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Review of Mary Wollstonecraft - A New Genus by Lyndall Gordon

Janet van Eeden

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Title: Mary Wollstonecraft - A New Genus
Author: Lyndall Gordon
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Normally R330.00, for a limited time on R264.00
Click here for an interview with the author!

Lyndall Gordon has written a sensitive and perceptive biography about Mary Wollstonecraft which reads more like a novel. The subject matter and Gordon's handling of her subject are intriguing and engaging. Much has been written about Mary Wollstonecraft and one would think it difficult to find anything new to say about this now famous woman who was vilified by general society during her time. But Gordon has managed to cast new light on the well-known events of Mary's life. Writing with compassion and deep insight, she views the young Mary as a charismatic, warm and sensual young woman who is trying to find a way out of the fate that society would impose on her.

There was a common assumption that a woman who published her writings violated her modesty (p 130).
This was the just one of the commonly held views by both men and women designed to restrict women in England in the 1700s, the century in which Mary Wollstonecraft was born. However, Mary was a woman who told her younger sister that she was "the first of a new genus … (who) cannot walk the beaten track." She did not let this narrowly prescribed view of the world, nor any of its other restrictive precepts regarding the demeaning aspect of employment for women or the rules dictating their sexual behaviour, affect the way she chose to live her life.

Wollstonecraft has become iconic in feminist literature - not only through her writings, most famously A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written in 1792, but also because of her behaviour which flouted the narrow-minded hypocrisy of her time.

Gordon shows Mary's reactions to the world around her. She was born into a family whose father had the potential to be a wealthy merchant and yet chose to drink himself to death instead. Mary described her mother as "indolent" and weak, and favouring only her older brother. Mary and her sisters were left almost penniless when her father died. Her older brother, Ned, inherited the bulk of the remaining wealth which hadn't gone down his father's throat, and ignored his sisters' needs.

One of the three sisters, Bess, took the standard way out for a woman and married a man who was apparently besotted with her. It wasn't long after getting married before Bess went into a severe mental decline. After the birth of her first child, her condition worsened. Older sister Mary came to the rescue, to find her sister little short of a complete mental wreck. Bess was having hysterical attacks and was unable to cope with normal life in any way at all. Mary believed that Bess was almost in fear of her life. Gordon suggests that Bess was the target of her husband's belief that sex was his prerogative. She deduces, as does Mary, that Bess was being brutally raped by her husband as a matter of course. The prospect of this state of affairs stretched before Bess forever as she had no right to complain. It was, in fact, a normal reaction to be reduced to a state of severe mental distress.

Unlike most women at the time, Mary would not tell her sister to pull herself together and make the best of her marriage. Mary took action. It was unusual, as well as illegal, action. She stole Bess away from her husband. Even though Bess adored her little daughter, who was just a few months old, they left the child and ran away. Legally, the child belonged to her father, at that time, and there was nothing a mother could do about it. Bess's escape was also highly illegal, but Mary saw her sister in such real distress that she was not going to leave her to die at the hands of a husband who saw his behaviour as his marital rights.

After going into hiding for a time until Bess's husband gave up on her, Mary set up herself, Bess and Eliza as teachers in a little school, with the help of a generous benefactor. This act, in itself, shows Mary's drive and self-determination. Her sisters had been granted a haven and a means of self-sufficiency very unusual in their time.

Later Mary left her sisters to run the school. She had been invited to Dublin to be a governess to the wealthiest family in the land.

It was there that Mary's realisation of her true strengths began to grow. The family, the Kingsboroughs, were landed gentry, and Lady Kingsborough soon realised that her young governess's company was highly appreciated by her guests. So Mary became a regular feature in the high society drawing rooms of Dublin, and her charm and intelligence held many of the guests, many of them male, captive. Gordon points out here that Lady Kingsborough's kindness was not without condescension, and that this annoyed Mary. Whenever Mary appeared to be getting too much attention, Lady Kingsborough would put her in her place.

But it is during this time that Mary finds her true purpose, at the age of 27. When all her charges have gone to sleep, Mary finds her voice in writing letters, reading all she can find, and planning how she will survive life, not as a servant, but as a woman of independence.

Gordon writes (p 116):

It is at this moment that we catch Mary Wollstonecraft in the act of greatness. She was not a born genius; she became one. Here is someone with ordinary abilities transgressing the limits of ordinariness. Throughout her period as governess and moving behind the constraints of that position, are hints of enterprise; the sea of ideas which she can't set in order …; her studies at night; and the "schemes" that she cannot reveal to Everina (her sister). In Bristol (when the family are away together) the purpose sounds again when she reminds Everina of her identity as an Author and hints at some "writing". To be great, neither innate ability, nor ideas, nor ready words, nor shafts of criticism were enough: there had to be character to press on. She had the will to rise again when prospects appeared to fade and life felt untenable. She can confess a death wish, "I long to go to sleep with (Fanny who died of TB) …" at the very time that a new form of life bursts its chrysalis: "to make any great advance in morality genius is necessary," she writes, "- a peculiar kind of genius which is not to be described, and cannot be perceived by those who do not possess it."

This advancing genius; the fading nerve: we might say the contradiction is the character, or we might see a woman strung out between extremes … Her letters indicate a renewed purpose … We see energy interfused with melancholy, and in some way, the one depended on the other.
Here lies the strength of Gordon's biography. She looks beyond the mere facts of Mary's life and seeks to divine the motivations of this young woman who loved quoting from Hamlet, and who often felt as low as her Danish hero. Gordon is able to see that Mary's despair at the praise and worship of the superficial in society at large inspired her to go within and find her own strengths. Gordon examines the psychological make-up of a woman who isn't beaten by circumstances, but is made stronger by them. In this insight, Gordon treads new ground. No other biographer has pierced the soul of Mary Wollstonecraft and traced her internal development as well as Gordon has.

For those who do not know the story of this remarkable woman who was in the vanguard of feminists, Gordon gives all the details of Mary's life. She traces her brief period of happiness finding a home with the empathetic publisher in London, Joseph Johnson, and becoming a published author celebrated by her intellectual friends; her trying to find a life of freedom (and failing) in post-revolutionary France; her trials trying to live as a single woman with an illegitimate child in repressive England; Mary's marriage to William Godwin and finally her sad demise shortly afterwards at the age of 38 when she died two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter Mary (who later became Mary Shelley and wrote Frankenstein).

The final chapters examining the repercussions of Mary's life as explored by Lyndall Gordon are an interesting addition to most of Mary Wollstonecraft's biographers. They make us realise how very far-reaching her works and thoughts were.

Gordon has created a portrait of depth, tenderness and historical accuracy of this remarkable woman. It is a must read for anyone who wishes to know about Mary Wollstonecraft, and also for anyone who wants to know how hard it was for women like her to enable women like us to live with a few of the freedoms she fought so hard to attain.

LitNet: 29 November 2005

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