The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Love and Fury
Love and Fury
A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft
by Samantha Silva

Paperback (31 May 2022), 288 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN-13: 9781250159120
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From the acclaimed author of Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a richly-imagined reckoning with the life of another cherished literary legend: Mary Wollstonecraft – arguably the world's first feminist.

August, 1797. Midwife Parthenia Blenkinsop has delivered countless babies, but nothing prepares her for the experience that unfolds when she arrives at Mary Wollstonecraft's door. Over the eleven harrowing days that follow, as Mrs. Blenkinsop fights for the survival of both mother and newborn, Mary Wollstonecraft recounts the life she dared to live amidst the impossible constraints and prejudices of the late 18th century, rejecting the tyranny of men and marriage, risking everything to demand equality for herself and all women. She weaves her riveting tale to give her fragile daughter a reason to live, even as her own strength wanes. Wollstonecraft's urgent story of loss and triumph forms the heartbreakingly brief intersection between the lives of a mother and daughter who will change the arc of history and thought.

In radiant prose, Samantha Silva delivers an ode to the dazzling life of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the world's most influential thinkers and mother of the famous novelist Mary Shelley. But at its heart, Love and Fury is a story about the power of a woman reclaiming her own narrative to pass on to her daughter, and all daughters, for generations to come.

Mrs. B

August 30, 1797

Mrs. Blenkinsop arrived at a neat circle of three-story houses at the edge of North London, surprised to find her charge at the open door, holding her ripe belly with both hands and ushering her inside with an easy smile and no apparent terror of the event to come. The home and its mistress, in a muslin gown and indigo shawl, smelled of apple dumplings. Though they hadn't met, the woman took the midwife's hand and led her past half-furnished rooms, introducing them as she went, waving away stacks of books on a Turkish carpet, anticipating shelves, and the occasional wood box and leather trunk, as "the old life still finding its place in the new." Mrs. Blenkinsop had seen far more disarray in her time, and liked the simple touches, cut flowers in every room and a single oval portrait, just a face (that looked very much like the missus herself) gazing out from over a mantel. In the garden out back, which was enjoying its first late-summer bloom, the midwife caught sight of a little girl, three years old, she guessed, playing with a young woman who seemed to be telling her the names of plants.

It was a fine house, with fresh white walls and open windows, tall as Heaven, inviting a cordial breeze that followed them down a hall, up two steep staircases, and into the airy bedroom where the missus led her, answering each of Mrs. Blenkinsop's questions with an uncanny calm: Her waters had started as a trickle but ended as a gush as she'd stood in the kitchen that morning. She'd felt a dull ache and scattered pains, with no sensible pattern, but she wasn't unwell, and remembered eating, only two hours before, a small breakfast, which she hoped was enough nourishment to sustain her for the labor to come.

"I don't imagine there'll be much for you to do, Mrs. Blenkinsop, but sit by and wait for Nature to do what your art cannot."

"No objection by me." The midwife put her old bag and bottle of gin on the floor.

"I can't abide the lying-in. I was up next day with Fanny."

"Sweet girl in the garden just now?"

"Yes, with our dear Marguerite. Both too sweet for the world, I'm afraid. But Fanny wasn't shy coming into it."

The midwife took off her brown cape and folded it over a chair. "Well, I've never seen two births the same. Not in all my time. But we'll hope for the best."

"I told Mr. Godwin I'd be down for dinner tomorrow afternoon."

"Let's have a look, then," said the midwife, eager to attend to the business at hand. "D'you mind if I take off my cap?"

"Of course, Mrs. Blenkinsop. We don't stand on ceremony here."

"'Mrs. B' ought to do fine," she said, taking some almond oil from her bag and rubbing her hands clean with it. "Shortens things up."

"Mrs. B, then."

A servant appeared with a pressed apron for the midwife, which she wrapped around her own dumpling of a stomach and tied at the back. She removed the woman's slippers, squeezing the arch of each foot before lifting her legs onto the bed, then laid her palms on the great taut womb, and closed her eyes as a way of gathering all her senses to feel the child inside. Satisfied that the baby had fallen down proper and headfirst, she sat on the edge of the bed to raise the missus's knees to a slight bend, rolled her gown to the crest of them, pulled off her underthings, and lightly pressed her legs apart. They had the give of a woman who'd done this before.

As the midwife inquired into her case—dilated only one finger's worth across—the pregnant woman exhaled a slow breath and talked to the ceiling.

"I told Mr. Godwin over breakfast I had no doubt of seeing the animal today, but that I must wait for you to guess the hour. I think he was somewhat alarmed at the prospect of it all, but relieved when I sent him away. Though I promised I'd send word throughout the day."

"Then it'll just be the two of us, for now." The midwife wiped her hands on her apron. The custom of gathering a gaggle of female relatives and friends, as far as she was concerned, did nothing to serve the cause, or the patient. None of them, in her experience, could agree on a best course going forward or backward: Was it oystershell powder for weak digestion, or crushed chamomile flowers? Cayenne pepper or laudanum for morning sickness? A "cooling" or a "heating" diet throughout? (Mrs. B had seen too many women living like a horse on grassy food and water.) If a woman's pains weren't strong enough, her attendants promoted large quantities of strong liquors, and if very strong, even more. The only thing worse, in her mind, was the calling of a doctor, who was always quick with the forceps and short on patience with a woman in pain.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Love and Fury by Samantha Silva. Copyright © 2021 by Samantha Silva. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Discuss the novel's title. How do both love and fury shape the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mrs. Blenkinsop? What do those words mean to you?
  2. Love and Fury alternates between third-person narration from Mrs. Blenkinsop's perspective and first-person narration from Mary's. What is the effect of moving back and forth between these two strands? How do they inform each other?
  3. Mary's chapters are narrated directly to her daughter. As she says: "I will tell you the story to fill you up and bind you to this wondrous vale, if you stay with us, little bird. Please stay. I will tell you the moments that begin and end me—because we are made of them all, strung like pearls in time, searching always for where the new circle begins its turn, the place of our next becoming. Where the line becomes an arc, and curves." What does she mean? Do you agree with her description of life as a series of moments "strung like pearls in time"?
  4. When Mary is a child, she describes nature as "my only home on earth, a place to rest, unbound." What role does nature play throughout her life? How do her views evolve as she gets older?
  5. Mary tells Jane Arden: "I am singular in my thoughts of love and friendship...I must have the first place with you or none." What does Mary's relationship with Jane mean to her? How does it foreshadow future relationships, notably with Fanny Blood and Imlay?
  6. In one of their last conversations, John Arden tells Mary: "Yet cut open a burl, Miss Wollstonecraft, and instead of straight grain one finds waves and swirls of wood, marbled and feathered, even 'eyes' staring back at us. It's the most prized wood, above everything...Our knots are the strongest part of us. And our burls the place of our greatest beauty, if we but grow up around them, and reach for the sun." What are some of the "knots" that shape Mary's life?
  7. Mary describes Fanny Blood as the person she loved most in the world, after her daughters. What does Fanny mean to her? Would you describe their relationship as romantic?
  8. Discuss Mary's philosophy on the education of young women and girls: "Integrity, creativity, self-discipline. If they could learn to value their own minds, not the minds of others, of men, they might refuse trivialities in favor of depth, and true human purpose, a new society, made by them, reflected in them. That, I believe, is the highest virtue." What does she mean? What is the importance of education over the course of Mary's life?
  9. Do you sympathize at all with Lady Kingsborough? In what ways does she embody the difficulties women faced in the eighteenth century, despite their wealth and position?
  10. Mary reflects: "I seek a poetics of change. For women and men. That joins sense with sensibility. But a sensibility governed by reason." Later in the novel, Mrs. Blenkinsop remarks on "the way [Mary]turns feeling into thinking and thinking into feeling." What do sense and sensibility mean in the context of this novel? How are they related to feeling and thinking, in particular?
  11. Mary tells Fuseli: "I don't want women to have power over men, but power, at last, over themselves." What does power mean to her? Discuss instances in the novel where she has power over her life, and when she doesn't.
  12. The first words Mary writes in crafting A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, arguably her most famous work, are: "A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society." What do you think she means by that? How does it shape her approach to life and relationships?
  13. Mary reflects: "Where Fuseli was the tinder and spark, Imlay was my raging fire." How do her relationships with these two men influence her views on love, sex, and marriage? How are they similar and different? How does Mary's marriage to Godwin model a different kind of partnership?
  14. Mrs. Blenkinsop describes everything she witnesses between Mary's childbirth and death as "all this—sad and glorious beautiful." What do you think she means? Is Mrs. Blenkinsop changed by her experience with Mary? If so, how?
  15. In the last line of the novel, Mary tells her daughter, "Sorrow, my sweet girl, will bring you to your knees, time and again, but so will beauty, so too love, enough to rise again, to try again, to live as all beings wish to live: free." What does freedom mean to Mary, and how does her understanding evolve over the course of her life? Do you think Mary herself "lives freely"?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Flatiron Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

While staying true to history and respecting the legacy of one of the feminist movement's pioneers, Samantha Silva's lavishly written Love and Fury offers readers a sorrowful but uplifting retelling of Mary Wollstonecraft's life.

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Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for being an early advocate for women's rights and the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Undeniably ahead of her time, Wollstonecraft suffered a tarnished reputation until she was elevated to icon status in the 20th century as feminist ideology gathered steam.

Aside from penning multiple works of fiction and non-fiction — most famously A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — Wollstonecraft lived a colorful life filled with love, loss and acts of defiance. It was the events of this life that overshadowed her legacy (see Beyond the Book). In Love and Fury, however, her story is told with a deft blend of sensitivity and aplomb.

The novel opens on August 30, 1797, the day that Mary Shelley was born. We meet Wollstonecraft and her husband, anarchist philosopher William Godwin, and see the day's events through the eyes of midwife Mrs. Blenkinsop (also referred to as Mrs. B). From here, the book's chapters shift back and forth between this narrow period of time — ranging from the birth of Mary Shelley to the death of her mother 11 days later — and the earlier life events of Wollstonecraft, told in the first person. This device gives readers a consistent and welcome shift in tone and setting. The Mary W chapters are longer and broader in scope, while the Mrs. B chapters are shorter, behaving like interludes that increase in intensity as the novel progresses. Love and Fury is plotted with tight pacing, dwelling on moments of impact and emotion while also jumping forward when the need arises, keeping the momentum consistently high.

The events of Wollstonecraft's life are told with bright emotion, capturing the wisdom, savvy, integrity and common sense of this early feminist. We see her childhood home, her relationships with her brash, abusive father and her spoiled older brother. We see the spark that lit the fire of her hatred for marriage and the traditional roles of women, as she is expected to marry young, and to care for her sisters.

The characterization of the women in the novel is spectacular. Wollstonecraft famously had a deep and loving relationship with the illustrator Fanny Blood, who also died of complications related to childbirth. It's a relief to see this intimate bond painted with detail and faithfulness by Silva. Blood is portrayed as a sympathetic love interest with her own difficult and tragic choices to make; fate railroads her in one direction while she experiences conflict, both internal and external. In the early chapters, young Jane Arden (who would eventually become a schoolmistress) is given a satisfying arc of character growth. She matures and befriends Wollstonecraft after initially turning her nose up at the girl, while her scholarly father — a natural philosopher — teaches Mary, motivating her to pursue science and knowledge.

Our narrator-protagonist is an inspiring heroine, engaging in frequent battles of wit on the topics of marriage, tradition, education and the distribution of wealth. Every aspect of her legendary philosophy — especially the education rights of women and girls — is captured in her personality and her speech. She lives and breathes her beliefs, while still being given the space to experience love, passion, anger, hate and loss.

Silva has done a miraculous job of presenting the reader with a life that contains multitudes, all while keeping intact the accomplishments for which Wollstonecraft is famous. Love and Fury is a flawless fictional retelling of a radical and unique life in spectacular color.

Reviewed by Will Heath

Historical Novel Society
Beautifully human. Even readers typically uninterested in this time period will find themselves sucked into Silva's lyrical prose. Highly recommended.

Ms. Magazine
Magical…A love letter to life itself. Love and Fury is a beautifully written call to all of us to fill our own brief time with as much love, wisdom, suffering and, most important, beauty as possible.

Washington Post
Silva succeeds in making Wollstonecraft...a vibrant and forceful personality, full of both love and fury...The later sections of the novel can feel a little rushed, in part because the backdrop is so huge...But the earlier sections move more slowly, and Silva paints a convincing portrait of a girl finding her way in the world.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] gripping, meticulous novel...Silva's heartbreaking but inspiring work captures the despair and joy, convictions and contradictions of an extraordinary woman.

Booklist
Wide-ranging, deep…Passionate…Related with superb detail…Silva's portrait of the revolutionary Wollstonecraft generates an absorbing tale of courage, sorrow, and the dance between independence and intimacy that delivers a sense of triumphant catharsis.

Kirkus Reviews
[M]oving...Silva's strong visual language enhances an otherwise matter-of-fact retelling of Wollstonecraft's brief, eventful life.

Author Blurb Afia Atakora, author of Conjure Women
Love and Fury sparks with a thrilling jolt of electricity, reanimating the epic legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and a valiant feminist icon in her own right. Samantha Silva's sensory prose is smartly crafted in a dual storyline delivered both as a daring midwife's moving account of loss, and as a dying mother's appeal to her newborn daughter to live. Together, the two weave a spun-gold tale both sweeping and intimate. Through this prism of history, Love and Fury shines with essential truths about love, womanhood, and the timeless struggle to define one's self.

Author Blurb Clare Beams, author of The Illness Lesson
Here is a novel set on the border between living and dying, with a heroine so powerful she conquers all territories, including this one?and she conquered me, too. Love and Fury thrums with beauty, pain, sorrow, wonder, tragedy, triumph, and life. What an extraordinary and transformative book this is.

Author Blurb Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society
Astonishing and groundbreaking. Silva’s Wollstonecraft is one of the most complex, kind and endearing characters in recent historical fiction, simultaneously strong and heartbreakingly vulnerable. A provocative, inspiring and timely novel...

Author Blurb TaraShea Nesbit, author of Beheld
A gorgeous novel. Silva has given homage and light to Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist icon and mother of Mary Shelley, but so much more, creating a complex and loving novel all her own. This illuminating story harnesses the power women have—even in the midst of loss—to change the world, one woman's story at a time. An urgent masterpiece. Or should I say, Mistress-piece?

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The Legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1970-71 Although the word "feminist" did not enter popular political discourse until over a century after her death, the published works of Mary Wollstonecraft show her to be one of the world's pioneering feminist writers. As Love and Fury explores in some detail, the events of Wollstonecraft's life were crucial in cementing her ideologies and philosophies concerning the roles and education of women. Her earliest gestures in defense of women included protecting her mother from her father's abuse and convincing her sister to leave her husband. However, the legacy of Wollstonecraft has been a rocky one. For a hundred years, society looked back on her life with harshness and skepticism, due in part to how she was portrayed by her spouse, William Godwin.

After Wollstonecraft's death, Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This book reveals, with frankness and clarity, the most intimate details of his wife's life, including her love affairs, suicide attempts and illegitimate children. While Godwin reportedly claimed that he wrote about Wollstonecraft "with love, compassion and sincerity," this was not how the memoirs were received. And so, for the entirety of the 19th century, Wollstonecraft's legacy was largely defined by her personal life, which was viewed as scandalous.

It was the rise of women's suffrage in the early 20th century that reignited and reframed Wollstonecraft in the public eye. In 1929, author Virginia Woolf declared, "she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living." This statement arguably showed not only the impact of Wollstonecraft's writing on other feminist writers, but also an acceptance of her actions while alive. In the 1960s, as feminism became more mainstream in academic circles, scholars of the subject turned their attention to the pioneering works of Wollstonecraft. She was now being studied and discussed, inspiring thinkers and writers more than 150 years after her death.

Today, the life and work of Wollstonecraft continue to influence the thoughts and work of modern scholars and writers. Her legacy shows no signs of slowing down, as the waves of feminism continue to rise and gain power across the globe.

Discussions around Wollstonecraft were relit in a surprising way in 2020 when Maggi Hambling's sculpture dedicated to the feminist icon was unveiled in Newington Green, North London. The sculpture, which presents "the naked everywoman emerging from a swirl of female forms," sparked an immediate and loud discussion amongst critics, academics and ordinary passers-by.

Lizzy Bassham, owner of a cafe in Newington Green, remarked that, "Opinions might be polarised, but everybody is talking about Mary, people are discussing it while they are getting a coffee. Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical woman and I think she would have loved the stir it has caused." Thanks to this sculpture, Wollstonecraft remains a source of conversation even in the 2020s.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft (circa 1790-91) by John Opie (1761–1807), via Wikimedia Commons

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