iPlayer Radio What's New?
Image for Mary Wollstonecraft

Listen now 45 mins

Listen in pop-out player

Mary Wollstonecraft

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 31 December 2009

Melvyn Bragg and guests John Mullan, Karen O'Brien and Barbara Taylor discuss the life and ideas of the pioneering British Enlightenment thinker Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 into a middle-class family whose status steadily sank as her inept, brutal, drunken father frittered away the family fortune. She did what she could to protect her mother from his aggression; meanwhile, her brother was slated to inherit much of the remaining fortune, while she was to receive nothing.

From this unpromising but radicalising start, Wollstonecraft's career took a dizzying trajectory through a bleak period as a governess to becoming a writer, launching a polemical broadside against the political star of the day, witnessing the bloodshed of the French Revolution up close, rescuing her lover's stolen ship in Scandanavia, then marrying one of the leading philosophers of the day, William Godwin, and with him having a daughter who - though she never lived to see her grow up - would go on to write Frankenstein.

But most importantly, in 1792, she published her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which marks her out as one of the great thinkers of the British Enlightenment, with a much stronger, more lasting influence than Godwin.

The Vindication was an attempt to apply the Enlightenment logic of rights and reason to the lives of women. Yet it was not a manifesto for the extension of the vote or the reform of divorce law, but a work of political philosophy.

And surprisingly, as recent scholarship has highlighted, it was infused with Rational Dissenting Christianity, which Wollstonecraft had absorbed during her time as a struggling teacher and writer in north London.

John Mullan is Professor of English at University College, London; Karen O'Brien is Professor of English at the University of Warwick; Barbara Taylor is Professor of Modern History in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of East London.

  • FURTHER READING

    Taylor, Barbara, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (Pantheon, 1983; Harvard University Press, 1993)

    Taylor, Barbara, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

    Taylor, Barbara, Women, Gender and Enlightenment, 1650-1850 (co-edited with Sarah Knott, Palgrave Press, 2005)

    O’Brien, Karen, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge University Press, 1997)

    O’Brien, Karen, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

    Mullan, John, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1988)

    Mullan, John, Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007)

Broadcasts

Featured in...

  • History archive

    Historical themes, events and key individuals from Akhenaten to Xenophon.

  • Enlightenment

    Browse the Enlightenment era within the In Our Time archive.

  • Philosophy archive

    From Altruism to Wittgenstein, philosophers, theories and key themes.

  • Feminism

    Programmes that explore feminist theory and its impact on the world.

  • 18th Century

    Browse the 18th Century era within the In Our Time archive.

In Our Time Downloads

melvyn-bragg.jpg

Every episode of In Our Time - available to download to listen to when & where you want.

Free downloads

  1. Image for In Our Time Archive: Culture

    In Our Time Archive: Culture

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas as it applies to culture - from literature…

  2. Image for In Our Time Archive: History

    In Our Time Archive: History

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the people, conflicts and events that have shaped the world.

  3. Image for In Our Time Archive: Philosophy

    In Our Time Archive: Philosophy

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of philosophy - from ancient Greek thinkers to the…

  4. Image for In Our Time Archive: Religion

    In Our Time Archive: Religion

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of religious ideas - from the faith systems of…

  5. Image for In Our Time Archive: Science

    In Our Time Archive: Science

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas and the evolution of the sciences - from…

  6. Image for In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg

    In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas - including topics drawn from philosophy,…

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss