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.