The founder of modern feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was the most famous woman of her era. A brilliant, unconventional rebel vilified for her strikingly modern notions of education, family, work, and personal relationships, she nevertheless strongly influenced political philosophy in Europe and a newborn America. Now acclaimed biographer Lyndall Gordon mounts a spirited defense of this courageous woman whose reputation has suffered over the years by painting a full and vibrant portrait of an extraordinary historical figure who was generations ahead of her time.
With Gordon, the life of the "famous, then notorious" Wollstonecraft (1759 1797) is in the hands of a scholarly admirer and defender, a distinguished biographer (of T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bront and others) as interested in Wollstonecraft for her mistakes as for her triumphs. For those familiar with the broad outlines of Wollstonecraft's personal life (her friendships with Jane Arden and Fanny Blood, her relationship with the painter Fuseli, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her "friendship melting into love" with the philosopher Godwin), Gordon offers fresh detail and insight. She brings encyclopedic scope to her construction of a very British life deeply affected by tumultuous events in America and France. "She was not a born genius," Gordon says, "she became one," and Gordon succeeds admirably in showing readers how this independent, compassionate woman who devised a blueprint for human change achieved that distinction. Wollstonecraft's wide, evolving circles of friends, benefactors, mentors, admirers and detractors is richly sketched. Melodrama (a money-squandering, abusive father; a sister trapped in a tyrannical marriage; financial crises; unfaithful lovers; attempted suicides) abounds. Wollstonecraft's life was an adventurous one; in Paris, she watched as the admired French Revolution become the Reign of Terror. Yet Wollstonecraft's adventurous life illuminates rather than obscures the philosophical and historical work that made her the foremother of much modern thinking about education and human rights, as well as about women's rights, female sexuality and the institution of marriage. Deeply documented with Wollstonecraft's writing, contemporary memoirs, letters and archival materials, Gordon's biography is eminently readable and rewarding. Photos.