Monday, May 23, 2011

Lyndall Gordon with the Oxford Unitarians

On Sunday I had the great pleasure of hearing Lyndall Gordon, Mary Wollstonecraft's most recent biographer, at an event hosted by the Oxford Unitarians . I had not been to the city of soaring spires and bicycle tyres since Shelley's Ghost closed in March, and had never been to Harris Manchester College. Its precursor was founded in 1756 as a Dissenting Academy, to educate those who were excluded from the only universities in England (Anna Laetitia Barbauld grew up within it); and its current incarnation continues the mission by being the only college in Oxford to admit none but mature students, i.e.those over 21, and therefore with an irregular educational path. It also continues the tradition of educating Unitarian ministers, though the number now is tiny; the first female candidate was admitted over a century ago. I think Mary would be pleased by all of this.

A lot of what Lyndall Gordon had to say was biographical material straight from her 2005 Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and there is no need to repeat it here. (Read it for yourself: fantastic research, and yet paced like a novel. Gripping.) She spoke for an hour and it seemed like ten minutes, after which she took questions, and signed and sold books. She and the organisers kindly allowed me to speak very briefly with three hats on: to explain my connection to Newington Green Unitarian Church, to pitch the Mary on the Green project, and to mention this blog. Much of what follows, then, is from my notes during the lecture.

The subject of the talk, given the location and the hosts, was no surprise: Mary and the Unitarians. The focus was the three remarkable Unitarian men who helped and guided her life: Richard Price, Joseph Johnson, and William Godwin. It is an obvious point that they were substitutes for her violent father and tyrannical elder brother, but more broadly they represent the good phases of her life. And they were truly remarkable. Did you know that Price received his honorary doctorate from Yale in 1781, as did George Washington? Did you know that Johnson was one of the first publishers not to pigeonhole himself into a specialism (he printed everyone from the poet Cooper to Erasmus Darwin)? Did you know that Godwin was born into a family of ministers, and stood on the kitchen chair to preach before he could write?

Lyndall describes Mary as "one of the great letter-writers of our language" and how spontaneous phrases in casual letters to her sisters had hooked her, and drawn her in to this biographical project. She explained how she plotted the book: instead of ending each chapter with a disaster or a cliff-hanger, she wanted to give it an upswing, to show how Mary surmounted each predicament. "What I found remarkable was her resilience." And, crucially, she had the capacity to impress people even before she had done anything. She agreed with the Unitarian values, as she too was powerless and disenfranchised. She was not averse to talented and gifted men; she had the discernment to pick as her mentors men of admirable values. (Well... with at least one exception.)

And here is a brief video of the author, via the massive marketing machine of today's publishers.


  1. Lyndall Gordon is one of the great biographers of our age - or any age. She digs deep, beyond the easy exploration of a life, avoiding the received opinions and lazy generalisations of what makes great artists and thinkers create what they create. I always look forward to reading whoever she explores next. Her biography of this great philosopher is exemplary.
    Thank you, Dr Gordon.
    Dr Pauline Kiernan

  2. Thank you, Dr Kiernan, for dropping by! May I ask how you found this blog? (Are you by any chance following the unfolding Mary the Movie?)

    You are absolutely right about Lyndall Gordon's research and literary talent. She was introduced on Sunday as a full-time biographer, and the host added, "I didn't know there was such a thing". Well, thank goodness there is!