A first novel from Sherwood (the collection Everything You've Heard is True, 1989) that mines with varying success a current favorite literary lode--the Shelley/Godwin mÇnage. Admitting that her novel is based only loosely on the actual life of Mary Wollstonecraft, that woman of ``high genius'' and ``strong passions,'' Sherwood takes the familiar details of this early feminist's life and, with a contemporary sensibility, attempts to turn them into a vivid re-creation of the way it might have been. She begins with a childhood shadowed by the failures of Mary's father and his beatings of her mother, actions that Mary tried but failed to prevent. Forced to earn money for the family, Mary became a companion to a widow, a governess in Ireland, and, with her two sisters and beloved friend Fanny, opened a school. But ambitious and determined to be independent and escape the servitude of marriage--``the oppression of the weak by the strong''--her ambitions remained unfocused until she met the dissenter Dr. Price, who not only befriended her but introduced her to the writings of thinkers like Hume, Rousseau, and Locke. Mary at first diffidently, then with greater confidence, began to write and, once published, supported herself by writing and translating. She became a member of London's radical set and dined regularly with men such as William Blake and Thomas Paine, though her intellectual success was undercut by her emotional needs and an underlying sense of unworthiness, the lingering legacy of her unhappy childhood. It was a legacy that led to disastrous love affairs--first with the painter Fuseli, then with American Gilbert Imlay, the father of her first daughter, Fanny--and to time in Bedlam, as well as a suicide attempt. A persuasive interpretation, but Mary's extraordinary life is often overwhelmed by the relentless inclusion of historical data extraneous to a celebration of the imagination.