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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mary and Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797 by John Opie.
Oil on canvas, image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is one of those women whose personal life vastly overshadowed, in fact practically buried, her work, although her personal life would have been ignored had she been male.  This British woman was a writer, philosopher, and early advocate for women's rights.  Her writings included novels, treatises, a travel book, a history of the French revolution, a conduct book, and a children's book.  When she died she left behind several unfinished manuscripts.

She grew up in a household with an abusive father who squandered money; she always attempted to protect her mother and sisters.  She tended to fixate on other people, and in her youth that was a friend whose family she found solace in, with an intellectual environment she thrived in.  She left her home to be a lady's companion to a widow in Bath, but it did not work out well.  When she was called home to tend to her dying mother, she did not return to that position.  In order to earn a living, she set up a school with her sisters and a friend in Newington Green, which was a dissenting community (where Christians who advocated separating from the Church of England lived).  Her friend married and moved to Europe because of her poor health.  Mary followed to tend her, but her friend died.  Mary's abandonment of the school caused it to fail, as well.

Frontispiece to the 1791 edition of
Original Stores From Real Life, engraved
by William Blake, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her friends helped arrange a position as a governess to the daughters of a family in Ireland, and though she did not get along well with the mother, she did with the girls.  From these experiences came her first book and only children's one, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).  Frustrated by the limited career choices for women, she decided to write, telling her sister that she wanted to be "the first of a new genus" of women who supported themselves through their writing.  She learned French and German and translated texts.  She also wrote reviews of novels for the Analytical Review.  She met many famous people, Thomas Paine for one, including William Godwin.  Godwin was a British journalist, novelist and political philosopher, and one of the forefathers of anarchism.

Wollstonecraft fell in love with a married artist, and even suggested that she live with him and his wife platonically, but his wife was appalled.  Humiliated, she went to France where she found the intellectual atmosphere of the French revolution stimulating.  She had become well-known for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  In France she met and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American who was diplomatic representative of the U.S. government in France. She became pregnant and delivered a daughter, Fanny.  When Britain declared war on France, Imlay registered her as his wife to protect her, even though they never married.  Upon leaving France she continued to use the name "Mrs. Imlay" for her daughter's sake.  Imlay left her, and she attempted to commit suicide with laudanum, but he saved her.  She tried suicide once more by jumping into the Thames but was saved again, this time by a passerby.

Title page from the 2nd American edition, 1792.
Image courtesy of the LOC.

Eventually she returned to her prior circle of friends, including William Godwin. This time they fell madly in love, and she became pregnant again.  They decided to marry so their daughter would be legitimate, but in doing so it was revealed she was never married to Imlay, and both suffered for this breach of social mores. Godwin suffered further criticism because he'd written favorably toward the abolition of marriage.  In 1797, after the birth of a second daughter, Mary died of septicemia. Godwin was devastated, and in an attempt to honor the woman he loved, he wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Although his intentions were sincere, his honest portrayal of the intimacies of her life - love affairs, suicide attempts, illegitimate children - shocked their friends and his readers.

William Godwin, 1802, oil on canvas by James Northcote.
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Memoirs had a devastating effect on Wollstonecraft's reputation, and the consensus was that no dignified woman would stoop so low as to read her work. Women writers turned her into a cautionary tale, and while people read about her, they did not read her.  Among the few who did read her work were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lucretia Mott, George Elliot, and Margaret Fuller.  She was reincarnated when women's voting rights became an issue, and adopted by the Suffragists.  But most of her work was still ignored, due to her "scandalous" lifestyle.  It wasn't until the feminist criticism of the 1960s and 1970s that her work was widely read.  She is now considered a pioneering feminist thinker.

1798 second revised edition of the Memoirs.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

While her work was being suppressed, her second daughter, also named Mary (1797-1851), was being raised by Godwin to admire her mother's work and to think liberally. One of her father's friends was a married poet and philosopher, Percy Bysshe Shelley.  When she was 17 she became involved with him romantically.  She went to Europe with him and when they came back she was pregnant.  They were ostracized.  They also were in debt, and grieving over the death of their premature daughter.  Shelley's wife committed suicide, and they married shortly after.  Mary was pregnant again, and they were trying to get custody of Shelley's children from his first marriage.

Mary Shelley, nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, by Richard Rothwell,
1840.  Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1816, after their marriage, they spent the summer with Lord Byron, Mary's half-sister, and some friends at a lake in Switzerland.  They were confined indoors because of the rain, and spent time discussing the experiments of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), who was said to have reanimated dead matter.  This lead to conversations about returning body parts or a corpse back to life.  They also read each other German ghost stories.  Byron came up with the idea that they each write a supernatural tale.  Mary wrote what she intended to be a short story, but Shelley encouraged her to develop it into a novel.  Frankenstein was published in 1818. She claimed that summer was the moment "when I first stepped out from childhood into life."

Draft of Frankenstein, 1816.
Image courtesy of Oxford.

To escape creditors and in fear of legally losing their children, they moved to Italy that year.  Their second and third children also died, but a fourth was born.  In 1822, Shelley died when his sailboat sank in a storm.  A year later Mary returned to Britain to raise their son and write.  She died of a brain tumor at the age of 53.

Frontispiece to the 1831 Frankenstein illustrated by Theodor von Holst.
Image courtesy of the Tate, London.

Although she had a prolific career as a writer she is mostly thought of as a one-novel writer.  Like her mother, her works were ignored and out of print until the 1970s.  Studies show that she remained a political radical all her life, arguing that cooperation and sympathy, especially the sympathy of women within their families, were the ways to reform society.  Her education may not have been what her mother would have wanted for her, but it was unusual and advanced for a woman of that time.  Literary scholars now consider her to be a major Romantic figure, both for her writings and her liberal politics.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Alfred Clint.
Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Both women were remarkable thinkers and writers.  They were ahead of their time. Instead of being judged for their intellect and capabilities, they were known for their personal lifestyle choices, which, frankly, was no one's business then or now. We know of the work of male writers and philosophers, and if we know of their personal lives and sexual habits it is titillating at worst.  But women?  Women have been constantly assessed through their sexual activities, rather than their mental ones.  And so it goes.



  1. What a wonderful summary! Did you make it to the exhibition on mother and daughter (and Godwin and Shelley) at the Bodleian? I was there in its last week, and wrote it up on my blog,
    A Vindication of the Rights of Mary. Wollstonecraft was influential even when she was persona non grata, e.g. for much of the century after her death.

  2. Roberta, first of all thanks for the nice comment! I read your blog and really liked it, and the fact you've dedicated it to her - what an endeavor! I was unaware of the exhibit, I'm ashamed to say (I live in California), but your description made me feel like I was there -thanks!

    For everyone else, here's a link to that exhibit: