Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin

Book jacket

Old Penguin edition, now re-jacketed

I have recently been re-reading a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 -1797) by Claire Tomalin that I bought some years ago. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft is one of several literary biographies by Tomalin that I have read and enjoyed. This biography was first published in 1974 and I came across the revised and expanded 1992 paperback edition when I was working in a Birmingham bookshop. Of Tomalin’s other books, I can also recommend The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Jane Austen: A Life; particularly Nelly’s story as there was a real prospect of her history being lost forever amongst the Dickens mythology. I still haven’t managed to get around to buying Claire Tomalin’s volume about the great man himself, despite having listened to her give an excellent talk about Dickens which fired my interest.

Moving away from the literary world to the stage was Mrs Jordan’s Profession, the history of actress Dorothy Jordan who became William, Duke of Clarence’s mistress. She bore him around ten children (I think) and they were a very happy family until the duke was forced to end his morganatic relationship and marry respectably. The future of the crown was at stake after the death of the Prince of Wales’ only daughter Charlotte in childbirth. Both this book and the biography of Nelly Ternan give you some idea of how precarious life on the stage was for women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither fish nor fowl, their place away from the theatrical world was ambiguous. Nelly Ternan and Dorothy Jordan had to live their lives around society’s expectations of ‘respectable’ women and both suffered because of these expectations.

Mary Wollstonecraft portrait

A Studious pose by J. Opie.

Mary Wollstonecraft similarly lived an unconventional life, though in her case it was for the reasons of her political and philosophical views. As a young woman, she became involved in the Dissenting circles that had grown up in Newington Green, at that time still a village outside the bustle of London. Her introduction was through Dr Richard Price, the minister from the Dissenting Chapel who was well known to radical intellectuals, reformers and scientists of the day. He corresponded internationally, with Condorcet in France and with Franklin and Jefferson in America so he was very well informed. Taken together with his local political and reforming connections, he was an ideal person to begin the process of stimulating Wollstonecraft’s yet unfocused intellect and energies.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a fascinating and complicated woman, far ahead of and often out of step with the social attitudes of her time. However, I’m not sure whether we would have been bosom pals judging by Claire Tomalin’s observations on Mary’s ‘sense of grievance’ (which I feel is never an attractive character trait). But perhaps this sense of grievance was the necessary spur that drove her onwards and paved the way for Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 as a response to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.


American edition

Mary Wollstonecraft certainly had reasons to question the way things were done: her father had tended towards drinking and violence to the extent that Mary had needed at times to protect her mother. Education for Mary and her two sisters was barely adequate whereas their brother Ned attended school and went into law. Ned was also to inherit a considerable portion of his grandfather’s estate but the girls received nothing. I wonder if feminist history would have been vastly different if Mary had not experienced the unfairness of societies attitudes from such an early age? But perhaps her enquiring and lively mind would have taken her in much the same direction whatever her personal circumstances.

This was yet another diversion from reading more of the unread books on The Landing, and I am even contemplating another re-read of the books I’ve mentioned above. At this rate, the day that I can safely say that the day I have read everything tucked away on the book shelves is still a long way away!


How are your challenges going, fellow readers?

Picture credits: Wikipedia, with thanks




The Humour of Dickens

Book cover of The Humour of Dickens featuring several characters

A little light Dickens…

My Reading Challenge has just taken a useful turn, as the members of my book club (all four of us!) have decided to read Charles Dickens this month as a contribution towards the centenary year. This means that I can read a book for my book challenge and tackle the latest book group choice at the same time. I am rather pleased about it, though unfortunately I cannot claim credit for the book club’s good idea.

I ran through a mental list of the Dickens titles that I have not yet read (the dreaded TBR Pile) and I thought of choosing Hard Times. My rationale was that Dickens based the story upon his experiences of Preston (re-naming it Coketown), and as I have lived in that very city it seemed a good reason to choose the book. Although, as I retain a great fondness for the Lancashire city, this may not prove to be wise move on my part. I have metaphorically crossed swords before now with authors who portray my favourite places in a bad light. I wouldn’t want to fall out with Dickens at his time of life.

Finally, I have settled on a compilation volume that I have had on the shelf for some time, The Humour of Dickens edited by R.J. Cruikshank. I have read this volume before, so is not strictly a TBR Pile candidate, but it is reading for sheer pleasure. It deserves a re-read especially in view of the brilliant illustrations it contains which add to the enjoyment enormously. The Humour of Dickens was published in 1952 (my copy has an inscription saying ‘Xmas 1953, from Mairi’) by the News Chronicle, London. The original price of the volume was a princely three shillings and sixpence. I did a quick out of print book search and discovered that copies of the Dickens anthology can now fetch up to around thirty pounds depending on the condition. You can also pay as little as sixty three pence plus postage, which would be more like my price. I can only hazard a guess that I probably paid a pound or so for my copy several years ago in (I think) Birmingham.

The collection has excerpts from fifteen of Dickens’ novels including Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times and The Pickwick Papers. I mentioned the illustrations above; there are twenty of these by well-known contemporary (and by now highly collectible) illustrators. One of my all time favourites is Edward Ardizzone (remember the Tim stories?) whose frontispiece drawing of ‘Dinner at the Veneerings’ endows the dinner party guests with more charm than they probably deserve. Other great cartoon artists represented in the collection regularly featured in the newspapers of the time: Horner of the News Chronicle, Low of the Daily Herald and Giles of the Daily Express to name but three. All are different in style but equally vivid in their interpretation of Dickens’ characters.    

I shall be in the right mindset to tackle Dickens since I am reading David Lodge’s novel about HG Wells, A Man of Parts at present. After rubbing shoulders with HG and his literary circle including Henry James and Edith Nesbit, I shall slide back into communing with Dickens quite smoothly I think. Apart from seasonal re-reading of A Christmas Carol it must be a long time since I have read any of Dickens novels. I was all prepared to take the plunge again after our book group had an outing last year to hear Claire Tomalin speaking about her Dickens biography. That plan fell by the wayside (until now), along with the intention of reading said biography. Dickens is still on my ‘to read’ list as I have previously very much enjoyed Claire Tomalin’s literary biographies.

In the meantime, Reading Challenge satisfied, I will be content with Charles Dickens’ funny bits….