A DIFFERENT FACE: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Emily W. Sunstein

A DIFFERENT FACE: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

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That four full-scale biographies in three years do not seem to have exhausted the intensity and charisma of Mary Wollstonecraft surely says something about her astounding contemporaneity. She died in childbirth in 1797 and the 19th century produced no one remotely like her. Who, in the Victorian era, railed and chafed against the plight of dependent women as she did? Sunstein's Mary Wollstonecraft is the most Freudian and explicit to date; she succeeds in showing that all of Mary's writings from the earliest Thoughts on the Education of Daughters to the novel Maria, unfinished at her death, were a gloss on her own life, a painful psychological working out of her predicament as a young girl trapped between a weak and unloving mother and a despotic, violent father. Mary's bitter sense of injustice, in a society where the inferiority of woman was axiomatic, was firmly rooted in her family whom she sought to escape for most of her adult life--even as she resentfully tried to scrape together enough money to rescue her two younger (and far less competent) sisters from penury. Mary was unique among early feminists: she demanded not only social justice, financial and intellectual independence, but also happiness. Yet until she met Godwin her relationships with men repeatedly brought her misery. The letters to her lover Imlay, alternately recriminatory and groveling, show her in a humiliating role to which she clung for dear life. Though she proclaimed to the world ""I am going to be the first of a new genus"" she could not face his rejection. Deserted, she threw herself into Thames plunging into the role of a martyred, romantic heroine. Publishing her sorrows in a thinly-disguised travelogue, she produced a book which Godwin cleverly perceived was ""calculated to make a man in love with its author."" Sunstein, who has great empathy for Mary, amends Godwin's idealized Memoir of his wife with the flesh-and-blood contradictions of her letters. Proud, passionate and persevering, unwilling to compromise either her intellectual honesty or her personal, domestic happiness, Mary is an irresistibly appealing woman.

Pub Date: July 9th, 1975
Publisher: Harper & Row