Virginia Woolf called Mary Wollstonecraft's life "an experiment". In 1885, the Athenaeum termed it "one of the most thrilling romances". For her contemporaries, it was also a scandal. Wollstonecraft was punished for loving another woman, falling in love with at least three men and bearing an illegitimate child. She was vilified as a whore and an "unsex'd female". Plenty of women wrote books at the time, but hers - both her novels and polemics - stood out because they transgressed the fixed gender boundaries decreeing that each sex viewed the world in a particular way. Suitably feminine writing, comfortably toeing the line, could be simultaneously approved and despised by the canon-makers, but writing that questioned rigid male-female divisions was seen as mad, bad and dangerous. These tussles over language and over sexual difference still haunt us today, which makes Wollstonecraft a peculiarly sympathetic feminist precursor. Her energy makes it seem as though she's articulating our contemporary concerns; and, like many a modern feminist, she can be both exhilarating and hard to please. No sentimental champion of her own sex, she was as tough on women as she was on men.
This new biography suggests that Wollstonecraft's turbulent life, with all its contradictions, intellectual aspiration, changes of mind and stirring adventures, forced her to become a writer. There were no maps for the sort of woman she was, and so she had to draw them herself. Emotional conflicts were closely connected to political ones. Wollstonecraft comes across as strongly modern in the way that she valued both her inner and outer life, charting the progress of heart and soul, even as she campaigned in print for women's rights and fiercely defended the initial aims of the revolutionary movement in France. The fascinating literary problem with which she wrestled endlessly was how to invent a literary form adequate to her task: caught in the 18th century's heavily gendered opposition of reason and sensibility, she zigzagged between recommending masculine rationality as a model and valuing the knowledge afforded by feeling, sexuality and maternity.
One of the main strengths of Janet Todd's book is that it paints a portrait of the writer, not just the activist, demonstrating Wollstonecraft's prolific, obsessive output of letters, notes and journalism, as well as books and essays. Here was a woman who had never heard of writer's block, but who simply let rip, wherever she was. Wollstonecraft's feminism was completely integrated with her need to write. Todd convincingly ties together the woman, the politics, the writing and the life.
Previous biographies, such as Claire Tomalin's, have outlined Wollstonecraft's story well: the harsh childhood and early deprivation; the teaching and governessing; the sojourn in Paris during the Terror; the difficult love affair with Gilbert Imlay and the resulting child; the voyage to Sweden; the suicide attempt; the union with the philosopher William Godwin; and her tragic early death after childbirth. Todd, writing at greater length, is able to flesh out the bones of her narrative with copious quotations, allowing us to revel in a range of 18th-century English prose, and to relish the variety and proficiency of Wollstonecraft's discourses. At one moment, she is hammering Imlay for his neglect; at the next moment, she is recording charming domestic details of her life with her little daughter Fanny; while her notes to the loving but clumsy Godwin are both touching and comic. Todd also fills in the social background, including riveting descriptions of literary and political life in London. Once we have placed Wollstonecraft in a context of hacks and literati, both male and female, we see her less as a lonely heroine fighting a solo battle and more as one brave woman among many, looking for friendship and understanding just like anyone else. This does not diminish her achievement, but allows her to be human.
The flaw in this rich account is Todd's judgemental attitude towards Wollstonecraft. Perhaps living with the self-centredness of her subject for so long drove Todd to exasperation, but nevertheless she displays a curious lack of compassion for Wollstonecraft, constantly berating her for being too demanding, for nagging, for trying to control her lovers. The emotional cruelty that Wollstonecraft suffered as a child damaged her profoundly and led her to be so needy and insecure in adult life that she found it hard to trust, to relax and to receive. But I think there is something wonderful about an angry 18th-century woman who insisted on breaking through all the taboos and shouting out what she really meant.
Michele Roberts's new novel, The Looking Glass, is published by Virago, £15.99