With perfect pitch, Frances Sherwood brings eighteenth-century England to life, the grinding days of abject poverty and the almost insurmountable distance between the poor and the wealthy. Mary Wollstonecraft is born into a family that lives on the edge, where everything is meager, from provisions to emotions. The lack of love mirrors the lack of sustenance in a family defined by misery, save one: Mary. She refuses to be another victim of neglect in an era that chews up the destitute like so much fodder.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s childhood is hideous, a nightmare of drunkenness and depravity visited upon a helpless child. Her father is a drunkard and her mother his willing victim until her death. That Mary survives at all is a miracle, but survive she does, and with a vengeance.
Mary lives so much of her early years in dire circumstances that her awakening as a female is slow but inevitable, her attractiveness exponential to her fearless intelligence. Her writing consumes her, yet it is a separate agony from the one she feels regarding the men in her life. In this respect, Wollstonecraft is haunted by the abuse of her childhood, afraid to entertain expectations of men.
Her seminal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, is a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s belief of the rights of man, as lived by women.
Mary’s publisher holds a weekly salon with the likes of William Blake, William Godwin, Thomas Paine and, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft, the equal of them all. Yet she feels a discontent, “a kind of celestial poorhouse overseen by Father Time and monitored by Mother May I.” In time, Mary is drawn into the energy of the discussions, ever more involved in the energetic rhetoric.
Through her various love affairs, Wollstonecraft experiences the horrors of Bedlam, the day-to-day insanity of the French revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, in Vindication all a beautiful blend of fact and fiction. Be warned, this is not a frivolous novel, although I consider it a must-read. Its crafting is superb but painful, because nothing in Wollstonecraft’s life is without difficulty. Her childhood shadows the rest of her life, yet her intellect is intransigent in pursuit of a better life for women. Through Mary’s suffering comes an intimate understanding of women’s roles in a world that surely restricts their choices.
Sherwood’s focus on daily life is unflinching. For every rhapsodic fantasy there is a healthy dose of reality, often tempered with explicit details of how very difficult and feral life could be in eighteenth-century Europe. The physical takes its place beside the imaginary; although the luminaries who are Mary’s contemporaries wax poetic on the nature of the universe, the actual living is quite tedious. The author’s great gift is her success in breathing life into her characters, especially Mary and her complexities, her questioning spirit, her drive to succeed. All of this is accomplished with consummate skill.
Sherwood has accomplished a prodigious feat: the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft walks the pages of Vindication, correcting, arguing and always struggling for a place in the world that she will never know. The rendering of this tortured life is exquisite, searching and inspirational.