Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 597-601
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A Revolutionary Life
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. By Janet Todd. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. xxii + 516. $29.95 (cloth).
As the first major English language biography of her subject to appear in many years, Janet Todd's new work on the author of the "founding feminist text in English" constitutes an important event in what Todd terms "the posthumous life of Mary Wollstonecraft" (p. x). Its publication has been greeted with a profusion of laudatory reviews that emphasize the biographer's achievement in re-creating in full measure the experiences of the young, emotionally intense, and volatile woman whose literary and political legacy includes A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), the stirring first defense of the French Revolution against the celebrated attack by Edmund Burke, and the equally impassioned subsequent argument she called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Achieving success [End Page 598] exceptional for a woman of her day, Wollstonecraft lived, and helped her family to live, by her pen, producing numerous works of fiction, didactic literature, and criticism. This biography is based on a thorough knowledge of these writings and an immense primary and secondary literature that includes Wollstonecraft's voluminous correspondence with her two sisters and with her lover in the ill-fated affair that produced her first daughter, Fanny Imlay. (Her second daughter, born of her union with philosopher William Godwin, was the famous author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.)
The new biography represents the culmination for Todd of several decades of research, writing, and editing devoted to Wollstonecraft studies, including, in 1989, a seven-volume edition of Wollstonecraft's works. Even readers well acquainted with Wollstonecraft's life from the five biographies that appeared in English in as many years, following her rediscovery by women's studies scholars circa 1970 and from subsequent scholarship, will encounter here much that is new. Todd provides intriguing glimpses of the radical intellectual circles that Wollstonecraft entered through her acquaintance with the Unitarian minister Dr. Richard Price and the publisher Joseph Johnson, of Wollstonecraft's life in Paris during the Terror, of her travels in Scandinavia on business for Gilbert Imlay, and intrinsically less interesting but important insights into the familial world that Wollstonecraft sought variously to dominate and to escape.
The main outlines of Wollstonecraft's life and legacy are now well known. Her name is recognized by all with even a cursory knowledge of women's history; her reputation as a (if not "the") founder of modern feminism is secure. Recent scholarship, along with dating the origins of European feminism earlier, has tended to focus on Wollstonecraft's failings, and this biography falls into that revisionist mode. It is not a biography for beginners but for readers seeking to add to their knowledge by exploring in detail the personal circumstances and complex emotional life of the famous feminist forerunner. What emerges most strikingly here are her "tortured relations" (p. x) with members of her family, especially her sisters, and with the American business adventurer Imlay, as revealed in extensive correspondence. The Wollstonecraft encountered in her letters and suggested in long extracts from the others' responses is not an admirable person. As Todd puts it, "The huge sense of the 'I' in Mary Wollstonecraft's work is often infuriating," although, she continues, "it is undeniably modern" (p. ix).
The Wollstonecraft whom Todd portrays is so needy emotionally, so unable to transcend her own feelings sufficiently to understand those of any other person, that the reader is hard put to avoid agreeing that this was a deeply flawed character. "Mary imagined no subjectivity outside her own," declares Todd (p. 288). The most devastating results appear in the rash action Wollstonecraft took in removing her troubled sister Eliza from her (husband's) home, which resulted in the loss (and early death) of her infant, and in Wollstonecraft's self-debasing, prolonged, indeed pathetic [End Page 599] clinging to the inconstant Imlay, a sixteen-month...