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on 28 June 2010
In Gender, Art and Death, Janet Todd went to town on Claire Tomalin's biography The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) for what she termed "a failure of tact". The book was, she argued, "flippant", "sure of a singular identity and peculiar female subjectivity" and tactless in its insistence on Wollstonecraft's human frailty, her "imperfect heroism".

Over a quarter of a century later, Todd published her own biography of the 18th century philosopher and feminist. In the meantime she has clearly revised her view and can, at times, barely conceal her irritation when describing Wollstonecraft's behaviour: Mary "was quick to display the victimised woman" (240), she "imagined no subjectivity outside of her own" (288), and "was quick to find fault in others" (194). Tomalin must have choked on her breakfast when coming upon such negative judgements! Todd even uses the same word to describe Wollstonecraft that was the focal point of her reproach of Tomalin's work: "Twenty-eight, without home, money or employment, tactless, self-absorbed, depressive and energetic..." (116).

Against the background of a tendency to exalt MW in the early to mid-1970s (when, astonishingly, a total of six biographies were published on her), Todd relativises her impact on modern-day feminism: "The difficulties Wollstonecraft ignored have emerged more strongly [...] She underestimated the power of polarisation and physical difference. It was an oversimplification" (186). Personally MW seems to undergo little emotional development in her account, or if she does, it is only in the final months of her life when she marries William Godwin and a stronger foundation for stability is established. In her politics and her life - and Todd shows how the two are inextricable in this case - Wollstonecraft remains, as one critic has written, "an ambigious symbol of both feminism and femininity."

It is an exhaustive account and I for one could have done with less on the Imlay affair. Wollstonecraft's numerous letters to Gilbert Imlay, the peripatetic father of her illegitimate child, have been available to readers in book form since 1908 (some of them since 1798), making less exhaustive treatment possible. At over 500 pages, Todd's biography is inevitably more detailed than Tomalin's one (which is, incidentally, also worth reading) and is probably better suited to those studying Wollstonecraft and/or those *intensely* interested in her life, rather than the more casual reader. (4.5 stars)

Also recommended>
Janet Todd, Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle (2007)
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