Quite Contrary: Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) thought that a woman’s place was in the resistance. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), anticipated most of the ideas of modern feminism. Revolutionary thinker, Romantic traveller, citizen of the world, lover, wife, and mother: she packed a huge range of experiences into a short life.
She made up her life as she went along, testing out new roles. She was born in Spitalfields, London, into a middle-class family of declining fortunes. The family moved from place to place. Her mother did not seem to care for her daughters and her father was violent. She learned to read and write at a day school in Yorkshire, and had no other formal education. In her late teens, she left home to become a lady’s companion.
‘I am not born to tread in the beaten track’
At the age of twenty-four Wollstonecraft and her sisters opened a school at Newington Green, then a village north of London. Here she met the luminaries of rational dissent, the troublemaking, heterodox wing of English religious nonconformity (later known as Unitarians). These dissidents included the philosopher Richard Price, who became a friend and guide. The rational dissenters were excluded from full civil rights and advocated a new morality of tolerance, equality, and reason.
The school failed and Wollstonecraft went to Ireland as governess to an aristocratic family. Here she wrote her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), drawing on her own experiences. When she encouraged the eldest daughter to rebel against her parents, she was dismissed. ‘I am … going to be the first of a new genus’, she wrote to her sister Everina: ‘You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track—the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on’. She was signed up by Joseph Johnson, the leading radical publisher of the day, to write for the Analytical Review.
Johnson acted as a surrogate parent to Wollstonecraft. She joined a circle of progressive writers, artists, theologians, and political reformers who met for afternoon dinners above his shop. Most of them welcomed the French Revolution of 1789 as the start of the millennium promised in scripture. Richard Price distilled their euphoria into a sermon, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789), which provoked Edmund Burke’s counter-attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
Within a month Wollstonecraft published a reply, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. She poured scorn on Burke’s ‘pampered sensibility’ and condemned hereditary riches. Suddenly she was famous.
A proper education for women would be transformative
In September 1791, the French National Assembly proposed a new system of education which excluded women from civic life. Wollstonecraft responded with her most celebrated work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, completed in six weeks. Middle-class women, she argued, were degraded by the attitudes of pleasure-seeking men, and by the unnatural distinctions of social rank. A proper education for women would be transformative. It would equip them to be better wives and mothers, to enter civic and professional life—and to reform the world. ‘These may be termed Utopian dreams’, she wrote. They went viral. By the end of 1792 her fame had spread across Europe.
Wollstonecraft began to experience the tensions between ideas and life. In the summer of 1792 she planned to travel to Paris with Johnson and his intimate friend Henry Fuseli, the painter, to witness the French Revolution at first hand. Wollstonecraft was attracted to Fuseli, who stoked her romantic feelings. When the Paris plan fell through, she visited Fuseli’s wife Sophia and asked to move into their house as her husband’s spiritual spouse. Sophia threw her out, and Wollstonecraft travelled alone to Paris.
She stayed in France for two years, through the start of the war with England and the Terror, writing a history of the French Revolution. In Paris she joined a group of British and American radicals at White’s Hotel, and imbibed a cocktail of politics, espionage, and bohemian living. She fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, a former American army officer seeking easy profits from the war in Europe. By the end of the summer of 1793, she was pregnant. ‘I have felt some gentle twitches’, she wrote to Imlay in November, ‘which make me begin to think, that I am nourishing a creature who will soon be sensible of my care.—This thought has … produced an overflowing of tenderness to you.’
In the autumn of 1793 English residents in Paris became vulnerable to arrest as enemies of the Revolution, but Imlay was shielded by his American passport. He registered Wollstonecraft as his wife at the American Embassy, and the pair began to live together openly. Imlay left for Le Havre to run the British naval blockade, shipping goods in and out of France via the neutral Baltic ports. Wollstonecraft bombarded him with reproachful letters, followed by herself. They set up house in Le Havre as a conventional married couple.
In May 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter, Frances (Fanny) Imlay, and became absorbed in motherhood: ‘My little Girl begins to suck so manfully’, she reported to a woman friend, ‘that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R—ts of Woman.’ Imlay moved on, this time to London, leaving Wollstonecraft alone in Paris with her baby daughter and French nursemaid, Marguerite.
Mary rowed to Putney Bridge and threw herself in the Thames
The exiled Irish radical Archibald Hamilton Rowan became a loyal friend. He wrote to his wife: ‘“What!”, said I within myself, ‘this is Miss Mary Wollstonecraft, parading about with a child at her heels, with as little ceremony as if it were a watch she had just bought at the jeweller’s. So much for the rights of women,” thought I.’ In the spring of 1795 Wollstonecraft joined Imlay in London and found he had been unfaithful. She took an overdose; he saved her life.
Imlay held out the promise of reconciliation if she would go to Scandinavia to sort out a failed shipping exploit. He had tried to run a cargo of French silver bullion (made from the melting down of church ornaments) through the naval blockade to Gothenburg in Sweden, where it could be used as payment for grain. The ship never arrived and the silver went missing, prompting a judicial enquiry. Wollstonecraft’s mission was to seek compensation for Imlay, either informally or through the courts. In June 1795 she embarked with the thirteen-month-old Fanny and her French maid. She spent the next four months on lonely sea-journeys to provincial Nordic towns, bargaining with officials, recording her impressions of Scandinavian scenery, and of how women occupied their time in different countries.
When she got back to London, Imlay was living with an actress. Wollstonecraft took a boat and rowed to Putney Bridge, walked up and down in the rain to drench her clothes, and threw herself into the Thames. She was saved by two watermen. George Eliot wrote to her friend Emmanuel Deutsch in 1871:
Remember, it has happened to many to be glad they did not commit suicide, though they once ran for the final leap, or as Mary Wolstonecraft did, wetted their garments well in the rain hoping to sink the better when they plunged. She tells how it occurred to her as she was walking in this damp shroud, that she might live to be glad that she had not put an end to herself—and so it turned out.
Wollstonecraft did not make the final break with Imlay until March 1796. She wrote in her last letter to him: ‘I part with you in peace.’
Wollstonecraft kept on working. She recast her private letters to Imlay in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a mixture of travel narrative, sociological analysis, and personal reflection:
When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments; and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent, by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten,—nor looks I have felt in every nerve which I shall never more meet.
The book melted hearts. ‘She has made me in love with a cold climate, and frost and snow, with a northern moonlight’, wrote the poet Robert Southey. William Godwin, author of the anarchist magnum opus An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), later observed: ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’
Wollstonecraft and Godwin first met in 1791 and they quarrelled. They were reintroduced in January 1796. In April she defied etiquette and called on him unchaperoned and uninvited. They began to see each other. In July, while Godwin was visiting friends in Norfolk, Wollstonecraft moved with Fanny to Judd Place West on the edge of Somers Town, close to Godwin in Chalton Street (near what is now the British Library in St Pancras). In mid-August, they became lovers.
‘We did not marry’, wrote Godwin, who had objected to marriage in Political Justice: ‘We felt alike in this, as we did perhaps in every other circumstance that related to our intercourse.’ Their letters record an enlightened intimacy, with up to three exchanges a day, as they tried to live out their most deeply held convictions. They lived and worked apart, read and criticized each other’s works in progress, and ‘woo[ed] philosophy’ together—for, Wollstonecraft declared, ‘I do not like to lose my Philosopher even in the lover.’ She began a second novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, and discovered she was pregnant again.
Wollstonecraft and Godwin married quietly at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. To their surprise and chagrin, some of their women friends took offence. Lawful wedlock confirmed that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and that her daughter Fanny was illegitimate. They settled together at 29 Polygon Buildings in Somers Town, caring jointly for ‘little Fannikin’, while Godwin took a separate room for work nearby.
When he went off to visit his rich friend Thomas Wedgwood at the family pottery works in Staffordshire, Wollstonecraft sent cheerful reports of ‘Master William’, and of herself: ‘I begin to love this little creature, and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie—Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever … You are a tender, affectionate creature; and I feel it thrilling through my frame giving, and promising pleasure.’
Back in his study, on 30 August 1797, Godwin received three notes from Wollstonecraft which reported on labour pains heralding the birth of a daughter, Mary (future author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley). The child was healthy, but eleven days later Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever.
‘I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again’, Godwin wrote to Thomas Holcroft, his closest friend. He gave her a Christian funeral, but was too distressed to attend. She was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard on 15 September.
Godwin’s friends raised money for a plain monument to the ‘Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. It is still in the churchyard today, but when Mary Shelley died in 1851, Wollstonecraft’s remains, along with Godwin’s, were moved to St Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth, and reburied in the Shelley family tomb with their daughter’s.
Wollstonecraft’s death brought her life into the public domain. In January 1798 her grieving husband published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a candid depiction of every phase of Wollstonecraft’s life. Godwin wrote for posterity and believed that the story of Wollstonecraft’s career would inspire future reformers. But counter-revolutionary sentiment was running high by 1798. His exposure of Wollstonecraft’s unconventional way of living scandalized conservatives and entrenched hostility to women’s rights.
Within half a century of Wollstonecraft’s death, suffragist feminists in America and Europe began to champion her. The suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote an introduction to the 100th anniversary edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1891). In the early twentieth century, left-wing thinkers such as Eleanor Marx and Emma Goldman were drawn to her fusion of political, social, and emotional rebellion, while Virginia Woolf, the progressive modernist writer, applauded her ‘experiments in living’. The feminist movement of the 1960s appropriated Wollstonecraft as their founding mother, and enlisted her in their cause of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal pay.
Mary Wollstonecraft lives on. She stands for a society based on equality, toleration, and humanity, and free from misogyny and sexual injustice. She saw that the tyranny of commercial wealth could be as destructive as that of rank and privilege. ‘She is alive and active’, as Virginia Woolf said, ‘she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.’
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