After a summer of controversy about public statues it’s not surprising that there’s been a row about Maggi Hambling’s sculpture to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s not a representation of the writer, it honours Wollstonecraft obliquely, the figure is naked and it’s been criticised on artistic grounds.
Modern democratic memorials are likely to be at ground level now or put on benches so that ordinary people can sit beside their heroes. Hambling, who is famously abrasive and contrarian, puts this one on a very traditional pedestal.
A militant smoker, Hambling gave her statue of Oscar Wilde a cigarette, which has since been removed. Wollstonecraft was quickly vandalised by someone who disliked its nudity (top).
Hambling has said that people don’t get it. But doesn’t the work of communication have to be done by the writer, not the reader, and if people don’t get it, isn’t it her failing? One feminist artist I spoke to said, “They get it well enough – Hambling is the one who doesn’t get it.”
Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist but much of her appeal comes from her life. Born into a large family with poor parents, she established an independent career, moved among radicals, wrote and published much, supported the French Revolution, engaged in direct controversy with Edmund Burke and lived in Revolutionary Paris. John Opie painted her twice (below).
After advocating personal independence and platonic love she discovered sex late in life, had a child with the go-getting and irresponsible Gilbert Imlay, narrowly escaped the guillotine, attempted suicide, married William Godwin but lived separately from him according to their shared principles, and died giving birth to a daughter Mary, famous as the author of Frankenstein.
Godwin was admired by his son-in-law Shelley, who later came to find him stuffy and pedantic. Driven by a naïve frankness, Godwin sought to honour Wollstonecraft in a memoir that held back nothing about her emotional instability and bohemian life and virtually destroyed her reputation for a hundred years.
But there is evidence from the speech and behaviour of some of her characters that Jane Austen knew the Vindication. E. B. Browning read it at the age of twelve, George Eliot was thoroughly familiar with it and Virginia Woolf was well aware of it. The female suffragists brought her writings back into focus again and modern feminist criticism has put her centre stage. Although the ideas and sentiments of the Vindication are surprisingly modern, and there are modern editions, the language probably puts modern readers off and its doubtful if it’s much read.