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Speculating Other Lives

I’ve been reading two biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft: Janet Todd’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, and Lyndall Gordon’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (which I have only recently started). I do love a good biography and both books are enjoyable, painting very different pictures of Wollstonecraft (Todd’s unsympathetic portrayal of a moaning, nagging, inconsistent woman; Gordon’s “pioneer of character” scarred by her background of domestic violence).

I’m intrigued, though, by the way biography so very quickly moves into speculation, often on the slenderest grounds. Take Gordon’s theorising about Miss Mason, one of the teachers at the Wollstonecraft sisters’ school at Newington Green. Mary Wollstonecraft, Gordon writes, often referred to her as “‘poor Mason’, as though some misfortune were common knowledge”. Gordon informs us that “in most such cases the parents had lost their fortune, so that instead of fulfilling her destiny as a marriageable ‘lady’ the daughter was compelled to work as teacher or governess”. Miss Mason, we are led to suppose, is one such bereft marriageable.

Now, Gordon is perfectly right to mention that this was an all too common situation for poor daughters in the eighteenth, and indeed the nineteenth and early twentieth, century. However, touching though the image is, on what grounds is it the most likely explanation of poor Miss Mason’s condition? For all we know poor Mason may have walked with a limp, had a wall eye, or given birth to an illegitimate child and been abandoned by the father (another horribly common occurrence and one Mary Wollstonecraft herself suffered at the hands of Gilbert Imlay). Of course, in the last case it is unlikely that Miss Mason would obtain employment in a school, even given Wollstonecraft’s advanced views – she had a living to make after all - so we can probably rule it out. Even so, there are any number of explanations for the epithet “poor” that are just as likely as the one Gordon suggests.

Still, it’s a minor point about a minor figure in Wollstonecraft’s life (though no doubt what happened to Miss Mason was not a matter of minor significance to her). Things get a little bit more complicated in Todd, who speculates to such an extent that I began to think that “perhaps” was the most commonly used word in her book. Let’s look at the case of Mary Wollstonecraft’s brother Henry, indexed “Henry, uncertain fate of”. Henry, having been apprenticed in Beverley, suddenly disappears from the family correspondence. He may, Todd proposes, have run away from a harsh master. She doesn’t, however, think this accounts for the “complete silence [which] suggests something more extreme”.

A little consideration and she hits on the theory that Henry had gone insane, perhaps even tried to kill himself - “a common reason for incarceration”. This opens up the way to a page about the treatment of the insane in the eighteenth century, the number of asylums in Hull, York, and Hoxton, and madness in the Austen family. The fact that the Wollstonecrafts moved to Hoxton, where London’s major asylums were located, strengthens the case. We are therefore to believe that a family who out of embarrassment never again refer amongst themselves to their afflicted brother took enough interest in his fate to move to Hoxton with him. Unless they intended to visit him regularly this seems odd, particularly as Todd informs us that families “usually disposed of the defective very thoroughly”. If that were so, surely the best thing to have done with mad Henry would have been to leave him well out of the way in Yorkshire.

Well, of course Henry's insanity is perfectly possible. It’s also possible that the family letters referring to Henry, mad or sane, have been lost or destroyed. Perhaps the letters were burned because, along with news of Henry, they contained derogatory remarks about the drunken, impecunious head of the family. Or perhaps they were torn up (and Henry cut off by his relatives) because they referred to unspeakable acts carried out by the missing brother: he had contracted syphilis, or been seen going into a molly club.

The point is that there appears to be no evidence whatsoever to support the theory that Henry went insane and was put into an asylum. Even so, the theory is the foundation of a later speculation, when we learn that Wollstonecraft, Godwin and Joseph Johnson visited Bedlam in 1797 “perhaps to see an old friend or relative – possible even her brother Henry – or to provide Wollstonecraft with some background for her writing”.

There’s no harm in speculating, of course. It’s good to throw out ideas, provided it is perfectly clear that they are only ideas. Neither of these writers can be accused of trying to pass off theory as fact. Even so, some suggestions do seem to be based on the most flimsy reasoning, a sort of a + b = c where a = slender evidence, b = one of a number of possibilities, and c = conclusion. Dynasties have been founded on this kind of argument. Take Joan of Arc. Here we have:-

The woman who was burned at the stake in the Rouen marketplace on May 30 1431 was entirely covered by a penitent’s robe and hood (a – slender evidence).

The woman was not Joan of Arc but someone else in disguise (b – one of a number of possibilities). (She may have been swamped by the clothes because they were too big for her; she may have been badly beaten and her captors wished to disguise the fact.)

Therefore Joan of Arc survived the flames and went on to marry and have children (c – conclusion). Flimsy? I should say so. You’ll find more like it in Pierre de Sermoise’s Joan of Arc and Her Secret Missions.

But let’s be serious again. Todd and Gordon do not deserve to be mentioned in the same context as such crackpot theorising. It’s one thing to explore possible explanations of puzzling circumstances (why poor Mason? why no mention of Henry?) but quite another to invent puzzles and triumphantly solve them by rewriting the records.

These musings do make me wonder, though, about the role of speculation. Without it would biography be possible? If biographies confined themselves entirely to the known or recorded would they be very short and very dull? Would we miss opportunities to engage with the life and times of our subjects? Are biographers who speculate really historical novelists manqué? Like historical fiction writers they “fill in the gaps” and they imagine what people may have thought or felt in certain situations. The difference is they lack the skill to know what to put in and what to leave out (look, I’ve done this research on the treatment of the insane and I’m damned well going to include it). Should the skills of the novelist have any place in biography? What is the difference between fiction and history? What, for example, makes Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties fiction when it is just as possible that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin met in Zurich as that Henry Wollstonecraft became a Bedlamite? Must we stray into the fog of authorial intention? Can we only assess a text if we have the author’s (or someone’s) assurance of what it is (this is biography, this is drama)?

Yes, it certainly is fun to speculate. I haven’t any answers – but I shall be thinking about these issues as I continue with Gordon’s book and any biographies I read in the future.


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