Jan 28, 2011

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

As most of you probably know, the Year of Feminist Classics reading group has recently been reading and discussing A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. As I said when I shared my thoughts on Wollstonecraft’s manifesto, she struck me as a person I would love to read more about; Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft was therefore the perfect follow up to Vindication, and it only confirmed my sympathy for, and my great interest in, Mary Wollstonecraft the human being.

Claire Tomalin’s biography manages to be sympathetic and stern in equal measure. It’s clear that Tomalin has an interest in her subject (a given for any biographer, I assume, though not all biographies show it as clearly as this) and a lot of respect for her ideals. But she also doesn’t turn a blind eye to the moments when Mary acted with disregard for the feelings of anyone other than herself, or the times when her actions ended up harming those who were close to her. There were occasions – for example, that of her role in the dissolution of her sister Eliza’s marriage – when I would have judged her less harshly than Tomalin seems to, but the fact that I can tell this at all attests to how easy it is to separate fact from opinion in this book. I quite appreciated the honesty of Tomalin’s approach: she inevitably put something of herself into her writing, but readers can very easily see when this is happening and know where to draw the line.

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft covers a lot of events I was already familiar with: I’ve read quite a few books about Mary Shelley and the Romantic circle, and most of them include at least a chapter on her mother’s life. But The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft gives us a lot more than just the dramatic bits, such as her love affairs, extramarital pregnancy, or suicide attempts. It also gives readers a detailed portrait of the intellectual climate in which Mary lived, and of how this climate helped shape her ideas. I appreciated this aspect of the book more than anything else.

Claire Tomalin’s biography also differs from previous accounts of Wollstonecraft’s life I’d read because it tries to show readers her life from the inside. Of course, this can only be achieved to a certain extent, but Tomalin had a lot of material to draw from, and as a result she does psychological insight extremely well. In addition to this, she does a great job of showing that, as Emily pointed out in a comment recently, Wollstonecraft was someone whose ideas were constantly evolving – and this was in no way a bad thing. Her inconsistencies were extensively discussed by the Feminist Classics reading group (myself included), but for example: the writing of Vindication predates her relationship with Imlay, and there’s no reason why she, or indeed any of us, should remain tied to what she once thought and said for the rest of her life.

Tomalin is particularly perceptive when it comes to Mary Wollstonecraft’s attitudes towards female sexuality, both as laid out in Vindication and as later demonstrated by the facts of her life. The social and intellectual context in which she was writing was that of a somewhat puritanical community; later on she lived in France, which had comparatively more relaxed mores, and it was there that she met the father of her eldest daughter. These experiences naturally had an impact on both her ideas and her life. As Tomalin puts it:
It was almost impossible to approach the question of sexual feelings without guilt in England and Scotland, amongst the thinking classes at any rate; even freethinkers were troubled by it. Hume, for instance, had categorized the sexual appetite as obviously the most gross and vulgar of all. From such a perspective, women, who aroused (as a rule) the gross appetite, were all too easily held to blame for it and consigned to the role of temptresses and distractions from the serious business of life. The Dissenting love of domesticity and early marriage was one way of dealing with the problem, since a woman placed in the context of family life was less disturbing than one removed from it, standing alone as a claimant to an individual voice amongst the individual voices of men. The hold of Paradise Lost over the Dissenting imagination was very powerful.
What also seems to me almost impossible is that Mary would fail to absorb some of these ideas, even as she struggled against them. Perhaps her insistence on motherhood as the most important role of a woman’s life also ties in with this. On a related note, I quite liked this passage:
[Mary] adopted the view, shared later by many suffragettes, that sexuality was wrong in itself, redeemed only by parenthood, and largely imposed on women by men. She even went so far as to speak disapprovingly of husbands who ‘seduced’ their wives, and expressed the view that it was better for marriage to exclude passionate love.
Her view may have been based part on ignorance of the sexual nature of women, though it seems unlikely: Fuseli’s conversation alone should have enlightened her. More probably it was something she felt she ought to say, an accepted view among her more innocent and respectable friends. Or again, it may have been what the vast majority of women really felt in an age when there was no effective birth control. After the first excitement and flattery of young love, sex was indeed something imposed by men upon women, which they chiefly wished to avoid because of its likely consequences. The greater sexual enthusiasm of French women and English prostitutes probably rested on their command of a simple birth-control device: the sponge.
Yet later on, in her unfinished novel Maria: Or, The Wrongs of Woman, she made “the outspoken assertion that women had sexual feelings and rights, and that the supposed refinement which tried to obscure this was actually degrading.” More than as an inconsistency, I see this as a sign of a constant evolution in her thinking, and I admire her all the more for it.

In regards to Vindication, Claire Tomalin seems to see it as more of an emotional outpouring than as a cogent piece of work (which doesn’t mean it lacks good arguments, of course), and I can see why she’d say that. It seems that Mary always meant to go back and write a second part of her treatise, but sadly she never got around to it before her untimely death.

In the final chapter of this biography, “Aftermath and debate”, Tomalin analyses how her ideas were picked up by other people. Sadly, after the damage that her husband William Godwin’s memoir did to her reputation, this took the shape of a repudiation far more often than of a natural sequence. For example, Wollstonecraft’s friend Amelia Opie wrote Adeline Mowbray as an illustration of Mary and Godwin’s ideals about marriage and relationships. I hadn’t heard of this novel until Emily reviewed it recently, and if you read her excellent post you’ll see that Opie’s tone is in fact strongly judgemental. According to Tomalin, this was a consequence of not only the social backlash against Wollstonecraft, but also of Opie having a bit of a personal vendetta against her former friend, due to her closeness to her husband the painter John Opie in life. Whatever her motivations, Opie was one of the people who tried to dissociate themselves from Mary in the years that followed her death. On the other hand, there’s the example of Mary Hays (whose work Iris reviewed recently), who remained ideologically aligned with Wollstonecraft for the whole of her life. Unfortunately, she ended up being just as quickly dismissed as Wollstonecraft herself. But despite this backlash, I am sure we’ll be seeing the ripples of Wollstonecraft’s life and work time and again as we move through the Year of Feminist Classics project.

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft was not only an excellent account of an extraordinary woman’s life, but also a great introduction to a cultural, social and intellectual context that can’t be dissociated from her ideas if we are to make full sense of them. I wish I had read it before Vindication, but I’m glad that I at least read it now.

I’ll leave you with two more interesting passages:
Instead of the perfectible woman, the perfect lady: instead of inaugurating an age of natural rights restored and equal partnership with enlightened men, Mary died just in time to avoid the ludicrous sight of her sex being hoisted on to a new and supremely uncomfortable pedestal (those members of her sex, that is, whose menfolk could afford so to elevate them). Ladies, though intellectual inferior, were henceforth to be morally superior, so that for them it was a privilege to make sacrifices, to submit to authority with good grace, and to deny to themselves what they really wanted, if indeed they ever arrived at the point of knowing what there might be to want.

She was tough – the role of governess came naturally to her; her ideas were enduring and, in practical terms, more successful than Carlyle dreamed. If she was not the perfect heroine, she was at least, like Fanny Burney’s Elinor, an anti-heroine to be reckoned with. She got herself an education as best she could, she wooed her own men, and was sometimes selfish and insensitive, sometimes comical. She endured ridicule and beat it down by sheer force of personality; she faced extreme unhappiness with the outrage of one determined to impose her will on fate; and, while the world busied itself with great concerns, she spoke up, quite loudly, for what had been until then a largely silent section of the human race.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)


  1. Anyone who thinks women of that age were prim and proper are sorely mistaken...the drama!

  2. It sounds like this was a very balanced and informative biography, and I am glad that it exceeded your expectations. As I have said before, A Vindication of the Rights of Women does look a little intimidating, but your ability to parse it out, and go looking for more information on the author really impresses me!

  3. From reading Vindication, I gathered that Wollstonecraft was just a really interesting person. Some of the snarkier comments she made were both edgy and hilarious. I would love to know more about her, so thanks for the suggestion!

  4. This sounds like a fascinating bio - thanks for the great review. One of the most inspiring things to me about the glimpses of Wollstonecraft I got through Vindication and its supplementary materials (and that Woolf essay) was the way in which she readily accommodated her ideas and attitudes to her shifting body of experience, so that fact that Tomalin expands on that makes this book quite tempting. Also, very interesting to know a little more about Amelia Opie's background! Her depiction of Adeline in that book did seem to have a certain...edge. I was raising my eyebrows that she would write that way about a former friend, and now it all makes a bit more sense.

