A Tale of Two Marys

Claire Tomalin previews a National Portrait Gallery exhibition which focuses on mother and daughter Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

The  religious writer Hannah More’s grumble at Mary Wollstonecraft’s claim for sexual equality was, ‘Rights of Women! We’ll be hearing of the Rights of Children next!’ We have travelled slowly since the 1790s; but opinions, like reputations, do shift. Mary Wollstonecraft was long treated as a marginal figure, and her daughter Mary Shelley as a mere appendage to the Byron/Shelley circle. The exhibition ‘Hyenas in Petticoats’ now at the National Portrait Gallery presents them as central figures.

About time, two hundred years after the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman died giving birth to the author of Frankenstein. A Vindication is after all one of the fundamental texts of the Enlightenment. Wollstonecraft, a self-educated woman, absorbed much of the message of the Encyclopédistes, perceived their striking omission, and gave the world her own original statement of the case for women’s rights. It was published in England, Ireland, France, Germany and America, before fading from view during the nineteenth century.

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