The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft
by Claire Tomalin
Mary Wollstonecraft was an excessively unsympathetic character - she was a user (in modern parlance anyway), she manipulated, she was deliberately obstructive and astonishingly naive and yet Tomalin's biography of this most irritating of women kept me completely enthralled from beginning to end. Wollstonecraft certainly was neither deified or demonised here - simply left to tell her own story through her actions.
There is very little quoted material here, it is pretty much a narrative of her life from childhood through to her death. Tomalin has done enormous research on her life, the pieces tie in together seamlessly.
Wollstonecraft was (of course) the woman who wrote that seminal work on the Rights of Women - and that really seems to be her predominant claim to fame although her lifestyle was very unusual for her times - having open relationships with men (including married men such as the artist Fuseli). I was mostly struck by how little success she really acheived in her lifetime despite her driving attitude to work and enormous energy - it seems although it was all misdirected or perhaps that was a good thing considering her beliefs (odd for her time) and her resentments (numerous and very often unfounded)
A very very enjoyable read.
384 pages (February 27, 1992)
Caro - The Fatal Passion: Life of Lady Caroline Lamb
by Henry Blyth
I am not sure that this book is really about Lady Caroline Lamb
so much as perpetuating many of the myths about her. Blyth seems only capable of accepting what she said and rarely questions the detail. Unfortunately, for all her charm and personality, it is known that Lady Caroline was very liberal with the truth.
I felt that this was the most annoying thing. Lady Caroline's life was incredibly interesting. She turns up in the periphery of recent books such as Amanda Foreman's work on Ly. C's Aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. We also read a bit about her in Passion and Principle by Aiken Hodge. Both these writers were able to find the truth behind the myths she spread about herself - why couldn't a biographer spending a whole book on her?
I also found this book a little annoying as it purports to be about Lady Caroline, yet much of it is devoted to Byron - her very brief lover and almost life-long obsession. Her life went on after Byron, she wrote books, created other scandals, but it is almost like there was more information on Byron so Blyth chose to dedicate a large portion of his book to the poet.
Hopefully there will be another better biography out soon. Lady Caroline has only one other biography totally to herself and that was written by Elizabeth Jenkins in the 30's. It is about time someone rediscovered this most unapologetic of Regency tear-aways.
254 pages (September 25, 1972)
by Caroline Lamb and Frances Wilson (Editor)
This book is interesting from a historical perspective but that is really all. What Lady Caroline Lamb needed was a good editor as Glenarvon is a long and turgid read. I doubt there would be any interest in this book now were it not for the fact that she wrote it as a Roman à Clef - a book with thinly disguised portraits of many of Regency London's celebrities - and is, of course, primarily about her relationship with the great poet Byron.
Did I say her relationship? Well not quite. This is a highly Gothic rendition of their relationship. There was no attempt to present it as anything but fiction - but those in know tried to pick out the facts from the overlay of fictional story-telling. For instance a letter she used verbatim in here is said to have been written to her by Byron.
This edition has a marvellous introduction which puts the novel in context with the times and Lamb's life and helps us as readers understand the links between real life and fiction. But this is an uneasy novel, poorly paced, with a tendency to maudlin pathos and overwrought chest-beating. It is interspersed with sections of intentional humour - Lamb clearly had great talent - but much of it was for the over-dramatic. Its a pity she wasn't taken in hand by her editor then as there are the makings of a very good novel in amongst the pages of dross. Overall the the novel is very Gothic and really only of interest to those who have an interest in Byron or Lamb herself. Byron, is of course Glenarvon the anti-hero of the novel and Lady Caroline the poor victimised Calantha.
In short the novel is all about poor Calantha who marries one man, but is seduced by another (Glenarvon) who also masquerades under another evil persona. There are ruined castles galore, quivering breasts, breathless terror - and the Irish rebellion of the late 1790's makes a bit of showing as well.
Lamb wrote two more novels after this, neither of which have been reprinted - they were both, it seems, overwritten as well but without the added advantage of dozens of personality portraits of real people to ensure the successful marketing of the book. Glenarvon was written, Lamb claims, as an apology to Byron, but marked the end of her acceptability amongst the elite of London society. She had overstepped the limit of social acceptibility once too often.
One of the oddest things about all this is that although we know Lamb as the lover of Byron, the affair was brief - hardly lasting more than four months in the summer of 1812. She became completely obsessed with him after that and he had no peace from her. He eventually left London just before this book was published and died overseas fighting for the Greek cause in 1824. Lamb died 4 years later in 1828. I wonder if we should have known much of her at all were it not for those brief three months?
409 pages (January 5, 1995)
Phoenix mass market p/bk
Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.