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