The “woman question” is crucial in the battle for social justice. So argued Mary Wollstonecraft in 1791 in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
It remains one of the clearest denunciations of women’s oppression ever published. It also pre-empted, by nearly 200 years, many of the radical ideas that emerged in the feminist and socialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in 1759 in grimy Spitalfields in London, as a child Wollstonecraft listened to her alcoholic father raping and beating her mother.
Indeed, this was a time when a husband legally owned his wife, her property and children, when domestic violence was sanctioned and when girls were drilled to submit.
Wollstonecraft escaped this world through books. Influenced by the revolutionary thinkers of the time, she courageously rejected a life of domesticity in favour of writing and politics.
In 1790 she wrote a fierce rebuttal of Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution that alienated most of her supporters.
Her life was dogged by poverty and betrayal. In the chaos of revolutionary France she was abandoned when pregnant by her lover and gave birth alone to a girl, Fanny. Twice Wollstonecraft tried to kill herself. Only luck kept her alive.
Back in England in 1797 and now married to the political philosopher William Godwin, she died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Mary.
Mary’s bravery and brilliance matched her mother’s. A voracious reader, she eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when only 16. Aged just 18 she wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, a revolutionary book.
Charlotte Gordon’s biography meticulously details the influences that shaped Frankenstein, refuting the insinuation that Shelley was the book’s main author. Indeed, Gordon shows that if anyone rescued someone else’s work it was Mary, who spent years piecing together Shelley’s unpublished jottings.
Poverty and tragedy also shadowed Mary. By the time she was 22 her three beloved children were dead and she was pregnant again. When she was 25 Shelley died, leaving her penniless and alone with her son Percy. Her half-sister Fanny had committed suicide.
Despite this and bouts of paralysing depression, she kept on writing. She died aged 53 of a brain tumour.
Gordon’s book has short chapters alternating between the lives of mother and daughter, which in places makes it confusing. Occasionally it reveals hostility to the optimistic, revolutionary idealism of Shelley.
But this is a tiny price for a beautifully written book that highlights the grim realities faced by women in 18th and 19th century Europe and, crucially, brings to life women usually presented as ciphers in the biographies of the famous.