by Eleanor Flexner
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 307 pp., $8.95
The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives
by Diane Johnson
Knopf, 232 pp., $7.95
Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have usually dwelt, quite properly, on the historical influences that favored her leap from a statement of the rights of man to her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. Her new biographer looks rather to those things in her upbringing and private character that turned a neurasthenic into the pioneer of feminism. The driving force sprang, as in other outstanding founders, from a sense of personal injustice and family torment; her vision was intimately connected with the wrongs of childhood.
If she is a sad figure she grasped the luck that was going in the century of her birth. The rise of Puritan individualism worked for and against women but it did create a new concern for education as the eighteenth century invented its modernizing revolutions. The class conflict between the new middles and the aristocracy put vehemence into controversy. Piety swept into scorn. More important, this was the time when the woman reader and the woman writer appeared, either as the author or reader of trashy novels, religious tracts, and copybook guides or, more preciously, as the blue stocking. What a weapon intellectual snobbery is!
Even if the writers did nothing for female emancipation, they were paid for their work and, in this sense, emancipated themselves. Indeed authors owe it to the eighteenth century that women have been liberated for pretty well 200 years in their profession and are in many respects better placed than family men. Mary Wollstonecraft began her life as many poor, unmarried women did, by governessing and teaching, but she was able to migrate to literature with relative ease. Her school handbooks did well and the famous “bible”—A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—ran to several editions. Godwin, the thinker, whom she eventually married, was forced to become a shady sponge on the aristocratic Shelley.
To later feminists, as Miss Flexner says, Mary’s bible has had a reactionary flavor. Her book aimed “to teach women to think” and “to prepare them to fulfill the duties of a wife and mother…. No employment of the mind is a sufficient excuse for neglecting domestic duties and I cannot conceive that they are incompatible.” If she is remote from us, she certainly put her finger on the central issue of her time. A marked boredom and often a disgust with domesticity is noticeable in the English novelists. Marriage is so often seen as a stagnant and even squalid condition for both sexes. Who, outside the Widow Wadman, would have cared to marry into the Shandy family and share its ill-managed torpor? And although Mary Wollstonecraft would not have agreed, the gallantry and frivolity of the upper classes which she denounced were also in a sense a protest. Better to sin than to suckle until the state of medicine improved.
It was also a time of continual wars and standing armies, and one of the witty passages of the Vindication contains a comparison of married women with …