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*Vindication* by Frances Sherwood - author interviewAn Interview with
Frances Sherwood

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Mary Wollstonecraft was a remarkable woman. How did you become interested in fictionalizing her life?

Frances Sherwood: I read a portion of Vindication of the Rights of Woman for the first time when I was a teacher in a Catholic Girls’ High School. I also read Virginia Wolfe’s account of Mary Wollstonecraft’s early life. The discrepancy between the abysmal childhood and rational insistence of the rights of women was striking, intriguing. I was hooked.

Clearly, you did prodigious research for Vindication. How did you approach this research on Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries?

When I became a university teacher I had the time to read and funds to travel. I read everything about Mary Wollstonecraft and then I traveled to England, France and Portugal, followed her footsteps. I visited museums that had items from her childhood, saw a doll I put in the book, explored eighteenth century interiors in Scotland, investigated clothing and furniture of the time. I immersed myself.

How would you account for Mary’s drive to lift herself from her squalid beginnings to a better life?

Mary was intelligent and arrogant. She had physical stamina. She had “guts,” chutzpa, did not care what people thought of her, had everything to gain.

Women in 18th-century England had few options other than marriage, service or hiring out as a governess. Were it not for her incisive mind, what would Mary’s prospects have been in an uncertain society?

Needlework, prostitution, destitution, gin lane, starvation.

Wollstonecraft fears a life as a penniless spinster. What would such a life entail at that time and place?

All of the above.

The Reverend Price is a positive influence on Mary, especially regarding the need of expanding her education. Was the reverend’s interest unusual, in that he directed his efforts toward helping a female?

Yes. It is true that he helped her and he was unusual. In my book, I make him doubly nice.

Wollstonecraft’s love of knowledge is her salvation. Was this not extraordinary for a woman of her station in that era?

It seems extraordinary. But we really don’t know how many voices were lost by the wayside, do we?

Frequently destitute, it is common for Mary to barely survive her circumstances. Is this due to luck or talent?

And a little help from her friends.

The generosity of Mary Wollstonecraft’s publisher gives her a career and a lifelong friend. How inspirational is Joseph to the protagonist?

Joseph was wonderful, and I made him a real hero in Vindication. I kind of fell for him myself as I wrote him.

*Vindication* by Frances SherwoodHow would you explain the seminal dichotomy of Wollstonecraft’s life: her writing vs. the nature of her relationships?

Interestingly, I wrote Mary as I observed many twentieth century women. Some of us are wise in some respects, but foolish in love. Is there a perfect woman? Or man? We tend to hear more about women’s poor choices than men’s indiscretions, self-destructiveness, etc.

About halfway through the novel, I realized that Mary’s life, while fascinating, is fraught with ongoing difficulties. How did you balance the story so that the reader wouldn’t be overwhelmed by Mary’s problems?

I hoped I achieved a balance. I think that novels are about the mystery of our existences and not public accomplishments. I was writing a novel, not a biography or eulogy. I tend to think that whatever progress we make as individuals or as society are gained through struggle and dedication. The miracle is effort and faithfulness.

Historically, Wollstonecraft is a remarkable and important figure in women’s literature. How is it that she hasn’t been discovered before this? Or has she?

Mary Shelley, her daughter has, I believe, received more attention. Her daughter was in the Romantic Period, a time more attractive to people in our age. Also Mary Shelley was less controversial, more accessible, indeed known as Percy Shelley’s wife. Also Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a model for much that was to follow. Remember that Mary Wollstonecraft was primarily an essayist, not usually a popular genre.

Women are so obviously at the mercy of society in the 18th century, as evidenced by Mary’s sojourn in Bedlam. Can you speak to this perception of women at the time?

Mary Wollstonecraft was not really in Bedlam. I made that up because I found the history of Bedlam so interesting. However, she was terribly melancholy, did attempt suicide twice. Actually I think we “let” women be melancholy. We expect it in any age, and sometimes venerate it. Men are supposed to be emotionally strong, aren’t they? Don’t they go out and kill lions and other people?

Clearly a product of her difficult childhood, Mary is branded by her early experience with an unloving father. Given the circumstances, did she have any chance when making relationship choices?

This is a good point because we tend to repeat patterns. Mary was used to abuse, had experienced it and witnesses it from a very young age. It takes a very self-aware person to escape the repetition. But remember, she married William Godwin, a dear, good man. Unfortunately she died before she was able to reap the full benefit of that relationship.

In contrast to her brilliant writing, Mary is subject to the melancholia of the poets of her time. Would these moods be described today as manic-depression?

Yes, I think she was manic-depressive, or what we call bipolar. And no meds! But I must say she utilized those manias!

Mary experiences some horrific incidents as a young mother caring for her small daughter. Her intuition tells her to remove her daughter from harm. Was this situation inevitable, given Mary’s lack of good family models?

This is a big point of contention. Mary never threw her baby against the wall as I have her do in my book. However, she was not a particularly good mother to her first daughter who committed suicide as a young woman. Mary Wollstonecraft’s mother was not a good mother and her father was an absolute brute. Gilbert Imlay, her lover and the father of the baby, left Mary’s mother. Some people have terrible parenting and become overprotective, abusive, or very good parents. I don’t think anything is inevitable. Mary Wollstonecraft died at 38 years old, at the birth of her second child. In time, with a good marriage, perhaps she would have become a good mother. However, when men are not great parents, don’t we tend to forgive them?

During a euphoric period before the birth of her second child, Mary imagines her little family all together, happy. But would she have realistically been able to tolerate the stress any better than after the first child?

Yes. She was older, getting wiser.

Women like Wollstonecraft prepared the way for the feminists that would follow. Do you think she had any idea how pivotal, how groundbreaking her writing would be to future generations?

She broke ground within the patriarchy simply by speaking up, becoming visible, daring to believe in equality and wring about it.

What did you find most enjoyable about writing Vindication? Most difficult?

I loved writing it. I wrote it in a frenzy of love.

Are there any issues brought up in Vindication that you would like to speak to?

I think I do my talking in the book. It stands.

Do you have any projects planned that you can share with us?

Since Vindication, I published two novels, Green, and The Book of Splendor. The Book of Splendor is currently a paperback available in bookstores. I have also written many short stories. “Basil the Dog” is available on the web. My short story, “Pilgrims” will be published in Zoetrope this summer. I will be finishing a new novel, Betrayal, in December 2004.

Do you have any advice for would-be authors?

Yes. Keep the faith.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Frances Sherwood via email for Click here to read her review of Vindication.


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