Tag Archives: suicide

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Writing in her diary about her short story, Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, Virginia Woolf observed that ‘she ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ [August 16th 1922]. She had already appeared in Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out (1915). Ten years later she was one of the two main characters in the novel Mrs Dalloway (1925).

It was not just her own writing that was influenced by Clarissa Dalloway. In 1998 Michael Cunningham published his novel The Hours, using Virginia Woolf’s original title. Since then, there has been a film made of Cunningham’s novel, and an opera. And Mrs Dalloway featured in the ballet Wolf Works. She certainly ushers in others.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s novel is structured around three versions of Mrs Dalloway, in different times and different places. Clarissa Vaughn (Mrs Dalloway) in New York at the end of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf (Mrs Woolf) in Richmond, near London, as she is writing Mrs Dalloway in 1924; and Mrs Brown in Los Angeles in 1949, who is reading Mrs Dalloway. Short chapters tell a little of their stories in turn.

This is not a reimagination of Mrs Dalloway (the character and the novel), or of Virginia Woolf, in different times and places. It is not an adaptation. Rather Michael Cunningham has taken many of the themes of the novel and considered them from different viewpoints.

The title of his novel is significant. It is about time, and the life we have to fill time. Not everyone feels able to cope with this. Every story has a character who considers ending their life. Richard has HIV\Aids for which treatments are only just being provided. He is being encouraged by Clarissa to attend the party she has organised, and to receive an award for his poetry.

Richard nods, and does not move. His ravaged head, struck by full daylight, is geological. His flesh is as furrowed and pocked, as runneled, as desert stone.
He says, “I don’t know if I can face this. You know, the party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.”
“You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.” (197-8)

Writing her novel, Mrs Woolf thinks at first that Clarissa will commit suicide, but comes to think that this will be the action of a different character. Mrs Brown sees no place for herself in all those hours, and at the end of the novel we learn that she botched her suicide. The novel opened with a description of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, nearly twenty years after she had written Mrs Dalloway

Famously, Mrs Dalloway is set within 24 hours, and each of these three narratives unfold in a day, but also over 70 years. This is a comment about time, and how lives are connected with each other, even over time. I was pleased to read The Hours in a day.

Here are some of the other ideas explored in The Hours, some more, some less explicitly than in Virginia Woolf’s novel: 

  • the effects of war on husbands, 
  • sexuality and social attitudes to it,
  • marriage and its value,
  • motherhood,
  • the excitement of the city,
  • changing possibilities for women,
  • legacy, what will be left after death,
  • the damage wrought by HIV/Aids,
  • what it means to care for someone, and to be cared for by someone,

All these themes and ideas are explored in both novels (except HIV/Aids, which was of its time in New York in the late ‘90s).

Clearly Michael Cunningham immersed himself in Mrs Dalloway and has created something new and his novel enhanced my understanding of Virginia Woolf’s novel at the same time as providing new perspectives. It is not necessary to have read her novel to enjoy The Hours, but I would recommend it.

Survivors have to go on living through the hours too, like Clarissa who in the penultimate sentence of the novel, reflects, ‘here she is with another hour before her”. (226)

And of course there was a film, released in 2002, starring Meryl Streep (Mrs Dalloway), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Woolf) and Julianne Moore (Mrs Brown), directed by Stephen Daldry. And in 2022 an opera. (A note on the film casting of Meryl Streep: there’s a nice little self-reference here because Clarissa, seeing a celebrity’s trailer, imagines it might be Meryl Streep inside p27.) 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham first published in 1998 and in the UK by 4th Estate. 230pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1999.

 

Related Links

The Hours at 25: The book that changed how we see Virginia Woolf, by Lillian Crawford on BBC Culture, August 9, 2023

In step with Virginia Woolf about the Ballet Woolf Works (Bookword May 2015) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf about the exhibition in Pallant House, Chichester called Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings (Bookword August 2018)

With Virginia Woolf in Cambridge about the summer school I attended (Bookword August 2023)

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Bookword February 2020)

The second Mrs Dalloway (Bookword July 2019)

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street by Virginia Woolf (Bookword May 2016)

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel was chosen by my book group to read in June, proposed because it kept appearing in lists of books that everyone should read. Some of us had read it before, but we were all happy for it to be on our list. I was one of the readers in the group who had read it before, probably in the late 1970s (that’s the date of the edition I own). I may have read it before, but I had completely misremembered the second half. I do remember that it made an impact on me the first time, and it certainly did again as I prepared to discuss it with the group.

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood narrates the novel, which is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences. It begins in New York in 1953.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1)

These opening sentences set the tone. Esther doesn’t know what she is doing, and she is thinking about death. She also has a sharp turn of phrase: goggle-eyed headlines; fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway; burned alive all along your nerves.

These themes continue throughout the 258 pages and twenty chapters of this novel: Esther’s lostness; her interest in death and her facility with words.

Esther has a scholarship at her rural college and has won a prize of a month’s internship on a New York fashion magazine with eleven other girls. She is disappointed with the experience, finding more fun in escaping from the group and with Doreen to escape into an ill-advised adventure. On her return home she is devastated to find that she was not accepted onto a writing course she had been counting on, and her life continues to go downhill, as she contemplates and then attempts suicide. Her treatment includes receiving ECT and finding a good psychotherapist which allows her to finally emerge into the world.

The novel was published first in the UK, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963. Shortly after its publication Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 31 years old. The novel was later published under her own name, finally in America in 1971. She also published several collections of poetry.

It’s difficult to read this novel without thinking about her ultimate death, and without wondering what happened in her life that she found living so hard. 

Here are some thoughts from our book group discussions.

In the 1950s it was hard to be born female and not to conform to the stereotype of womanhood being promoted (including by women’s magazines) at that time. Esther has a boyfriend, Buddy Willard but it is clear from his first mention that she has little intention of marrying him, despite his prospects as a doctor.

[Because] I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth. (54) 

Her impetus towards independence, like her friend Doreen, would have been a struggle even for a bright young girl in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of The Bell Jar is that novels about suicide and the desire to end one’s life were not common in the 1960. At our group we had previously discussed All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews from 2014, another novel based on real experience. It tells the story of a Canadian woman trying to prevent her sister from taking her own life. Reading The Bell Jar today is all the more poignant for knowing that Sylvia Plath did take her own life. The novel does not explain her determination, only chronicle it.

Which leads me to mention another feature of The Bell Jar. It is a novel full of emotion, anxiety and concern, frustration and fury, fear and humour. But the language used is stripped of emotion. All that feeling is expressed through her way of writing. Here’s an example from a moment towards the end of her time in New York.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence would rub off on to me at last.
But I gave it up.
It was becoming more and more difficult for me to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed. (109)

Later, in a glorious scene the clothes are all thrown out of the window! 

Another feature of her writing style is her imagery, frequently amusing. Humour is present for a good deal of this novel, often in the description of other people. All 12 of the young women who had won the prize to be in New York come down with food poisoning. Esther had been afraid it was caused by her greedy consumption of caviar, but it turned out to be the crab meat. The description of the girls throwing up is both amusing and rather disgusting. 

This extract, where she meets the psychologist Dr Gordon, makes me smile.

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil – tap, tap, tap – across the neat green frilled pf his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and think they looked artificial. Black plasti8c reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon’s features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (135)

Eventually the bell jar lifts. The bell jar is her description of the way in which her depression and suicidal wishes are experienced. It’s a compelling and somewhat grim experience to read this novel. It is hard not to regret the loss of such talent when a writer dies so young, with such promise. However it’s a demanding novel that deserves to be read by all serious readers.

You can read my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – from Bookword in 2015. Click on the link.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963 by Faber & Faber. I used the paperback edition, first published in 1966. 258pp

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Mrs Dalloway on Dalloway Day

I had planned my summer around a week in Cambridge joining others to think about Virginia Woolf and her women. You know what happened to that. I am hoping that I can do it in 2021. Meanwhile, whatever else happens, it is DALLOWAY DAY today, Wednesday 17th June 2020.

And to celebrate, here again is the post I wrote after rereading Mrs Dalloway in preparation for my summer expedition, a slight revision from the version published on this blog in February.

Mrs Dalloway

In her diary as she was writing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf expressed her ambitions for this novel.

In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense. [June 19th 1923, p57]

The events of this novel take place over a single day in the summer of 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative MP, living in Westminster, London, is giving a party in the evening. It is June and the day is hot. She leaves her house to fetch some flowers for the party. 

She meets various acquaintances who reappear later, as well as passing close to a damaged First World War veteran who is waiting to see the nerve expert Sir William Bradshaw. Before the party she is visited by a man who she last saw when she was a young woman, having refused to marry him. Peter Walsh has been in India. 

Clarissa is concerned because her husband has accepted an invitation to lunch with Mrs Bruton. This formidable lady seeks his help with a eugenics programme to send good quality people to Canada. And she has dealings with her daughter’s tutor, Miss Kilman, an evangelist, who seems to Clarissa to have stolen Elizabeth. 

The story moves easily through Clarissa’s thoughts as well as the points of view of other characters. Among the most striking is Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD, then known as war neurosis. The doctors he consults say all he needs is rest. Both he and his wife Rezia are made desperate by the absence of help from the medical profession. Septimus commits suicide as Dr Holmes arrives to take him away for his rest cure. 

In the party everything comes together. Clarissa entertains her guests, even the Prime Minister attends (I can’t resist mentioning that he is a figure of gravity, much revered by those attending). Also present are the people she has met during the day and from her past. Sir William Bradshaw arrives, bringing news of his patient’s suicide.

And I am wrong to say that the plot is contained within one day. For of course, all those lives have pasts (‘beautiful caves’), some interleaved with each other’s and Clarissa’s. And these too we enter to understand the events of the day and the characters. In her diary the author referred to

… how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters [30th August 1923, p60]

And a year later she used a different image to describe this feature of Mrs Dalloway:

… But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; … [August 15th 1924, p65]

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway and the women in the novel.

Clarissa Dalloway is the central character bringing everything together. As the title indicates she is married. Her decision to marry Richard Dalloway rather than Peter Walsh determined the direction of her mature life. We learn that she is frail, a victim and survivor of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that ravaged the country as the First World War ended. For this reason I do not like the ruddy-faced portrait on the Oxford edition. Clarissa had slight, thin features.

As she neared the end of composing the book Virginia Woolf worried about Clarissa. She refers to the design she has for the novel and how well it is all progressing.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering and tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support. [October 15th 1923, p61]

While it does seem that the people in her circle see her as rather lightweight, Virginia Woolf shows that she has strong liberal values, but is not always well-informed. The character of Miss Kilman (note the name) stands in complete opposition to Clarissa, with her certainties, especially in relation to love and religion. Clarissa reflects on the damage wrought by these things as she contemplates Miss Kilman.

The cruellest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a mackintosh coat, on the landing; love and religion. Had she ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves? (p107)

Many of the characters are shown up by contrast to Clarissa. The odious Lady Bruton with her ideas about eugenics; Clarissa’s childhood acquaintances, one of whom has remained a mouse (Ellie Henderson) and the other despite great liveliness and unconventionality in her youth is now married to a rich farmer and has many sons (Sally Seton). One feels that Clarissa would have supported Rezia if they had met.

Life, death, sanity, insanity, the social system is all in Mrs Dalloway as Virginia Woolf intended. This novel also prompts us to think about time, its passage and effects, as Big Ben tolls throughout the day. And it is set in London, which despite later bomb damage is still recognisable today. The richness of this novel cannot be overpraised. I look forward to yet another rereading.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf published in 1925. I used the Oxford World’s Classics edition. 185 pp

Diary extracts from A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf published by Persephone Books (2012)

Previous posts on Mrs Dalloway

I have twice before written about Mrs Dalloway on Bookword.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing in July 2015

The second Mrs Dalloway in July 2019

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

‘This is a story of luminous beauty and rambunctious joy, of dark secrets and silences, revelations and, ultimately, the unknowability of those closest to us.  An in the face of the unknowable, personal history becomes fiction.’ (From the blurb on the cover of Nothing Holds Back the Night.) This is as good a description as any of this prizewinning book.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. This book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, an attempt by the French writer Delphine de Vigan to explain her mother’s life and death.

Nothing holds back the Night

Nothing holds back the Nightis an attempt to understand the life and death of the author’s mother, who she calls Lucile. Her mother committed suicide at the age of 62 in Paris. While a suicide often defines a life, in this case Lucile’s life appears to be shaped by her long history of mental ill health, bi-polar disorder. By setting her mother’s story within her network of relationships – family, lovers, friends, neighbours and work mates – Delphine de Vigan shows us so much more than one person’s life. We see how families and society respond and react to damaged people.

Delphine de Vigan was already a recognised writer when she decided to write this book. She drew on interviews with the surviving family members and friends, on documentary evidence including Lucile’s own writings, on a tv documentary made about the family when Lucile was a teenager, and from her own memories. That which she could not discover from these sources has been created by her. This means she is adding to the same family mythology to which she refers.

Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories. Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in. (115)

She also wrote this book to get beyond the fear with which Lucile’s life infected her and makes her fear for her own family.

I am writing this book because I now have the strength to examine what troubles and sometimes assails me, because I want to know what I am passing on. I want to stop being afraid that something will happen to us, as though we were living under a curse, and to be able to make the most of my good fortune, my energy, my happiness without thinking that something terrible is going to happen to destroy us and that sadness is forever waiting in the wings. (231)

Lucile’s Life

Born to French parents in 1946, Lucile grew up with a total of 8 brothers and sisters. She was the 3rdchild. She was 8 when a younger brother died in a terrible accident by falling into a well. The family were knocked sideways by his death. As the years went by death and suicide affected other siblings and friends.

The first part of this book recounts Lucile’s life in a big family. In a large family the dynamics are always changing, always difficult, always mediated by parents. Lucile was exceptionally pretty and used as a photographic model, especially in the commercial world. The family was in the public gaze but they were dominated by an opinionated and demanding father and a lively and loveable mother. There was never enough money.

It is likely that her father abused Lucile when she was a teenager, drugging and raping her. Lucile’s revelation of this event some years later was simply ignored by the family. Soon after the incident Lucile met Gabriel, fell in love, became pregnant, married and gave birth to Delphine. She was not out of her teens. A second daughter was born and later Gabriel left and Lucile brought up the children more or less alone.

The episode in which Lucile was hospitalised is horrifying. It was witnessed by 12-year old Delphine, who retells the events of her mother’s restraint and removal as she saw them. The children were sent to live with their father and barely saw their mother for a while. They were later reunited but the fear of a relapse was always present, even when the two girls became adults. After years of psychotherapy Lucile recovered enough to retrain as a social worker and develop a new life for herself. But the fear remained and ultimately she took her own life.

Of everything in this detailed book, this quotation from her own writing, in 1979, shocked me for what it reveals about Lucile’s inner life.

This year, in November, I will be thirty-three. A rather uncertain age, I think, if one were superstitious. I am a beautiful woman except that I have rotten teeth, which in a certain way I’m very pleased about, sometimes it even makes me laugh. I wanted it to be known that death lies beneath the surface. (213)

Delphine de Vigan, in Nancy (Le Livre sur la Place 2011) Ji-Elle via Wikicommons

It is shocking, today, that Lucile’s revelations about her father, considered to be true by her daughter, were ignored, perhaps because they did not fit the family’s mythology. The book leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for Lucile, who suffered so much. And sad too for the others touched by her life, not least her two children. Yet Lucile died on her own terms, while still alive. It’s a difficult read, but one that honours its subject.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Notes of a Crocodileby Qiu Maojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of books by women in translation? Next month (May) I plan to read Loveby Hanne Orstavik.

Nothing holds back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, published in English by Bloomsbury in 2013. 342pp. Winner of the Prix FNAC and the Grand Prix des lectrices de ELLE.

The French title is Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit. Translated by George Miller

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Choosing a novel by a woman in translation is not an easy task, as I have complained before. There are few reviews in newspapers or on blogs. I find recommendations in lists by other readers, and from organisations that support translations. I notice that animals feature in several titles (see the polar bear), and since it is several months since I read anything translated from Chinese, this is my choice for this month’s women in translation post.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin was translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The story of Notes of a Crocodile

Set in Taipei in the last years of the 1990s, the central character is a young woman, finding it hard to understand her sexual identity within her group of friends. Lazi falls for a young woman, a student who is a few years older than her. Shui Ling is an obsession for the narrator. Their relationship blows hot and cold and Lazi is confused both by her feelings and by Shui Ling’s reactions.

