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Mary Wollstonecraft

Jo-Ann du Plessis

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Mary Wollstonecraft - A new genus
Author: Lyndall Gordon
Publisher: Time Warner Books
ISBN: 0316728667
Publishing Date: 2005
Pages: 576
Format: Hardcover
Price: R250,00

Lyndall Gordon
Image courtesy of Time Warner Books UK
© Jerry Bauer

The story Lyndall Gordon writes of Mary Wollstonecraft is not the fare of readers wanting a mere glimpse into her remarkable life or a general gist of what Wollstonecraft - feminist, sister, wife and mother - was like. Mary Wollstonecraft, A New Genus takes the reader on a detailed journey from her English childhood, blemished by a quick-tempered and violent father, to Ireland as governess; happy years in London, where she completed A Vindication of The Rights of Woman; blood-stained Paris during the Terror; Scandinavia, seeking a lost treasure of silver; and back to London. Gordon traces her experiences primarily through her letters, of which hundreds still exist. In her late thirties Wollstonecraft wrote 144 letters to her lover and eventual husband, William Godwin. All were hand-delivered, sometimes three deliveries a day, to his lodgings a few doors away.

According to Gordon, Godwin's publication of Wollstonecraft's biography almost immediately after her death "fixed [her] image in the public mind for more than two centuries" (p 369). Gordon attempts to rescue Wollstonecraft from the stories and reputation that have clung to her, stories (many of them unfair) of a wild and loose woman, doomed by history. In contrast, a determined and outspoken woman with ideas about gender equality and child-rearing more akin to the 20th century than to the 18th stares steadfastly from the pages of Gordon's biography. Gordon paints a picture of a woman who is proud and confident, and who experiences intense emotional, passionate ties with her best friend, Fanny Blood, the two lovers in her life, Gilbert Imlay and Godwin, and her adored daughter, Fanny Imlay. She unfailingly endeavours to support her siblings until tricky circumstances prevent her ability to offer her sister, Bess, a place to live, resulting in permanent damage to her relationships with her sisters. On two occasions, beaten by love and in utter despair, she attempts to take her own life. Yet time and again we appreciate Wollstonecraft's tenacity in picking herself up and carrying on.

Gordon recreates London and Paris as if the reader is breathing the 1800s air herself. However, the potency of this biography lies in the overriding impression that Gordon has left no stone unturned in her research on Wollstonecraft's life, as well as the lives of her friends, family and acquaintances. Rather than carving a straight and narrow path, Gordon takes the reader on little historical sojourns to describe more fully the time in which Wollstonecraft lived and the people whose lives touched hers.

There are instances when the minutiae included in the book could be considered excessive, but readers closely acquainted with Wollstonecraft's life will savour the juicy triflings that Gordon serves. In Paris during the Terror, Wollstonecraft steps in a pool of blood belonging to the unfortunate victim of a recent execution. Disgusted, she starts to complain loudly until a bystander hushes her.

It is perhaps the dishing up of these tiny details, discovered on scraps of paper and hidden between seemingly more important narratives, that leave the reader, at the end of the book, with no illusions as to Wollstonecraft's intellectual prowess, her candid opinions about subjects as diverse as politics and breastfeeding, and her enormous capacity for tenderness and affection.

Jo-Ann du Plessis has a Masters degree in psychology from Cambridge University, UK. She currently works in AIDS research at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

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Klik hier en wen 12 maande af op jou huislening!

LitNet: 26 May 2005

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