Diane Jacobs's exemplary popular biography makes pioneering 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) a vivid character for contemporary readers. Much more sympathetic than Janet Todd was in her book Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life
, Jacobs acknowledges Wollstonecraft's extravagantly emotional nature and wearying demands on loved ones, yet roots her shortcomings in frustration provoked by a society blatantly unjust toward women. Mary had to educate herself while her brothers attended the local grammar school; she cared for her dying mother while her farther seduced a younger woman; her sister could escape a bad marriage only by leaving behind a baby. The intelligent, unconventional Wollstonecraft's choice of occupations was limited to governess, paid companion, or schoolteacher, all of which she tried and detested.
No wonder she felt most at home with London radicals fired by the promise of the French Revolution, including publisher Joseph Johnson, who encouraged her early writing and in 1792 issued her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Jacobs does a nice job of conveying the scandalous impact of Wollstonecraft's then unprecedented insistence on economic and intellectual equality for women, and she evokes with similar immediacy the fervent atmosphere of revolutionary France, where Wollstonecraft fell in love with American Gilbert Imlay and bore his child. Imlay's desertion prompted two suicide attempts, but the perennially depressive Wollstonecraft found solace in England with philosopher William Godwin before dying of childbed fever after giving birth to a daughter, also named Mary, who would later run off with married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a narrative notable for its lively prose, dramatic punch, and positive assessment of the tempestuous Wollstonecraft, it's characteristic that Jacobs closes, not with her tragic death, but 19 years later as Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein and "the revolution continued." --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
The life of Wollstonecraft, pioneer feminist, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, observer of the French Revolution, and mother of Mary Shelley, seems an odd choice for Jacobs, whose previous publications include studies of film directors Woody Allen and Preston Sturges. But her access to newly discovered primary sources, notably a cache of letters by Wollstonecraft's publisher, Joseph Johnson, provides the pretext for this new biography. By now the outlines of Mary's story are reasonably familiar. A feminist theorist of the time, her life manifests all the contradictions we might expect from one whose vision of liberty ran far beyond the strictures imposed on a woman of her time and circumstances. Biology was indeed destiny for Mary, much as she would have deplored it, and in the company of so many more ordinary women, her brief life ended because of a mismanaged childbirth. Jacobs covers the obvious moments in Wollstonecraft's biography, but focuses on her perilous and exhilarating two-and-a-half-year stay in France during the Terror, where she tried even French tolerance by bearing a child out of wedlock to her lover, Gilbert Imlay. Regrettably, the new material Jacobs has consulted appears to add little to our understanding of Wollstonecraft's passions and conflicts. Coming as it does hard on the heels of Janet Todd's recent and excellent Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, this biography is less than essential.
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