Lyndall Gordon’s new book opens with a wonderful first paragraph describing Mary Wollstonecraft’s crossing of the Channel from England to Revolutionary France. In December 1792 Wollstonecraft was thirty-three. She was traveling alone and, characteristically contrary, she was making a journey in the opposite direction to most of her fellow countrymen and -women, who, alarmed by signs of the erupting Terror, were deserting France and heading homeward fast. Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris just as William Wordsworth left the city he now saw as “a wood where tigers roam.”

Mary Wollstonecraft was confident of her place in history as “the first of a new genus,” an exemplar of what it could mean to be a woman. The prospect terrified her but she accepted it as inevitable, explaining to her sister Everina, “the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.” Wollstonecraft was an intrepid shedder of conventions as a writer, an educator, and a traveler. Unusually for a woman at that time she was a professional, money-earning author whose controversial polemic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been published in the year she left for Paris and whose later travel book Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is now regarded as a masterpiece of Romantic observation. In formulating her clearheaded views on education, especially the education of girls, she drew on her own experience not only as a governess but in the running of her own East London school.

Her most attractive legacy is that of the explorer, an energetic woman undertaking both her arduous physical journeys and her imaginative travels of the mind, moving easily across countries and continents, seeking the newfound freedoms of the late eighteenth century. Like many of her English radical contemporaries, Wollstonecraft adopted America after the War of Independence as her own land of the free, her other country, although she never visited it. Her susceptibility to what she had read and heard about the wide open spaces, the culture of the frontiersman, is an aspect of Wollstonecraft’s Romanticism. It must also be related to her pioneering feminism, her ambition to see women roaming into as yet uncharted territories. A century later the South African freethinker and writer Olive Schreiner was to recognize Wollstonecraft as “one of ourselves.”

So dazzling was Wollstonecraft in her imaginative energy, so multifaceted, she has accumulated numerous biographers. Writing the life of Wollstonecraft has often meant enlisting in a battle for possession. She died very suddenly in 1797, after giving birth to a daughter, the future Mary Shelley, and her first biography was the lovely, intimate, and, at the time, scandalously candid memoir written at breakneck speed by her widower, William Godwin, the philosopher and anarchist. Her loyal Victorian biographers Charles Kegan Paul and Elizabeth Robins Pennell saw it as their mission to defend Mary Wollstonecraft from consequent and persistently malicious public charges that she had been an immoral harridan.

The first modern biography of Wollstonecraft was Ralph Wardle’s meticulous account of her life, work, and significance published in 1951 and followed by his edition of the letters, an enterprise parallel to Leslie Marchand’s scholarly reappraisal of Byron during the same period. By the 1970s startled recognition by a new generation of feminists of what seemed like Wollstonecraft’s extraordinary prescience in identifying problems with which they were still grappling resulted in a surge of fresh biographies portraying her as the inventor of feminist thinking and, at the same time, a victim of male oppression. Of those reclamations Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) was by far the most distinguished and indeed remains the best short introduction to her life.

Over the next few years another Mary Wollstonecraft began emerging: the literary visionary and queen of the Romantics. This was part of a general revival of interest in Romanticism and its underlying personal dramas, stimulated partly by Richard Holmes’s biography Shelley: The Pursuit. In Holmes’s own extended essay on her Nordic travels, originally published as the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Wollstonecraft’s A Short Residence, Wollstonecraft is presented as a woman of “feeling” during a time of enriched emotional and political possibility. She reappears in a more domestic setting in William St. Clair’s brilliant dynastic biography The Godwins and the Shelleys of 1989. More recently, Janet Todd’s deeply researched psychological study Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (1999) drew on family letters, especially those from Mary’s two difficult sisters, to present us with a “volatile, depressive and self-dramatising temperament,” delineating with zest the agonies of Wollstonecraft family relations.

Lyndall Gordon’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft is a different, less strident book. She describes a dignified though voluptuous woman, warmer, gentler, less neurotic. Brown-eyed and big-bosomed, she was a woman eager to enfold others. “I want to dispel the myth of wildness,” Gordon maintains, emphasizing Wollstonecraft’s rationality and gravity in answer to the charge of “hyena in petticoats” that has dogged her reputation. She believes that we are ready for a new and more expansive view of Wollstonecraft at the start of the twenty-first century. She was, Gordon writes, a humanist arguing for better provision for children, for invalids, for the aged, a woman in angry opposition to rank commerce, an early incarnation of present-day protesters against the greed and corruption of global corporations. Gordon argues that Wollstonecraft’s ambitions for her sex were more interesting and original because more sweeping than later feminist campaigns for the vote, equal pay, and equal opportunities. Wollstonecraft had bound herself to an open-ended project: “nothing less than a proposal to draw on women’s skills in order to realise the full promise of our species.” Hers was a necessarily experimental life.


Gordon’s previous books include lives of Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf and it is not surprising that in view of her interest in the development of character in fiction, of all the interpretations of Wollstonecraft, hers is the version that comes closest to resembling a novel. Where Janet Todd’s biography was shaped by the archival material available—“the absence or presence of letters has dictated what periods have been emphasised in the story”—Gordon’s approach has been less inhibited. In the absence of documentation she uses her intuition and knowledge of the period to explore what is little known. She speculates and probes with a freewheeling intelligence that responds to Wollstonecraft’s own. In pursuit of a still hazy new identity for woman—“the unnamed thing she feels herself to be”—Wollstonecraft was painfully, sometimes ludicrously, fallible. Gordon shows what creative use she made of failure, learning through experience, surviving shame, betrayal, and two suicide attempts; she was watchful, lucid, and remarkably resilient.

Wollstonecraft’s affinity for violence and danger became a source of strength to her as a moral commentator in the luridly bloodthirsty, politically turbulent Europe of the late eighteenth century. She had grown up with violence, flinching from her irascible drunkard father. Edward John Wollstonecraft, son of a Spitalfields silk weaver, aspired to be a gentleman farmer, trundling his weary family from Essex to Yorkshire and then back to East London, always on the verge of bankruptcy. In her peripatetic childhood Mary was bitterly conscious of her mother’s being trapped by marriage and, a few years later, of the extreme suffering of her sister Bess, whose tyrannical and probably sexually abusive husband had driven her to madness. Under English law Bess was her husband’s property. Mary was a prime mover in the Wollstonecraft sisters’ plan to help Bess run away from her husband, which Bess did successfully in 1784, hiding out for months with Mary in a boarding house. These early experiences of brutal incompatibility underlie her later teaching on domestic “tenderness,” the idea that when man and woman live together, “imagination must lead the senses, not the senses the imagination.” The oddity and sweetness of her sexual visions was created by her horror and rage at what she had seen.

She endured the humiliations of genteel poverty. The occupations then open to middle-class spinsters were as paid companion or schoolteacher or governess. Wollstonecraft became successively all three, beginning as companion to short-tempered, self-indulgent Mrs. Dawson in Bath, a much-resented education in “mean flattery” since, as she later defined the duties of companion, “she must wear a cheerful face, or be dismissed.” The school she started in Newington Green, initially successful, ran into trouble while Mary was in Lisbon tending a dying friend and she was then forced to find employment as a governess with the aristocratic Kingsboroughs, an Anglo-Irish family whose Mitchelstown estate of 100,000 acres extended from North Cork to Limerick, Tipperary, and Kerry. Arriving at the extravagantly reconstructed castle of Mitchelstown, received by Lady Kingsborough reclining in bed with her little dogs around her, Wollstonecraft felt the full force of intellectual isolation: “I am an exile—and in a new world.”

She salvaged something from all three situations. A doomed flirtation in Bath with a flighty Cambridge undergraduate, Joshua Waterhouse, sharpened her knowledge of the undermining treachery of passion, a subject she later addressed head-on in her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, issuing stern warnings against single women’s irrational susceptibility to unsuitable young men. Her own experience of teaching school allowed her to evolve a highly sophisticated method of female education. She distrusted repetition and formula, insisting that the pace of learning be adapted to each pupil. The mind was not to be tied down or dictated to by gender. Wollstonecraft despised the widespread culture of the female “bleater.” She insisted that her pupils question all received opinion: “I wish them to be taught to think.”


Wollstonecraft was consistently the enemy of apathy. In her ambivalent domestic situation at Mitchelstown, regarded as both friend of the family and servant, she conceived a stealthy hatred of what she termed the “volubles,” people who chitter-chatter and fritter life away. Rejecting the superfluous and keeping her secret self and inner thoughts intact, she lived by night. In her governess’s room at Mitchelstown she was beginning to plan Mary, A Fiction, a novel which exposes the emptiness and futility of so many of her female contemporaries’ lives. Gordon is fascinating on Wollstonecraft’s integrity, the degree of separation from social conventions that we find again in such Victorian fictional heroines as George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

There were settings in which her clarity of mind could blossom. Even as a young woman her distinctive qualities were obvious to intellectual men, among them Samuel Johnson, who read Mary and met Wollstonecraft in 1784, shortly before his death. A succession of radical father figures—Dr. Richard Price, the charismatic East London dissenting preacher, and Joseph Johnson, the politically controversial publisher and printer—recognized her potential, giving her practical and moral support. When Wollstonecraft was finally dismissed by the Kingsboroughs, Joseph Johnson took her in, gave her lodgings, and encouraged her idea of earning a living by her writing. In 1788 Johnson published her Original Stories from Real Life, whose second edition was illustrated with woodcuts by William Blake. Most importantly Johnson provided the milieu in which she could recover her confidence and flourish. She shed the stays and shook loose the powdered hairstyles she had worn as a hanger-on in high society. “A philosophical sloven,” Henry Fuseli called her. Gordon compares the intellectually daring London City coterie that nurtured Mary Wollstonecraft to the later close-knit group of friends in Bloomsbury that stimulated and protected the young Virginia Woolf.

Wollstonecraft was not only producing original works, translations, and abridgements, all at a great pace. She was also the first woman to become a professional reviewer, taking part in the controversies of literary life. By the time of the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 she was heavily involved in political commentary. This again had previously been a male preserve. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men was a powerful, personally acerbic counterblast to the Whig politician Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her heartfelt plain-speaking countered Burke’s rotund oratory: Gordon describes well how “Wollstonecraft identifies the dodges of rhetoric as the most dangerous enemy of human rights.” Her most emotional attack was on the subject of the slave trade, at the time a dominant political issue. She rebuked Burke for his lack of humanity in mourning the passing of French regal pageantry while “the lash resounds on the slaves’ naked sides.” That description of violence suggests revulsion but also fascination. As often with Wollstonecraft we become conscious of a peculiar ambiguity.

Her journey to France has often been construed, initially by William Godwin, as the flight from a botched love affair with the painter Fuseli. But this is to underestimate her motivation. Gordon argues firmly, and in my opinion rightly, that Wollstonecraft felt impelled to see the Revolution for herself. Like a present-day investigative journalist, she needed the immediacy of the experience. Along with many of her English radical contemporaries she had invested great hopes in the new regime in France. Her grief and disillusionment were terrible once the mindless violence of the Jacobins began to escalate.

The month after Mary Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris Louis XVI was guillotined, watched by a crowd of 80,000. She remained as eyewitness to the exploding Terror over the next year, living in and around Paris, writing what she called her “great book,” an on-the-spot history of the French Revolution. Occasionally Gordon’s partiality to Wollstonecraft becomes a little cloying—as when she refers to “this venturesome woman we’ve come some way to know”—but her account of the writer in Paris, stepping gingerly through newly shed blood in Place de Louis Quinze, is powerful. She brings out Wollstonecraft’s sheer wonder, rising above her sorrow and feeling of terror, at the apocalyptic strangeness of the scene.

