Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the founder of modern feminism-in her time, the most famous woman in Europe and America. In this exciting new biography, Lyndall Gordon proposes that at each stage of a passionate and courageous life-as teacher, writer, lover, and traveler-Mary Wollstonecraft was an original. She had advanced ideas on education, and her views on single motherhood, family responsibilities, working life, domestic affections, friendships, and sexual relationships now look astonishingly modern. She...
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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the founder of modern feminism-in her time, the most famous woman in Europe and America. In this exciting new biography, Lyndall Gordon proposes that at each stage of a passionate and courageous life-as teacher, writer, lover, and traveler-Mary Wollstonecraft was an original. She had advanced ideas on education, and her views on single motherhood, family responsibilities, working life, domestic affections, friendships, and sexual relationships now look astonishingly modern. She tested new ways a man and a woman might come to know each other and live together. "Imagination must lead the senses, not the senses the imagination," she told her American lover, Gilbert Imlay, and repeated to her husband, William Godwin.

Vindication is the first biography to show this remarkable woman at full strength and bring out the range as well as the reverberations of her genius in the following and subsequent generations. Here is the drama of Wollstonecraft's life as a governess in an aristocratic family in Ireland, as an independent writer in London, as an on-the-scene observer of the French Revolution, and as a daring traveler to Scandinavia on the trail of an unsolved crime. Although she died young, her spirit and unconventional ideas lived on in the lives of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and three other heirs who had to contend with a counterrevolutionary age. Vindication offers new evidence for the influence of early American political thought in England and demonstrates for the first time the profound effect of Mary Wollstonecraft's own writing, especially her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on American figures of the day, among them John and Abigail Adams. This groundbreaking biography follows the colorful wheelings and dealings of young American adventurers like Joel Barlow and the elusive frontiersman Imlay, who sought their fortunes amid the tumultuous events of late-eighteenth-century Europe and whose clandestine service to the fledgling American government is newly explored.

This is a brilliantly told story, moving on from the issue of rights to larger questions that still lie beyond us: What is woman's nature? What will she contribute to civilization? Lyndall Gordon mounts a spirited defense of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose previous biographers have often doubted her integrity, her stability, and the exhilarating experiment that was her life. Vindication probes these doubts, measures Wollstonecraft's life against her own strengths instead of the weakness that sometimes held her back, and reinterprets her for the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Toni Bentley
In her wonderful, and deeply sobering, new book, Lyndall Gordon, the distinguished biographer of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë and Henry James, tackles this formidable woman with grace, clarity and much new research. Despite occasional slips into strangely purple prose (when she reproaches her lover, ''retorts -- great sprays of indignant eloquence -- would fountain from her opening throat''), Gordon relates Wollstonecraft's story with the same potent mixture of passion and reason her subject personified.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With Gordon, the life of the "famous, then notorious" Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is in the hands of a scholarly admirer and defender, a distinguished biographer (of T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bront and others) as interested in Wollstonecraft for her mistakes as for her triumphs. For those familiar with the broad outlines of Wollstonecraft's personal life (her friendships with Jane Arden and Fanny Blood, her relationship with the painter Fuseli, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her "friendship melting into love" with the philosopher Godwin), Gordon offers fresh detail and insight. She brings encyclopedic scope to her construction of a very British life deeply affected by tumultuous events in America and France. "She was not a born genius," Gordon says, "she became one," and Gordon succeeds admirably in showing readers how this independent, compassionate woman who devised a blueprint for human change achieved that distinction. Wollstonecraft's wide, evolving circles of friends, benefactors, mentors, admirers and detractors is richly sketched. Melodrama (a money-squandering, abusive father; a sister trapped in a tyrannical marriage; financial crises; unfaithful lovers; attempted suicides) abounds. Wollstonecraft's life was an adventurous one; in Paris, she watched as the admired French Revolution become the Reign of Terror. Yet Wollstonecraft's adventurous life illuminates rather than obscures the philosophical and historical work that made her the foremother of much modern thinking about education and human rights, as well as about women's rights, female sexuality and the institution of marriage. Deeply documented with Wollstonecraft's writing, contemporary memoirs, letters and archival materials, Gordon's biography is eminently readable and rewarding. Photos. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (May 3) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This biography of the Englishwoman many consider the mother of modern feminism is rich with new interpretations, sources, and detail. Independent scholar Gordon, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, captures the drama of Wollstonecraft's life, from her difficult childhood to her struggle to support herself as a writer, her ill-fated romance with American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, the birth of her first daughter, her marriage to writer William Godwin, and her death following the birth of her second daughter, Mary. Wollstonecraft's farsighted philosophies of education, human rights, and liberty unfold not only within the context of her private travails but also against the backdrop of history as we walk with her, for example, through the bloody streets of Paris during the revolution. Newly exploited sources-e.g., notes that John Adams scribbled in the margins of his copy of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman-suggest her broad influence in both Europe and America. This biography joins recent works like Janet Todd's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life and Caroline Franklin's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Literary Life as the new standards for Wollstonecraft scholarship. Appropriate for academic libraries; essential for women's studies collections.-Linda V. Carlisle, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A serious reconsideration of the short, passionate life of the 18th-century protofeminist, by accomplished English biographer Gordon (Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and T.S. Eliot). Gordon sets out to readjust the record of the crusading intellectual and feminist's life after its skewing by the odium attached to her unmarried affairs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Wollstonecraft's story was largely defined by the straitened circumstances her profligate, idle father left the family in, squandering his inherited wealth and moving every few years; the eldest daughter would witness horrific scenes of domestic violence in an age when women were chattel of their husbands, and she would even secretly orchestrate the rescue of her younger sister, Bess, from an abusive marriage. She gained an education by the "school of adversity," working as a governess and schoolteacher, then determinedly establishing herself in London to make a living by her pen. Within the community of male writers who clustered around the print shop of Joseph Johnson, Wollstonecraft absorbed the radical ideas of the day-support for the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, liberal methods of teaching, enlightened sexuality, the French Revolution and women's rights. Her groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) made her instantly famous, reminding the revolutionary leaders in no uncertain terms that women should be included in the public debate. Gordon moves bravely through the electrifying ideas of the era and tracks Wollstonecraft's desperate love affair with the oily American frontiersmen Gilbert Imlay, who probably saved her life during the Terror in Paris, as well as her reputation.Gordon devotes two chapters to posthumous mythmaking by Wollstonecraft's husband of five months, William Godwin, whose vehement biography of his 38-year-old wife (dead after giving birth to her second daughter) painted her as "a female Werther, suicidal, doomed." Overall, Gordon is more concerned with ideas, and does not infuse her subject with the life force of similar schoolmistress-spinster-autodidact Elizabeth Peabody in the recent Peabody Sisters (p. 214). Nonetheless, an outstanding, rigorously researched intellectual biography.
John Leonard
“Fierce and wonderful. . . . [Wollstonecraft is] a dazzling character on the brilliant page.”
New York Sun
“[Wollstonecraft’s] aspirations to greatness...keep breaking through Ms. Gordon’s wonderfully wrought book like flashes of lightning.”
Bust Magazine
“Gordon vindicates this once-vilified ‘hyena in petticoats’ as a melancholy, complex, heroic feminist, stunningly ahead of her time.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A sobering and inspirational read for women today. Readers who delve into it will meet a brave, visionary woman.”
New York Review of Books
“Imaginative and intelligent, consistently absorbing... [Gordon] speculates and probes with a freewheeling intelligence that responds to Wollstonecraft’s own.”
New York Times Book Review
“Gordon relates Wollstonecraft’s story with the same potent mixture of passion and reason her subject personified...Wonderful, and deeply sobering.”
“Exceptional, emotionally overwhelming . . . A 360-degree exploration of Wollstonecraft in her era—and beyond.”
The Independent
“Judicious, sympathetic, intelligent and utterly riveting . . . Gordon rescues Wollstonecraft from both reactionary disdain and soft-focus feminist sentiment.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060198022
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Lyndall Gordon lives in Oxford, England. She is the author of highly acclaimed biographies of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T. S. Eliot, and Henry James. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Senior Research Fellow at St. Hilda's College, Oxford.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
Family Trees xii
1 Violence at Home 1
2 'School of Adversity' 19
3 New Life at Newington 40
4 A Community of Women 61
5 A Governess in Ireland 80
6 The Trials of High Life 103
7 Vindication 122
8 Rival Lives 156
9 Into the Terror 182
10 Risks in Love 214
11 The Silver Ship 232
12 Far North 256
13 Woman's Words 291
14 'The Most Fruitful Experiment' 330
15 Slanders 363
16 Converts 390
17 Daughters 411
18 Generations 447
Abbreviations 453
Sources, Contexts, Questions 456
Bibliography 519
Internet Documents 540
Acknowledgements 542
Index 547
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First Chapter

A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

Chapter One

Violence at Home

In December 1792 an Englishwoman of thirty-three crossed the Channel to revolutionary France. She was travelling alone on her way to Paris at a time when Englishmen like Wordsworth were speeding in the opposite direction -- back to the safety of their country, in fear of the oncoming Terror. When, at length, Mary Wollstonecraft arrived at a friend's hotel, she found it deserted, one folding door opening after another, till she reached her room at the far end. There she sat by her candle, knowing no one and unable to speak the language. The silence, in contrast to London, was eerie. As she looked up from the letter she was writing, eyes glared through a glass door. Looming through the darkness, bloody hands showed themselves and shook at her. She longed for the sound of a footstep; she missed her cat. 'I want to see something alive,' her pen scratched, 'death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy.'

That day she had seen the King carried past her window at nine in the morning, on the way to his trial. She records the stillness and emptiness of the streets, the closed shutters, the drums of the National Guard, her own assent to the 'majesty of the people', and the sight of 'Louis sitting with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet his death'. Violence had always roused her. As a child she had witnessed scenes of violence at home; she had heard 'the lash resound on the slaves' naked sides'; and now even Louis XVI called out her tears.

