Quite contrary

Mary Wollstonecraft: a revolutionary life

Janet Todd <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 516pp, £25</em>

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

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide