1902 Encyclopedia > Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
English writer
(1759-97)




MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN (1759-1797), an English authoress of the last century, was born at Hoxton, on April 27, 1759. Her family was of Irish extraction, and Mary's grandfather, who was a respectable manufac-turer in Spitalfields, realized the property which his son squandered. Her mother, whose maiden name was Dixon, was Irish, and of good family. Mr Wollstonecraft, after dissipating the greater part of his patrimony, tried to earn a living by farming, which only plunged him into deeper difficulties, and he led a wandering, shifty life. The family roamed from Hoxton to Edmonton, to Essex, to Beverley in Yorkshire, to Laugharne, Pembrokeshire, and back to London again.
After Mrs Wollstonecraft's death in 1780, soon followed by her husband's second marriage, the three daughters, Mary, Everina, and Eliza, sought to earn their own liveli-hood. The sisters were all clever women,—Mary and Eliza far above the average,—but their opportunities of culture had been few. They turned their thoughts towards the profession of teaching, and Mary, the eldest, was to make the first venture. She went in the first instance to live with her friend Fanny Blood, a girl of her own age, whose father, like Wollstonecraft, was addicted to drink and dissipation. As long as she lived with the Bloods, Mary helped Mrs Blood to earn money by taking in needle-work, while Fanny painted in water-colours. Everina went to live with her brother Edward, and Eliza made a hasty and, as it proved, unhappy marriage with a Mr Bishop. All the Wollstonecraft sisters were enthusiastic, excitable, apt to exaggerate trifles, and to magnify inattentions into slights; and Eliza had the family temperament in excess. Bishop was a man of violent temper, and when his wife's reason had almost given way under the miseries of her married life, Mary resolved to find some means of supporting her, and arranged her secret and sudden flight. A legal separa-tion was afterwards obtained, and the sisters, together with Fanny Blood, took a house, first at Islington, afterwards at Newington Green, and opened a school, which was carried on with indifferent success for nearly two years. During their residence at Newington Green. Mary was in-troduced to Dr Johnson, who, as Godwin tells us, "treated her with particular kindness and attention."

In 1785 Fanny Blood married Hugh Skeys, a merchant, and went with him to Lisbon, where she died in child-bed after sending for Mary to nurse her. "The loss of Fanny," as she said in a letter to Mrs Skeys's brother, George Blood, " was sufficient of itself to have cast a cloud over my brightest days. ... I have lost all relish for pleasure, and life seems a burden almost too heavy to be endured." Her first novel, Mary, a Fiction, written in 1787, was intended to commemorate her friendship with Fanny. After closing the school at Newington Green, Mary obtained a situation as governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, in Ireland, which she held for nearly a year. Her pupils were much attached to her, especially Margaret King, afterwards Lady Mountcashel; and indeed Lady Kingsborough gave the reason for dismissing her that the children loved their governess better than their mother. Mary now resolved to devote, herself to literary work, and she was encouraged in this purpose by Johnson, the publisher in St Paul's Churchyard, in whose house she resided for a few weeks, before she obtained lodgings in George Street, Blackfriars. She acted as Johnson's literary adviser, and undertook translations, chiefly from the French. Mary, a Fiction, the story already mentioned, was not published till 1796. The Elements of Morality, an old fashioned book for children, and Lavater's Physiog-nomy, were among her translations. Her Original Stordes from Peal Life were published, with illustrations by Blake, and in 1792 appeared A Vindication of the Eights of Woman, the work with which her name is always associated.
It is not among the least oddities of this book that it is dedicated to M. Talleyrand Perigord, late bishop of Autun. Mary Wollstonecraft still believed him to be sincere, and working in the same direction as herself. In the de-dication she states the " main argument" of the work, "built on this simple principle that, if woman be not pre-pared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its in-fluence or general practice." In carrying out this argument she used extraordinary plainness of speech, and it was this that caused all, or nearly all, the outcry. For she did not attack the institution of marriage, nor assail orthodox religion ; her book was really a plea for equality of edu-cation, passing into one for state education and for the joint education of the sexes. It was a protest against the assumption that woman was only the plaything of man, and she asserted that intellectual companionship was the chief, as it is the lasting, happiness of marriage. It may, however, be admitted that she discussed some subjects, not usually mentioned in print, with a certain want of reticence and delicacy. She dealt directly with dangerous and explosive questions, incidentally upheld greater freedom of divorce, and denied the eternity of the torments of hell.