Her other friends are also finding their way in the difficult time. Meng Sheng is a charismatic young man, challenging, wayward and rich. He and his partner Chu Kuang are both experimenting with their sexuality. These two young men reappear in her life from time to time, often high on drugs or inebriated. And two young women friends are also finding it hard to maintain their intense friendship. The affectionate Tun Tun and her companion Zhi Rou. Finally, Lazi meets a woman, Xiao Fan, who cares for her, but is herself so damaged that a painful split is inevitable. Without apparent studying, Lazi graduates, celebrates alone, but having learned about her desires and the raw places her desires take her to.

The structure of Notes of a Crocodile

The novel is presented as a mash-up of diary entries, fantasies or short stories on the subject of crocodiles or notes. The innovative post-modern style partly explains Qiu Miaojin’s cult status. The crocodile elements of the novel provide a different beat to the painful narrative of Lazi’s life. The crocodile is trying to pass as a human. In crocodile world, the media are in a frenzy to discover crocodiles, and everything about them. Lazi’s crocodile has been living a lonely life, believing s/he (it is hard to ascertain the gender of crocodiles apparently) is alone in the world. But about half way through the novel the crocodile finds an ad from the Crocodile Club for a Christmas Eve gathering.

When the crocodile discovered the ad, it was so excited that it didn’t sleep for days. It had never occurred to the crocodile that there were other crocodiles, and what’s more they had already formed a club! Could that possibly mean there was a place to go and others to talk to? As it sucked on the corners of its comforter, giant teardrops welled up in its eye. (139)

The crocodile theme relates to how LGBT people were seen in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The country was not long out of martial rule. Heterosexuality had been the only acceptable form of human sexual behaviour. But the LGBT people were demanding recognition and rights. The playful argument of pro- and anti-croc reveals the basic level of the discussion.

For more on the context of Notes of a Crocodile, see the comments by Ari Larissa Heinrich in Consider the Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, in the LA Review of Books.

Reading Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

I did not find Notes of a Crocodile an easy read in part because there were so few connections to my experience. Qiu Miaojin (1969 – 1995) was Chinese, from Taiwan. The story she recounts was about the university years of her characters. She was a lesbian, writing about the lesbian experience in Taipei at that time.

The experience recalled my lack connection I experienced when I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – all angsty, endless picking over the smallest of interactions, and appealing to another readership. Qiu Miaojin references Murakami on the first page, and later tells us Lazi took a copy of Norwegian Wood as she flees from another break up with Shui Ling.

The intensity of the failing relationships became wearing. So did her attempts to change her life, undertaken in the knowledge that she would fail.

For my entire life, I had been inherently attracted to women. That desire, regardless of whether it was realized, had long tormented me. Desire and torment were two opposing forces constantly chafing me, inside and out. I knew full well that my change of diet was futile. I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however I was determined to liberate myself. (182-3)

Sadly Qiu Miaojin committed suicide when she was only 26. Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. She gained something of a cult following. I do not expect to pick up her other novel, Last word from Montmartre, very soon.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin New York Review Books (1994) 242pp

Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translation from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Next month (April) I plan to read Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of novels by women in translation?

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Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw

Mary Wollstonecraft has been important in my life for nearly fifty years. I was studying history in 1970 with the great EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. Our small group of undergraduates were exploring the English radicals of the 1790s. The previous year I had picked up a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (price 7/6d). As a special project for my history degree I explored Mary Wollstonecraft’s radicalism. There were no available biographies so most of my work was done from primary sources. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism and we hadn’t really discovered Mary Wollstonecraft yet. I spent happy hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and browsed copies of radical journals lent to me by EP Thompson. My husband wrote my married name and ‘her book’ on the first page. I wrote my paper, and feminism took off.

Romantic Outlaws

241 Rom Outlaws cover

Over the last few weeks I have been reading the very detailed dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Charlotte Gordon’s book is very long. The chapters on the lives of the two women alternate. This has the effect of showing up the similarities and the differences in the lives of the two women. It also means that the cast of characters gets unwieldy, and you loose track of which semi-famous person came into which Mary’s life. In this post I am focussing on Mary Wollstonecraft and I will reserve Mary Shelley for a later blog.

241 MWbiosSince 1969 eight biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have been written, according to Wikipedia. William Godwin wrote a biography immediately after she died, intended to disprove the image of Mary as a virago. According to Charlotte Gordon he did her no favours, playing down her forthright political writings, and her determination to live according to her principles. What does this biography add to our understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary’s life

Reading Romantic Outlaws I am reminded of what an extraordinary woman Mary Wollstonecraft was. How resourceful, intelligent, free-thinking and brave. She set sail to Lisbon to assist her best friend; to Paris to witness the revolution; later to Scandinavia on behalf of her lover. She took on injustice, especially against women, and when she found it, she took action if she was able to – for example by liberating her sister from an abusive marriage – or exposed it with her pen. She lived and wrote despite extreme social disapproval. It was not acceptable for women to write about philosophy or politics. And they were expected to hide away if they had illegitimate children. And they were not expected to make demands upon the men who wronged them.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary was born in London in 1759. Her father failed to support the family and was alcoholic and abused his wife. Mary supported her family, despite a strong desire for independence. She worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, ran a school in Newington Green for a while, then became a governess to the foremost family Ireland. Not successful or happy employments, but they helped form her ideas about girls’ and women’s education. She returned to London and began to earn a living from her writing. She was employed by the radical publisher John Johnson to write reviews for his periodicals, and she advanced to essays and then to books on the education of girls, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her reflections on the French Revolution, a travel book about her experiences in Scandinavia, as well as several novels.

She believed in living according to her principles, which brought her into conflict with genteel society, where women were not supposed to write anything but sentimental novels. Her pursuit of the painter Fuseli was disapproved of. She went to France during the Revolution, witnessing the Terror, and became disillusioned by its excesses. She met Imlay, father of her first daughter, Fanny, but he tired of her. Distraught at a second rebuttal she attempted suicide. On her recovery she set out with her baby for Sweden in an attempt to win Imlay back by tracking down some missing cargo. On her return he made it clear he was interested in someone else, an actress whose name is not recorded. Mary threw herself off Putney Bridge in a second, failed, attempt at suicide.

She met William Godwin, an established radical philosopher, and they fell in love, and on her becoming pregnant, married. Mary died in childbirth of puerperal fever, aged 38, still engaged in writing.

Her writing

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Today we tend to see the Vindication as Mary’s most important published book. However, her book on the education of girls Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct (1788) was widely read. Her accounts of her experiences in France An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), and in Scandinavia Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden Norway, and Denmark (1796) were every bit as well known as the famous Vindication. Charlotte Gordon claims her travel writing was ahead of its time, and much appreciated, especially by Mary and Percy Shelley.

Perhaps we refer to it today because the Vindication is a manifesto, arguing for the acceptance of equality of women and improved education of girls. She was less concerned about how to achieve equality. She lived according to her principles, never financially dependent upon men, never accepting that men’s views had more authority than hers.

Mary’s influence

Since I first picked up A Vindication Mary Wollstonecraft has become much better known, seen as one the major influences on the development of feminism. She has even been called ‘the first suffragette’ to capitalise on the recent film. I don’t think she saw the vote as the way forward for women’s rights.

Newington Green, in north London, was something of a centre of radicalism and still held something of that history when I moved there in the early 1980s. It was an overgrown roundabout, a haunt for winos and rubbish thrown from buses. Islington spent some money on it and it became a nice green space, like a traditional village green, with a children’s playground, a café (intermittently), benches, places to throw Frisbees and to teach your child to ride a bike. Not long before I left a Banksy-like mural appeared on the wall of the former bank, and an appeal was launched for some kind of memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft.

44 M Wolst

The Biography

It’s hard, when you pick up non-fiction, not to just read to confirm what you already know. From Romantic Outlaws I learned how Godwin ruined her reputation after her death, while trying to demonstrate her vulnerability by revealing her sexual behaviour. Her intellectual gifts were subsumed in the subsequent damage to her reputation. Sound familiar? Ever been called aggressive, or shrill? ‘A hyena in petticoats’ was Walpole’s judgement.

I learned that her reputation was damaged and not rescued until Virginia Woolf paid her attention in the Second Common Reader (1923) and as the second wave of feminism got under way in the 70s, her contribution was reassessed and all those biographies written.

I hate the current fashion for rubberised covers of paperbacks. And I hate the Day-Glo pink on this one. It screams romance, girlie stuff. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was neither romantic nor girlie.

 

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Published in paperback in 2016 by Corsair. 652pp. This book won the biography section of the National (USA) Book Critics Circle Award for 2015.

Related Posts

A post considering Fallen Women, to coincide with the Foundling Museum exhibition was posted in the Autumn.

In May I will be blogging about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

 

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