BOOK REVIEW / The mushing of Mary: 'Vindication' - Frances Sherwood: Sinclair Stevenson, 14.99 (CORRECTED)
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 18 July 1993
THE press release accompanying this novel asserts that Frances Sherwood's life has been 'almost as fascinating' as that of her subject, Mary Wollstonecraft. Since the former is a lecturer in journalism and creative writing at the University of Indiana, whereas the latter drafted the earliest feminist manifesto, wrote an eyewitness account of the French Revolution, had an affair with the painter Fuseli, married the political philosopher William Godwin and died shortly after giving birth to the author of Frankenstein, this is a fairly inflated claim even by PR standards.
Yet Sherwood insists she has a special insight into Wollstonecraft. 'The biographers,' she claims, 'have always been perplexed about the discrepancy between Mary's personal life and what she wrote - emotion and chaos versus emancipated rhetoric. But I could understand that combination perfectly from my own life.'
What Sherwood has identified is, fairly obviously, a false paradox. Given the magnitude of the revolution in social relations which Wollstonecraft proposed, it is hardly surprising that she was unable to live entirely according to her own precepts; her rejection of marriage as legalised prostitution opened her to exploitation by men like Gilbert Imlay, who deserted her after she had borne their child. Sherwood's mistake, in viewing Mary chiefly through the prism of her relationships with men, is to present the life of a brilliant and complex woman in the flat tones of a dimestore romance.
The book is divided into five long sections, each bearing the name of the person Sherwood characterises as the tutelary deity of that part of Wollstonecraft's life. Unsurprisingly, given Sherwood's insistence on casting Mary as the heroine of a tragic romance, four of these sections are named after men. This is symptomatic of the scant attention paid to women throughout the novel, in spite of Mary's documented friendships with leading women of her day such as the novelist and biographer Mary Hays and the actresses Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson. Even more perversely, Mary's stay as a governess in Ireland is described entirely in terms of an imaginary relationship with her employer's adolescent son; her influence on Lady Kingsborough's daughter Margaret King, who grew up to be a famous republican and atheist, is disregarded in favour of a slushy episode which would not be out of place in a Hollywood biopic.
There is no sense at all in Vindication of what 18th-century life might have been like; when Mary worries about her next advance, you half expect her to call her agent and inquire about her American rights. The dialogue is frequently hilarious: 'Mary is working on something quite important,' one of the characters announces at dinner one evening, while Mary herself says things like 'The Revolution in France is the most exciting thing to happen since the Americans.' When Fuseli discovers that she hasn't read The Wealth of Nations, he admonishes her: 'Should. It has been out 15 years and explains how the world works.'
There is, as one would expect from a novel so lacking in both sense and sensibility, quite a bit of kinky sex. Mary is sexually abused as a child by a female servant, terrified by a potential rapist in Bath and beaten with a riding crop by Gilbert Imlay. But Sherwood's finest moment comes at the very end of the book, when the story fast- forwards to 1814 and a meeting between Mary's daughter and the youthful poet Percy Shelley (who has 'style, verve') in St Pancras churchyard. Shelley suggests that they lie down together on Mary's mother's grave, a proposal which sends his intended into a bathetic rapture. 'Mother, may I?' she murmurs, stretching full-length on the earth and closing a novel which surely has the real Mary Wollstonecraft spinning in her grave.
Vindication by Frances Sherwood (pounds 14.99), reviewed here last week, is published by Phoenix House, not Sinclair-Stevenson.
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