    And thanks for the link love! :-)

  5. This is definitely one I want to read. I just finished Tomalin's biography on Jane Austen. I also want to read account of Dickens' affair! :-)

  6. This biography looks great, and it seems like a reading of Vindication especially would be strengthened by having the context Tomalin provides. Want!

  7. wow, this bio sounds so great! i have a lot of admiration for wollstonecraft and should really get a hold of this!

  8. Hey, Claire Tomalin! She wrote a biography of Jane Austen as well, didn't she? I kind of want to read both the Austen one and Wollstonecraft one around the same time, and compare Tomalin's analysis of each of them.

  9. I am a huge admirer of Claire Tomalin's biographies. I read her Katherine Mansfield and adored it. I have this to read, and am delighted therefore that you enjoyed it. After the interest in Wollstoncraft across the blogosphere, I'm keen to learn about her in more depth.

  10. I've read her Austen biog and really liked it. Felt the same way you did about her ability to make us see when something is fact or her own opinion. On top of that she really manages to make her books accessible and entertaining.

  11. I have to admit I am far more interested in Wollstonecraft's real life than I am in finishing my second reading of Vindication. (I still have about forty pages left and I've maxed out my enthusiasm. Is it because it's my second reading or is it because of her repetitiveness?)

    Adding this one to my biography list. Thanks Ana!

  12. I agree with Christina! :)

    Thanks for the review of this. I read a pretty boring biography of Wollstonecraft a couple of years ago by Diane Jacobs, which left a pretty terrible taste in my mouth - it left me thinking either Wollstonecraft was the flightiest and most selfish creature in the 18th century, or it was a particularly bad character read. It even managed this whilst trying to talk about the politics and social background of the era.

    In any case, I've been looking for a better portrayal than Jacobs'. Thanks for the recommendation.

  13. I started reading this a while ago before I went and lost the book. I really enjoy how involved Tomalin becomes with her subjects and I look forward to reading this one. I have found it now, fortunately.

  14. Sandy: lol, yes. I think that's true of all periods. There have always been people around who refused to do as they were told, thank goodness :P

    Zibilee: I really wish I'd thought of reading this *before* Vindication - it would have made it so much more accessible!

    Trisha: I LOVED her snark :D

    Emily: I thought of you when reading the chapter about the Opies and the rest of her circle. The tone does seem to make more sense now!

    Jillian: The Austen and Nelly Ternan bios also sounds excellent!

    Emily Jane: I hope you'll be able to get a hold of it!

    Marie: Enjoy! I admire her a lot myself.

    Jenny: She did! And you're right, it would be fun to compare the two. I wonder if the library also has the Austen one...

    litlove: Ooh, I didn't know she'd written one of Mansfield! I must get my hands on it.

    Alexandra: Yes, exactly! She's detailed but never dry.

    Christina: The book IS quite repetitive, that's for sure. But they, you're almost there!

    Kate: Ugh - I'm very glad I didn't pick up the Jacobs bio instead!

    Fiona: I'm glad to hear you found your copy!

  15. I may look into this one once The TBR Dare is over. I've been thinking about picking up a couple of biographies and all this talk of Wollstonecraft lately has me interested.

  16. This sounds absolutely fascinating, and what a great tie-in with the project! I may have to check it out some day.

  17. An amazing post! Thanks for sharing this. I'm currently reading Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton and am amazed by these female authors who wrote with a critical eye about their time. I'll have to add this to my growing TBR pile. Thanks!

  18. There is also a novel by Frances Sherwood, called Vindication that you might enjoy; I read it shortly after I discovered Tomalin's biography and thought it brought some of the things I'd read to life in a remarkably vibrant way.

  19. C.B. James: I hope you'll enjoy it when you get to it :)

    Amy: I hope you do!

    Becky: I need to read Lee before too long. I desperately want both the Wharton and the Woolf bios!

    Buried in Print: Thank you for the recommendation!

  20. This was a really interesting post, thanks for sharing! It helped me alot with my current work on my University Journalism course.

    I've been studying Wollstonecraft recently and would be grateful if you could have a quick look at my thoughts on her 'Vindication of..' passage.


    Thanks again,


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.