Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)

I found this biography both compulsively readable and quite irritating.  My other books went on hold while I read it, but I read it with teeth gritted some of the time.

Tomalin is a very entertaining writer, one who doesn’t make the mistake that a lot of biographers do, of bogging the narrative down by quoting from too much source material.

However, I do not think this is either a fair or a sympathetic biography.   The author seems determined to depict Wollstonecraft as unreasonable, unstable and even narcissistic, without giving her enough credit or sympathy for the immense obstacles she was up against.  Reading between the lines of the rather snide narrative, all I see is an impulsive, brilliant and all too human woman who made the kind of personal mistakes a lot of us make in our lives (at a time when the consequences for those mistakes were much higher), but who managed to achieve more than most of us ever will.  For example, I thought Tomalin was far too indulgent towards the abusive behaviour of Mary’s lover, Gilbert Imlay. She even implies that Mary was stupid to be fooled by him and was rather unreasonable in her despairing response, but how many of us have fallen for a charmer at some point in our lives?  Only for a woman of Mary’s time, falling for a charmer meant being left a stigmatised single mother with an illegitimate child and no hope of retuning to respectable society.  What Imlay does to her is dreadful and he would have known about the consequences of his actions.

Overall, I felt that Tomalin’s own discomfort with radical feminism coloured her interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s life.  There are a few moments where she lets this discomfort slip.  For example, on p. 198, referring to French feminists during the Revolution:

The citoyennes certainly dealt a blow to the cause of their own sex, helping to build up male resistance to any idea of women’s rights and giving pause even to better educated women (a pattern that repeats itself in feminism whenever there is unruly behaviour from its adherents).

I get the feeling that when she wrote this biography Tomalin was one of those feminists who argue that women shouldn’t be too ‘aggressive’ because that will damage the movement.  Maybe this is why her Jane Austen biography is better – she seems a lot more comfortable with Austen’s more sneaky brand of feminism.

I’m now looking forward to reading Lyndall Gordon’s more recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication which sets out to right her wrongs.

Readable, but biased.

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