Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

by Janet Todd

Mary Wollstonecraft Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is one of those rare commodities to the would-be biographer—an author whose writings are inextricably linked with her life. To the general reader, she is probably most closely associated with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her daughter and the author of the most famous tale of horror ever written—Frankenstein (1818). To her contemporaries, however, she was the scandalous hack writer who flouted the conventions of society and bore her first child out of wedlock. She also established her literary reputation as the author of the radical feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792). One of the vexing problems in crafting a biography of Wollstonecraft is whether to emphasize the work, which anticipated modern feminism in its strident call for a new social order, or the life, which challenged contemporary mores and touched on many of the leading thinkers of the day. Happily for her readers, Janet Todd focuses far less on her subject’s theories of living than on her life as she lived it. As Todd declares in the excellent preface, “Wollstonecraft insists we attend to her life.” Readers of this substantial volume will soon note Wollstonecraft’s truly colossal ego: With her self-absorbed stance of an all-encompassing “I,” Wollstonecraft projects a subjectivity in the modern sense of the word. For this very reason, Todd describes the importance of the works and their place in the history of letters: “In Wollstonecraft’s writings a new female consciousness comes into being, one that valued and reflected endlessly on its own workings, refusing to acknowledge anything absurd in the stance.” Appropriately, it is the intersection of the writings with the life that forms the basis of Todd’s book.

Ironically, the structure of this biography is solid and workmanlike—quite unlike the revolutionary nature of its subject. In addition to the aforementioned preface, Todd precedes the body of the book with a quite useful list of “principal characters”—rather in the manner of a dramatis personae. More than a simple alphabetical listing of important personages, these are truncated biographies. They provide not only the dates of birth and death but also the accomplishments of the person being described and his or her relationship to the subject of Todd’s book. Given the large number of people who figured in Wollstonecraft’s brief life, Todd does her readers a real service by including this listing. (One small but annoying error in this section is the entry for Edmund Burke, whose dates are given as 1729-1850—which would make it a very long life indeed. Burke’s actual year of death was 1797.)

The biography proper is logically divided into four sections: Part 1 follows Wollstonecraft from her birth until her decision to move to London, part 2 shows her living a life of independence as a freelance writer, part 3 describes her sojourn in revolutionary France, and part 4 recounts her last two years as her relationship with William Godwin intensified. One could hardly find fault with the organization, but one can take Todd to task for her stinginess with dates. Unlike many biographies that include the dates covered at the beginning of each chapter or large section, Todd’s book forces the reader to hunt through the text to locate this information. Given the fact that this study will probably achieve wide currency in academe, this paucity of dates will impede its usefulness as a research tool.

It is the content of the biography, however, that is paramount, and Todd properly begins her book by demonstrating how Wollstonecraft experienced the wrongs against women in her early life. When her prosperous grandfather, Edward Wollstonecraft, died, five-year-old Mary received nothing from the substantial estate—apparently because the master weaver attached little value to women. A more significant figure in Mary’s life, though, was her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, a physically abusive alcoholic who squandered his share of the legacy on a series of failed farming ventures. Clearly, Wollstonecraft sprang from a deeply dysfunctional family, and the young woman had as much contempt for the brutal father as she did for the mother who often became his victim. Todd correctly hones in on her parents’ marriage as a crucial factor in Wollstonecraft’s development: “Marriage and tyranny were joined, as were love and power.” Her lifelong revulsion toward conventional marriage sprang from the glaring example of her own parents.

Unlike many of her own sex, Wollstonecraft did have some training at a country day school, but Todd deserves praise for paying less attention to her subject’s education than to the...

(The entire section is 1941 words.)