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Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
Synopses & Reviews
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 Wollstonecraft 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 fledgling American 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.
"With Gordon, the life of the 'famous, then notorious' Wollstonecraft (1759 — 1797) is in the hands of a scholarly admirer and defender, a distinguished biographer (of T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bront and others) as interested in Wollstonecraft for her mistakes as for her triumphs. For those familiar with the broad outlines of Wollstonecraft's personal life (her friendships with Jane Arden and Fanny Blood, her relationship with the painter Fuseli, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her 'friendship melting into love' with the philosopher Godwin), Gordon offers fresh detail and insight. She brings encyclopedic scope to her construction of a very British life deeply affected by tumultuous events in America and France. 'She was not a born genius,' Gordon says, 'she became one,' and Gordon succeeds admirably in showing readers how this independent, compassionate woman who devised a blueprint for human change achieved that distinction. Wollstonecraft's wide, evolving circles of friends, benefactors, mentors, admirers and detractors is richly sketched. Melodrama (a money-squandering, abusive father; a sister trapped in a tyrannical marriage; financial crises; unfaithful lovers; attempted suicides) abounds. Wollstonecraft's life was an adventurous one; in Paris, she watched as the admired French Revolution become the Reign of Terror. Yet Wollstonecraft's adventurous life illuminates rather than obscures the philosophical and historical work that made her the foremother of much modern thinking about education and human rights, as well as about women's rights, female sexuality and the institution of marriage. Deeply documented with Wollstonecraft's writing, contemporary memoirs, letters and archival materials, Gordon's biography is eminently readable and rewarding. Photos. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (May 3)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[W]onderful, and deeply sobering....Gordon relates Wollstonecraft's story with the same potent mixture of passion and reason her subject personified." New York Times
"[A]n outstanding, rigorously researched intellectual biography." Kirkus Reviews
"[R]ich with new interpretations, sources, and detail." Library Journal
Book News Annotation:
Wollstonecraft's bolt of lightening, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, came fairly early in her short life. She lived the rest of it much as she saw fit, whether by supporting herself as a writer, sharing life with the artist Imlay, observing the beginnings of the first French republic first-hand, or marrying the hitherto unmarriageable Godwin. However, we know all this. Gordon (literature, Oxford U.) goes beneath and beyond the obvious and finds that Wollstonecraft was not being shocking for its own sake, but instead operated from an innate and strong integrity and true curiosity about what, exactly, are women, and what, exactly, are they to do. She finds interesting connections between Wollstonecraft and the American revolutionaries and a panoply of writers asking the same questions about womanhood as did Wollstonecraft.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Lyndall Gordon is the author of highly acclaimed biographies of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, and Henry James. Her work has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography and the Cheltenham Prize for Literature. She has also published a memoir, Shared Lives, about growing up in South Africa in the 1950s. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a senior research fellow at St. Hilda's College, Oxford. She lives in Oxford.
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