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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