Although Mary Wolistonecraft has been the subject of several biographies, including her husband William Godwin’s book Memoirs of the Author of “A Wndication of the Rights of Woman”(l798), the life story of this famous feminist is important enough to justify another telling. In vindication, Frances Sherwood has approached her topic in a new way. Writing as a novelist, the author has created what she calls an lmaginative world,” populated with real people but flexible as far as details are concerned. Thus she can emphasize Mary Wollstonecraft’s significance as a gender archetype.
Each of the five sections of this novel bears the name of a person whom Wollstonecraft loved. In one way or another, she was abandoned by each of the first four; with the fifth, she finally found the ideal relationship, only to be betrayed by her own biology. Wollstonecraft’s own life seems to prove what she professed: that passion destroys a woman, while reason alone can redeem her.
During her childhood, Mary comes to associate the sexual act with tyranny. Her mother is systematically mocked, berated, insulted, and battered by her father, Edward Wollstonecraft. When Mary attempts to intervene, she, too, is beaten, not only by her father but also by the mother she has tried to rescue. What puzzles Mary and the other Wollstonecraft children is that these periods of terror are inevitably followed by several days of tenderness, terminating in giggles and coos behind the bedroom door. Such reconciliations result in frequent pregnancies, which make Mary’s mother even more dependent on her husband.
While her mother is fulfilling Edward’s needs, Mary, too, is being used for another’s benefit. Having often been turned over to the maidservant Annie whenever her own mother finds her troublesome, Mary has come to see Annie not only as an affectionate adult but also as an authority figure, almost a parent. Therefore, when Annie directs the little girl to give her sexual pleasure, Mary obeys. Even though she finds these experiences repugnant, she has learned what appears to be a basic principle in her society: that sexual relationships are primarily demonstrations of one person’s power over another.
Most eighteenth century women, Mary realizes, believe that in marriage they are trading their independence for security, for protection and support, and therefore, if not for happiness, at least for contentment. Mary has only to look at the women in her own family, however, to see how women are tricked by such assumptions. Like her mother, her sister Elizabeth (Eliza) Wollstonecraft Bishop marries expecting to be cherished, but instead she finds herself subjected to sadistic and systematic abuse. With Mary’s help, Eliza finally flees, but since by marrying she has relinquished all of her personal rights, she must abandon her baby. Later, the child dies, probably because of neglect.
Unlike her sister, Mary enters the adult world in search of independence, not of the kind of dependence, or slavery, that comes with a husband. It is significant that although the first three encounters of her adult life all htve sexual overtones, none of them can lead to marriage; none even leads to sexual intercourse. In the initial section of ’tindication, entitled “Fanny,” Sherwood reveals Mary’s love for her childhood friend Fanny Blood. In Fanny, Mary finds someone who loves her without making demands upon her, someone who gives her affection but leaves her body, her mind, and her spirit inviolate. Unfortunately, Fanny does not find fulfillment in the life that Mary arranges for her. She needs the protection of a man, Fanny insists; moreover, she yearns for children. Even though she is already a consumptive, Fanny marries. Mary is saddened, though not surprised, when she is subsequently called to Portugal to be with her friend, who is pregnant and gravely ill. The baby is born, Fanny dies, and Mary is devastated. Remembering their mutual vows of love as Fanny lay on her deathbed, Mary can only conclude that one more woman has fallen a martyr to the sexual needs of men.
After suffering through the end of this first attachment, Mary becomes involved with two males, neither of whom poses a sexual threat to her. The first of them is an adolescent boy, the son of an Irish aristocrat who has employed her as a governess. Although the relationship between Mary and her young admirer is thoroughly sensual, Mary is in control. She indulges him and enjoys herself, but she does not give herself to passion, or to the boy. fronically, the reason that Mary is dismissed from her post is not her erotic behavior with the boy, but her mistress’ jealousy because Mary is so popular with her charges.
The second section of Sherwood’s book is called “Joseph,” for Joseph Johnson, who takes Mary into his home, employs her,...
(The entire section is 1993 words.)