A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Lyndall Gordon
HarperCollins, Hardcover, 9780060198022, 576pp.
Publication Date: May 1, 2005
List Price: $29.95*
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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the founder of modern feminism -- in her time, the most famous woman in Europe and America. In this exciting new biography, Lyndall Gordon proposes that at each stage of a passionate and courageous life -- as teacher, writer, lover, and traveler -- Mary Woll-stonecraft was an original. She had advanced ideas on education, and her views on single motherhood, family responsibilities, working life, domestic affections, friendships, and sexual relationships now look astonishingly modern. She tested new ways a man and a woman might come to know each other and live together. "Imagination must lead the senses, not the senses the imagination," she told her American lover, Gilbert Imlay, and repeated to her husband, William Godwin.
Vindication is the first biography to show this remarkable woman at full strength and bring out the range as well as the reverberations of her genius in the following and subsequent generations. Here is the drama of Wollstonecraft's life as a governess in an aristocratic family in Ireland, as an independent writer in London, as an on-the-scene observer of the French Revolution, and as a daring traveler to Scandinavia on the trail of an unsolved crime. Although she died young, her spirit and unconventional ideas lived on in the lives of her daughter, Mary Shelley, and three other heirs who had to contend with a counter-revolutionary age. Vindication offers new evidence for the influence of early American political thought in England and demonstrates for the first time the profound effect of Mary Wollstonecraft's own writing, especially her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, on American figures of the day, among them John and Abigail Adams. This groundbreaking biography follows the colorful wheelings and dealings of young American adventurers like Joel Barlowand the elusive frontiersman Imlay, who sought their fortunes amid the tumultuous events of late-eighteenth-century Europe and whose clandestine service to the fledglingAmerican government is newly explored.
This is a brilliantly told story, moving on from the issue of rights to larger questions that still lie beyond us: What is woman's nature? What will she contribute to civilization? Lyndall Gordon mounts a spirited defense of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose previous biographers have often doubted her integrity, her stability, and the exhilarating experiment that was her life. Vindication probes these doubts, measures Wollstonecraft's life against her own strengths instead of the weakness that sometimes held her back, and reinterprets her for the twenty-first century.
"[Wollstonecraft's] aspirations to greatness...keep breaking through Ms. Gordon's wonderfully wrought book like flashes of lightning."
-New York Sun
"Judicious, sympathetic, intelligent and utterly riveting . . . Gordon rescues Wollstonecraft from both reactionary disdain and soft-focus feminist sentiment."
"Rich with new interpretations, sources, and detail . . . Captures the drama of Wollstonecraft's life."
-Library Journal (starred review)
"Gordon relates Wollstonecraft's story with the same potent mixture of passion and reason her subject personified...Wonderful, and deeply sobering."
-New York Times Book Review
"[A] distinguished biographer...Gordon offers fresh detail and insight...[Her] biography is eminently readable and rewarding."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Imaginative and intelligent, consistently absorbing... [Gordon] speculates and probes with a freewheeling intelligence that responds to Wollstonecraft's own."
-New York Review of Books
"Fierce and wonderful. . . . [Wollstonecraft is] a dazzling character on the brilliant page."
-John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"Gordon vindicates this once-vilified 'hyena in petticoats' as a melancholy, complex, heroic feminist, stunningly ahead of her time."
"A sobering and inspirational read for women today. Readers who delve into it will meet a brave, visionary woman."
"Exceptional, emotionally overwhelming . . . A 360-degree exploration of Wollstonecraft in her era-and beyond."