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Mary Wollstonecraft, British author and philosopher, 1759-1797

By Laura Kirkley, University of Cambridge

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on 27th April 1759, the second child of Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft (née Dickson) of Ballyshannon. In 1768, the Wollstonecraft family moved to Beverley in Yorkshire, where Wollstonecraft acquired the northern vernacular occasionally used to colour her prose. In 1776, the family moved to Hoxton, near London, where their neighbours were the Reverend Mr Clare and his wife. Mr Clare introduced Wollstonecraft to poetry, taking her under his wing as an informal private pupil. It was on an excursion with the Clares to Newington Butts that Wollstonecraft met Fanny Blood, for whom she quickly conceived a passionate friendship. In his biography of Wollstonecraft, William Godwin compares her first sight of Fanny to ‘the first interview of Werther with Charlotte’, and describes the friendship as Wollstonecraft’s ‘ruling passion’ at that time.

In 1778, Wollstonecraft moved to Bath to work as a companion, but returned home when her mother fell ill. Elizabeth Wollstonecraft died in April 1782. Haunted by her final words – ‘A little patience, and all will be over!’ – Wollstonecraft used them in her unfinished novel, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman] (1798). Although part of a deathbed scene, the words are also a bitter commentary on the plight of women, who were counselled to practise patience, not protest, in the face of suffering. The Wrongs of Woman also features a ‘lovely maniac’, put into an asylum after a forced marriage to a rich man: ‘in consequence of his treatment, or something which hung on her mind, she had, during her first lying-in, lost her senses’. This thumbnail sketch may owe something to Wollstonecraft’s married sister, Eliza Bishop, who suffered from severe postnatal depression after the birth of her daughter. Called to nurse her sister, Wollstonecraft feared that Eliza was sliding into insanity and suspected that some unseen cruelty at the hands of her husband was to blame. Divorce was illegal, so in January 1784, Wollstonecraft spirited her sister away in a coach.

Shortly afterwards, Wollstonecraft, together with Eliza and her unmarried sister Everina, set up a day-school in Newington Green. The move proved formative for Wollstonecraft, bringing her into contact with a community of politicised Dissenters and radical intelligentsia. One such Dissenter was the Unitarian minister Dr Richard Price, who preached political and social equality, supported the American Revolution, and became a mentor for Wollstonecraft. Her residence at Newington Green was brought to an abrupt end, however, by the news that Fanny Blood, who was living in Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys, was pregnant and in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. Wollstonecraft made the journey to Portugal to nurse her friend, but Fanny died on 29th November 1785. In her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), published over a decade later, Wollstonecraft laments abandonment by her lover and the death of her friend in a single mournful passage: ‘I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not forgotten, – nor looks I have felt in every nerve which I shall never more meet. The grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth; she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath.’

When she returned to England, Wollstonecraft paid the Blood family’s passage to their native Ireland with the proceeds from her first educational pamphlet, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). It was published by Joseph Johnson, one of London’s most radical booksellers and, in later years, Wollstonecraft’s devoted friend. Shortly afterwards, she accepted a position as governess to the daughters of the Ascendancy Irish aristocrats Lord and Lady Kingsborough. From October 1786 until June 1787, she lived on the Kingsborough estate in County Cork, which gave her access to an extensive library of foreign literature. Her reading matter included Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, which she described as ‘one of the prettiest things [she had] ever read’, and Stéphanie de Genlis’s Adèle et Théodore, ou Lettres sur l’éducation (1782), which she thought ‘wonderfully clever’. Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for Genlis endured and, in 1789, she translated extracts from the Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes (1781) for her Female Reader (1789). Her letters from Ireland also evince a burgeoning fascination for the works of Rousseau. In a letter written to Everina in March 1787, she revealed that she had read the Confessions (1782) and begun to identify with Rousseau’s ‘strange inconsistent unhappy clever’ textual self. By November, she was drawing on the Rousseauvian image of the ‘Solitary Walker’ to explain her attraction to the unconventional lifestyle of a woman writer: ‘You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track – the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on’.

Loved by her pupils, Wollstonecraft nonetheless clashed with Lady Kingsborough and suffered from bouts of depression. In June 1787, she left her post and embarked on her career as a professional writer. In 1788, Johnson published her autofictional Mary, A Fiction and the children’s conduct-book Original Stories from Real Life. Mary is a sentimental novel indicting the enslavement of women in marriage and takes its epigraph from Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Based on Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess, Original Stories is collection of instructive tales and conversations between the enlightened educator, Mrs Mason, and her pupils. William Blake illustrated the second edition in 1791. In later years, Wollstonecraft’s enduring influence on the eldest Kingsborough daughter, Margaret King, was palpable. Declaring herself a United Irishwoman during the rebellion of 1798, Margaret wrote pamphlets about the Union Crisis. She eventually divorced her husband, the 2nd Earl Mount Cashell, and settled in Pisa with her lover, the agronomist George William Tighe. Here she befriended Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont. Repudiating her aristocratic title, Margaret called herself ‘Mrs Mason’ and published her own novel and stories for children under that name.

From 1788, Wollstonecraft was a prolific literary critic for the Analytical Review, edited by Johnson and Thomas Christie. She improved her French and began to learn German and Italian. In addition to review work, therefore, she also published translations of the following: Jacques Necker’s De l’importance des opinions religieuses (1788); Maria de Cambon’s De kleine Grandisson (1782); Christian Gotthilf Salzmann’s Moralisches Elementarbuch (1782). These became On the Importance of Religious Opinions (1788), Young Grandison (1790), and Elements of Morality for the use of young children (1790). Godwin records that she also ‘began a translation from the French, of a book, called, The New Robinson’, and ‘made an abridgement of Lavater’s Physiognomy, from the French’. As a regular guest at Johnson’s famous Tuesday-evening dinner parties, Wollstonecraft came into contact with London’s most radical artists, writers, and philosophers, many of whom had established links with like-minded Parisian intellectuals. These included the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, for whom she developed an unconsummated passion. Fuseli shared her admiration for Rousseau, and his association with Johann Kaspar Lavater may also have prompted her interest in physiognomy, evident in her unfinished anti-mimetic tale, The Cave of Fancy, which Godwin published posthumously in 1798.

The French Revolution began with the convocation of the Estates-General in May 1789 and the storming of the Bastille on 14th July. In the same year, Richard Price published his pro-Revolutionary Discourse on the Love of our Country, which provoked an excoriating attack from Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Roused to profound indignation, Wollstonecraft made her first foray into the historically masculine sphere of political debate. Her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) was the first published reply to Burke, as well as an encomium of Price. The first edition was published anonymously. The second edition of 1791 bore her name. As Godwin put it, ‘From this time she was destined to attract the notice of the public, and perhaps no female writer ever obtained so great a degree of celebrity throughout Europe.’ Towards the end of the same year, Godwin had his first inauspicious meeting with Wollstonecraft. After an evening spent arguing over a dinner table that also sat Thomas Paine, they parted in mutual dislike.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft wrote the seminal feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was completed in six weeks and quickly translated into French and German. Salzmann, with whom Wollstonecraft had corresponded since she translated his Elementarbuch, edited the German text, which in turn served as source text for a Dutch translation. Wollstonecraft addressed the Rights of Woman to Talleyrand, the leader of the French National Assembly, arguing that the principles of the Revolution demanded female enfranchisement in the political, legal and social spheres, as well as improved educational opportunities for women. She argued that women were effectively enslaved, not only by their status under law, but also by their own ignorance, which led them to conform to social systems that constructed them as ‘objects of pity, bordering on contempt.’ In the course of her work, she attacked the misogynist gender politics and popular conduct books of Rousseau, Dr James Fordyce, and Dr John Gregory.

Wollstonecraft travelled to France in the winter of 1792, arriving in time to witness Louis XVI taken to the guillotine. That night, she wrote to Joseph Johnson: ‘I want to see something alive; death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy. – I am going to bed – and, for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle’. Revolutionary Paris, however, had much to offer a pioneering feminist. Before Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, women became members of clubs and popular societies, as well as vocal spectators in the galleries of section assemblies, the national legislature, and radical republican clubs. No-fault divorce was legalised in September 1792. Resident in Paris and its environs until 1795, Wollstonecraft developed a friendship with Helen Maria Williams, whose salon was frequented by leading Girondist deputies such as Brissot and Vergniaud, as well as prominent women such as Manon Roland and Genlis. Wollstonecraft also met Théroigne de Méricourt when dining with Paine. By 1793, she was working on a plan of education for consideration in the National Assembly. The invitation probably came from Condorcet or one of his associates on the Comité de l’instruction publique. In the relatively permissive ambiance of Revolutionary Paris, Wollstonecraft also embarked on a love affair with the charismatic American, Gilbert Imlay, author of A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792) and The Emigrants (1793). Imlay’s works suggest that, like Wollstonecraft, he abhorred the slave trade and was sympathetic to women’s rights. From Wollstonecraft’s perspective, she had formed an egalitarian partnership untrammelled by the marital bonds that subordinated women to their husbands. The relationship led to the birth of her first daughter, Fanny. During her pregnancy, she wrote her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794).

In 1793, the moderate Gironde party fell, Robespierre’s Terror began, and France declared war on Britain. The French came to regard British foreign nationals with suspicion. It is probable that, unlike Paine and Williams, Wollstonecraft escaped arrest only because Imlay registered her as his wife and a legal ally of the new French Republic. She visited Paine in prison and fainted when Imlay broke the news that Brissot and 20 other Girondin deputies had been guillotined. But unlike those Britons who reneged on their Revolutionary principles during the Terror, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charlotte Smith, Wollstonecraft attempted to take a pan-historical view of the crisis. To this end, she conceptualised the world in terms of a Kantian teleology of gradual progress. In her Historical and Moral View, she aims to depict the Revolution as the ‘natural consequence of intellectual improvement, gradually proceeding to perfection in the advancement of communities, from a state of barbarism to that of polished society.’

It seems that Wollstonecraft and Imlay envisaged emigration to America; but whereas Wollstonecraft, caught up in a Pantisocratic vision of domestic happiness, was emotionally wed to Imlay, it gradually became clear that Imlay had a more thoroughgoing commitment to commerce. He was frequently absent on business in Le Havre and London. In 1795, Wollstonecraft was desperate to reignite his waning interest in her and followed him to London. When it became clear that he was involved in an affair with an actress, she took an overdose of laudanum.

Foiled in her suicide attempt by Imlay, Wollstonecraft nonetheless rejected his offer of financial support. To extricate herself from the doomed plot of the fallen woman, she agreed to make an arduous journey through Sweden, Norway, and Denmark on his behalf. Her mission was to trace a valuable cargo of French silver, which had been shipped as part of a commercial venture in exchange for the sought-after commodities of grain, gunpowder and alum. The cargo was carried by Imlay’s ‘treasure-ship’, the Maria and Margarethe, captained by Peder Ellefsen. The ship reached Norway in 1794 but Imlay never got his share of the profits. He seems to have implied that, by seeking restitution from Ellefsen, Wollstonecraft might establish some financial and domestic security with him. Her Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) were inspired and informed by her travels.

When Wollstonecraft returned to England, however, she discovered that Imlay was living with an actress and attempted suicide for a second time. Pulled from the Thames at Putney Bridge, she at first resented her rescue but later made up her mind to live for the sake of her daughter. The publication of the Letters gave her some financial independence. Two enthusiastic readers were the poet Robert Southey and William Godwin. Southey told his friend Joseph Cottle, ‘She has made me in love with a cold climate, and frost and snow, with a northern moonlight.’ Godwin wrote in his Memoirs that the book was ‘calculated to make a man in love with its author.’

Shortly afterwards, Wollstonecraft encountered Godwin again. This time, their meeting was more successful. Slowly, a romantic relationship developed; Godwin described it as ‘friendship melting into love’. At that time, their sphere of acquaintance included the actress Sarah Siddons, Elizabeth Inchbald, Amelia Opie, and Mary Hays. For the latter, Wollstonecraft would become a close friend and mentor. In later years, Amelia Opie declared that whatever she saw in life disappointed her, ‘except Mrs Imlay and the Cumberland lakes.’ Wollstonecraft and Godwin effectively co-habited for seven months until Wollstonecraft discovered that she was pregnant. Although both had declared themselves opposed to marriage, in the event of her pregnancy Wollstonecraft felt unable to bear the public scandal of a second illegitimate child. Accordingly, they were married quietly on 29th March 1797. They moved into the Polygon, a block of three-storey houses in Somers Town. Since both wished to retain a degree of independence, and believed – as the old adage goes – that familiarity breeds contempt, Godwin also rented separate rooms for himself twenty doors away at 17 Evesham Buildings. They worked separately during the day and converged in the evenings.

Godwin also records that, around this time, Wollstonecraft ‘finished the sketch of a comedy’, which dealt in part with ‘incidents of her own story’. Godwin burnt the manuscript, but the fact that Wollstonecraft could derive humour from her recent experiences suggests a certain detachment from Imlay. In 1797, she also published ‘On Poetry, and Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature’ in the Monthly Magazine. Her principal project, however, was Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. This unfinished novel shows a development in her feminism, in that instead of exhorting middle-class women to educate themselves and their daughters, she seeks more thorough-going political and legal reforms that would improve the lot of women across the whole spectrum of society, including the working-classes and prostitutes. Godwin records that she began the novel ‘in several forms, which she successively rejected’ and ‘wrote many parts of the work again and again.’ She would never finish it.

Wollstonecraft went into labour on 30th August. The birth went smoothly, but the placenta did not follow. The midwife panicked and a doctor was called, who opted to tear out the placenta himself, which would have been agony for his patient. Wollstonecraft appeared to improve, saying to Godwin: ‘I would have died, but I was determined not to leave you.’ It soon became clear, however, that an infection had taken root. Sepsis spread through Wollstonecraft’s body. She died at twenty minutes to eight on 10th September 1797 with Godwin at her bedside. In his diary, he wrote the precise time, and drew three wordless lines. Wollstonecraft was buried on 15th September in the churchyard of Old St Pancras. Godwin, who could not bear to attend the funeral, wrote to Thomas Holcroft: ‘I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.’

Godwin published Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel posthumously, together with various fragments amongst her papers. These included: a ‘Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation’ (written in 1793); a fragment of Letters on the Management of Infants; an unfinished educational work, Lessons; ‘Hints’ for the second volume of the Rights of Woman, which was never written. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s baby, a girl named Mary, grew up to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and became the author of Frankenstein.

AsK April 2012

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