Mary Wollstonecraft: a new genus by Lyndall Gordon

Reasons to love a woman of passion

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There is something extraordinary about the continuing resonance of a life such as Mary Wollstonecraft's, a woman who died more than two centuries ago yet whose writings and deeds still excite such passion. For the sober feminists of the 19th century, Wollstonecraft was "the hyena in petticoats", her passionate personal life a stain on the rational cause of women's progress. To modern feminists, she was a brave wounded pioneer, who paid a high price for beating new paths to liberation. In recent years, revisionists such as Melanie Phillips have condemned her as a moody, slovenly hysteric.

Lyndall Gordon rescues Wollstonecraft from both reactionary disdain and soft-focus feminist sentiment. Instead, she illuminates the complex interplay between public life and personal drama, outer events and Wollstonecraft's temperament - so much richer than the hostile caricatures of an uncombed depressive. Gordon's biography is judicious, sympathetic, intelligent and utterly riveting. At the heart of her portrait is Wollstonecraft's idea that she was a "new genus". She was "the first of her kind", says Gordon, politically and personally bold, resilient in the face of frustration and tragedy.

Wollstonecraft mixed with some of the greatest minds of her day. Like many late 18th-century radicals, she was excited by the French and American revolutions but repelled by their excesses. She abhorred slavery 50 years before the anti-slavery movement took root; was disturbed by mob rule in Paris, where she lived for several years, and disgusted when she slipped in the blood of the executed.

But her story is not just that of a radical; it is of a radical woman. Mary's feminism was rooted in harsh experience. As a young woman she struggled to support herself and a rainbow of dependent relatives. At 27, she became a governess to a large Anglo-Irish family but was dismissed after a year, returning to London, where she set up as an independent writer, living alone. Falling in love with the dashing adventurer Gilbert Imlay, she became a mother and, almost immediately, a single mother.

Later generations have often judged Mary's personal life on the basis of a memoir by her husband, the philosopher William Godwin. Although Gordon quarrels with many aspects of Godwin's portrait, it is clear that Wollstonecraft, a virgin until she was 34, was a passionate, sexual woman. Her rejection by Imlay near-fatally wounded her (she tried to drown herself twice) and her letters to and from Godwin recall their early sexual difficulties in agonising detail. But the Godwin correspondence also leaves a invaluable daily record of her last years. By then she was established as a famous writer, a proud parent, a cherished partner and then wife. The cerebral Godwin adored her; their partnership, with its playful wit, intellectual equality, and occasional operatic clashes, foreshadows many a modern relationship. Wollstonecraft died of an infection following the birth of their daughter, Mary.

Wollstonecraft was a pioneer in so many ways. She frequently travelled alone, and one of her most admired books is an account of a three-month journey through Scandinavia with her baby daughter, undertaken in the throes of grief about Imlay. Her views on child-rearing and girls' education were strikingly modern. She believed that "tenderness", a mix of sympathy and unconditional acceptance, allowed children to develop their minds most fully.

She was also an inspiration to the men and women she knew and loved. At this book's end, Gordon tells us in poignant detail not just about the later lives of Mary's spirited but troubled daughters, but that of Wollstonecraft's most devoted protegée, Margaret King.

The case for the "new genus" is made convincingly. Wollstonecraft's emphasis on independence; her disdain for convention while continuing to stress the importance of sexual and parental love; her determination to be involved in great political movements, are all important legacies. Gordon's moving tribute brings alive the depth and complexity of the woman, and the intellectual debt that generations of Wollstonecraft's political daughters owe her to this day.

Melissa Benn co-edited 'A Tribute to Caroline Benn: education and democracy' (Continuum)

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