Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

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9781842123980: Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life
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A richly detailed, powerful biography of the first major feminist in England, highlighting her intellectual and sexual dilemmas, her glamorous and tumultuous life and loves. The combination of her works with her efforts to live a revolutionary inner and outer life has no equal.

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Review:

Identified as one of the founders of modern feminism, the life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) has become a symbol of women's struggle between love and politics. Janet Todd's outstanding biography does justice to both aspects of that life from Wollstonecraft's girlhood--as a child, she was a keen observer of the appalling relationship between her parents--to her often troubled, yet vivid, experience as a woman who broke with so many of the conventions of her day. It is easy to consider Wollstonecraft in terms of the scandal and sensation that surrounded her: as an intellectual, certainly--the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman at the beginning of the 1790s cast Wollstonecraft as a "hyena in petticoats"--but also as a passionate, and sexual, woman willing to pursue her desires to the point of bearing a child out of wedlock and re-inventing the marriage contract in her well-documented relationship with the radical philosopher William Godwin. Part of the strength of Todd's biography is the context and texture, she brings to her subject, her presentation of the emotional and intellectual complexity of Wollstonecraft's life and milieu. Mary Wollstonecraft is a fluid and dramatic, read, each chapter using a citation from Wollstonecraft's writings--"I am averse to any matrimonial tie", "Emotions that trembled on the brink of ecstasy and agony", "You will, perhaps accuse me of insensibility"--to introduce and thematise the events of the life as well as the preoccupations of the work (fiction as well as politics). At issue throughout are the dilemmas of a woman's life: Wollstonecraft's commitment to female ties, female friendship, female experience. It's a commitment that, as so many have noted before, has its ironic conclusion in her death from complications following the birth of her second daughter (Mary Shelley) in September 1797--an irony that Todd captures here, as elsewhere, through the words that Wollstonecraft left behind her: "I am in the most natural state." --Vicky Lebeau

Review:

"'A powerfully realistic new Life of the first modern feminist.' - Lorna Sage"

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