The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft ed Janet Todd

A female Hamlet: Lyndall Gordon hears the vivid, contradictory voice of a pioneer feminist echo down two centuries

'I am going to be the first of a new genus," Mary Wollstonecraft confided to her sister Everina in the summer of 1787. "I am not born to tread in the beaten track - the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on." Her letters, eloquent, direct, confessional, draw us close to a new kind of creature: one who, in Virginia Woolf's phrase, "cut to the quick of life". To voice what Wollstonecraft felt herself to be, she had to pierce through mask after mask, to experience in the most jarring way her father's blows, the shallowness of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy at the apogee of its power, and the deceptive façade of an American partner Gilbert Imlay who appeared to embody Rousseau's natural man.

Letters can be in their way more intimate than anything we experience in ordinary life. When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to her sisters and others at the end of a wearisome day as a governess, it was a suppressed voice bursting out, that of "a strange being" with "a keener edge to the sensibility nature gave me - so that I do not relish the pleasures most people pursue - nor am I disturbed by their trifling cares." Her Irish employer Lady Kingsborough, who reserved her emotions for her dogs and spent five hours dressing for a ball, had not the faintest notion of what was burgeoning in the concealed ground of Wollstonecraft's correspondence. Like Hamlet - her letters are always quoting Hamlet - she had to hide "that within which passes show". When Lady Kingsborough dismissed her that fateful summer of 1787, she left behind all demeaning positions for middle-class women of no means, and began an independent existence as a writer in London - a course that led to her famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

During the Revolution in Paris, Imlay's soft lips and gentleness seemed to offer a new man. Her letters to Imlay from 1793 to 1796 read like a novel, a follow-on from the clear-cut reason of Richardson's Clarissa as she tries to get through to a rake. Imlay presented an even more intractable challenge because libertinism was concealed in the rhetoric of Liberty. The educator in Wollstonecraft could not accept her defeat. Whenever she tells Imlay she has come to the end, words fountain from her opening throat.

This edition of her Letters replaces the comprehensive and accurate edition by Ralph Wardle in 1979, now out of print. The same character stamps every letter, as Janet Todd says in her introduction. There's the play of a moral intelligence - fallible, vulnerable, yet also humorous, acerbic, and generous - as she enters into different relationships with her beloved friend Fanny Blood, her family dependants with beaks always open, her benevolent publisher Joseph Johnson, Imlay, and finally the radical philosopher William Godwin whom she married. If she wrote intensively to Imlay (76 letters) because they lived mostly apart, she wrote more intensively to Godwin (146 letters over a briefer span) even though they lodged nearby. Their very proximity in London during 1796-7 allowed for up to three exchanges a day dropping through their doors, responses coming off the pulse with the speed of emails. It's a remarkable record of intimate conversation 200 years ago, allowing us to eavesdrop on the past. A cold bachelor with no taste for domesticity, who was ideologically opposed to marriage and unfriendly to the "amazonian" element he perceived in feminism, would not have seemed a likely partner. How did Wollstonecraft thaw the "hoarfrost" of the man she hoped to love?

Sex was at first awkward. Janet Todd's contextualising notes supply helpful extracts from Godwin's side of their correspondence, among them his calm, reassuring response to sexual failure. As the weeks passed, Mary began to find "a sublime tranquillity" in his arms. Gone was the stress of unrequited passion, as well as the Clarissa voice of her relations with Imlay. A more nuanced voice falls into hiatus, a listening silence or invitation - not to sex in the usual sense, but to some preliminary "informed" state in a wordless space between the sexes. Sentences are incomplete, and silence a sort of language - the meaning silence of a creature in the process of evolving new modes of communication to a man selected for alertness. "I am overflowing with the kindest sympathy - I wish I may find you at home when I carry this letter to drop it in the box, - that I may drop a kiss with it into your heart, to be embalmed, till we meet, closer - ." She draws a line through "closer", and adds: "Don't read the last word - I charge you!" Words are at the centre of what was happening: her efforts to find words that could quicken desire without narrowing its capacity to generate "closer" affections.

Joseph Johnson said that Mary Wollstonecraft was "without disguise". She disguised neither "the living tomb" of depression, nor her gratitude to Johnson himself ("without your humane and delicate assistance, how many obstacles should I not have had to encounter - too often should I have been out of patience with my fellow-creatures, whom I wish to love! - Allow me to love you, my dear sir, and call friend a being I respect"), nor did she hide her acumen (when she warns the artist Fuseli that he's slimed with vanity), nor her sufferings at the hands of Imlay ("the heart on which I leaned has peirced [sic] mine to the quick").

There were mistakes, self-pity, and premature death, but these fall into the shade beside the promise of her "new genus". That promise speaks to us today through the modernity of Wollstonecraft's voice, the experimental union she devised with Godwin, and the energy of her interrupted life. Wollstonecraft left an array of original, half-finished works, above all her novel The Wrongs of Woman with its claim that women should not be expected to submit to men unless their desires are engaged: "We cannot, without depraving our minds, endeavour to please a lover or husband, but in proportion as he pleases us." Something of this is anticipated in a letter to Imlay: "The way to my senses is through my heart; but, forgive me! I think there is sometimes a shorter cut to yours."

It's often assumed that greatness is produced by circumstance. It's tempting to say that domestic violence in Mary's childhood gave rise to rebellion; or that her father's losses set her apart as a girl who must work to survive; yet neither, on its own, can explain the staying-power of her self-making. These conditions usually produce victims like Mary's mother or frustrated strugglers like her sisters. Mary Wollstonecraft had the resilience to go on testing a new plot of existence for women. She saw herself as "a strange compound of weakness and resolution!" In reading her letters, we should not allow the volume of her groans to muffle this innovative voice among the great letter-writers in our language.

Lyndall Gordon is currently working on a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft

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