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

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee