Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797)

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Biographical details

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

GODWIN, Mrs. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759–1797), miscellaneous writer, born 27 April 1759, was granddaughter of a rich Spitalfields manufacturer of Irish extraction. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, spent the fortune which he had inherited, tried farming, took to drinking, bullied his wife, and rambled to various places, sinking lower at each move. By his wife, Elizabeth Dixon, an Irishwoman (d. 1780), he had six children. Edward, the eldest, was an attorney in the city of London. There were three daughters, Mary, Everina, and Eliza; and two other sons. Mary and Eliza had much talent, though little education. Mary in 1778 became companion to a Mrs. Dawson. In 1780 her mother died, and the sisters, finding their father's house intolerable, resolved to become teachers. Mary went to live with a friend, Fanny Blood, whose father was as great a scamp as Wollstonecraft, and who helped to support her family by painting. Her mother, Mrs. Blood, took in needlework, in which Mary Wollstonecraft helped her. Everina Wollstonecraft kept house for her brother Edward; and Eliza, although still very young, accepted a Mr. Bishop, in order to escape misery at home. Bishop's brutality made her wretched. Her life is described in her sister's ‘Wrongs of Women.’ Mrs. Bishop went into hiding till a legal separation was arranged, when about 1783 she set up a school at Newington Green with Mary Wollstonecraft. It lingered for two years. During this period she acquired some friends, and was kindly received, shortly before his death, by Dr. Johnson. Fanny Blood, who lived with the sisters for a time, married Hugh Skeys, a merchant, and settled in Lisbon. She died in childbed soon afterwards (29 Nov. 1785). Mary went out to nurse her, but arrived too late. After her return she wrote a pamphlet called ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,’ for which Johnson, the publisher in St. Paul's Churchyard, gave her 10l. 10s. She then became governess (October 1787) in the family of Lord Kingsborough, afterwards Earl of Kingston. She thought him a coarse squire and his wife a mere fine lady. Lady Kingsborough was jealous of the children's affection for their governess, and dismissed her after a year. She then settled in London, showed a story called ‘Mary’ to Johnson, and was employed by him as reader and in translating from the French. She worked for five years, liberally helped her sisters and brothers, sending Everina to France, and saw some literary society. Here, in November 1791, she met William Godwin [q. v.] for the first time, when he disliked her because her fluent talk silenced the taciturn Thomas Paine, who was of the company. She published her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792. It had some success, was translated into French, and scandalised her sisters. She proposed to visit France in company with Johnson and Mr. and Mrs. Fuseli. Knowles (in his ‘Life of Fuseli’) says that Mary Wollstonecraft had fallen in love with Fuseli, who was already married; that she got rid of her previously slovenly habits of dress in order to please him, and that she proposed to stay in his house in order to be near him. Mrs. Fuseli hereupon, he adds, forbade her the house, and she went to Paris to break off the attachment. Mr. Paul (Mary Wollstonecraft, p. xxxi) denies the story, chiefly on the ground that she remained a ‘close friend’ of Mrs. Fuseli. Knowles quotes some phrases from her letters to Fuseli, which are certainly significant, but he does not give them in full. She went to Paris alone in December 1792. Here she met Gilbert Imlay, who had been a captain in the American army during the war of independence, had written letters descriptive of the north-west territory (published in 1792, 2nd edit. 1797), and was now engaged in commercial speculations. She agreed to live with him as his wife—a legal marriage for an Englishwoman being probably difficult at the time, and not a matter of importance according to her views (Letters to Imlay, p. xxxix). She joined him at Havre at the end of 1793, and on 14 May 1794 gave birth to a child, called Fanny. She published an ‘Historical View of the French Revolution’ soon afterwards. Imlay's speculations separated him from her for long periods, and her letters soon show doubts of his affection and suspicions of his fidelity. She followed him to England in 1795, and in June sailed to Norway to make arrangements for some of his commercial speculations. Passages of her letters to him, descriptive of the country, were published in 1796. Returning to England in the autumn she found that he desired a separation, and was carrying on an intrigue with another woman. She tried to drown herself by leaping from Putney Bridge, but was taken out insensible by a passing boat. According to Godwin, she still listened to some proposals from Imlay, and was even willing to return to him upon degrading terms. She finally broke with him in March 1796. She refused to take money from him, but accepted a bond for the benefit of her daughter. Neither principal nor interest was ever paid. She returned to writing, resumed her friendship with Johnson, and went into literary society. She soon became intimate with Godwin, who had been favourably impressed by the ‘Letters from Sweden.’ Though both of them disapproved of marriage, they formed a connection about September 1796. The expectation of a child made a legal union desirable; and they were married 29 March 1797 [see Godwin, William]. Their relation, in spite of some trifling disagreements due to Godwin's peculiarities, was happy. The birth of her child Mary was fatal to her, and she died 10 Sept. 1797. She was buried at Old St. Pancras churchyard, and her remains were moved in 1851 to Bournemouth. She is described as Marguerite in her husband's ‘St. Leon.’

