Book Explores Wollstonecraft's Life Jacki Lyden talks with biographer Lyndall Gordon about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gordon describes Wollstonecraft's violent upbringing, her radical views on education, and her failed love affair.

Book Explores Wollstonecraft's Life

Book Explores Wollstonecraft's Life

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Jacki Lyden talks with biographer Lyndall Gordon about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gordon describes Wollstonecraft's violent upbringing, her radical views on education, and her failed love affair.

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`A madwoman,' `a hyena in petticoats'--that's what her detractors said. `One of the best men in Britain,' according to a supporter. Born in 1759, when husbands utterly ruled women's lives and were able to legally beat them, she's often seen as the mother of modern feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1793 when she was 32, wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," a book that would make Wollstonecraft one of the most famous women of her time. Noted biographer Lyndall Gordon brings her to life in her new book, "Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft." Lyndall Gordon joins us now.


Ms. LYNDALL GORDON (Author, "Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft"): Hello.

LYDEN: Lyndall Gordon, this is a very well-researched biography. And for those not fortunate enough to have come upon Mary Wollstonecraft, maybe you could give us a sense how at such an early age, as a teen-ager, she became a holder of revolutionary views.

Ms. GORDON: Mary Wollstonecraft grew up in a home where there was domestic violence. Her father was an alcoholic, and the chief victim of domestic violence was her mother. She had very strong views that marriage was a kind of prostitution, a legalized rape. And she was very determined to change women's lives, to work out through her own life a new plot of existence for her own sex.

And in 1787, at a moment when she decides to make a big change in her life to stop doing all the menial jobs a woman had to do to earn a living, she decided to be a writer. And at this moment she wrote to her sister, Everina, `I'm going to be the first of a new genus, a new kind of creature.' She said that `I was not born to tread the beaten track,' and it's that that I mean when I said she had to find a new plot of existence.

LYDEN: You write that there weren't many ways forward for women of her rank. I mean, she was a middle-class woman.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: She wasn't...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: Her father spent what little fortune they had had.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: When she's a governess early on in Ireland...

Ms. GORDON: Yes, Ireland.

LYDEN: a Protestant family, a high-born family, after having run a small school just north of London...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...she's teaching some young women, and it gives her a lot of ideas for what she writes about education later--really, a crusading educator.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes, you put that really well. She was a crusading educator. She wanted girls to learn not to be obedient. That was the norm for girls of that generation in the late 18th century. What prevailed for girls' education were called advice books, and she was dead against those advice books. What she did was take those three aristocratic girls in the King family at Mitchelstown Castle. And she, rather like Thoreau, except this was 60 years before Thoreau--instead of taking them out into the Concord Woods, she took them out into the countryside in County Cork in Ireland, and she made them look at the life cycles of ants. And she also made them look at people who were low in the scale of the social hierarchy, people who had, you know, pitiful histories of poverty. And aristocratic girls might have ministered to the poor; they would have done charity. But she didn't want them to see the poor as objects of charity; she wanted them to see life histories. In a sense, she was training them biographically.

LYDEN: She then reinvents herself with her pen over and over.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: She moves to London.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes.

LYDEN: She publishes "Vindication," which becomes an immediate hit...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...and makes her famous and controversial. Would you tell us just a little bit of why she chose "Vindication" as a title, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women"?

Ms. GORDON: Well, before she wrote her "Vindication of the Rights of Women," she had written an earlier book called "A Vindication of the Rights of Men." And this was a very daring thing for her to do because in those days, in the late 18th century, there were certain areas that were considered respectable for women. Women could write light verses, they could write children's books, they could write sentimental novels. But they could not write history and politics. And it was at this moment when she decides to write "A Vindication of the Rights of Men" that she ventures into the male arena. And she didn't publish that book immediately with her name. When it was a success, her name became known.

LYDEN: So she has written these brilliant, brilliant books...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...been entertained and entertained some of the leading thinkers of her day and yet at 34, after moving to France to cover the French Revolution, sets off in an affair that is absolutely a disaster.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Gilbert Imlay, the man she meets, an American in Paris, has been always described as a cad, a scoundrel; you just get that one word. And I wanted to look more deeply into this elusive character because if he's simply a cad or a scoundrel, then Mary Wollstonecraft looks like a sex-starved dupe. And I think that Imlay was a more complex and interesting character. He was a man who certainly expressed very modern, liberal ideals. He presented himself as a frontiersman of Kentucky and...

LYDEN: He was dashing. He was dashing, he was handsome.

Ms. GORDON: He was dashing. He was tall...

LYDEN: You've got a portrait of him here. He was everything, you know...

Ms. GORDON: ...was tall and he was...

LYDEN: ...except faithful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GORDON: It was--yes, exactly. He was, it's clear from Mary Wollstonecraft's letters to him, a wonderful lover. What she looked for, because she had this thuggish, awful father, was tenderness, and Imlay seemed to have that. Imlay was not just a cad or a scoundrel; I mean, he was an opportunist like many men of his time. I don't see him as awfully different. But he did do good things for Mary Wollstonecraft. And he did have values, anti-slavery values, values of human dignity, all kinds of values that would have actually chimed with her own.

LYDEN: To telescope this event, for all that, Gilbert Imlay is, in your book, a much more complex character than he's ever been before. The breakup of this relationship, after she bears their daughter...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...sends her just spiraling downward into...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...what can only be construed as a depression.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: And she tries to commit suicide not just once but twice. And it's a serious attempt.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: She weights down her clothes with water...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: ...she tries to throw herself off a bridge over the River Thames in London.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

LYDEN: It's the nadir of this brilliant life.

Ms. GORDON: Yes, that is the nadir. Now it would be very tempting to end chapters with those two attempts at suicide when she discovers Imlay has been unfaithful. She felt absolutely committed to the marriage--to their relationship, as though it were a marriage, and she was shocked and she did suffer very greatly. But what seems to me remarkable was not that she suffered since, you know, that's a normal human condition, but that she had this capacity to pull herself together again when her life was really nearly knocked awry, when she fell in love with a man who couldn't love her sufficiently back.

LYDEN: Of course, she eventually becomes the mother of Mary Shelley, who writes "Frankenstein."

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes.

LYDEN: Where do you set her in the figures of the Enlightenment?

Ms. GORDON: Well, in a way, she was somebody who was on the brink of the romantic period. But I think that the core of her looked back to the Enlightenment, which was really almost on the outs--going out. I mean, she was very concerned with reason. She felt women had to be rational creatures.

But I really would like to place her beyond us, in the future, and I feel that she's speaking somewhere beyond where we are now in the way certain writers like Plath and Dickinson are speaking in some way beyond us. We're not quite fully there yet. And, you know, I hope that a time will come when we will fully understand what Emily Dickinson means in the dashes between her statements, when we will fully understand the metaphors that Sylvia Plath uses and when we will fully understand what Mary Wollstonecraft looks towards when she says she is the first of a new genus.

LYDEN: Lyndall Gordon, thank you very much for speaking with us. Lyndall Gordon's new biography is "Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft."

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. GORDON: Thank you.

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