Unlike the `popular' biographies of Wollstonecraft by Tomalin (The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft) and Gordon (Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft), Todd's is dense, deeply thoughtful, and at pains to tie her interpretation to Wollstonecraft's own letters and writings. It is referred to by some readers as the `academic' or `scholarly' biography and, while I would agree with this in terms of methodology, it's important to point out that it isn't, in any sense, dry, dull or dusty.
What I like best about Todd's work is the fact that she makes no attempt to smooth out Mary Wollstonecraft, to gloss her up or make her less prickly and awkward than she seems from her own letters and other writings. Despite her importance in political and gender terms, she wasn't always a nice woman: she's needy, sometimes stoops to emotional blackmail with her friends, is whining and self-pitying at times, and suffers from deep depression - and Todd allows her to be all these things.
Todd, in particular, gives us the detail of Wollstonecraft's sexual relationships: the eroticised friendship with Fuseli, the first consummation with Imlay which leads to the birth of Fanny Wollstonecraft, her eventual marriage to William Godwin.
Wollstonecraft is a woman of her times, however much she defies some of the social conventions. For a real sense of the woman behind the so-called `feminist icon', this is the biography I would recommend.
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)
Mary Wollstonecraft led a peripatetic life as a child, somewhat downwardly mobile as her father systematically failed to make a success of his various ventures. Hers was a childhood of loss and bereavement, of petit bourgeois socialising, of never quite finding a suitable suitor or sustainable marriage. There seems little evidence of the political firebrand here - she is an unattached gentlewoman caught up in the need to find a role and a place; until the State provided education, the governesses of England were a major industry, so it is inevitable she should find herself teaching in an elite boarding school, preserving the Protestant supremacy in Ireland. Here, she reacts, convinced that children should stay at home with their families and not be ostracised to some boarding school. It's then that she finds her vocation - writing. But had her inspiration already been fired by her wakening sexuality? Janet Todd argues that Mary had a number of lesbian relationships during her life, and that these were of vital importance in shaping her emotional responses to the world. Mary Wollstonecraft occupies a vital place in the feminist pantheon. It would be too easy for biography to slip into hagiography or iconography. Instead, Janet Todd offers us a very human Mary, confused, lost, searching, trying to find some stability and certainty in life. She is very much a product of her times and could well have ended up as part of its detritus - a lonely, failed governess. Instead, she emerges as a resilient, resourceful woman who is prepared to follow her talents and believe in her abilities. There's an inspirational quality here which would benefit many a reader.