Mary Wollstonecraft has been important in my life for nearly fifty years. I was studying history in 1970 with the great EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. Our small group of undergraduates were exploring the English radicals of the 1790s. The previous year I had picked up a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (price 7/6d). As a special project for my history degree I explored Mary Wollstonecraft’s radicalism. There were no available biographies so most of my work was done from primary sources. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism and we hadn’t really discovered Mary Wollstonecraft yet. I spent happy hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and browsed copies of radical journals lent to me by EP Thompson. My husband wrote my married name and ‘her book’ on the first page. I wrote my paper, and feminism took off.
Over the last few weeks I have been reading the very detailed dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Charlotte Gordon’s book is very long. The chapters on the lives of the two women alternate. This has the effect of showing up the similarities and the differences in the lives of the two women. It also means that the cast of characters gets unwieldy, and you loose track of which semi-famous person came into which Mary’s life. In this post I am focussing on Mary Wollstonecraft and I will reserve Mary Shelley for a later blog.
Since 1969 eight biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have been written, according to Wikipedia. William Godwin wrote a biography immediately after she died, intended to disprove the image of Mary as a virago. According to Charlotte Gordon he did her no favours, playing down her forthright political writings, and her determination to live according to her principles. What does this biography add to our understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft?
Reading Romantic Outlaws I am reminded of what an extraordinary woman Mary Wollstonecraft was. How resourceful, intelligent, free-thinking and brave. She set sail to Lisbon to assist her best friend; to Paris to witness the revolution; later to Scandinavia on behalf of her lover. She took on injustice, especially against women, and when she found it, she took action if she was able to – for example by liberating her sister from an abusive marriage – or exposed it with her pen. She lived and wrote despite extreme social disapproval. It was not acceptable for women to write about philosophy or politics. And they were expected to hide away if they had illegitimate children. And they were not expected to make demands upon the men who wronged them.
Mary was born in London in 1759. Her father failed to support the family and was alcoholic and abused his wife. Mary supported her family, despite a strong desire for independence. She worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, ran a school in Newington Green for a while, then became a governess to the foremost family Ireland. Not successful or happy employments, but they helped form her ideas about girls’ and women’s education. She returned to London and began to earn a living from her writing. She was employed by the radical publisher John Johnson to write reviews for his periodicals, and she advanced to essays and then to books on the education of girls, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her reflections on the French Revolution, a travel book about her experiences in Scandinavia, as well as several novels.
She believed in living according to her principles, which brought her into conflict with genteel society, where women were not supposed to write anything but sentimental novels. Her pursuit of the painter Fuseli was disapproved of. She went to France during the Revolution, witnessing the Terror, and became disillusioned by its excesses. She met Imlay, father of her first daughter, Fanny, but he tired of her. Distraught at a second rebuttal she attempted suicide. On her recovery she set out with her baby for Sweden in an attempt to win Imlay back by tracking down some missing cargo. On her return he made it clear he was interested in someone else, an actress whose name is not recorded. Mary threw herself off Putney Bridge in a second, failed, attempt at suicide.
She met William Godwin, an established radical philosopher, and they fell in love, and on her becoming pregnant, married. Mary died in childbirth of puerperal fever, aged 38, still engaged in writing.
Today we tend to see the Vindication as Mary’s most important published book. However, her book on the education of girls Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct (1788) was widely read. Her accounts of her experiences in France An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), and in Scandinavia Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden Norway, and Denmark (1796) were every bit as well known as the famous Vindication. Charlotte Gordon claims her travel writing was ahead of its time, and much appreciated, especially by Mary and Percy Shelley.
Perhaps we refer to it today because the Vindication is a manifesto, arguing for the acceptance of equality of women and improved education of girls. She was less concerned about how to achieve equality. She lived according to her principles, never financially dependent upon men, never accepting that men’s views had more authority than hers.
Since I first picked up A Vindication Mary Wollstonecraft has become much better known, seen as one the major influences on the development of feminism. She has even been called ‘the first suffragette’ to capitalise on the recent film. I don’t think she saw the vote as the way forward for women’s rights.
Newington Green, in north London, was something of a centre of radicalism and still held something of that history when I moved there in the early 1980s. It was an overgrown roundabout, a haunt for winos and rubbish thrown from buses. Islington spent some money on it and it became a nice green space, like a traditional village green, with a children’s playground, a café (intermittently), benches, places to throw Frisbees and to teach your child to ride a bike. Not long before I left a Banksy-like mural appeared on the wall of the former bank, and an appeal was launched for some kind of memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft.
It’s hard, when you pick up non-fiction, not to just read to confirm what you already know. From Romantic Outlaws I learned how Godwin ruined her reputation after her death, while trying to demonstrate her vulnerability by revealing her sexual behaviour. Her intellectual gifts were subsumed in the subsequent damage to her reputation. Sound familiar? Ever been called aggressive, or shrill? ‘A hyena in petticoats’ was Walpole’s judgement.
I learned that her reputation was damaged and not rescued until Virginia Woolf paid her attention in the Second Common Reader (1923) and as the second wave of feminism got under way in the 70s, her contribution was reassessed and all those biographies written.
I hate the current fashion for rubberised covers of paperbacks. And I hate the Day-Glo pink on this one. It screams romance, girlie stuff. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was neither romantic nor girlie.
Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Published in paperback in 2016 by Corsair. 652pp. This book won the biography section of the National (USA) Book Critics Circle Award for 2015.
A post considering Fallen Women, to coincide with the Foundling Museum exhibition was posted in the Autumn.
In May I will be blogging about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.
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