand passions" no matter what hazards this posed - that women would achieve ethical wisdom. The "winds of life" must blow as freely on women as on men, she insisted, however harsh their blasts. Only free moral agents, refusing to shelter behind rules, will learn to stand the storm. It's a characteristic message for a sexual rebel whose willingness to risk folly earned her so much opprobrium.

"Those who are bold enough to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure," she wrote of herself a few months before her death: "We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others... Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. - I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind - I rest on my own."

Barbara Taylor's book, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, is published by Cambridge University Press.







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Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life by Janet Todd | Weidenfeld, 516 pp, £25.00

Mary Wollstonecraft's defenders have always found their task difficult. Writing her life to disastrous effect in 1798, intent on establishing her as one of those beings 'endowed with the most exquisite and delicious sensibility, whose minds seem almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs, to whom pleasure is transport, and disappointment is agony indescribable', an 'incomparable woman' than whom 'perhaps no human creature ever suffered greater misery', a 'female Werther', even a second Goethe, the still grieving widower William Godwin was forced to concede that his improbable dear was 'what Dr Johnson would have called, "a very good hater"'. 'Indignation,' he noted, 'was an emotion of which she was strongly susceptible.'

This was tactful understatement. She was susceptible to indignation, and to arrogance, self-pity, hypocrisy, histrionics and hypochondria as well. It is hard to write about her even sympathetically without seeming hostile. The more a biographer tells - and the more she cares about her subject, the more she can tell - the worse the story sounds. Janet Todd has been a champion of Wollstonecraft for the length of her scholarly career. Unsurprisingly, she has taken exception to works that treat her with less respect than Todd believes her to have deserved. When Claire Tomalin's biography appeared (one of several) during an upsurge of interest in this founding mother of feminism a quarter of a century ago and spoke of Wollstonecraft's 'imperfect heroism', as Todd has it, she was annoyed; and when Richard Cobb's review of that work subsequently appeared using the occasion to charge Wollstonecraft with silliness, egotism, envy, rancour, meddling, mediocrity and bad writing, she was furious. Describing these events a few years ago in Gender, Art and Death, Todd made it clear her anger was still very much alive. So, presumably, was her sympathy for Wollstonecraft. There is, then, a formidably well-exercised and industriously benevolent exculpatory intention behind this biography. But unless one counts the considerable amusement of a tale well and wittily told, it all goes for nothing - nothing, that is, to the purpose of exculpation. For after decades of devoted feminist interest and patient, genial scholarship, Todd finds in Wollstonecraft's life just what her old antagonist found: silliness, egotism, envy, rancour, meddling, mediocrity and bad writing - imperfect heroism indeed.

This may seem horribly unfair. It did to Todd when other people's accounts of Wollstonecraft's life were at issue. Taken by themselves, out of emotional and especially epistolary context (for it is the letters more than anything else that do her in), the events of Wollstonecraft's life suggest passionate, selfless generosity and courage in adversity. Born in 1759 to a violently tyrannical father ruinously fond of gambling and alcohol and a passive, sickly, emotionally negligent mother, the second child in a family notable for its incomprehensible snobberies and jealous resentments, Wollstonecraft grew up keenly aware of what her failure to have been born an eldest son had cost her materially and emotionally. Although she hoped that friends might love her as her family never did, she spent most of her life being disappointed by friends who died (Fanny Blood) or refused to make room for her as a Platonic third within a passionate marriage (Henry Fuseli) or abandoned her with an out-of-wedlock child (Gilbert Imlay) or otherwise failed to value her with the intensity, constancy and perseverance she required.

These disappointments made her bitterly unhappy. They did not stop her from carrying on with what she had to do to support herself (working as a lady's companion, a seamstress, a schoolmistress, a governess, a writer) or from making bold efforts to protect others from harm or what she saw as harm. As a child she slept outside her mother's bedroom door, thinking ('mistakenly, or with reason', Godwin wrote) to protect her from her father's beatings; when grown she allowed her father, in financial and perhaps criminal straits, to rob her of her legacy. When her married sister Eliza fell into a postpartum depression that declared itself in a mad, violent loathing for her husband, Wollstonecraft, reminded perhaps of her victimised mother, perhaps of her psychotic younger brother, organised Eliza's escape from her husband's house. She then opened a school and established a household in Newington Green in North London to support this now helpless and homeless sister, taking in not just Eliza but her younger sister Everina and her delicate friend Fanny Blood as well, whose marriage to her dilatory suitor Hugh Skeys Wollstonecraft meanwhile actively promoted in the expectation that Skeys would take Fanny to live in Portugal, a climate she hoped might restore her friend to health. Two years later the married Fanny sent word from Lisbon that she was about to have a child. Wollstonecraft sailed alone to Portugal to attend her lying-in; and she was with her when, a few days later, Fanny died, together with her infant son. Though Wollstonecraft could not preserve the life of this friend for whom Godwin reported she had felt 'a friendship so fervent, as for years to have constituted the ruling passion of her mind', she could nevertheless preserve the lives of others. During her voyage back to England, her ship encountered a French vessel in distress. The captain of her ship wanted to leave its passengers to their fate: Wollstonecraft threatened and bullied him until at last he consented to take on board those who would otherwise have drowned. Then, home once more, she resumed responsibility for her sisters and for Fanny's grieving and hapless family, even for their in-laws, and even for their in-laws' in-laws, at one point taking in Fanny's widower's second wife's niece. Everywhere she recognised obligation.

After Fanny's death Wollstonecraft's life diverged from storybook heroism and showed a more eccentric or idiosyncratic courage. Not knowing what else to do - the Newington Green school had gone to pieces under her sisters' management during her unhappy journey to Portugal, and she discovered that she was unable to behave in anything like the approved manner for a governess - she began to write. Her earliest efforts hint at what was to come. Both Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Mary: A Fiction express a painful and very immediate awareness of the problems confronting women, particularly those 'unfortunate females', like Wollstonecraft herself, 'who are left by inconsiderate parents to struggle with the world, and whose cultivation of mind renders the endeavour doubly painful'. The Education of Daughters, a Wollstonecraftian jumble concocted largely from letters she had written to her sisters and to Fanny's brother George, suggests the need to prepare young women to make their own way, but it cannot quite reject the social conservatism that Wollstonecraft would continue to find intermittently attractive all her life: her prescriptions are tame and include (among other things) the fostering of a pleasing feminine bashfulness. Mary, Wollstonecraft's first, semi-autobiographical novel of sensibility, offers no more promising idea of what is to be done. It conducts through a disappointing world a heroine in whom the author has far too much invested, teaching her that none but the doomed or dying are fully worthy of love, until at last it sends her 'hastening to a world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage'.

Wollstonecraft threw herself on the protection of the publisher Joseph Johnson and joined a circle that counted Dr Richard Price, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, William Blake, Horne Tooke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Holcroft, Henry Fuseli and Godwin among its members. She was not an unqualified success. Her literary efforts - a little 'touched with the torpedo of mediocrity', as even Godwin would later confess - were for a time very small-scale: reviews, translations, abridgments, children's literature. Having studied neither charm nor grammar, she aroused Godwin's irritated dislike, and the outcome of her prolonged, absurdly high-minded pursuit of the notoriously lascivious Fuseli so humiliated her that she ran away to France. (The voluptuous Mrs Fuseli refused to share her husband with this strangely forward former prude and threw her out of the house, an experience that taught Wollstonecraft how to behave when, years later, a married woman herself, she had occasion to forbid an importunate Miss Pinkerton from harassing her not altogether unwilling husband with improper attentions.)

By the time she ran away, however, she had been transformed: no longer a failed and frumpy governess, she was now the determinedly attractive and almost famous author of the two great Vindications. Her Vindication of the Rights of Men had been a reply to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, one of the first of some forty-five replies to be published, and for all its flaws (apparent even to those who shared Wollstonecraft's indignation at Burke's sentimental and manipulative tactics), it was a major achievement, presenting in language at once rational and passionate a challenge to the power of a political and rhetorical tradition that had represented itself as wholly engrossing both reason and right feeling. More important, however, in part because it was followed by no train of seconds, was the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This was harder. The anonymity of the first Vindication had given Wollstonecraft sexual immunity and enabled her to speak as though she were the man and the worthy opponent to Burke that her readers had believed her to be. The second, signed Vindication allowed no simple impersonation of authority. In order to argue for the necessity of developing female intellect and moral independence Wollstonecraft believed that she had to write as if in despite of her sex and in defiance of vulnerability. Protection from the imputation of weak-minded femininity required her, she seems to have thought, actively to repudiate its associations. She could afford no confession of fellowship with other women; she could afford no sympathy with dependence. Self-reliant duty must absorb passionate disruption. It must have seemed to her entirely feasible.

Wollstonecraft was established in Paris and at work on a history of the French Revolution when she met a shady American speculator and writer of undistinguished fiction called Gilbert Imlay, fell in love, and discovered that passion might not be so easily tamed and dismissed as the severe author of The Rights of Woman had recommended. Although her joy was as brief as Imlay's devotion, soon she was a mother and could not quite persuade herself that Imlay's increasingly lengthy absences and epistolary silences meant what inevitably they did mean. In the midst of emotional devastation, between suicide attempts, she set off with baby Fanny and a maid for the near-wilderness of Scandinavia where, acting as Imlay's business envoy, she meant to recover a ship laden with silver that an unscrupulous captain had effectively stolen from him and his partners. This display of strength was no more seductive than her earlier displays of helplessness and distress had been. She returned to London to find Imlay cold to her still. Recovering from her second suicide attempt, she learned that he had begun living with a new mistress. Thus - after only a brief interval during which she toyed with the idea of a ménage à trois - she came at last to understand that she was and long had been a deserted woman. She swallowed no more poison, made no more plunges into the Thames. She had resources still. She took the letters she had written Imlay from Scandinavia - desperate, furious, shrewish, extortionate, tedious letters - and transformed them into the immensely appealing Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. She offered not just unfamiliar landscapes and small adventures among out of the way people with curious customs but, even better, her own intelligent interest and amiably melancholy musings about it all. Everyone read them and everyone (except Imlay) fell in love with her. Godwin reconsidered his objections to her grammar and her manners and allowed himself to grow starry-eyed. When the author herself appeared on his doorstep, he let her seduce him. They worked out a scheme of comfortable domesticity combined with provisions for writerly independence, and Wollstonecraft began work on a novel, The Wrongs of Woman, that was to carry on from where The Rights of Woman had left off, demonstrating not only the variety and evil effects of men's oppression of women but also women's collusion in their own oppression. For the first time in her life, she enjoyed happiness, security and productivity all at once. Or perhaps there just wasn't time for things to go wrong. In rapid sequence Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant, married Godwin, gave birth to her second child, the baby who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, and died, killed by an infection introduced by a doctor's attempt to remove the placenta she could not expel.

If there were no more to it than that, no more to her life than the pathos, the bravery and the books, we would have enough material to supply any number of heroines. Wollstonecraft did her best to live up to the ideals of virtuous self-possession and generous maternal strength she prescribed in The Rights of Woman, and from a certain perspective - that of Godwin, for instance, when, half destroyed by grief, he gave himself over to hagiography - she seemed to have succeeded. From other perspectives, however, she did not, and her failure exposes her to the risk of the same pitiless judgment she showed to others who could not or would not be strong: 'Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man, for she must grow more perfect when emancipated, or justify the authority that chains such a weak being to her duty. - If the latter, it will be expedient to open a fresh trade with Russia for whips.'

Todd never quite reaches the point of whipping - not quite. But that she refrains is evidence of her self-control, for Wollstonecraft close up, Wollstonecraft in the motives and consequences of her adventures, Wollstonecraft especially as she comes out of her own mouth, tries her biographer severely. This may have been inevitable. With more information about Wollstonecraft, her family, her friends, her acquaintances, her writings and her culture than is reasonable for even an exceptionally well-informed biographer to have, Todd focuses on Wollstonecraft's presentation of herself. She gives us an epistolary Wollstonecraft, a self which, as Todd describes it, 'valued and reflected endlessly on its own workings, refusing to acknowledge anything absurd in the stance', full of a 'need to display itself for the attention of others'. Todd characterises these qualities as 'undeniably modern', which sounds as if it were meant to suggest admiration. But not even the most determined admiration can survive a full-length recitation of the ways in which Wollstonecraft 'dedicates herself to expressing her Self'.

Wollstonecraft's benevolence had strict limits and her daring deeds sometimes perilously jagged edges. She acted out of rancour rather than charity, narcissism rather than love. She liked the abstract idea of bravery, its potential for justified self-assertion and self-display, but the objects and indirect objects of these displays of heroism did not always matter much to her, and her desire to be admired as a rescuer sometimes compromised her care for their welfare. It was largely for the sake of gaining domestic possession of Fanny Blood, Todd suggests, that Wollstonecraft broke up her sister Eliza's marriage: though the spectacle of Eliza in the grip of frenzy worried Wollstonecraft, she saw in the possibility of inducing her sister's flight from her husband a chance to establish, as though for Eliza's sake, an independent female household that might house Fanny Blood. Whatever her motive, and despite her lifelong insistence on the necessity of mothers nursing their own babies (she had never forgiven her own mother for failing to nurse her), she left Eliza's baby behind when she snatched Eliza away; the child never saw her mother again and was dead before she was a year old. This was not an isolated mistake. The seven-year-old niece of Fanny Blood's widower whom Wollstonecraft took in to raise lasted only until she was discovered to have stolen some sugar. Nor was her own baby safe: suicidal self-pity brought Wollstonecraft twice to the point of abandoning Fanny, a selfishness that shocks Todd more, perhaps, than anything else Wollstonecraft did.

Todd suspects that other people, even people Wollstonecraft believed she loved, seemed less real to her than she seemed to herself - so very much less real that she could not bring herself entirely to believe in them. For all her efforts on behalf of those in apparent need, for all her anguish over the real or fancied lessenings of her friends' devotion, she behaved as though she valued people chiefly for the poses they enabled her to strike. Her treatment of Fanny Blood, particularly her treacherous posthumous representation in Mary as (in Todd's apt words) 'an object of faintly contemptuous compassion and desire', suggests that Wollstonecraft was (again in Todd's words) 'infatuated less with her friend than with her own image of herself loving her friend'. Her curiosity about Gilbert Imlay, Todd believes, was confined to his part as her treacherous lover, the audience to her agonies and target for her reproaches. She was incapable of understanding intimacies other than the ones she was intent on establishing - hampered by no scruples in her attempts to secure Skeys for the needy Fanny Blood, impeded by no imagination of marital privacy when she approached Mrs Fuseli, shocked and mulish at the discovery that Lady Kingsborough resented her attempts to turn the children she was governessing against their mother and secure their favour herself.

Until she herself fell passionately in love, she held romance to be not merely dispensable but a threat to the only respectable end of marriage, parental responsibility: 'In order to fulfil the duties of life, and to be able to pursue with vigour the various employments which form the moral character, the master and mistress of a family ought not to continue to love each other with passion,' she wrote in The Rights of Woman. 'An unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and . . . the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother.' Behind such pronouncements lay no intention to console the emotionally bereft; young and heart-whole when she wrote these words, she had no time for women who fancied themselves injured by the loss of love and no idea that she might ever feel that way herself. 'Many ladies,' she informed the readers of The Education of Daughters, 'are delicately miserable, and imagine that they are lamenting the loss of a lover, when they are full of self-applause, and reflections on their own superior refinement. Painful feelings are prolonged beyond their natural course, to gratify our desire of appearing heroines, and we deceive ourselves as well as others.' Other people's pain, whether mental or physical, generally either bored or disgusted her - when she believed in it at all, that is. Much of it, she suspected, was the product of weakmindedness. Female delicacy she regarded as particularly blameworthy, convinced as she was that women's sickliness was the result of laziness, evidence of an indelicate attentiveness to the physical, proof that women were 'slaves to their bodies' and to their sensuality. Even the pains of childbirth, she decided after her first experience of it (the easy one), were exaggerated by what she called 'the ignorance and affectation of women'.

Her own headaches, tears, modest loathings and fatigues were different. So were her emotional sufferings. A different set of evaluative rules applied here. (It did in everything to do with Wollstonecraft, whose very grammatical errors, darling 'little negligences & rudenesses', had in their author's eyes a 'charm as well as sanctity' that pleaded against correction.) Like the bruises the princess suffered seven featherbeds above the pea, her distresses were signs of an exquisite sensitivity. Todd suggests a comparison with the spiritually validating infirmities of medieval mystics and Renaissance prophets. Wollstonecraft clearly wanted her agonies to mean something, and while the general utility of such pain for the building of character might be recommended to others, she was insistent that in her case it represented a proof of altruism, a mark of spiritual status. It was not enough to be heroic: one might be pitiable as well. Feeling that pain had the power to add a certain something to one's appeal, she seemed almost to envy victims the credit of their pain. 'A benevolent mind often suffers more than the object it commiserates,' she admonished her readers in The Education of Daughters, 'and will bear inconvenience itself to shelter another from it.' Or perhaps it is the other way around. Sometimes the bearing of inconvenience is more significant, more praiseworthy, than the sheltering of any adjunctive, nominally pitiable others - as when the Wollstonecraftlike heroine of Mary feeds beggars in order to 'feel gratified, when, in consequence of it, she was pinched by hunger'.

This was a gratification very much to Wollstonecraft's taste. If she gloried in her power to save, she gloried even more in her ability to suffer. She took pride in the number of things by which she was capable of being injured, collecting and displaying her sufferings as other people might collect and display butterflies or teapots. It was a family tradition. She, her sisters and her mother were all expert and competitive hypochondriacs, producing not just headaches, side aches, languor, trembling, spasms, sore eyes and disturbances of vision, but also hysterical deafness (Eliza in her postpartum depression), loss of hair (Eliza again, when unhappily convinced that Wollstonecraft would not invite her to France), convulsions (Wollstonecraft, on learning that Imlay was seeing another woman). Wollstonecraft often depended on her ailments to illustrate her grievances and enforce her demands. When they inconveniently failed her - as they did, for instance, during the strenuous journey through Scandinavia, which she seemed to have crossed rosy-cheeked and radiant - she was compelled to supply sad reports of falls, nauseatingly rich foods, offensively soft feather beds instead.

Rich in distresses ('I am agitated - my whole frame is convulsed - my lips tremble, as if shook by cold, though fire seems to be circulating in my veins') and pleased to think herself a female Lear ('my naked bosom has had to brave continually the pitiless storm') and thus entitled to fits of rage, as well as impunity for pettier forms of bad behaviour, Wollstonecraft nonetheless suspected that she could maximise emotional gain by converting anger into sorrow and not asking for pity directly. Her pain, her tears, would speak for her. At the age of about fifteen she wrote in reproach to her friend Jane Arden, who had disappointed what Wollstonecraft called her 'romantic notions of friendship': 'I have a heart too susceptible for my own peace . . . I spent part of the night in tears; (I would not meanly make a merit of it.) . . . I cannot bear a slight from those I love.' Her heart continued to be too susceptible for either her own peace or that of the friends whose slights she continued to be unable to bear, and although she went on making a merit of not meanly making a merit of it, the noise she made muting her misery was often greater than the natural sound of misery itself. The commotion reached its climax during her affair with Imlay, in which she flowered both erotically and rhetorically. Occupatio became her favorite figure. 'In the bitterness of my heart, I could complain . . . but I will be silent for ever -'; 'there is nothing I would not endure in the way of privation, rather than disturb your tranquillity. - If I am fated to be unhappy, I will labour to hide my sorrows in my own bosom'; 'Forget that I exist: I will never remind you'; 'I am silent - Be happy!'; 'I disdain to utter a reproach'; and so on.

Wollstonecraft felt compelled to point out her own word-strangled grief, her heartbreaking silent dignity, her generous forbearance from accusation. She would die stifling her sorrows within her bosom, but she could not resist commenting on the wrenching significance of such brave self-effacement. 'There are misfortunes so great, as to silence the usual expressions of sorrow. - Believe me, there is such a thing as a broken heart!' Imlay, hardened to a rhetoric of ultimacy applied without discrimination to intimations of mortality, threats to stop pestering him, and anticipations of boat trips, failed to respond with the terrified loving remorse Wollstonecraft desired. Who can blame him? There is something uncharmingly pedagogical about her love-making, the exhibitions of her unselfconsciously estimable self so many dreary demonstrations before an inattentive class, the love letters angry rappings on a blackboard. Since no untutored adoration of herself was likely to rise to the standard she set, instruction was required: 'It is my misfortune, that my imagination is perpetually shading your defects, and lending you charms, whilst the grossness of your senses makes you (call me not vain) overlook graces in me, that only dignity of mind, and the sensibility of an expanded heart can give.' She would exact homage, even if only from herself, and tears as well. She painted what she meant to be heart-rending pictures of herself driven by the pain of 'wounds that never can be healed', that 'fester in silence without wincing', to madness or to death ('the tightened cord of life or reason will at last snap, and set me free'). She warned darkly of a time when Imlay would come to regret his cruelty: 'May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.'

The letters are disturbingly like the autobiographical fictions, platitudinous and imperfectly private, offered as if to a readership discernible to no one but the writer as she regards her reflection on the page. Though they pass themselves off as intended for Imlay's private reading, they seem not quite to have a fix on their recipient. Wollstonecraft can have had no imagination of what the letters sounded like in any ear other than her own; and yet, oddly, when it was time to revise and publish them as Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, to realise their obliquity of address, she knew how to achieve the effect of breathing affection that had eluded her when her audience was an individual man. In effacing the identity of her original addressee and substituting a public readership for a private one, Wollstonecraft managed to write the letters that might have brought her lover back to her. What was false and haranguing in the original becomes natural and intimately affecting in the professional revision. Perhaps she simply required more admiration, more loyalty, than any single friend or lover could supply. Perhaps she simply lacked the ability to converse.

She wished to be remembered as a victim, a martyr, retrospectively adored, immortal in the guilt she would inspire. We know how her wish was answered. Imlay would have nothing to do with it. It was Godwin who responded. The uxorious biography, the comparisons with Goethe, were not enough to fulfil his desperate need to make reparation for having survived her. He must publish a selection of her letters, too - including the letters to Imlay - together with her unfinished works. He thought the letters entirely winning, 'the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world'. Readers disagreed. Though our reasons are not theirs, we disagree, too.

Wollstonecraft's power to dismay has survived a shift in values and defied a revolution in perspective. Her once offensive radicalism now appears a disturbing conservatism. Her complexity seems to be incoherence. One might speculate that her sex, her feminism, her exhibitionism complicate the sealing off of private vulnerabilities from public virtues that is so necessary a part of the normal programme of heroism and so leave her contradictions unprotected. But this leaves too much unexplained. A readerly encounter with a figure whose private life has been thrust into prominence does not usually end in bewilderment. Wollstonecraft was hard to take, but there are many eminent figures whose capacity to annoy has (unlike hers) done nothing to diminish their stature and whose greatness has (also unlike hers) swallowed down disgrace.

Wollstonecraft's incoherence resists simplification. Her ambiguity will not be resolved. She wasn't just a manipulative whiner or just an electrifying prophet: she was both, the whining self-display and the eloquent inspiration equally characteristic and equally real. Todd shows us one and she show us the other, feebleness and strength, mediocrity and power. Chronology requires a special emphasis on mediocrity, but conversion from one to the other is unimaginable, simultaneity outrageous. The juxtaposition shocks. Wollstonecraft seems to have lived two lives in ironic parallel, the first crudely misunderstanding the second, the second strenuously idealising the first, with no reasonable relation between the particulars of her experience and her heroic portraiture. She does not add up - and yet, mysteriously, she must have.

That the arithmetic is bewildering and Wollstonecraft's importance resistant to narration became apparent two centuries ago. It cannot be blamed on Todd, who means to be loyal and wants it all to make sense and whose only fault, a Godwinian one, is a failure to explain why Wollstonecraft's weaknesses ought not (as she believed they ought not) finally to tell against her. She means to show that what she calls 'the huge sense of the "I" in Mary Wollstonecraft's work' is also the earliest modern instance of a self 'sure of its significance, individuality and authenticity'. But whatever is to be made out amid the emotional murk, the artificial amplification, the incessant and incorrigible martyrising of Wollstonecraft's melodramas, it isn't authenticity: Wollstonecraft spent her life arguing for the right to something she couldn't achieve herself nor recognise in others. But how else to account for her furious defiance of plausibility, for the violence and absurdity of her demand that her demands be met? That remains a puzzle.

Not even Todd, faithful though she tries to be, can resist the ironies of her guiltily amusing tale. But if there is no simple authenticity here, there is something that matters to us far more: its difficult imagining. Against that unlikely achievement the embarrassments of even so irrational, accidental and self-deceived a life count for little.

Susan Eilenberg, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the author of The Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Literary Possession (1992). Her next book will be about Milton and the problem of sinister excess.





From Janet Todd

Susan Eilenberg's review of my biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (LRB, 30 November) berates her for not living her theories or being entirely lovable. I stand accused of displaying a character whom no one will like. Wollstonecraft desired to control her own image, and I suspect that, when she wrote herself as an ideal mother in her works, she would not have wanted a biographer to juxtapose her pictures with her letters, as I have done, so revealing her as the everyday sort who likes a child more when cleaned and comforted by someone else. Yet, had she been a biographer, she would have described the warts. She criticised Boswell's Life of Johnson for varnishing the doctor's 'overbearing ferocity' and calling his 'intellectual cowardice' by the kinder name of piety. According to her, the biographer should not shift the boundaries of virtue and vice.

Wollstonecraft has always provoked extreme responses. In the 1970s (as Eilenberg reveals by haunting me with my past words) we did not care to have her dissected. But now we can stand back a bit and suggest that to be revolutionary one needs immense self-confidence, assertiveness, immodesty and competitiveness. Wollstonecraft was no more modest and easy to deal with than Kate Millett or Germaine Greer.

Eilenberg seems to discredit her for personalising issues. Wollstonecraft did constantly refer to her body, nerves and depressions in her letters, while in her early published works demanding response only to her intellect. Both tendencies, however, suggest that she would not give up the body to pleasure the mind or vice versa. Though her thoughts are at times contradictory, complex, unstable and variously committed, she always took herself seriously as a thinker and conveyed the excitement of the examined life. Although tempted, ultimately she did not wallow, like some 1970s French and American feminists, in unreason or dismiss reason as male and therefore suspect. As for the dangers of romance, to which she herself so spectacularly succumbed, there is no evidence that her views changed as a result: her own experience deepened them. She was also amazingly frank and not always self-indulgent. Even in novels, that zone of wish-fulfilment, she would not give her alter egos (and I agree with Eilenberg that she rarely detached a heroine from herself) what she had not experienced ' unlike Charlotte Brontë or Geraldine Jewsbury.

Wollstonecraft is remarkable for her constant effort to express a predicament. This is what I meant by her modernity: with a few changes of language, she could be an ambitious and self-obsessed Post-Modern woman demanding it all. Probably Wollstonecraft ' and certainly Godwin when he revealed her life to the public ' misjudged the price of unconventionality. But, although she was in some ways foiled by her own flaws and more by cultural shifts, she tried ' almost uniquely ' to be true to her sense of common female needs for education, legal and political significance, as well as for affection, esteem and sex.

Janet Todd
University of East Anglia

The TLS n.º 5297, October 8, 2004

Caroline Franklin


A literary life

240 pp. Palgrave.

ISBN 0-333-97251-1


Caroline Franklin’s critical biography succeeds in its intent to illuminate the importance of 1790s print culture in Mary Wollstonecraft’s career. As an educational theorist, astute journalist, revolutionary philosopher, novelist and travel writer, Wollstonecraft was ideally placed to take advantage of the new public sphere opened up by such a culture. Franklin carefully plots the course of Wollstonecraft’s writing in relation to her social milieu and personal history, both furiously driven by a desire for moral and political change. Following Barbara Taylor’s work on Wollstonecraft’s Christian Platonism, Franklin locates this desire within a religious framework, one that, for dissenting believers at least, urged individuals to balance their private values with public action. A latitudinarian Anglican, Wollstonecraft became absorbed by the Dissenting circles she engaged with in London, which provided her with the conviction to attack conservative contemporaries such as Edmund Burke. Within this climate, she forged an extraordinary, almost Blakean, vision of the world in which belief offered a life-raft to sceptics lost in a sea of speculation, redirecting them to a system in which humans are divine, equal and newly conscious. An ardent advocate of emotional, as well as rational, engagement with rights for men and women, Wollstonecraft invested in the imagination as offering the power to think and feel for oneself. Wary of the imagination’s capacity to be seduced by myth, she sought to politicize it as an engine of moral reasoning, productive of a literature in which the reader might find in the author a “fraternal friend on the path to virtue”. Franklin admirably traces such a feeling logic throughout her subject’s published work, notebooks and letters, building an engaging picture of a woman possessed of reason but whose internal fire belittled the feeble sensibilities of those she sought to undermine.


Table of Contents

February 19, 1976

Ellen Moers, Vindicating Mary Wollstonecraft

Thoughts on the education of daughters: with reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Mary, a fiction by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

A vindication of the rights of woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited and introduced by Gina Luria, by Miriam Kramnick

An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it has Produced in Europe by Mary Wollstonecraft, with an introduction by Janet M. Todd

Posthumous works, Vol. 1: The wrongs of woman, or Maria (1st eight chapters) by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by William Godwin, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Posthumous works, Vol. 2: The wrongs of woman, or Maria (chapter 9 to end) and The first book of a series of lessons for children by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by William Godwin, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Posthumous works, Vol. 3: Letters ["to Imlay"] by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by William Godwin, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Posthumous works, Vol. 4: Miscellaneous pieces by Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by William Godwin, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, with an introduction by Moira Ferguson

Memoirs of the author of a vindication of the rights of woman by William Godwin, edited and introduced by Gina Luria

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography by Ralph M. Wardle

Godwin and Mary edited by Ralph M. Wardle

Mary Wollstonecraft by Eleanor Flexner

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Emily Sunstein

Aspects généraux du roman féminin en Angleterre de 1740 à 1800 nouvelle série #52, Editions Ophrys 1966 by Philippe Séjourné

La Destinée féminine dans le roman européean du dix-huitième siècle 1713-1807: Essai de gynécomythie romanesque by Pierre Fauchery



July 1, 2001, Sunday


The Close Reader; Ahead of Her Time

By Judith Shulevitz

Mary Wollstonecraft invented modern women, if invention means reimagining the world so as to make a new kind of life possible. In ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'' (1792), feminism's founding document, Wollstonecraft asked for what, two centuries later, we got -- the same education as men, legal equality, professional opportunity -- as well as what we're still trying to get, such as an end to objectification. She wasn't the first writer to be angered by the stifling of female potential, but she was the first to turn her frustration into a critique of polite society. She prosecuted its hypocrisies with high rhetoric, liberating sarcasm and a firm late-18th-century respect for reason as the anchor of individual rights.

As a person, though, she was capable of appalling unreasonableness, which is the trait she has come to be known for in this biographical era. In ''Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life,'' an exhaustive biography published last fall, Janet Todd damns Wollstonecraft with irrefutable evidence: her own letters. If she hadn't saved these, her life would have been remembered as a triumph of rational intelligence animated by amazing bravado. The neglected, half-educated first daughter of a fortune-squandering drunk and his abused wife, Wollstonecraft extracted herself from a dead-end career as a governess (the only career available to the genteelly impoverished Englishwoman of the 1780's); founded a school; became that anomalous innovation, the professional female writer; forged friendships with the great thinkers of her era; supported two hapless younger sisters; traveled alone to post-revolutionary Paris; stayed there to witness the Terror; and bore a child out of wedlock in a love affair conducted according to her radical dictates.

But the letters give us another Wollstonecraft, a woman so blindly self-absorbed and unheroically in need of constant reassurance we can't figure out whether her accomplishments stemmed from courage or a maniacal effort to deflect despair. In her youth she bossed her sisters around unforgivably, moralizing and nit-picking and maybe wrecking the elder's salvageable marriage partly out of a conviction that marriage entered into for the wrong reasons condemned women to slavery. When she was older she liked to brag to those by then embittered sisters about her exciting cosmopolitan life, knowing they had been forced by penury to serve as governesses in backwater postings. She chased the fainthearted father of her first child from France to England and back again with a barrage of letters, all but a few of them reproachful, self-pitying, self-dramatizing and painful to read. In an age that prized discretion, she blurted out the secrets of the affair to anyone she thought might pity her. Twice she attempted suicide -- complete with notes. Had she succeeded, she would have left her infant daughter utterly alone.

In light of this self-portrait, what had appeared as complexity ''seems to be incoherence,'' as a reviewer of Todd's biography euphemistically put it. Is there a connection between the needy, demanding and at times unlovable woman and the daring philosopher of sexual equality, or was the life just a muddle redeemed by the work? A rereading of ''Vindication'' -- reissued this month in a paperback Modern Library edition with a very smart introduction by Katha Pollitt -- suggests a connection. Taken in its entirety (as opposed to in excerpts, which is how it is taught in college), the book turns out to be as abrasive as its author. In between lightning bolts of insight, ''Vindication'' is repetitive, digressive, haranguing and often tortuously argued. Dashed off in three weeks, it took 200 pages to say what needed only 50. Most of all it becomes clear that, though Wollstonecraft fought vigorously for women, she didn't like them much.

Here's the question Wollstonecraft set out to answer in ''Vindication'': Why are women so awful -- so shallow, insipid, manipulative and morally unreliable? Unkind though this seems (and later feminists criticized Wollstonecraft harshly for it), as Pollitt observes, it's ingenious as strategy: ''Having conceded the veracity of the misogynist portrait of her sex, she turns the tables.'' The blame goes to men and their society. Women are the product of their education and formation, or rather, in Wollstonecraft's time, their lack of education and an upbringing that confined women's minds inside a ''gilt cage'' and emphasized charm over character, so that ''civilized women . . . are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.''

But her catalog of women's failings is reiterated so often, and with such ferocity, that the reader can't help suspecting that Wollstonecraft was driven to this rhetorical device by an agenda that was darker and less calculated than mere persuasion. ''Vindication'' can also be read as autobiography, as the inadvertent expression of an exquisite personal anguish -- the ambitious intellectual's guilty embarrassment at her own inclusion in the ranks of disrespected womankind. It is hard not to hear in her aside to women, ''My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone,'' a defensive self-justification of her condescending treatment of her dependent sisters. She certainly sounds as if she's chastising herself -- as much as her parents and society -- when she declares, ''To do everything in an orderly manner is a most important precept, which women, who, generally speaking, receive only a disorderly kind of education, seldom attend to with that degree of exactness that men, who from their infancy are broken into method, observe.''

Orderly and exact is exactly what Wollstonecraft wasn't. She couldn't be. She didn't have the education, to begin with, but more important, she had to trust her impulses, because they were the basis of her philosophy, the first to be grounded on a woman's experience. Self-restraint, though held up as an ideal, must have felt too much like censorship. In ''Vindication,'' Wollstonecraft wrote, ''I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style.'' She disdained other niceties too. She refused to be edited, perhaps because she couldn't trust the men who wanted to edit her not to tone her down. She was said to hog conversations at dinner parties, which may or may not have meant that she had the nerve to speak at all. She all but harassed people with her copious correspondence and got her letters back when a relationship was over, which is why she left for posterity documents used to tarnish her reputation. How could she be sure what was worth preserving and what wasn't? Everything was new and might be meaningful. Besides, as we like to say these days, Wollstonecraft had no positive role models to emulate. She was making herself up as she went along. She paid dearly for that creation, and she is paying for it still.

Published: 07 - 01 - 2001 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 23




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