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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Julia Sneden reviews Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft - Lyndall Gordon has done history a true service in rescuing this remarkable woman from the plethora of misinformation surrounding her. His book is long and complex, and most decidedly not one the reader could toss off in a sitting, but its rewards are great. Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is still a rattling good story, one that entertains but also explores moral dilemmas, and comes down firmly on the side of accountability, loyalty, truth, and love.

VINDICATION: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Lyndall Gordon,
©2005 Harper Collins, Publishers
452 pp. (plus almost another hundred pages of notes, sources, contexts, & bibliography)

History has preserved the names of a few intelligent, bold, noteworthy women, but Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797, is the one most often designated as the first feminist of the modern age. Lyndall Gordon’s brilliant biography goes a long way to support that claim, rescuing her image from the backlash assault of the Victorian age and the hasty, incomplete biography published by her mourning husband, William Godwin.

Mary Wollstonecraft somehow managed to forge a sturdy, intelligent and even tender character despite a having lived through a difficult childhood. She was the second of six children (3 sons, 3 daughters) born to a tyrannical, abusive, self-centered father who beat both his wife and his dogs with equal ferocity, and an anxious, acquiescent mother who preferred her first born (a son) and her two youngest daughters. Somehow Mary emerged from this dysfunctional group with a remarkable sense of self and purpose, the first purpose being escape from her family.

She turned to friends, seeking out other young women with lively minds. The parents of these girls, responding to Mary’s good intelligence, served as mentors to her, introducing her to good books and good conversation.

Forced by her father’s ineptitude (in addition to his addiction to alcohol, there were a series of failed enterprises necessitating frequent moves), she tried to find ways to support herself, first serving as companion to an elderly woman in Bath. When her mother fell ill, Mary returned home, and nursed her for two years. After the mother’s death, the family fell apart, and Mary went to live with the family of her dear friend, Fanny Blood, where she contributed to their support by doing needlework. The Bloods are an interesting group, always on the edge of financial disaster, and Fanny and Mary seem to have been the source of most of their income. Nevertheless, Mary sustained her affection for them and loyally helped them throughout her life.

When her younger sister Eliza appealed for help in escaping her unhappy marriage, Mary engaged in a cloak-and-dagger rescue that unfortunately involved leaving behind Eliza’s child. In those days, fathers had absolute ownership of their offspring, and Eliza’s husband took his revenge on his escaped wife by turning the infant over to strangers. The child was dead within the year, a tragedy which haunted Eliza lifelong.

Mary, Eliza, their sister Everina, and Fanny Blood next started a school at Newington Green. The village was a gathering ground for Dissenters and intellectuals, and it was here that Mary met the famous reformer, Dr. Richard Price. Mary’s philosophy of education evolved as she built her school, a philosophy that even today seems both revolutionary and sound.

Fanny, whose health had never been good, married and moved to Portugal, where she soon became pregnant. Mary traveled to Portugal to be present for the birth, and when Fanny died shortly thereafter, returned to England, devastated by the death of her dear friend. In the three months that she was gone, her school fell on hard times. With the loss of many pupils, Mary was forced to close the school, and find some other means of support.

Page Two of Vindication, Page Three of Vindication; Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince>>


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