It’s pre-pandemic November. I’m in New York on my birthday, a confluence that hasn’t happened in more than a decade, though I’m often in New York, and have a birthday reliably once a year. A friend gives me the present of a session with her long-time astrologer, John, who doesn’t nail everything all the time, but gets uncomfortably close, like when he predicted she’d have plumbing problems and she went home to a flood. The last time I saw him, I wanted to talk about my writing life. It’d been years of heartbreaking near misses as a screenwriter, I told him. What if I wrote a novel? He stared into the middle distance, where I guess all our birth charts live, and said, “Hmm. If you told me today you were writing a novel, I’d say, well, you could try. But five years from now? That I can see.”
I don’t need deep knowledge to believe in astrology, just enough to suspend disbelief, buoyed by my own experiences of enchantment and synchronicity that skirt all logic. Religious faith seems to work that way, why not belief in the longest-running algorithmic study in the history of the human search for meaning? It has mathematics and measurements, orbits as cycles, the patterns in nature we see repeated all around. Like the “spooky entanglements” of quantum physics—seemingly unconnected particles operating on each other across vast distances—astrology sits for me in the gap between what’s known and not known, seen and not visible, where all the mystery lies.
As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for gifts and signs, any affirmation that I’m not wandering aimlessly in the woods or the weeds, that there’s a path beneath my feet, or even better, in the blanket of stars and planets over my head. I can also blithely file away whatever I don’t want to hear, imagination with a reverse gear, which I did after seeing John that time. But later, after upending my home and work life in spectacular fashion, which no one foresaw, I did start writing a novel.
My friend gently reminded me that John had told me so. It’d been five years exactly.
This time, I decide not to tell him I’m floundering in the middle of my second novel, where I’ve been treading water for months, doubting what I’ve written, where I’m going, why I’m doing it, whether I’m up to the task, if anyone will care. It’s not so much writer’s block as a barricade with a big sign on it: Turn around, you’re not welcome here, who asked you, anyway? I have that feeling again of wanting out, something that will free me from this terrible bondage to high expectations. John asks, before we start, if I have specific questions, but I’m afraid of what he’ll tell me, and want to preserve a drop of skepticism about the whole asking-about-my-fate thing.
So I tell him my questions can wait. I just want him to talk.
Okay, he says, leaning back into his chair with his half-professor, half-therapist mien. Think of this cycle you’re in as “steady as she goes.” Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It’s too late to do something else, too soon for something new. It’s burdensome right now, you’re weighed down, feel a huge responsibility, it’s slow-moving, and a lot more work than you thought it would be. You’re wondering why you signed up for it. But you just have to put your head down and do the work.
He’s got my attention now.
You’re a Scorpio, he tells me, but there’s Aries all over your chart. They’re the two war signs. (Wait, two war signs, and I have both of them?) But your moon’s in Libra and your Mars is in Taurus, the two peace signs, which are about harmony, justice, fairness, equality.
I get that seasick feeling that this explains everything about my life: my father, the crusading journalist, charismatic and abrasive, at war with so much that he saw wrong in the world; my mother, the peacemaker who wanted everyone to get along and had the warmth to make it so. My own struggle to personhood has been a push-pull between these parts of me. But what John’s saying is so much bigger than I am. It’s the story I’m trying to write.
So I tell him about Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century writer, philosopher—not the daughter, Mary Shelley, who gives us Frankenstein, but the mother, who gives us feminism, invents the life—who in her thirty-eight remarkable years warred with the world, fought against tyranny and gender norms. She thought civilization run by men had utterly failed us, and argued fiercely for women to have “power over themselves.” And she paid for it over and over, even while trying to find some peace, some happiness. But she’s an icon, an avatar, so much bigger than her life and her death.
“You get to a point where you have all this knowledge, but that’s not a novel. The novel’s everything under the surface,” I tell him. “And I’m swimming in circles trying to give her flesh, blood, heat, want, fury, hope, despair—make her exquisitely, painfully human. I know it’s a privilege, but it’s a burden too. And sometimes I don’t know if I’m the one who can tell her story.”I’m trying to understand, why me, why Wollstonecraft, why now?
John’s eyes are dancing now. He’s a taut, elfish man, warm, with mischief in his smile. He asks about her birthday. (Wait, there’s astrology for dead people?) But we’re in the current now, so I tell him: 1759. April 27th. Same day as my son, a day before my best friend, three days before my life partner. Tauruses everywhere I turn.
Of course, he says, it’s your opposite sign. She is your opposite sign, which means a strong sense of relationship. And she’s born a day after the new moon, you a day before—also complementary. Pretty soon he and I migrate to the edges of our seats. Her Mercury is on my Mars, my most personal planet, the one I’m most identified with—the planet of communication and telling a story.
Then he gets a look on his face, like an inkling. “Did she die from substance abuse?”
“No, but she tried. With an overdose of laudanum.”
“Her Neptune was very strong,” he says. “Neptune is substance abuse and infection.”
“She died of sepsis, eleven days after the birth of her daughter,” I tell him. “Because a doctor stuck a dirty hand in her womb.”
“Neptune is God of the oceans, a desire to drown or be somewhere at sea.”
“She sailed to Lisbon alone, toured Norway and Sweden by sea, threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames.” I squeeze my eyes closed and shake my head. “There’s water everywhere,” I tell him. “It’s in the very first sentence, when her water breaks the day she gives birth.”
He nods, like it’s obvious. “She’s a very Taurus kind of Taurus,” he says, “salt of the earth, practical, the sign of money, anything that gives value, priority, worth. She’s someone who holds things together.”
“She tried, so hard.”
“But Neptune’s the opposite of those qualities. All she wanted was to pull things together in an enduring way, but it would slip through her fingers, like water, so she was always disappointed.”
“Yes,” I tell him, “she was.” My chest sinks at the thought of her disappointments, piled up in paragraphs I’ve written myself. Some days it feels like an act of violence, reanimating all that pain—an abusive father, a cold, unloving mother, her best friend dying in her arms, failures, rejections, devastating depression, two suicide attempts—but I’m trying to understand, why me, why Wollstonecraft, why now?
John sees a planet on her sun for the next year that makes her outspoken: she has something to say and she’s going to say it, forthright and direct. And a conjunction in our charts, another conspiracy of planets that means she could propel me, inspire me, move me forward.
“You can give shape and definition to her passion and her pain. You can summon her from the dead.”
“But does she want me to?” I ask.
He sits back again, fingers curled around his chin. “That’s what I look for when we’re talking about bringing an historical person back to life,” he says, “Does she have something to say, something relevant to now? Does she even want to come back to life?”
“Do you know the answer?” By now I’m prickling with desperate curiosity.
“She does,” he says.
When the pandemic descends a few months later, I have my head down already, taking John’s reading as a gift, permission to wander freely and deeply in Wollstonecraft’s world. Maybe it’s self-protection, a distraction from the terrifying news of the day, but my introversion becomes a superpower: I can put blinders on and just write. The resistance I felt is gone. In its place, an intimacy with Mary, whose subjectivity now seems conjoined with mine. I can feel her restive presence, our own “spooky entanglement” across a vast distance, her voice in mine. Everything’s the novel now, the water I swim in. When friends ask me how it’s going, instead of my usual shoulder shrug, an answer spills off my tongue.
By November, when my birthday rolls around again, the novel’s done. I turn back to the world just as America elects the first woman in its history, a woman of color, to national office. Two days later, the long-anticipated “Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft” is unveiled on London’s Newington Green, sparking a feminist furore. Maggi Hambling’s conceptual silver-drenched bronze of a preternaturally endowed “everywoman” rising out of an undulating tangle of female forms offends nearly everyone, but I revel in watching Wollstonecraft explode into the world anew. It’s been nearly a century since Virginia Woolf resurrected her, restored her place in the philosophical pantheon. Wollstonecraft’s husband, radical philosopher William Godwin, had rushed to write a memoir when she died in 1797, leaving nothing out. It scandalized the public and destroyed her reputation for a century. But Woolf found her “alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her trace her influence now among the living.”
And here she is again, no stranger to wild controversy.
A friend sends me a piece by astrologer Anne Whitaker: Some Thoughts on a Sassy Silver Statue, Four Asteroids, and Future Female Power. She compares the sunrise charts for Wollstonecraft and the sculpture’s launch date. (There’s astrology for art?) The same four major asteroid goddesses—Pallas, Juno, Vesta, and Ceres—make a strong showing in both, and of course Eris is everywhere, the goddess of strife. There’s a turbulent T-square, as there was during the French Revolution, when Mary risked her actual neck to live in Paris. The statue launches on Mary’s exact Jupiter Return. And Pluto and Eris, in it for the long game, form a major aspect that hasn’t been seen in 248 years, which would make Mary Wollstonecraft thirteen years old the last time it occurred, which is where I happened to begin her tale.As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for gifts and signs, any affirmation that I’m not wandering aimlessly in the woods or the weeds.
But it’s so much bigger than I am. It’s the story the world’s trying to write. Astrologers everywhere see movements like #MeToo, the election of Kamala Harris, even the single event of a sculpture’s unveiling in London, as giving us a flavor of the age to come, the start of a new cycle that has powerful, mold-breaking female energy, the dying of old patriarchal structures, the birth of something new. It’s everything Wollstonecraft wanted. I think back to John telling me she had something to say, and I feel it now, acutely. The gifts and signs that got me through are now deep faith. Her life, with all its pain and yearning, is a palimpsest of our own. Here she is again, reaching across time to tell us that her unfinished life and work, the fight for equality, a new way of being—her experiment in living—is our future now.
Samantha Silva’s Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft is available now via Flatiron Books.