Published by: Endeavour Press
Publication date: 13th May 2016
Now chiefly remembered as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin has often been acclaimed as a prophetess of the emancipation of her sex — a woman who did much to smooth the way for subsequent female triumphs.
But Mary’s life beyond her Vindication – published in 1791, eight years before her death, by her friend Joseph Johnson — was plagued by poverty, misery, and despair, with only a few snatched moments of happiness to keep her going.
Born into a family of impoverished gentility, she spent her childhood as a drudge in her own home, subject to a drunken father and largely responsible for her four younger siblings.
Exposed from a very young age to the power men hold over women, and the scarcity of choice women have in submitting and obeying, Mary formed opinions of the equal rights of women that stayed with her for many years.
As an adult, her ability to make for herself a living through writing and hackwork went a long way towards affirming her beliefs, but she rapidly grew tired of the dullness of her life and longed for companionship.
But ideals and reality often do not coincide, as Mary discovered in her own relationships with men.
Hungry for affection and love, she entered into an affair with Gilbert Imlay and lived with him, having fallen deeply in love with him and knowing he could not be had on any other terms.
The two held significantly different outlooks on love, life, and matrimony. Mary’s letters to Imlay during the course of their relationship, and particularly after the birth of their daughter, Fanny, make clear the desperation with which she sought to hold on to him, long after he wished to wash his hands of her.
Two attempts to take her life likewise marked the despondency with which the affair had left her.
Mary subsequently lived with William Godwin; mentally exhausted and emotionally broken, she was lonely and eager for some imitation of the life she had led with Imlay.
Though Godwin had long been against the institution of marriage, Mary persuaded him into marrying her because she dreaded social ostracism and the brining of a second illegitimate child into a harsh world.
This attempt at returning to conventional societal norms only served to have certain doors permanently shut in her face.
Upon her death she left behind her two daughters, who, however unintentionally, followed very much in their mother’s footsteps, chasing unorthodox relationships and defying convention.
Death served as a release from the unhappiness and anguish that had dogged Mary’s footsteps from birth, leaving behind a legacy that spoke of a strong and proud feminist.
Marjorie Bowen was born in 1885 on Hayling Island in Hampshire. She and her sister grew up in poverty, but Bowen was eventually able to study at the Slade School of Fine Art and later in Paris. Her first novel, the violent historical ‘The Viper of Milan’ (written when she was 16) was rejected by several publishers, who considered it inappropriate for a young woman to have written such a novel. It went on to become a best-seller when eventually published.
Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell.
Bowen died on 22 December 1952, after suffering serious concussion as a result of a fall in her bedroom. This book was previously published under the name George R. Preedy.
This reprint is really showing its age, in the judgemental attitude of the writter and the lack of any analysis. This biography is interesting, admittedly and covers all the necessary details, however the use of direct quotes from surviving letters doesn’t so much support the narrative as weigh it down with repetition and lack of useful analysis or synthesis. There is no discussion of Mary Wollstonecroft’s obvious mental health conditions – if we use her letters as evidence she, and Eliza Wollstonscroft, we’re clearly suffering from depression or PTSD due to their abusive childhood. I had a mixed reaction to this book; I was engrossed by the fascinating life led by its subject but turned off by the authorial style.
If you want a quick lesson about Mary Wollstonecroft this book will provide details, but if you want depth and analysis there are better biographies available.