cover image Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

Janet Todd. Columbia University Press, $90 (538pp) ISBN 978-0-231-12184-2

Mary Wollstonecraft may be called ""the mother of feminism,"" but motherhood in all its various aspects represented little but trouble to her. All her life, according to Todd (Aphra Behn), she resented her own mother because she had breast-fed only her brother, leaving Mary to the wet nurse, and because she detested the model of long-suffering patience in the face of paternal tyranny that was her mother's accommodation to marriage. Later, Mary would intervene energetically following the birth of her sister's child, encouraging Eliza to run away from husband and baby to pursue an independent female existence, although Eliza proved to be woefully inadequate at it. Mary's own first-born was the result of a passionate and illicit affair with an American, Gilbert Imlay, who dumped her when the baby was less than a year old. Finally, and tragically, Mary herself died at 38, after giving birth to a second daughter, another Mary, who would grow up to write that classic of grotesque creation, Frankenstein. Despite, or perhaps because of, the burden of her gender, and despite her poverty, frequent depressions and occasional suicidal moments, Wollstonecraft's achievement was astounding: several novels; many essays, reviews and books of advice; and, notably, The Vindication of the Rights of Women, a fundamental feminist document. By Todd's account, Wollstonecraft could be prickly, sometimes needy, often arrogant and wrong-headed. Todd brings her back to life in all her splendid contradictions, without condescension, idealization or, happily, without recourse to intrusive psychologizing. (Sept.)