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Maggi Hambling's Wollstonecraft statue is hideous but fitting

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft

Newington Green, London N16

Frankly, it is rather hideous — but also quite wonderful, shimmering against the weak blue of a late November sky. The new statue ‘for’ Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), the radical writer, journalist, teacher and novelist, had drawn quite a crowd to Newington Green in north London when I went to see it. They were gathered round it, puzzled and questioning, trying to work out what to think of the tiny figure on top, the garish silvery finish, the heaving bulbous mass below.

The memorial, designed by the sculptor Maggi Hambling, has been vilified since its unveiling a few weeks ago by critics who have focused on the nude female figure, bothered by the beautifully styled tits and perhaps perturbed by the very obvious bush of pubic hair. But the figure itself looks to be no more than a foot tall, and is striking not for its nudity but for its strong, upright, energetic posture and its extraordinary emergence from the organic mass below.

This is not a nude in any conventional sense, to be gazed upon or salivated over, but rather an unadorned human being, springing into life without preconceived ideas or stale obligations. She looks upwards and forwards, a new kind of thinker, just as Wollstonecraft was herself. She once wrote in a letter to her sister Everina: ‘I am then going to be the first of a new genus…’ She had determined that she would make enough money as a professional writer to support not just herself but also her two sisters. ‘I must be independent.’

She is often described as a feminist, if not the progenitor of the movement. I’m not sure this is entirely true. She was far more concerned about natural justice for both women and men, as Hambling’s statue acknowledges by choosing for the plinth below the quotation ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.’

Wollstonecraft made her name not by writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but rather A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which was published two years earlier and written in hasty response to events across the Channel in France. Yes, of course, she was driven by the desire to end the suffering of abused wives, reluctant mothers, ignorant, untaught girls, but that desire sprang from the moral conviction that all are equal and should be given equal rights. She was not averse to criticising her own sex for their moral weakness, writing in 1792: ‘Indignantly have I heard women argue in the same track as men, and adopt the sentiments that brutalise them, with all the pertinacity of ignorance.’

She was always a controversial figure, writing not for an audience but to circulate ideas that had been forged from a difficult life and deepened by her powers of observation and empathy. As her future husband William Godwin described her in his Memoirs: ‘She adopted one opinion, and rejected another, spontaneously, by a sort of tact, and the force of a cultivated imagination; and yet, though perhaps, in the strict sense of the term, she reasoned little, it is surprising what a degree of soundness is to be found in her determinations.’

The dignity, insight and ‘greatness of soul’ of Wollstonecraft could never have been contained in a straightforward statue. Nor would she ever have wished to be memorialised as a grandee, in a static monument. She would have enjoyed the bitter arguments about the rightness and worth of the statue, as Professor Nancy Johnson, co-editor of a new volume of essays about this most contradictory woman, suggests: ‘It seems quite fitting that Mary Wollstonecraft’s memorial has generated so much debate because her work in social and political theory was so controversial. She was a courageous thinker — provocative and visionary — with a commitment to the betterment of women and men.’

We should not forget either that Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, was the creator of Frankenstein. There’s a reference to that monstrous begetter in Hambling’s sculpture, as also to a description of Mary by Godwin in his Memoirs. While in Paris to witness the events of the Revolution, Wollstonecraft fell in love with an American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, and had his child while not married (she lived her life unconventionally, and dramatically, attempting suicide not once but twice).

Godwin writes of this episode: ‘She was like a serpent upon a rock that casts its slough, and appears again with the brilliancy, the sleekness, and the elastic activity of its happiest age…’ There’s a hint of the serpent about the mouth from which emerges Hambling’s version of an everywoman, which also brings to mind the biblical serpent.

If the intention behind the statue campaign was to ensure that all those who see it would go away and find out more about the woman who inspired it, then it has succeeded brilliantly. Hambling’s provocative creation accurately reflects the strange, wilful combination of headlong folly and measured, intelligent response that characterised Wollstonecraft.

The best place to find her is not necessarily in her most famous works but in the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, published in 1796, fuelled as the letters are by her courage and honest introspection, and filled with the originality of her observations, naked of influence or prejudice.

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