The First Feminist

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,…

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