Mrs. Godwin was an impulsive and enthusiastic woman, with great charms of person and manner. A portrait, painted by Opie during her marriage and engraved by Heath in 1798, was in the possession of the late Sir Percy Shelley. Another, also by Opie, was engraved by Ridley for the ‘Monthly Mirror’ in 1796, and is now in the possession of Mr. William Russell. Engravings of both are in Mr. Paul's ‘Mary Wollstonecraft.’ Her books show some genuine eloquence, though occasionally injured by the stilted sentimentalism of the time. The letters are pathetic from the melancholy story which they reveal. Her faults were such as might be expected from a follower of Rousseau, and were consistent with much unselfishness and nobility of sentiment, though one could wish that her love-affairs had been more delicate.

Her works are: 1. ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,’ 1787. 2. ‘Original Stories from Real Life, with considerations calculated to regulate the affections,’ 1788, 1791, and edition illustrated by Blake, 1796. 3. ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men,’ a letter to Edmund Burke, 1790. 4. ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ 1792, vol. i. (all published). 5. ‘Historical and Moral View of … the French Revolution,’ vol. i. 1794 (all published). 6. ‘Letters written in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark,’ 1796. 7. ‘Posthumous Works,’ 1798 (vols. i. and ii. ‘The Wrongs of Women, or Maria’ (fragment of a novel); iii. and iv. ‘Letters and Miscellaneous Pieces’). 8. ‘Letters to Imlay,’ with prefatory memoir by C. K. Paul, 1879. She also translated Salzmann's ‘Moralisches Elementarbuch’ (‘Elements of Morality’) in 1790, illustrated by Blake, who adapted fortynine out of the fifty-one German illustrations (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 493).

[Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women, by William Godwin, 1798; A Defence of the Character and Conduct of the late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin … in a series of letters to a lady (author unknown), 1803; William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, by C. Kegan Paul, 1876, i. 163–291; Mary Wollstonecraft, with prefatory memoir by C. Kegan Paul, 1879; Knowles's Life of Fuseli, i. 159–69.]

L. S.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

GODWIN, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759–1797), English miscellaneous writer, was born at Hoxton, on the 27th of April 1759. Her family was of Irish extraction, and Mary’s grandfather, who was a respectable manufacturer in Spitalfields, realized the property which his son squandered. Her mother, Elizabeth Dixon, was Irish, and of good family. Her father, Edward John 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 livelihood. The sisters were all clever women—Mary and Eliza far above the average—but their opportunities of culture had been few. Mary, the eldest, 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 needlework, 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. A legal separation 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 introduced 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 childbed 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, Marya Fiction (1788), was intended to commemorate her friendship with Fanny. After closing the school at Newington Green, Mary became governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, in Ireland. Her pupils were much attached to her, especially Margaret King, afterwards Lady Mountcashel; and indeed, Lady Kingsborough gave the reason for dismissing her after one year’s service that the children loved their governess better than their mother. Mary now resolved to devote herself to literary work, and she was encouraged by Johnson, the publisher in St Paul’s churchyard, for whom she acted as literary adviser. She also undertook translations, chiefly from the French. The Elements of Morality (1790) from the German of Salzmann, illustrated by Blake, an old-fashioned book for children, and Lavater’s Physiognomy were among her translations. Her Original Stories from Real Life were published in 1791, and, with illustrations by Blake, in 1796. In 1792 appeared A Vindication of the Rights 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 Périgord, late bishop of Autun. Mary Wollstonecraft still believed him to be sincere, and working in the same direction as herself. In the dedication she states the “main argument” of the work, “built on this simple principle that, if woman be not prepared 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 influence or general practice.” In carrying out this argument she used great 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 education, 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. She thus directly opposed the teaching of Rousseau, of whom she was in other respects an ardent disciple.

Mrs Wollstonecraft, as she now styled herself, desired to watch the progress of the Revolution in France, and went to Paris in 1792. Godwin, in his memoir of his wife, considers that the change of residence may have been prompted by the discovery that she was becoming attached to Henry Fuseli, but there is little to confirm this surmise; indeed, it was 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 Reign 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 Imlay himself terms her in a legal document, “Mary Imlay, my best friend and wife.” 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. In this year she published the first volume of a never completed Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Imlay became involved in a multitude of speculations, and his affection for Mary and their child was already waning. He left Mary for some months at Havre. In June 1795, after joining him in England, Mary left for Norway on business for Imlay. Her letters from Norway, divested of all personal details, were afterwards 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, “I 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 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 the 29th of March 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. The birth of her daughter Mary, afterwards the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the 30th of August 1797, proved fatal, and Mrs Godwin died on the 10th of September following. 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 and Moral 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 (1788); Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796); Posthumous Works (4 vols., 1798). It is impossible to trace the many articles contributed by her to periodical literature.

A memoir of her life was published by Godwin in 1798. A large portion of C. Kegan Paul’s work, William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, was devoted to her, and an edition of the Letters to Imlay (1879), of which the first edition was published by Godwin, is prefaced by a somewhat fuller memoir. See also E. Dowden, The French Revolution and English Literature (1897) pp. 82 et seq.; E. R. Pennell, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1885), in the Eminent Women Series; E. R. Clough, A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman (1898); an edition of her Original Stories (1906), with William Blake’s illustrations and an introduction by E. V. Lucas; and the Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay (1908), with an introduction by Roger Ingpen.