This will be the story of an independent and compassionate woman who devised a blueprint for human change, held to it through the Terror and private trials, and passed it on to her daughters and future generations. 'I am ... going to be the first of a new genus,' Mary Wollstonecraft told her sister Everina, 'the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.'

She combined a dreamy voluptuousness with quick words, fixing brown eyes on her listener. The eyes didn't quite match, as though the right eye lingered in thought while the left drew one into intimacy with that thought. I want to dispel the myth of wildness: her voice was rational, deploring a fashion for 'romantic sentiments' instead of 'just opinions'. She wished 'to see women neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures'. Her earliest portrait presents a leader, austere in black, with powdered hair. Later portraits show the writer, her locks bound by a scarf, turning from her book to ruminate; and a sensible wife, auburn hair bundled out of sight, in the new, simple look of white muslin caught up under a rounded breast. She was pregnant at the time, but was always a large woman with a warm physical presence, unlike the bluestocking, the narrow female scholar of the eighteenth century.

Her husband, the philosopher and social reformer William Godwin, called her the 'firmest champion' and 'the greatest ornament her sex ever had to boast'. She was famous, then notorious. For most, her freedom to shape her life as she saw fit had to fade. Our society still repeats stories of doom, as though genius in a woman exacts a terrible end; as though it must be unnatural. Here, we test a different story, stripping the interchangeable masks of womanhood - queen of hearts, whore, waif- to seek out the novelty of what a 'new genus' implies: a new kind of creature who found her voice in a brief moment of historical optimism when, as Wordsworth put it, 'Europe was rejoiced,/ France standing at the top of golden hours,/And human nature seeming born again.' Everything in

Mary's unsheltered life prepared her for the impact of the first heady phase of the French Revolution when all traditional forms of existence seemed ripe for change. At that moment, she stood ready to turn revolution towards a future for 'human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties'.

This pioneer of women's rights is even more a pioneer of character: in the secret mirror of her mind, the first of her kind. How did she shed, one by one, the stale plots that leach the 'real life' out of us? A 'new genus' needs a new plot of existence. Mary Wollstonecraft is, in this sense, rewriting her life for lives to come. Though she speaks of 'improvement' in the acceptable terms of her day it's a grand design and, as such, vulnerable to those with the power to plunge her back into familiar scenes of wasted lives - wasted like her mother, prime victim of violence at home, the person for whom Mary the child felt her earliest, most instinctive and desperate pity. Virginia Woolf pictures a dauntless biographic creator: 'Every day she made theories by which life should be lived; and every day she came smack against the rock of other people's prejudices. Every day too -- for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist -- something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and modelled them afresh.' She hails the French Revolution; then hates its bloodshed. She shuns marriage; then marries. We are tempted to criticise her inconsistency -- and then remember that 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'. To see Mary as shifting and rash would be to scale her down. Dimly, through the glare of celebrity and slander, it's possible to make out the shape of a new genus reading, testing, growing, but still uncategorised.

Each age retells this story; there have been invaluable portraits, from Godwin's 'champion' at the end of the eighteenth century to Mrs Fawcett's heroine for the suffragist Cause, and from Claire Tomalin's outstanding image of the wounded lover to Janet Todd's moody drama queen as seen through the exasperated eyes of her sisters. All present faces we can't forget. Yet there's also a face few see: that unnamed thing she feels herself to be. This biography will bring out the full genius of her evolving character as she projects from her generation to the next, unfolding with astonishing fertility from one kind of life to another ...

A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
. Copyright © by Lyndall Gordon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Posted December 1, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Lyndall Gordon does and exceptional job in telling the story tha

    Lyndall Gordon does and exceptional job in telling the story that is Mary Wollstonecraft’s. Having spent a significant part of the last two years researching Wollstonecraft, I was delighted to have a clear chronology of her live. Using the tools of literary analysis, Gordon takes the time to explore the possible internal motives of her subject and thoughtfully gives them credence while instilling a real presence of the Wollstonecraft legacy.
    The chapters revolving around Wollstonecraft’s service as a governess for Lady Kingsborough in Ireland gives the fullest account available for that time. Other sources do not illuminate the relationship of Wollstonecraft and Lady Kingsborough as fully as Gordon devotes to the book.
    Likewise, her attention to Gilbert Imlay is the fullest accounting I have read to date. However, being a first cousin of Gilbert Imlay’s six times removed; Gordon gets some of his minor biographical materials wrong. These errors are only cosmetic in nature and do not detract from the major aspects of the Imlay-Wollstonecraft ‘marriage’. This goes without saying that Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, Fanny, is a second cousin five times removed from me. The treatment of Fanny Imlay is solid, but to find more on her life one should consult Janet Todd’s book Death and the Maidens for a thorough investigation.
    I highly recommend Lyndall Gordon’s book as a success and brilliant treatment of the mother of feminism.

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