Wollstonecraft described herself as “a strange compound of weakness and resolution.” Nowhere is this more evident than in her relationship with Gilbert Imlay, one of a group of glamorous and well-connected Americans in Paris, making their fortunes from the Revolution. Flouting many of the precepts expounded in her by then widely influential A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she succumbed to Imlay’s dodgy charm, cohabited with him, off and on, for ten years, and had a child with him, their daughter Fanny. She was weak in her relations with Imlay and he certainly exploited her. But Gordon gives a more subtle view of an affair that too often has been seized as proof of a fundamental moral giddiness.

Wollstonecraft, a thirty-four-year-old virgin, did not enter the liaison lightly. She regarded it as a sacred union, a creative conflagration of like spirits: her candor, his American expansiveness.

Wollstonecraft was so taken with the idea of America that she planned to emigrate there with her two sisters. Gordon equates her utopian yearnings for America with Coleridge’s dream of the New World. It is clear that her sexual excitement was bound up with solemn hopes for an ideal domesticity with someone she identified, however mistakenly, with a “new genus” of a man. It is also worth noting the practical point that she could not have remained officially protected in the Paris of the Terror had she not been certified by Imlay as his wife.

Was Imlay a spy? Possibly he had spied for George Washington during the American Revolution. By the early 1790s Imlay was implicated in a buccaneering plot to seize Louisiana from Spain. In France, on good terms with diplomats in Paris and with the collusion of the French authorities, he was making the most of easy opportunities for illicit imports of such desperately needed commodities as wheat and soap, perhaps operating as a double agent with commerce as his cover. Gordon’s account of Imlay’s murkier activities is based on careful research but she resists the temptation to demonize him, reminding us that “Imlay was no different from other men on the make in an age of smuggling, piracy and colonization.”

How far was Mary Wollstonecraft involved in Imlay’s schemes? Gordon draws on recent research in Scandinavian archives to throw new light on the degree of her awareness of a risky episode involving the dispatch of a ship from France to Sweden carrying a secret load of confiscated Bourbon silver platters and solid silver bars. The ship was to sail from Le Havre to Gothenburg whence it was to return with a profitable cargo of grain, aluminum, and gunpowder. It turns out that Mary had inspected the silver shipment herself before it left Le Havre. The cargo did not arrive in Sweden and it was assumed the ship had sunk. Evidence to the contrary has only just emerged. A letter recently discovered by the Norwegian historian Gunnar Molden makes it clear not only that the newly repaired ship had been sold to a buyer for £250 but that one “Marin Inclay” (alias “Mary Imlay”) certified the sale. She also took on the considerable responsibility of traveling to Scandinavia to investigate the disappearance of the cargo.

The journey is described in her book A Short Residence. Wollstonecraft was clearly implicated emotionally and morally, since she had depended on the proceeds of the treasure ship to provide a secure future for herself and her small daughter. But did she understand the full implications of the plot? Gordon argues that it was not until she got to Hamburg, where Imlay had promised to meet her but did not, that she realized that she had been involved in a complex network of fraud and theft.

Depression reenergized Wollstonecraft. She wrote A Short Residence after two suicide attempts (one by laudanum, one by plunging into the Thames), and after she and Imlay finally broke apart. Most remarkably, the book is based on the series of letters written to him from Scandinavia and later reclaimed from him. Out of her demanding, disillusioning journey Wollstonecraft was able to produce a work of great luminosity and beauty. Some of the book is straight reportage, well-observed descriptions of the wild Nordic scenery of pine forests and fjords, appreciative details of a dignified though primitive way of life. Her exhilarated response to Scandinavia has its parallel in William Morris’s later discovery of Iceland. Beyond its passages of pure description, Wollstonecraft’s book is intensely reflective, philosophical, a late-eighteenth-century progress of the soul. The letter in which she describes her solitary journey in a little open boat across the Christiana sound reveals her originality and courage: the questing female figure in her greatcoat crossing the boisterous sea:

We had to steer amongst islands and huge rocks, rarely losing sight of the shore, though it now and then appeared only a mist that bordered the water’s edge…. When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments; and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent, by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten,—nor looks I have felt in every nerve, which I shall never more meet.

Wollstonecraft broke new ground in the literature of “feeling” and responses to her book were unusually personal. Robert Southey, the future poet laureate, wrote, “She has made me in love with a climate…with a northern moonlight.” William Godwin went further in maintaining that the book was “calculated to make a man fall in love with the author.”

This was the book to bring about the meeting of two famous Enlightenment minds—and, eventually, bodies. Godwin was at the time a bachelor of forty, a novelist and libertarian whose already formidable literary reputation was confirmed in 1793 by the publication of his exposé of current power structures, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. He had inherited much of the austerity of his dissenting preacher father. Unconventionally, Mary, who had only casually met him, took the initiative in their love affair, knocking on his door in Somers Town, in what is now the King’s Cross district of London, herself making the suggestion that she should stay the night.

William St. Clair, in his book The Godwins and the Shelleys, was the first to piece together a clear account of the hesitant, self-conscious sexual rapprochement that Godwin recorded in his diary. Gordon builds on his entries in a witty, sympathetic account of what became a peculiarly satisfactory marriage between a man and a woman who had previously and publically spoken out against marriage as an institution. The two of them evolved a new kind of marriage, a mutual independence, in which Godwin respected the value of her leaving time for her work. Their idiosyncratic equal partnership is astutely compared by Lyndall Gordon to that of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Her narrative of Mary’s death from sepsis following childbirth after just a year of marriage is painfully vivid. Godwin expressed his grief with the stark Romantic image that “sun and moon were in the flat sea sunk.”

In her excellent final chapters Gordon follows the fashionable biographical tenet that “there’s no end to the reverberations of far-reaching lives.” She investigates what happened after Wollstonecraft died, to some of those closest to her. Of “Les Goddesses,” as a passing American described in wonderment the three striking and unusual young women brought up in Godwin’s house in veneration of Wollstonecraft, one—Fanny Imlay, Mary’s daughter by the faithless American—took a fatal overdose of laudanum in Swansea at the age of twenty-one. The precocious Mary Godwin absorbed her mother’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, eloped with Shelley (without much sympathy for his deserted and eventually suicidal wife), and began to write the science fiction novel Frankenstein. Claire Clairmont, the daughter of Godwin’s second wife, traveled around Europe in what appeared to be a ménage à trois with Shelley and her half-sister, propositioned Lord Byron, and bore Byron’s daughter, Allegra, who died in childhood. Claire, too, worked for a time as a governess, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and wrote her own series of vivid, clever letters. She left for Russia soon after Allegra’s death, and, like Wollstonecraft, she was reenergized by depression and solitary travel. In one letter she wrote that her soul “seems to have been regenerated by the fountains of adversity into which it fell.”

Gordon beautifully evokes the places Mary Wollstonecraft frequented, from Newington Green, the small London community of merchants and dissenters where, as a young schoolteacher, she began to find herself, to Pisa in the early 1820s, where, in this small unfashionable Italian city, Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt inaugurated The Liberal, and where three of the heirs of Mary Wollstonecraft came together. These were Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Margaret Cashell, a middle-aged woman who, as eldest daughter of the Kingsboroughs at Mitchelstown, had been one of Mary’s charges when she was a governess almost forty years before, and was now living in exile under the false name “Mrs. Mason,” having left her aristocrat husband and abandoned their seven children to live with a married man. So true had she been to her governess’s precepts that she had trained as a doctor, attending university lectures in male disguise.

The reemergence of Margaret Mount Cashell brings Gordon’s book to its conclusion. In a work of such scope there are inevitably errors. Leigh Hunt and his six obstreperous children did not lodge with the Shelleys in Pisa but occupied the ground floor of Lord Byron’s Palazzo Lanfranchi, much to his disgust. Gordon is wrong to suggest that “most of Byron’s women were of his own class, protected by money and privilege, and accustomed to discreet adultery.” Byron randomly seduced chambermaids, seamstresses, and actresses; Lady Caroline Lamb was hardly an exemplar of discreet adultery. Small matters in this imaginative and intelligent, consistently absorbing reinterpretation of Mary Wollstonecraft.

This Issue

December 1, 2005