Note: This entry is a day late, but way to interesting to let a little thing like promptness interfere.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published on January 3, 1792 in England. It is widely regarded as the first manifesto of women’s rights and its author, 32 year old Mary Wollstonecraft, is now considered the godmother of feminism. She was one of the first British women to earn “my own living by the pen,” and enjoyed contemporary fame. In her short career she published memoirs, essays, a novel, a travel book, and a children’s book.
But in less than five years, at the height of her fame, she was dead. The well-meaning publication of an “autobiography” largely penned by her widower, William Goodwin the freethinking philosopher and crypto anarchist, after her death exposed her most intimate and radical opinions as well as her—for the time—radically sexually unconventional life. Her reputation as a writer was ruined among all but a handful of devotees and for more than a hundred years she was held up not for her genius but as an example of a wicked woman corrupting society.
Sound familiar? The same smears affected the lives and reputations of other daring feminists and writers with unconventional lives—Margaret Fuller, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Margaret Sanger, and even poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay spring to mind.
But it all started with the woman who was also remembered for being the mother of a daughter she hardly knew—Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Mary was born in London on April 27, 1759 the second of seven children in genteel and comfortable circumstances. But her improvident father slowly squandered the family wealth in poor business schemes and seems to have taken out their reduced circumstances on the family, often attacking Mary’s mother. At an early age as the family moved to ever humbler accommodation’s, Mary found herself a surrogate mother to her siblings and a protector of her often ill mother, She would sleep outside her mother’s door to protect her from her father’s wrath.
She was an exceptionally bright child and excelled at what education she was able to get, reading everything she could get her hands on. She found refuge in two deep friendships and a surrogate family. Her first great tie was to Jane Arden, the daughter of a self-taught philosopher and scientist who gave lectures around Yorkshire where the Ardens lived in Beverly. Mary and Jane read together, attended Jane’s fathers lectures and engaged in a long, somewhat passionate on Mary’s side correspondence.
The second figure was Fanny Blood, in whom Mary felt she had found an intellectual and emotional soul mate. After leaving home—running away really—at the age of 16 to take a position as a lady’s companion—she moved in with the Blood family after the situation ended disastrously. Mary was neither suitable for the role of a glorified servant or for the restrictions she felt put upon young women of breeding but no income. The experience as a companion would be the basis of her 1787 book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.
At the Blood household Mary had access to a fine library and stimulating conversation. She idealized the family. She and Fanny made plans to go off and live together in a free woman’s household, dependent on no man. Mary was deeply invested in these plans.
Mary returned home for a brief time in 1780 to nurse her dying mother—and to try and retrieve from her father a small inheritance she was due when she reached maturity and which he had coerced from her. After her mother’s death Mary and some of her sisters joined with Fanny in opening a school together for the Dissenting community at Newington Green. But Fanny allowed herself to be courted and married. Her husband took her to Lisbon, Portugal. There Fanny’s health began to fail. Mary abandoned the school, which then failed, to rush to the side of her friend to nurse her through her last days. It was a crushing blow.
She would draw on the experience for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction in 1788.
In emotional and financial crisis, Mary reluctantly took a job as governess to the wealth Anglo-Irish Kingsborough as she had in her previous privet employment she found herself at odds with lady of the house. But she enjoyed the two lively girls in her charge and they in turn were inspired that she, as one would write later, “had freed her mind from all superstitions.” After a year she left the household vowing never to take another such position again.
These experiences also impacted Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and became the basis for her 1788 children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life which would be illustrated with engravings by William Blake.
Returning to London, Mary resolved to make her living as a writer—a virtually unheard of path for any woman. As she wrote to her sister, she was trying to become “the first of a new genus.”
She had the help of a mentor. Joseph Johnson was a liberal, even radical, publisher from the dissenting circles of Joseph Priestly. He had expanded from religious publishing to include scientific and philosophic work by the likes of William Godwin, Thomas Malthus, and the American Joel Barlow, as well as poetry by Erasmus Darwin and William Cowper. He was also a passionate supporter of the French Revolution. He maintained a sort of salon called the Johnson Circle through which Mary would meet many of these and other leading liberal figures.
It was at Johnson’s home for such a gathering in honor of Thomas Paine that Mary first met Goodwin. They did not, at first hit it off. Goodwin was miffed by what he considered Mary’s rude and persistent cross examination of Payne.
Johnson helped Mary secure lodgings and subsidized her. He gave her employment and exposure as a writer with assignments of review in Johnson’s magazine the Analytical Review. In this heady atmosphere she thrived, expanding her horizons and interests. She studied French and German and quickly mastered both so well that she earned additional income as a translator of literary works.
By 1786 Johnson was publishing what proved to be a virtual fountain of books by Wollstonecraft, who quickly earned a reputation and a following. She had achieved her dream of supporting herself with her pen.
Through Johnson, Mary became interested in the French Revolution. In 1790 she published one of the first responses to Edmund Burke’s disparagement of the Revolution, Vindication of the Rights of Men a full year before Paine’s similarly titled answer. The book was her most successful yet and made her a genuine celebrity for the first time.
Meanwhile Mary was pursuing an ill-fated romantic obsession, this time with a man, the married artist Henry Fuseli. She was swept up in his genius and unleashed a torrent of letters. Fuseli was flattered and seemed to reciprocate the advances. But when Mary proposed an ideal Platonic relationship in which she would join Fuseli’s household as a third member, the outraged artist broke off all contact. Mary was crushed and humiliated.
She remained in London long enough to finish her follow-up to the Vindication of the Rights of Men. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she broke entirely new ground. This time she was responding to a report by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand 1791 report to the French National Assembly, which argued that women should only receive a domestic education. In full outrage she set out to refute the idea and advance the status of women to full social equality with men while maintaining distinct roles for each. She advocated full educational opportunities and the opening of new professional opportunities. Ignoring, for the most part, the lower classes, Wollstonecraft’s book was more than anything a declaration of independence for educated, middle class women like herself.
Despite the later myth that the book was reviled upon publication, it was actually a huge success and was greeted with approving reviews not only in England, but in the United States where editions were quickly published—editions which would influence the likes of Abigail Adams and later several female associates of the Transcendental circles, most notably Margaret Fuller.
When the first edition rapidly sold out, Mary re-edited a second making numerous small corrections, but also to further sharpen her arguments. Still, she was not entirely satisfied and planed on a second volume to expand on her thoughts. That work, interrupted by her soon tempestuous life, was never completed, but her last unfinished novel, Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, which was posthumously published by Goodwin in his definitive editions of Mary’s work, is often viewed as a fictional sequel.
Wollstonecraft had fled to Paris to escape the humiliation of her failed affair with Fuseli in 1792 as the second edition was readied for publication. In Paris she hoped to breathe the free air of the Revolution—and perhaps join in its reforms. She also wanted to work on a planned history of the Revolution. She arrived in December, just one month before Louis XVI went to the guillotine.
Those were, you should excuse the pun, heady times, but also dangerous ones. In the midst of the excitement swirling around her, May fell in love again, this time with an American adventurer, unscrupulous businessman, and diplomat Gilbert Imlay. To this point in her life all of Wollstonecraft’s romantic attachments to both sexes had been chaste. Indeed she idealized Platonic love. But this would be different. Imlay swept her off of her feet. The two were soon intimate. The thirty year old was a virgin no more.
After Britain declared war on France in 1793, Mary was endangered as a British national. To protect her from possible arrest and internment, Imlay registered her with the state as his wife, although no marriage had ever occurred. Afterwards she lived and traveled as Mrs. Imlay.
Imlay impregnated her then abandoned her On May 14, 1794 she gave birth in Le Havre to her first daughter named Fanny after her old friend and earlier object of obsession.
During her pregnancy Mary had continued to write and completed her history of the early phases of the Revolution An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published in London in December 1794.
It is unclear if Mary otherwise elated with the birth of her child, expected or desired marriage. Imlay plainly did not. Kicking into a familiar obsessive pattern, he deluged him with pleading, pitiful letters. Then she followed him to London in 1795 where he again rejected her. She attempted suicide by drinking laudanum. Imlay discovered her and saved her life.
Trying to win back his approval and affection, she volunteered to give up her writing to act as a business agent for him in some schemes in Scandinavia. Imlay was glad to see her far away. Taking her infant daughter with her, Mary undertook a hazardous war time journey. She chronicled her travels and escalating sense of betrayal in a series of letters to the uncaring Imlay, which she later edited into a travel volume, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the last book published in her lifetime.
Back in London realizing her relationship with Imlay was hopeless, Mary attempted suicide a second time. Leaving a long note, she jumped into the Themes but was rescued by passersby.
Old friends and acquaintances rallied around her, including Goodwin. The philosopher was soon as smitten by Mary as she had been by Imlay. When he read her Scandinavian memoir he wrote, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.”
It took a bit of time, but Mary warmed to her admirer and was soon completely in love herself—this time to a man who actually cared for her. When she became pregnant the couple decided to marry. But the marriage revealed publicly that her claim to be Mrs. Imlay was a sham. The more conventional of Mary’s friends and acquaintances felt they had to abandon her or be tainted themselves. And many of Godwin’s admirers were shocked that the former critic of marriage had succumbed to it.
Despite the furor the happy couple married on March 29, 1797. They settled into adjoining houses known as The Polygon so that each could maintain separate lives and identities in keeping with their personal philosophies. Although the saw each other daily, they continued to communicate with letters. By all reports they were both very happy.
A daughter Mary was born on August 30. The baby was healthy. But the mother’s placenta was torn and not completely expelled. It became infected and after days of agony, Mary died of septicemia—then called puerperal fever on September 10. She was buried at, not as was widely expected, by dissenters, but at Old Saint Pancras Church yard. The stone Godwin erected read, “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
Goodwin was devastated by the loss. He spent much of the rest of his life memorializing his dead wife. He rushed his biography of his wife into print in January 1798. He felt it was a loving vindication of her life and struggles. He was completely, probably stupidly, candid. He recounted not only her triumphs and considerable literary achievements, but also her romances and obsessions, her black depressions, her affairs, out of wedlock pregnancies, and her suicide attempts. Readers were shocked and repelled. Goodwin was shocked and mystified at the storm of condemnation his book brought down on his dead wife.
A small cottage industry sprang up denouncing Wollstonecraft. At worst she was denounced as a slut and whore. At best she was held up as an abject lesson of what can happen to young girls who aspire too much and are dissatisfied with their rigidly appointed roles in life. Poet Richard Polwhele unleashed a long and vicious verse attack on her called The Unsex’d Females, a Poem. Several women novelists, including at least one erstwhile friend, used her as models for tragic characters who come to no good end. Critics who had once hailed her work now reviled it while social and political reactionaries rejoiced at her downfall.
Goodwin edited her remaining manuscripts and issued them, as well as comprehensive editions of her published work in an attempt to revive her reputation. While she continued to have some fans and supporters, to the general public she was a dead pariah.
Through the 19th and into the 20th sordid life story dominated her memory. There were a few positives. New editions of her work continued to be re-published to a very select audience. At least one positive biography came out to counter those that demonized her. Poet Robert Browning composed a sympathetic verse, Wollstonecraft and Fuseli and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to her admiringly. George Eliot was the first to link the lives and fates of Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller.
If Wollstonecraft’s reputation fell in Britain, it plummeted in the United States, always more puritanical in matters of sex. Yet pioneering women’s rights figure Lucretia Mott read and treasured her.
Near the turn of the 20th Century British suffragist Millicent Fawcett issued a new edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with an admiring preface. In the new century she was embraced by Emma Goldman on one hand and Virginia Wolfe on the other
But full restoration of Wollstonecraft’s reputation had to wait for the birth of second wave feminism in the 1960’s. Six new biographies were published by the mid ‘70’s. Her work became a staple of the women’s studies departments being established at major universities in this county.
After all this time, welcome back, Mary Wollstonecraft.