Reading Group Guide
"A sexy, irreverent romp of a novel...an exuberant ride through a heady and experimental time."—Harper's Bazaar
From the Editor
I was introduced to Mary Wollstonecraft when I was teaching English in an all-girl, Catholic high school. It was the usual high-school textbook, but in many ways it was more thorough than any of the survey texts I had in college. On one page of this high-school book was an excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. On the page facing it was an excerpt from Virginia Woolf describing Wollstonecraft’s abysmal childhood. The discrepancy between Mary’s childhood and her achievement as a grown woman was telling. I was immediately engaged, but I had to wait about five years before my children were grown and I was teaching in a university to have the sufficient time to pursue my interest in her through travel, research, and writing.
The more I learned of Mary, the more I identified with her, for although we were separated by several centuries, her fight for a life of the mind and acceptance as a thinking person was in many ways similar to my own. I, too, came from a difficult family situation, was not financially secure, had a piecemeal education, and coped with emotional struggles at the same time I tried to establish myself as a writer. We were a match.
I made this book fiction because I relish the freedom to create scene through historical detail and the rise and fall of passion, do tart dialogue, speak for and through my characters, and most of all, enter into the dance and play we call storytelling. I wanted my Mary to address all women of all time. However, it should be noted that the more sensational aspects of Vindication are “true.” Mary did have a child without a husband, did rescue her sister, did try to kill herself several times, was often not the best mother, and did die of childbed fever. I like to think my work understands and appreciates Mary Wollstonecraft in all her contraries, that I have, for the most part, united the war between her head and heart, mind and body. I would hope that if this venerable lady were suddenly to appear here and now, she would approve of my effort, give me a little kiss on the forehead, say “well done, my dear,” and wend her way down the path of history with a lighter step.
- Describe how Mary’s circumstances in life resulted in her revolutionary thinking. What role did fortune and coincidence play in her professional success?
- Describe the development of Mary’s sexuality over the course of her life. How does her own understanding of it evolve? How does it change in the eyes of others?
- In writing Vindication, Frances Sherwood takes imaginative liberties with the known historical facts of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life. How can the fictionalization of real events and characters enhance our understanding of history? Are there dangers in such an enterprise?
- In Sherwood’s telling, Wollstonecraft’s public and private lives are riddled with contradictions. Is it fair to call her a hypocrite?
- What are the deep insecurities that drive Mary to Bedlam and later to attempt suicide? Why would such a creative and productive woman fall prone to depression?
- What does Mary’s choice of lovers reveal about her strengths and weaknesses?
- Does Mary rely on her male lovers to complete her?
- How is Mary’s intimate friendship with Fanny distinct from her romantic relationships with men?
- What is Mary’s unique contribution to Joseph Johnson’s Thursday-night dinner discussions? How is her participation received by her male counterparts?
- How do Mary’s responsibilities as a mother conflict with her ambitions? Is her lack of affection toward Fanny indicative of her problematic personality or her resentment at larger sociohistoric forces?
- Describe the different cultural and social ideals represented by England, France, and America in Vindication.
- From the gallows to the guillotine, execution is a recurrent motif in Vindication. How does it relate to the larger themes of the novel?
- In the late eighteenth century, Western European intellectuals considered themselves to have entered into an age of enlightenment. The French Revolution proved that ideals produced by reason can still be misused in the hands of irrational violence and terror. How does Vindication illustrate the complex interplay of reason and passion on both the epic scale and the personal?
- Sherwood’s rendering of the life of Wollstonecraft highlights many of the basic rights and freedoms that modern women take for granted. Do modern women enjoy the full legacy of Wollstonecraft’s radical philosophy? What progress has yet to be made?
- Given that Wollstonecraft’s novels already offered fictionalized accounts of much of her life, why might Sherwood have felt compelled to offer another account? What fresh insight does Sherwood’s modern perspective offer?
About Frances Sherwood
Frances Sherwood is a teacher in South Bend, Indiana, where she lives with her husband. Her previous books of fiction include Vindication and The Book of Splendor.
Books by Frances Sherwood
A historical novel about the most unlikely of lovers, interwoven with the mysticism of the Jewish occult.More
A tale of love and conquest, "full of page-turning situations...worthy of a García Lorca drama" (San Francisco Chronicle).More
"A sexy, irreverent romp of a novel...an exuberant ride through a heady and experimental time."—Harper's BazaarMore