The First of a New Genus

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Review of 'Mary Wollstonecraft', Lyndall Gordon, Virago £25 and 'Caleb Williams', William Godwin, Penguin £8.99

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) lived during the time of the enclosures, when rich farmers were grabbing centuries-old common lands as their private property, and doing the equivalent to women, turning them into the property of fathers, then husbands. A Marriage Act of 1753 removed rights previously held by a wife to her property or earnings, to her children in case of separation, to divorce and to physical protection in the home. The law allowed the husband to do with her what he wished, including beating her. Marriage 'put an eternal end to a woman's liberty'. The eminent Dr Johnson justified this as follows: 'The chastity of women is of all importance, as all property depends on it.'

Mary Wollstonecraft rebelled against all this. 'I am... going to be the first of a new genus,' she said. 'I am not born to tread in the beaten track.' Throughout her whole life she fought against tyranny of any kind, against slavery, against imperialism (supporting the American Revolution against Britain in the 1770s), and for the French Revolution in 1789. 'Friendship and devotion' not money or power, is 'what principally exalts man'. 'Compassion' must replace the vulgarities of 'prejudice'. 'The lower classes,' she said, 'are not less alive than aristocrats.'

Women had previously fought for their rights, particularly during the English Revolution of the 1640s, but Wollstonecraft went further in projecting a whole new way of living completely counter to the ingrained attitudes and prejudices of society at that time. Wollstonecraft spent part of her short life as a teacher and then as a governess to the daughters of an aristocratic family, whose sons, as was usual for boys, went to boarding school. These were rough places in the 18th century, where the boys were trained to be desensitised to bullying and defer to their seniors, biding their time until they could take their turn as top dogs.

But Wollstonecraft fought to gain her young pupils' dignity and equality as human beings. 'I wish them to be taught to think,' she proclaimed. 'Let the manners arise from the mind, and let there be no disguise for the genuine emotions of the heart.' Tenderness and sympathy were pre-eminent. To this end, 'Look into the book of nature,' and dismiss 'words of learned length and thundering sound' to cow the common herd. 'I am particularly sick of genteel life as it is called,' she said.

This simplicity, clarity, and an inflexible honesty - which she promoted also for children's sexual curiosity, a revolutionary idea at that time - she carried forward in her ideas for all people, and also in her own behaviour. She was generous in the extreme, despite her slender means. 'No thing gives me such pleasure,' she said, 'as to contribute to the happiness of the most insignificant creature.'

The work she is best known for, out of the many she wrote, was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, paralleling Tom Paine's famous and contemporaneous The Rights of Man.

She proclaimed against marriage, 'I will not marry for I don't want to be tied to this nasty world.' She wanted to pursue her 'own whims where they lead, without having a husband and half a hundred children at hand to tease and control a woman who wishes to be free'. However, she did marry William Godwin - who also inveighed against marriage - but they continued to live separately.

Godwin was also an accomplished writer, and Caleb Williams - the first 'thriller' in English literature - has just been republished. It is an unusual and powerful novel, which clearly brings out Godwin's antipathy to the ingrained class prejudices of the time, and is an early exposé of the terrible prison conditions which formed the basis of a major subsequent campaign for reform. The book is written in the same elegant and precise language of the time as Mary Wollstonecraft's, and is well worth reading.

Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth at the tender age of 38. Her legacy was carried on by her daughter Mary (who became the partner of the poet Shelley) and many other campaigners on behalf of women.