Mrs Wollstonecraft, as she now styled herself, desired to watch the progress of the Bevolution in France, and went to Paris in 1792. Godwin, in his memoir of his wife, con-siders that the change of residence may have been prompted by the discovery that she was becoming attached to Fuseli, but there is nothing to confirm this surmise; indeed, it *as first proposed that she should go to Paris in company with him and his wife, nor was there any subsequent breach in their friendship. She remained in Paris during the Beign of Terror, when communication with England was difficult or almost impossible. Some time in the spring or summer of 1793 Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American, became acquainted with Mary—an acquaintance which ended in a more intimate connexion. There was no legal ceremony of marriage, and it is doubtful whether such a marriage would have been valid at the time; but she passed as Imlay's wife, and her brother, Charles Wollstone-craft, wrote from Philadelphia that he had seen a gentleman who informed him "that Mary was married to Captain Imlay of this country." Imlay himself terms her in a legal document, " Mary Imlay, my best friend and wife," and she believed that his love, which was to her sacred, would endure. In August 1793 Imlay was called to Havre on business, and was absent for some months, during which time most of the letters published after her death by Godwin were written. Towards the end of the year she, joined Imlay at Havre, and there in the spring of 1794 she gave birth to a girl, who received the name of Fanny, in memory of the dear friend of her youth. Imlay became involved in a multitude of speculations, which rendered him restless and dissatisfied, and his affection for Mary and their child was already waning. He left her for some months at Havre, and when he allowed her to join him in England, it appears from her letters that she went with a heavy heart and forebodings of sorrow. In June 1795, in less than two months after their reunion, Mary again left England for Norway, empowered by the document in which Imlay calls her his wife, to act for him in his business relations with Norwegian timber merchants. Her Letters from Norway, divested of all personal details, were after-wards published. She returned to England late in 1795, and found letters awaiting her from Imlay, intimating his intention to separate from her, and offering to settle an annuity on her and her child. For herself she rejected this offer with scorn : " From you," she wrote, " 1 will not receive anything more. I am not sufficiently humbled to depend on your beneficence." They met again, and for a short time lived together, until the discovery that he was carrying on an intrigue under her own roof drove her to despair, and she attempted to drown herself by leaping from Putney bridge, but she was rescued by watermen. Imlay now completely deserted her, although she continued to bear his name.

In 1796, when Mary Wollstonecraft was living in London, supporting herself and her child by working, as before, for Mr Johnson, she met William Godwin. A friendship sprang up between them,—a friendship, as he himself says, which " melted into love." Godwin states that " ideas which he is now willing to denominate prejudices made him by no means willing to conform to the ceremony of marriage;" but these prejudices were overcome, and they were married at St Pancras Church on March 29, 1797. And now. Mary had a season of real calm in her stormy existence. Godwin, for once only in his life, was stirred by passion, and his admiration for his wife equalled his affection. But their happiness was of short duration. A daughter, Mary, afterwards the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was born August 30, 1797. At first all seemed to go well, but unfavourable symptoms set in, and on September 10th, the mother, after enduring all her sufferings with unvarying gentleness and sweetness of temper, passed away. She was buried in the churchyard of Old St Pancras, but her remains were afterwards removed by Sir Percy Shelley to the churchyard of St Peter's, Bournemouth.

Her principal published works are as follows:—Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787; The Female Reader (selections), 1789; Original Stories from Real Life, 1791; An Historical ami Moved View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effects it has produced in Europe, vol. i. (no more published), 1790; Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792; Vindication of the Rights of Man, 1793 ; Mary, a Fiction, 1796; Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, 1796 ; Posthumous Works, i vols., 1798. It is impossible to trace the many articles contributed by her to periodical literature, or to identify the translations executed for Mr Johnson. A memoir of her life was published by Godwin soon after her decease. A large portion of the work, William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, was devoted to her, and a new edition of the Letters to Imlay, London, 1879, of which the first edition was published by Godwin, is prefaced by a somewhat fuller memoir. (_. K. P.)






Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries