Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ahead of Her Time

There are some lives that don’t need to be turned into historical fiction because they already read like a novel, if not a movie. And there are some historical figures that are alluring to us because they seem ... well, so modern.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is a case in point. She was well ahead of her time, advocating things that don’t seem so radical to us now but which were practically unheard of in the 18th century: education for women that extended beyond drawing and music and the like; physical exercise for females; marriage based on mutual respect and companionship.

But Wollstonecraft didn’t just write about her principles, she lived them: she bore a child out of wedlock to a man she had fallen madly in love with–in the midst of the French Revolution, no less (she had traveled from her native England to Paris in order to write about the events transpiring there). True, when the object of her affection (an American cad named Gilbert Imlay) turned out to be a philanderer, she did what many women in similar circumstances have done, before and since: she tried to commit suicide. Twice.

But then she picked herself back up, wrote another book, and found herself another man–the philosopher William Godwin, who fell in love with her through reading that very book. They didn’t plan on getting married either, because they objected to the institution on principle. But when Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant again (thanks to their birth control method, which consisted of having sex as frequently as possible), they sacrificed their principles for the sake of their child: being born illegitimate was a substantial handicap.

Theirs was a very modern marriage: Godwin, needing his space, maintained separate quarters near Wollstonecraft’s home. In some ways they led independent lives. At the same time, though, they read each other’s work and encouraged each other’s literary endeavors and were generally pretty happy, despite their lack of funds. But it was not to last: Wollstonecraft (now Mrs. Godwin) died as a result of giving birth to their daughter, also named Mary. (She grew up to be Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.)

It’s hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine how much courage it took to say the things that Mary Wollstonecraft said–and how much more courage it took to live her life the way she did. In an age when celebrities routinely have children out of wedlock (I remember seeing one headline in a celebrity magazine that said something like, “I want to get married BEFORE I have the baby," says Jamie Lynn Spears”), it takes a leap of imagination to understand what it meant for an educated, upper middle class woman to choose to become what used to be called an unwed mother.

Actually, Wollstonecraft didn’t trumpet the details of her unconventional life when she was alive; she even called herself “Mrs. Imlay” before she married Godwin, to conceal the fact that she had had her first child out of wedlock. That cover was, of course, blown to some extent when she turned around and became Mrs. Godwin. But most of the details came out only after her death, when Godwin–in a supremely misguided attempt to pay tribute to his deceased wife–spilled all the beans in a memoir.

For the next hundred years or so, the name “Wollstonecraft” became synonymous with “immoral crackpot.” Even 19th-century feminists, building on her legacy, did their best to disassociate themselves from her.

And of course, in some ways she was a crackpot–or at least a weirdo. She was someone who simply didn’t care what people thought, or didn’t care that much. I sometimes wonder what I would have thought of Wollstonecraft had I been one of her contemporaries. I hope I would have admired and appreciated her, but I doubt I would have had the courage to be her.

And I wonder, sometimes, who today’s “Wollstonecrafts” are. Do I dismiss them as crackpots, or am I able to recognize that they’re the voice of the future?

I don't know. But I do know who should play Mary Wollstonecraft in the movie: Claire Danes. Trust me on this!

No comments:

Post a Comment