The godmother of feminism, warts and all

Mary Wollstone Craft: a revolutionary life by Janet Todd (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

There's a living doll on the cover of this biography. She is about 20, with dreamy eyes, a rosebud mouth and a hairdresser who has gone overboard with highlights. This is Mary Wollstonecraft, horribly mutated from a magnificent portrait of 1797, the year Mary died at the age of 38.

She was one of the group for which the term radical was coined; it included William Godwin, Thomas Paine and William Blake, writers and artists connected through the publisher Joseph Johnson.

Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) attacked feminine preoccupations with beauty, dress and romantic love. She wanted girls' education to be as rigorous as boys'. Her work began the shift of consciousness that would enable women to define themselves by profession rather than partner. So the cover girl makes her own sly comment on Wollstonecraft's patchy achievement and our continuing ambivalence about women.

Inside, though, the book deprettifies reverential biographies. Todd quotes from Jane Austen's Persuasion: "No private correspondence could bear the eye of others." Wollstonecraft's has to. She was the unloved second child of a bullying father and a needy mother, and seldom broke from those models. It's embarrassing to read some of her letters, alternately abject and hectoring. We are used to finding that great male writers were complete dorks; it's worse when their female counterparts turn out to be as silly.

Todd's biography looks at the psychological roots of the writing. That old cliché "The personal is the political" was fresh in 1792. Wollstonecraft lived it, turning her struggles into a luminous feminist politics, supporting herself on the proceeds. There's a quality of largesse in her writing that can get lost when the focus is on the "unfair seed-time" of her youth, but Todd is always shrewd and sensitive.

Wollstonecraft ran a school near Hackney, in London; the Dissenting community, with its egalitarian tradition and links to the new American republic, helped form her ideas. A stint as a governess in Ireland, where she wrote her first novel, Mary, confirmed her contempt for aristocracy. She was sacked, and Johnson offered her a job as a journalist, ushering in three years of relative happiness.

When he commissioned a history of the French Revolution, she went to Paris and started an affair with Gilbert Imlay, a rogue American businessman. He packed her off to Sweden with their baby, Fanny, possibly hoping she would not come back. But she was a brave, resourceful woman, and her Letters From Sweden is a vivid travel book with romantic landscapes that reflect the observer's mood.

In London again, she found Imlay living with an actress; she threw herself off Putney Bridge one night in October 1795. Todd asks the unaskable: did she really mean to drown? She could swim, and there were fishermen about who pulled her from the water. After this, a rather forced Enlightenment rationalism gives way to an acknowledgement of violence and desire.

She recovered, and met Godwin again; they were almost absurdly well-matched. When she got pregnant they married, living in different houses in the same street. She was halfway through her second novel, The Wrongs of Woman, when she died after giving birth to another Mary - who was to become the author of Frankenstein.

In the first shock of bereavement, Godwin published a candid memoir. Middle England was appalled, and the feminist movement that Wollstonecraft had initiated fell into disrepute for two generations. This book has its horrifying moments, but Wollstonecraft's writing is finally the more impressive for Todd's unsparing picture.

The reviewer teaches English at Reading University

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