Vindication

Frances Sherwood, Author
Frances Sherwood, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $22 (435p) ISBN 978-0-374-28390-2
Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-14-023668-2
Open Ebook - 435 pages - 978-1-4668-0835-5
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Sherwood's heralded debut is an arresting and convincing portrayal of Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman and perhaps the first feminist. Lending her subject a modern sensibility, Sherwood describes Mary's wretched childhood, and follows her through the humiliation of demeaning jobs and chronic poverty. Eventually, via the publication of Vindication and other books, Wollstonecraft becomes the most famous female author of her times. Wisely, Sherwood resists romanticizing Mary's complex personality. While she portrays her as intelligent, witty, idealistic and courageous, she also acknowledges the difficult edges of her character: Mary is impetuous, nervous, wildly passionate and subject to melancholy; she is self-destructive and full of self-doubt. In fact, her life is a series of ironies and contradictions: the crusader who writes that ``marriage is legalized prostitution'' finally finds safe harbor in a union with a man she had scorned; and, tragically, having survived a stint in Bedlam and a suicide attempt, Mary dies just when she has achieved the unimpeded means to write. In meticulously rendered background detail, Sherwood describes the brutal realities of the 18th century: public hangings, maimed children, abused women; the excesses of the French Revolution are acutely observed through Wollstonecraft's eyes. There are also droll and vivid portraits of publisher Joseph Johnson and the habitues of his salon, including firebrand Tom Paine, artist Henry Fuseli and a most eccentric William Blake. Boldly conceived and adroitly paced, the narrative builds in dramatic power. There is one cavil, however: by embroidering the facts of Wollstonecraft's life, interjecting some imagined experiences into a narrative that otherwise hews to the facts as we know them, Sherwood may confuse readers into thinking that everything here is true. But her virtuosity succeeds in rendering the torments of a brilliant mind struggling against hypocritical and punitive social codes. (May)
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