In her essayistic intellectual biography, Sylvana Tomaselli avoids the stock portrayals of Wollstonecraft as a feminist or radical and gives prominence instead to the role of the passions across the full range of her subject’s publications, lesser-known hackwork included. She offers a warmly appreciative introduction to Wollstonecraft’s ‘view of the world as it was and the world as it might be’. While there is little in this study to suggest the deeply paradoxical, self-thwarting aspects of Wollstonecraft’s character – the contradictions tend either to be sidestepped or absorbed into a broader contextual view of the author and her period – it offers a useful thematic account of her interests in and contributions to politics, history, art and literature.
The antithesis of the bloodless bluestocking, Wollstonecraft wrote powerfully about the interplay of reason and passion, and uncoyly about sexual intimacy and sensual pleasure. She understood all too well that freedom is not the same as licence, and that spirit and body, imagination and intellect, are obliged to coexist. A radical, for sure, but as Tomaselli makes clear, one who highly valued modesty, dignity and self-governance.
Wollstonecraft’s thoughts are discussed under specific headings: Human Nature, Memory, Evil and Perfection, and the Limits of Education. Tomaselli draws on the widest possible range of subjects that interested Wollstonecraft and the rich variety of genres in which she wrote, including personal letters. Through this open-ended structure Tomaselli is determined to avoid ‘isms’, leaving her readers free to apply labels to Wollstonecraft’s thought, but refraining from doing so herself. She argues that the best-known work,
This broad perspective on Wollstonecraft’s thought is not the radical break with existing scholarship that Tomaselli implies. Most recent studies do likewise, although many align her political ideas with one or other “ism”: liberalism, civic humanism, republicanism. Tomaselli rightly rejects such labelling as misleading and/or anachronistic. Instead she deftly weaves together material from Wollstonecraft’s minor works, such as her book reviews, with her major nonfiction texts to capture the “tone and spirit” of her philosophy while highlighting its strongly historical-prognostic slant, evident from A Vindication of the Rights of Men onward... Tomaselli has given us a fine portrait, rich in insights, but to fully appreciate the brave, freedom-loving woman so widely (and controversially) celebrated – and who, by the way, didn’t like brave freedom-loving women being depicted as heroines – we need a fuller, more dynamic, picture of a Wollstonecraft whose equalitarian ambitions for her sex are still far from realised today.