Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

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Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

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    Tomalin, writing 30 years ago, and Todd, whose biography was published just five years ago, have already given us powerful assessments of her life. Indeed, Todd gives a fuller and more stimulating exploration than Gordon does of the intellectual world that Wollstonecraft sprang from and that she influenced.

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    For instance, Gordon never really conveys the central importance of the French revolution in the culture of the time. The crushing disappointments that Wollstonecraft suffered when she went to France in , only to witness the descent of the revolution into chaos and terror, cannot, therefore, have the full impact here that they must have had on her. Gordon does do some things that other biographers do not. She ferrets around more in the lives of Wollstonecraft's first lover, Imlay, and his friend Joel Barlow.

    Mary Wollstonecraft: A 'Speculative and Dissenting Spirit'

    Her examination of the lives of these attractive, dynamic Americans, who moved between England and France, is extremely detailed, as is her explanation of the business venture of Imlay's that took Wollstonecraft to Scandinavia in the dying months of their relationship. Obviously it adds to our understanding of Wollstonecraft's character if we remember that the journey which resulted in her moving travel book about Scandinavia was not undertaken as some kind of romantic excursion.

    Rather, Wollstonecraft left London two weeks after her first suicide attempt, with her one-year-old daughter, to put the business affairs of her errant lover in order. This is a vital kernel, but the minutiae of long-forgotten business deals and settlements and compensation is, frankly, dull stuff, and the reader is relieved when Wollstonecraft finally lays it and Imlay to one side and begins the last chapter of her life as a busy writer and the lover of the grumpy and endearing William Godwin.

    Every time it is retold, Wollstonecraft's death always comes as a too tragic and too sudden end to her story. She died at 38, of septicaemia, after giving birth to her daughter by Godwin.

    Grounded in Experience

    The agonising deathbed scene, with the fumbling doctors, the mourning husband, the fainting, shivering patient, is a terrifying end to any biography. But Gordon, cleverly, does not stop there: she goes on into the lives of Wollstonecraft's daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin, and William Godwin's stepdaughter, Claire Clairmont, as well as one of Wollstonecraft's pupils, Margaret King. The stories of all these women show us how hard it was for any woman to live up to the example of Wollstonecraft. Failure stalked them: Fanny committed suicide after a short, melancholic life. But success was also possible: Mary Godwin became Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet and the author of Frankenstein, a groundbreaking writer in her own right who had all Wollstonecraft's passionate attachment to emotional integrity: "The most contemptible of all lives is where you live in the world and none of your passions Gordon challenges such slanders, and portrays instead the genius of this extraordinary woman.

    The two-generation approach to her life examines not only Wollstonecraft herself, but also her effect on her daughters and heirs Mary Shelley, Fanny Imlay, Claire Clairmont and Margaret Mount Cashell , and the ways in which they carried her influence into subsequent generations. Gordon takes stock of Wollstonecraft's life in accord with her own values rather than through the reputation history has given her.