Picks and Pans Review: Vindication

updated 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Frances Sherwood

Vindication, an unsolicited manuscript discovered to be a gem, brings to its unknown, unassuming author immediate accolades and, in this case, advance sales to 10 foreign countries. For Sherwood, a 53-year-old Indiana University teacher and mother, the publication of her first novel lifts her at once into the ranks of popular writers such as A.S. Byatt (Possession) who present historical fiction soaked in period detail and atmosphere but composed and narrated in a very contemporary style.

The novel is based on the life of the 18th-century English feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, who grew up in a stifling lower-middle-class household. Sherwood's fictional Mary manages to escape and works variously as a lady's companion, governess and schoolteacher before devoting herself to such works as The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

The most interesting distinction between the real Mary and the fictional one is that Sherwood has taken her subject's known romantic infatuations and heightened them into delirious erotic obsessions. The daughter of an austere, undemonstrative mother and a violent father, Mary throws herself into doomed, highly sexed affairs with a famous British painter and a sadistic American businessman, with whom she bears a daughter, Fanny. These debilitating liaisons drive her to Bedlam, the infamous mental hospital, and later to a suicide attempt. (Eventually she marries happily but dies in childbirth; the daughter will become Mary Shelley and write Frankenstein.) Though the novel's themes sound somber, Sherwood manages with a light touch to fashion a swiftly moving narrative about a woman created of equal parts passion and intellect, one who finds vindication by allowing herself to love outside the moral boundaries of her time. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22)

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