The Best Address in Bath

“The best address in Bath” is how The Times describes No. 1 Royal Crescent. The address is the first building on the eastern end of the Royal Crescent, built in the 18th century. The curved row of terrace houses has significant architectural and historical importance and is safeguarded by the Bath Preservation Trust. No. 1 Royal Crescent belongs to the Trust and is decorated and furnished as it might have been between 1776 and 1796. Open to the public six days a week, visitors can learn about life in Georgian Bath, including the differences between upper and lower classes.

The Royal Crescent was built by John Wood the Younger (1728-81) between 1767 and 1774. It was probably designed by Wood’s father, John Wood the Elder (1704-54), who planned many other buildings in Bath before his death, including Queen Square and the Circus. Both men were known for constructions that defied usual geometric architecture in favour of curved lines, such as the crescent shape of the Royal Crescent.

The grandeur of the terraced houses made the Royal Crescent a fashionable address. It was also the first crescent-shaped terrace of townhouses in Europe, which made it all the more appealing to the upper classes. The houses were rented out to many notable people, including Prince Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827), and his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia (1767-1820). The royal couple frequently visited Bath and stayed at No. 16 when in the city.

The first resident of No. 1 Royal Crescent was Henry Sandford (1751-1814), a landowner and future baron from Ireland. Details in his commonplace books record some of the goings-on in the crescent, including wild parties at No. 30 that frequently got out of hand. Sandford’s commonplace books, of which two survive, are held in the National Library of Ireland. As a widower, he left his Irish estates in the capable hands of his sons and moved to Bath to take advantage of the healing properties of the waters.

According to the Bath Journal, Sandford passed away in February 1796 and was buried in St Swithin’s Church in the parish of Walcot. Several residents passed through No. 1 Royal Crescent during the following century, including Eliza Evans, who ran a school for young ladies between the ages of eleven and fifteen. At the beginning of the 20th century, the property became a lodging house run by Stephen and Elizabeth Thomas and family until it was divided into two properties in 1967.

One of the lodgers at the house was George Saintsbury (1845-1933), a highly influential critic and literary historian. He moved into rooms on the ground floor in 1916, which were originally the servants’ quarters, after retiring as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Sainstbury wrote on a range of literary topics and was close friends with other authors, including Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).

Whilst living in Bath, Saintsbury wrote Notes on a Cellar-Book (1920), filled with tasting notes, menus, and robust opinions about wine. Saintsbury was a keen wine connoisseur who inspired the French wine merchant André Simon (1877-1970) to set up the Saintsbury Club in 1933 in his honour. The Saintsbury Club continues to meet today in Napa Valley, California, where a vineyard was also named after Saintsbury.

Following Saintsbury’s death, the Bath Preservation Trust began campaigning for the protection of historic buildings in the city. The Royal Crescent is one of several important residences in Bath, but it was not until 1967 that someone came up with the idea of turning No.1 Royal Crescent into a museum for posterity. The man with the vision was Bernard Cayzer (1914-81), a man of some wealth who supported the Trust and their work. Unfortunately, the sale only included the upper wings of the house, making the servants’ quarters a separate dwelling.

Restoration and refurbishment began in 1968, gradually restoring the building to its original 18th-century appearance. This involved removing partitions and raising the level of the first-floor windows. Cayzer established a house committee to oversee the interior design of the rooms. Members included Philip Jebb (1927-95), a restorer of Georgian buildings, and Peter Thornton (1925-2007), the keeper of furniture and woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a curator at the Sir John Soane’s Museum. Only the main rooms, including the dining room, library, and one bedroom, were given Georgian furnishings, the others were converted into offices or flats. The restored rooms were eventually opened to the public as a museum on 20th June 1970.

In 2006, No. 1a Royal Crescent came on the market, and the Bath Preservation Trust jumped at the chance to purchase it and reunite it with the rest of the property. With the help of a local philanthropist, Andrew Brownsword (born 1947), who made his money by establishing the Forever Friends teddy bear company, the Trust bought the property. Between 1968 and 2006, knowledge of Georgian interiors had increased significantly, and the designs of the rooms in the museum were not historically correct. Instead of only refurbishing the servant quarters to their Georgian roots, the Trust decided to give the museum a complete make-over and open more rooms to the public.

Nicknamed “The Whole Story Project”, building works began in October 2012. The original courtyard, which separated the servant quarters and the rest of the house, was reintroduced, as were Venetian windows. Carpets and wallpapers were produced in Georgian styles, and a sensitive lighting system was installed. Whilst the architects and designers aimed to be faithful to 18th-century fashions, they made an exception for a modern lift to give access to all levels of the museum. Finally, the museum reopened on 21st June 2013.

Visitors to No. 1 Royal Crescent are accompanied on a self-guided tour by disembodied voices belonging to imagined inhabitants of the building. Discussions range from idle gossip, preparing for an evening out and worries about a wayward son. Additional information about each room and particular objects are accessible by scanning QR codes with a mobile phone.

On the ground floor is the dining room, an essentially masculine space for entertaining guests. Decorated with family portraits, the room symbolised the host’s wealth and importance in society. Wealthy families dined a la française, meaning numerous dishes were placed on the table for guests to help themselves to what they desired. The food was served on elegant porcelain dining sets, which typically cost over £30, the equivalent of £2,000 today.

The dining table at No. 1 Royal Crescent is set for dessert. This course was another way for the host to boast of his wealth, providing his guests with expensive sweet treats and impressive sugar sculpture table decorations. Unfortunately, these luxuries came at the cost of thousands of enslaved Africans, who were forced to grow and harvest sugarcane and other commodities under the British transatlantic slave trade.

The parlour was a less formal room for breakfast, tea and daily activities. No. 1 Royal Crescent furnished their parlour with a table set for the early morning meal, a bureau for letter writing and a bookcase containing the types of literature available in the Georgian era. Amongst the latter is the Guide to Watering and Sea Bathing Places, which details the benefits of spas, such as the natural spring in Bath.

Next to the parlour is a small room known as the Gentleman’s Retreat. Here, the man of the house could escape his family to read or study subjects of interest. Many cultured Georgians enjoyed science, the natural world and “modern” inventions. The 18th century is sometimes known as the Age of Enlightenment because explorers were discovering new things about the world and beginning to understand the workings of the universe. Several cabinets at No. 1 Royal Crescent reflect this period of discovery, with items such as animal skulls, fossils, a globe and a replica of Edward Nairne’s Patent Electrical Machine.

Ladies did not have a retreat like their husbands. Instead, their sanctum was their bedchambers. Situated on the first floor of the house, the bedroom functioned as a place to sleep and undertake their toilette. The latter involved the assistance of a maid who styled the lady’s hair and applied make-up. Husbands and wives usually slept in separate rooms, so the lady was free to invite guests into her chamber. While getting dressed, friends often arrived with gossip about the goings on in society, including the latest fashions.

Of course, the bedroom was only an appropriate place to receive visitors when dressing for the day’s activities. After meals, women usually headed to the Withdrawing Room to drink tea while the men remained in the Dining Room with alcoholic beverages. Eventually, the men joined the women to play card games or listen to music played on the harpsichord, usually by one of the daughters.

At No. 1 Royal Crescent, the table in the Withdrawing Room is set with teacups and a plate of biscuits. The teacups resemble small dishes with no handles, inspired by fashions brought over from China. There is no sugar bowl on the table, which references the anti-saccarite movement of 1791 onwards, where women refused to put sugar in their tea in protest of the transatlantic slave trade. Since women could not vote to abolish the trade, they often found other ways to express their opinion.

On the second floor, the museum has furnished one room to resemble a gentleman’s bedroom. It is not too dissimilar from the lady’s bedchamber, but it is unlikely any guests visited the room. For this reason, the furnishings are less elaborate, although they still suggest significant wealth.

The basement area of the house is a stark contrast to the upper levels. The kitchens of 18th-century townhouses were always “downstairs” in the servant quarters. Whilst the family lived in carpeted and wallpapered rooms, the servants had stone floors and bare walls. Until the 18th century, cooks were traditionally men. Large households often employed Frenchmen, believing them to be the most skilled. They were also the most expensive. During the Georgian era, smaller houses began hiring women, paying them a much lower wage.

Wealthy Georgian families employed a range of staff, some who worked upstairs, such as the lady’s maid, and others who worked downstairs alongside the cook. The lowest paid position was the scullery maid, who was responsible for cleaning the house and doing the laundry. She washed pots and pans, scrubbed floors, and cleaned up after the servants. In Bath, families often sent their linen elsewhere for laundering, but the scullery maid performed the occasional clothes wash. These tasks took place in the scullery, where the maid probably slept. She was generally aged between 10 and 13 and received only £2 10 shillings a year (approximately £12 today).

Male servants received more money than the women, particularly the Butler, who received approximately £25 per year (£2,181 today). Unlike women, men were taxed on income to fund the American War of Independence. Nonetheless, the Butler also received extra rations of tea and other benefits. In houses the size of No. 1 Royal Crescent, the Butler also took on the role of Footman and Valet, making him the only male servant. As a footman, he would accompany his master around the city or conduct errands on his master’s behalf. He also answered the door to visitors, cleaned and polished shoes, and set the table for meals. The Valet was the equivalent of a lady’s maid and performed tasks such as maintaining his master’s clothes, running his bath and so forth.

The most important female servant was the House Keeper. She was usually an older woman and received her own room, where she slept, dined and organised the household bills. Her main task was to oversee the servants and make sure everything was running smoothly. She usually answered to the Mistress of the house, who gave instructions to pass on to the servants. As a salary, the House Keeper earned around £15 per year (£1,308 today) but also received extra rations of tea and sugar.

Whilst the House Keeper dined alone, the rest of the servants ate in the Servant Hall, except for the Scullery Maid. The latter looked after the kitchen until the others finished eating. The servants lived by the saying “Waste Not. Want Not” and usually ate the remains of the food their employers did not finish.

Servants were given a set of rules to follow in the Servants Hall, for which they faced a forfeit if they broke. Examples included no swearing or arguing, only using their own knife and fork, and never wearing a hat inside. Each rule broken cost the servants one penny, which came out of their wages at Christmas.

The way No. 1 Royal Crescent is set out provides visitors with a sense of what it would have been like to live there. Both the rich and poor lived under one roof but had completely different lifestyles, which seem alien compared to the 21st century. It is thanks to organisations, such as the Bath Preservation Trust, that the lives, fashions and buildings of the past are available for people to explore.

No. 1 Royal Crescent is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5:30pm. Tickets cost between £11 and £13 for adults, depending on the time of year. Children can visit for half the price. Pre-booked tickets are recommended.


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Hogarth’s World

Until 22nd March 2022, Tate Britain is exploring the work of William Hogarth and his European contemporaries during the changing times of the 18th century. Hogarth frequently crops up in the history of British art, and a recent exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum focused on Hogarth’s narrative series, including A Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, Four Times of Day and The Happy Marriage. (See my blog about this exhibition) Whilst Tate Britain included these paintings in the extensive display, they also introduced many of Hogarth’s lesser-known paintings.

Recognised for his satirical, scandalous images of London life, William Hogarth (1679-1764) often attempted to show humour in his paintings. The scenes depict the everyday experiences of the audience in 18th-century society. The social changes ultimately led to today’s moral standards, yet many of the themes Hogarth and his contemporaries painted are now considered racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes.

In 1750, Hogarth painted The March of the Guards to Finchley for George II (1683-1760), but the king felt insulted at the supposed mockery of his best troops. The painting depicts a fictional scene in Tottenham Court Road as the soldiers march to Finchley to defend London from the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The uprisings, which began in the late 17th century, aimed to return the Stuart Dynasty to the throne of England after the deposition of James II (1633-1701) during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Rather than producing a respectful image of the march, Hogarth exaggerated their lack of training and discipline.

Hogarth also satirised the public and their interaction with the troops. A milkmaid is caught in a passionate embrace with one soldier while another woman tries to attract the attention of a drummer. One man urinates against a wall, and nearby a soldier collapses in a drunken stupor. Some troops rob the civilians, whose attention is on an impromptu boxing match between two soldiers.

As well as mocking the English army, Hogarth poked fun at the French soldiers in The Gates of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England (1748). Hogarth painted this scene after returning from Calais, where he had served as an English spy. In the centre, a man carries a joint of British beef to the Lion d’Argent inn, while a group of malnourished French soldiers and a fat friar eye it hungrily. The state of the French troops suggests they fared badly during the war and the large friar indicates the Church focused inwardly rather than helping those in need.

As well as city life, Hogarth painted scenes inside homes and buildings, including a self-portrait showing him at work. The Artist Painting the Comic Muse (1757) depicts Hogarth painting the Muse of Comedy on a canvas. Critics suggest the painting represents Hogarth’s motto “my picture was my stage and men and women my actors.” X-ray analysis reveals Hogarth originally included a small dog relieving himself on a pile of old master paintings, indicating Hogarth thought his work better than his predecessors.

The self-portrait, whilst sparse in terms of decoration, provides an insight into the style of furniture during the 18th century. Hogarth sits on an upholstered chair from the American colonies. Its cabriole legs and vase-shaped splats make the chair appear more suited to a dining room or living room than an artist’s studio. Hogarth’s decision to include the furniture may indicate he made a good living and did not face poverty like many other artists.

In contrast to the suggestion of wealth in Hogarth’s self-portrait is his fictional painting of The Distressed Poet (1736). Whilst the redware teapot on the mantlepiece suggests the family once experienced money, the dishevelled attic room, full of mismatched furniture, indicates a fall in status. Whilst the poet scratches his head in search of inspiration, a milkmaid demands money from his wife for her services, which the couple cannot afford to pay. Meanwhile, a dog steals the last of the family’s food from a plate near the doorway.

Art historians suggest Hogarth took inspiration from Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) series of narrative poems called The Dunciad (1728-43). The satirical work celebrates the goddess Dulness, and her mission is to convert the world to stupidity. Pope mocks the downfall of several people and societies, including the Hanoverian Whigs and George II. “Still Dunce the second rules like Dunce the first.” Underneath the daring mockery, the poem contains a moral warning that those experiencing wealth and power are not immune to failure.

During the 1760s, London was the most populous city in Europe, with approximately 740,000 inhabitants. As a centre of global trade, it attracted people from all over the country, continent and further abroad. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the city’s wealth came from the slave trade and society’s attitudes towards other ethnicities resulted in the unfair treatment of hundreds of thousands of people. Paris, with a population of 600,000, was poorer than London but had the same attitudes towards other cultures, often appropriating their fashions but refusing to treat people fairly.

Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair, originally titled Humours of the Fair, illustrates a fair held in Southwark, London, 1732. The busy scene shows a tradeswoman selling crockery underneath a stage that is starting to collapse. Oblivious to the imminent destruction, she is playing dice while acrobats perform balancing acts on tightropes between buildings and costumed actors mingle with the crowd. Fairs such as these were popular in Hogarth’s time, particularly amongst the lower classes of society. They provided an opportunity for traders to sell their wares and the poor to experience theatre and musical performances without paying extortionate fees.

The painting of Southwark Fair is not geographically accurate but captures the typical amusements and crowds associated with the fair that ran in London since King Edward IV (1442-83) made it official in 1462. For two weeks, the fair featured rope fliers; physical marvels, such as Maximilian Müller, the eight-foot German giant; and magicians, such as Isaac Fawkes (1675-1732). Hogarth’s painting also includes James Figg (1684-1734), a notable boxer and fencer.

The people at the fair are predominantly white, except for a black boy dressed in red and playing the trumpet in the foreground. The boy probably belongs to the drummer woman because it is unlikely he lived freely with his parents. Whilst there is nothing unusual in this considering the social norms of the time, Hogarth mocks the child by painting a dog dressed as a gentleman and walking on its hind legs behind the trumpet player. This racist juxtaposition suggests owners treated their black slaves like dogs or even gave more care and attention to their animals. Since Hogarth frequently mocked people in his artwork, he may not necessarily condone their behaviour. Instead, he pointed out the immoral behaviour of society, leaving it up to the viewer to find it either funny or shocking.

The Age of Enlightenment occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries, benefitting only white upper and middle-class men who endeavoured to learn more about the world. European superiority deepened as a result, with men believing that because they knew more, they were better than people of other nationalities. The Hervey Conversation Piece (1738-40) demonstrates the calibre of men involved in enlightening activities.

John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey of Ickworth (1696-1743), an English courtier and political writer, stands in the centre of the painting gesturing to an architectural plan held up by Henry Fox (1705-74), 1st Baron Holland and Surveyor-General of the King’s Works. It is not certain what the plans show, but Fox later built the original Kingsgate Castle near Broadstairs, Kent, in 1760. His brother, Stephen Fox (1704-76), who lived with Hervey, potentially as a lover, sits at a table behind which a clergyman peers through a telescope. The clergyman, perhaps Reverend Dr Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), stands precariously on a chair that Stephen’s walking stick is causing to topple over. This symbolises the tensions between science and the Church and their arguments about the truth.

On the right, Hervey’s colleague Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-58), wears a red jacket and glances at the plans indicated by Hervey. Spencer is an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-97). The other man is Whig politician Thomas Winnington (1696-1746), who sat in the House of Commons from 1726 to 1746. All six men had some influence in society, although Reverend Middleton often caused controversy and disputes.

Not all paintings of intellectual men depicted them in a favourable light. In Charity in the Cellar, Hogarth shows a group of men drinking from wine bottles in a dimly lit cellar. Their behaviour indicates they have drunk too much alcohol. Several empty bottles litter the floor, proving that upper and middle-class men are by no means saints. The painting may also allude to tax evasion because many wine merchants imported the drink to France via Italy to avoid paying excise tax. The statue of Charity, one of the Christian virtues, watches on as the men partake in activities that are far from charitable.

Alcohol has ruined many a man’s (and woman’s) life throughout history. To deter her husband from drinking, Susan Schutz commissioned Hogarth to paint a portrait of her husband, Francis Matthew Schutz, in bed following a heavy night’s drinking. The hungover man leans over the side of the bed, where he vomits into a chamberpot. As well as trying to curb his drinking habits, Susan may have intended the painting as a form of punishment. Records reveal Schutz had extramarital affairs and later stood trial for committing adultery with his brother’s wife.

During the second half of the 18th century, attitudes towards portrait paintings changed. Instead of rigid, stiff poses, sitters relaxed and artists captured individuals in informal settings. Hogarth’s portrait of The Cholmondeley Family (1732) is an example of the freedom this new method offered sitters. Commissioned by George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas (1724-64), as a memorial to his wife, Mary, who passed away from tuberculosis, the painting shows the couple sitting with their youngest child whilst the other children run around and climb on the furniture. The juxtaposition of the posing adults with the playfulness and innocence of the children reflects two different moods. Cholmondeley, who looks over at his wife, mourns her loss, but the children’s happiness shows that, despite losing their mother, they will survive and thrive under their father’s protection.

Ambitious high society portraits were also all the rage in Britain during the 18th century. Between 1732 and 1735, Hogarth painted The Conduitt Piece, which depicts a group of aristocratic children performing John Dryden’s (1631-1700) play The Indian Emperor, or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. The play tells the tale of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547).

The painting is set in the home of John Conduitt (1688-1737), who took over from Sir Isaac Newton as Master of the Mint in 1727. Due to Conduitt’s prestigious position, he knew many people in parliament and the Royal Family. Some of the younger royals are depicted in the audience.

Although informal portraits grew in popularity, traditional ones did not go out of fashion. Mary Edwards of Kensington (1704-43), one of the richest women in England, commissioned Hogarth to paint her portrait to assert her independence. Edwards allegedly married but later denied any evidence of the ceremony. The painting reflects both Edwards’ financial status and her headstrong personality. Traditionally, only men portrayed these characteristics in portraits. Rather than a lap dog, Edwards’ hand rests on the head of a large hunting hound. In the background, a figurine of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) indicates that women can exert the same amount of power as men. Emphasising this further is a paper on the desk containing the proclamation of individual rights from Joseph Addison’s (1672-1719) play Cato (1712).

Most portrait painters from the 18th century would feel uncomfortable breaking with conformity to paint Mary Edwards in such a manner. Yet, Edwards and Hogarth were good friends, and she often purchased his work. Typically, only men were art patrons, but Edwards did not let this stop her from commissioning artworks, such as Southwark Fair.

Hogarth often painted portraits of people he knew, for instance, his sisters. He also produced an informal study of Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants. It is unlikely Hogarth displayed the painting in public, and Tate believes it may have hung in Hogarth’s studio. When visitors or potential sitters entered the studio, they could compare the portraits with the real people and assess Hogarth’s skill. The servants include a young boy, adult women and an older man, proving Hogarth could paint all age groups. Whilst paintings of servants were rare in the 18th century, depicting them in this manner is unique to Hogarth.

One of the final paintings in the exhibition is David Garrick and his wife Eva Marie Veigel (1757-64). Whilst it does not satirise the couple as Hogarth’s earlier works mocked Georgian society, David Garrick (1717-79) disliked the outcome and refused to take it. Garrick was an actor and playwright best known for his role as the king in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Hogarth depicted Garrick with a quill in one hand, as though contemplating what to write on the paper on the table before him. The intentions of his wife, Eva Marie Veigel (1724-1822), are less obvious, as she leans over as though to pluck the quill from Garrick’s hand.

Some suggest Veigel was Garrick’s muse and, rather than plucking the pen from his hand, Veigel is guiding his creativity. Others surmise Veigel was a prankster, preventing Garrick from working. Either way, Garrick disliked the painting. Evidence suggests Garrick and Veigel’s marriage was a happy one, albeit childless, so it is unlikely that Veigel deliberately prevented Garrick from writing. Veigel, nicknamed Violetti by Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80), was a dancer and understood the importance of her husband’s work. Veigel often performed in the royal courts of Europe, and many thought Veigel’s choice of husband beneath her. Perhaps Garrick did not want people to assume his success on and off the stage was due to his wife.

Looking at Hogarth’s work from the beginning to the end of his career provides a different impression than focusing on his popular paintings. The artworks demonstrate the changing ideas of society during the 18th century, particularly concerning race, class and gender. Whilst equality acts were still something in the distant future, changes in attitude were starting to get the ball rolling. Behind Hogarth’s satirical scenes is a documented history of English society that provide just as much insight, if not more, than written descriptions.

Hogarth and Europe is open to the public at Tate Britain, London, until 20th March 2022. Tickets cost £18 but Tate members can visit for free. Advanced booking is recommended.


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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “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.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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