Downloading PDF. Please wait...

Book review: Wollstonecraft—Philosophy, Passion and Politics

Sheila McGregor reviews Sylvana Tomaselli book on Mary Wollstonecraft

Sylvana Tomaselli’s book, Wollstonecraft—Philosophy, Passion and Politics, teases out the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft that are scattered through her political writings, novels and letters. 

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, is often referred to as the “mother of feminism”. When living in Islington in north London, Wollstonecraft got to know leading radical thinkers. She became a writer, critic and intellectual based on her own work and the support and influence of the circles she joined through the publisher Joseph Johnson. Radicals she knew included the poet and artist William Blake, who illustrated her Stories from a Real Life, an education manual for children commissioned by Johnson. 

The French Revolution in particular had a profound impact on Wollstonecraft. When British MP Edmund Burke attacked the French Revolution in his Reflections on the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft wrote a reply. A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published in 1790 by Joseph Johnson. 

This was a precursor to her famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, also published by Johnson. Her central argument is that women should be educated equally alongside men in order that they can develop the power of reason throughout their lives. She is not a revolutionary intent on overthrowing English society or marriage and the family, although she rails against inequality and the role of property. 

Rather Wollstonecraft wants to see a transformation in men and women. And her arguments are directed at middle class women and men, where she believes change might most easily be made through education. 

Two years after A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. She was appalled by the bloodshed. But nevertheless, she argues, perhaps it was necessary to rid society of all the evils of oppression. 

Wollstonecraft is concerned to “trace the springs and secret mechanism, which have put in motion a revolution, the most important that has been recorded in the annals of man”. She captures the oppression of the peasantry, having to bear the parasitic burden of 60,000 of the nobility, a 100,000 strong standing army, 200,000 clergy who took 25 per cent of the produce of France and 50,000 monks. And sees the revolution as a movement of the people “bursting their shackles and rising in stature, suddenly appeared with the dignity and pretensions of human beings”. 

Wollstonecraft undertook a trip to Scandinavia in May 1795, with Fanny. She was hoping to resolve some business problems for her then lover Gilbert Imlay and help repair the breach in their relationship. She writes regular letters to Imlay, later published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The Letters, although little read, are some of the best of Wollstonecraft’s writings. She provides vivid descriptions of the countryside she travels through as well as the walks and rides she takes in the places she visits. Her love and appreciation of the beauty of the scenery is everywhere combined with details such as the stench from use of herring as fertiliser in Denmark. 

Tomaselli’s structures her book in four chapters, based on categories such as painting, music, nature, human nature and the like. And so Tomaselli succeeds in a masterly exposition of every facet of Wollstonecraft’s views. She draws out the complexities, contradictions and changes over time in Wollstonecraft’s thought. 

Unhappily, the structure makes it more difficult to grasp the singularity of a woman who became a critic, writer, and a sparkling conversationalist who was fearless in expressing her views and lived an unconventional life and has rightly become a feminist icon.

Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics, Sylvana Tomaselli (Princeton University Press) £25.00 

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance