Too many details
Foolishly, I assigned a small excerpt of Mary Wollstonecraft (who I am writing a book about) to my Women and Literature class. I thought I would pretend that this reading was just like any other. There was no need for me to make a big to do over the Marys just because I live and breathe them every day. The discussion began. I was fine. I could pull this off. This class is about my students — their voices, not mine. The students made some observations: “It’s such an aggressive essay,” said one. “Her daughter was Mary Shelley,” said another. “Oh?” I said, “And who here has heard of Mary Shelley?” Two hands went up. This was distressing. I did want them to express themselves, but I knew I could make them know Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley if I told them just the right exciting details. But which ones? I had so many to share: Mary Shelley didn’t get along with her stepmother; she wore a tartan when she met Percy; he was already married; Mary and Percy probably had sex on her mother’s grave; Mary Wollstonecraft (her mother in case you are confused) was really interesting too. She rushed over to Paris during the French Revolution (Is everyone familiar with the French Revolution?); she lived with her American boyfriend, but he left her for an actress; she begged him to come back, tried to kill herself (twice); then she went to Scandinavia where she wrote this really great book, a collection of letters, really, and a rockstar intellectual read it and fell in love with her, so she moved in him with him; got pregnant, had a baby (Mary Shelley) and died ten days later because she could not expel the placenta because doctors in those days did not know about germs. A midwife would have been a better choice. But midwives were being replaced by doctors in the 18th century. Does anyone know why? There was silence after this long seaweedy oration. Thank goodness an undaunted student redeemed class by asking just the right big question: How could Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women lose her dignity and beg her boyfriend to come back? Everyone had an opinion. Me, included. But I managed to keep my mouth shut and listen. Her question is my question, the question that led me to write Mary Wollstonecraft’s story.