VindicationA Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
Chapter One Violence at Home
In December 1792 an Englishwoman of thirty-three crossed the Channel to revolutionary France. She was travelling alone on her way to Paris at a time when Englishmen like Wordsworth were speeding in the opposite direction - back to the safety of their country, in fear of the oncoming Terror. When, at length, Mary Wollstonecraft arrived at a friend's hotel, she found it deserted, one folding door opening after another, till she reached her room at the far end. There she sat by her candle, knowing no one and unable to speak the language. The silence, in contrast to London, was eerie. As she looked up from the letter she was writing, eyes glared through a glass door. Looming through the darkness, bloody hands showed themselves and shook at her. She longed for the sound of a footstep; she missed her cat. 'I want to see something alive,' her pen scratched, 'death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy.'
That day she had seen the King carried past her window at nine in the morning, on the way to his trial. She records the stillness and emptiness of the streets, the closed shutters, the drums of the National Guard, her own assent to the 'majesty of the people', and the sight of 'Louis sitting with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet his death'. Violence had always roused her. As a child she had witnessed scenes of violence at home; she had heard 'the lash resound on the slaves' naked sides'; and now even Louis XVI called out her tears.
This will be the story of an independent and compassionate woman who devised a blueprint for human change, held to it through the Terror and private trials, and passed it on to her daughters and future generations. 'I am ... going to be the first of a new genus,' Mary Wollstonecraft told her sister Everina, 'the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.'
She combined a dreamy voluptuousness with quick words, fixing brown eyes on her listener. The eyes didn't quite match, as though the right eye lingered in thought while the left drew one into intimacy with that thought. I want to dispel the myth of wildness: her voice was rational, deploring a fashion for 'romantic sentiments' instead of 'just opinions'. She wished 'to see women neither heroines nor brutes, but reasonable creatures'. Her earliest portrait presents a leader, austere in black, with powdered hair. Later portraits show the writer, her locks bound by a scarf, turning from her book to ruminate; and a sensible wife, auburn hair bundled out of sight, in the new, simple look of white muslin caught up under a rounded breast. She was pregnant at the time, but was always a large woman with a warm physical presence, unlike the bluestocking, the narrow female scholar of the eighteenth century.
Her husband, the philosopher and social reformer William Godwin, called her the 'firmest champion' and 'the greatest ornament her sex ever had to boast'. She was famous, then notorious. For most, her freedom to shape her life as she saw fit had to fade. Our society still repeats stories of doom, as though genius in a woman exacts a terrible end; as though it must be unnatural. Here, we test a different story, stripping the interchangeable masks of womanhood - queen of hearts, whore, waif- to seek out the novelty of what a 'new genus' implies: a new kind of creature who found her voice in a brief moment of historical optimism when, as Wordsworth put it, 'Europe was rejoiced,/ France standing at the top of golden hours,/And human nature seeming born again.' Everything in
Mary's unsheltered life prepared her for the impact of the first heady phase of the French Revolution when all traditional forms of existence seemed ripe for change. At that moment, she stood ready to turn revolution towards a future for 'human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed on this earth to unfold their faculties'.
This pioneer of women's rights is even more a pioneer of character: in the secret mirror of her mind, the first of her kind. How did she shed, one by one, the stale plots that leach the 'real life' out of us? A 'new genus' needs a new plot of existence. Mary Wollstonecraft is, in this sense, rewriting her life for lives to come. Though she speaks of 'improvement' in the acceptable terms of her day it's a grand design and, as such, vulnerable to those with the power to plunge her back into familiar scenes of wasted lives - wasted like her mother, prime victim of violence at home, the person for whom Mary the child felt her earliest, most instinctive and desperate pity. Virginia Woolf pictures a dauntless biographic creator: 'Every day she made theories by which life should be lived; and every day she came smack against the rock of other people's prejudices. Every day too - for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist - something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and modelled them afresh.' She hails the French Revolution; then hates its bloodshed. She shuns marriage; then marries. We are tempted to criticise her inconsistency - and then remember that 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'. To see Mary as shifting and rash would be to scale her down. Dimly, through the glare of celebrity and slander, it's possible to make out the shape of a new genus reading, testing, growing, but still uncategorised.
Each age retells this story; there have been invaluable portraits, from Godwin's 'champion' at the end of the eighteenth century to Mrs Fawcett's heroine for the suffragist Cause, and from Claire Tomalin's outstanding image of the wounded lover to Janet Todd's moody drama queen as seen through the exasperated eyes of her sisters. All present faces we can't forget. Yet there's also a face few see: that unnamed thing she feels herself to be. This biography will bring out the full genius of her evolving character as she projects from her generation to the next, unfolding with astonishing fertility from one kind of life to another ...