Review of Elizabeth Robbins Pennell’s Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

[Unsigned] Eminent Women Series. – Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. By E.R. Pennell. (Allen & Co.)
The Athenaeum (11 July, 1885): 41-2.

[NOTE: Mathilde Blind’s George Eliot and A. Mary F. Robinson’s Emily Brontë inaugurated the series of Eminent Women biographies in 1883; this series continued until 1895 and ultimately numbered 22 volumes. The biographies were published in America by Roberts Brothers, Boston, under the series title Famous Women. Pennell’s Wollstonecraft biography was published in Boston in 1884 under the title The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and in London in 1885 as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Blind had at one time hoped to write this biography herself; her review of the 1885 imprint is significant because in describing the kind of biography Wollstonecraft deserved, she is implicitly outlining the very method she would employ in her Madame Roland biography, published in 1886. Blind’s review should be read in conjunction with Blind’s essay “Mary Wollstonecraft,” New Quarterly Magazine, July 1878.]

This new volume of the “Eminent Women Series” deals with the life of one who ought to have headed the list. The series of biographies of famous women might very properly have opened with Mary Wollstonecraft, the first to claim for her sex the intellectual training and social and political equality gradually being conceded to women. The “fantastic and absurd” heresies of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication’ are now the commonplaces of the lecture-room and the magazine article. But in spite of the fact that many of the measures advocated by her have been carried into practice, she has met with but scant gratitude. From the world at large this is no more than was to be expected; but when we find her name omitted from such a treatise as Mr. John Stuart Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women,’ and Mrs. Mill treated as the chief representative of that movement, she appears to have been as hardly dealt with by the supporters of the cause she advocated as by its opponents. It is true that in meeting with neglect, hate, and obloquy Mary Wollstonecraft only shared the fate of every genuine reformer; but the ill luck that attended her and the animosity she aroused in her contemporaries seem more or less to have pursued her memory ever since. She cannot be considered fortunate in this her latest biographer. Mrs. Pennell has written a painstaking and businesslike account, but while carefully enumerating the facts of her heroine’s life she has failed to impart any life to her narrative.

Yet Mary Godwin’s life was one of the most thrilling of romances. The best and most faithful narrative of it still remains William Godwin’s memoir, published a year after his wife’s death. It is condensed and vigorous, and it reveals the lovable and heroic traits of her nature, while it is free from that fulsome admiration which is frequent in the lives of celebrities written by their relatives in our day. Godwin, as the author of ‘Political Justice,’ had, of course, no scruples or hesitations to contend with in giving an account of his wife’s life. His theories and her actions were in complete harmony. He had taught that a fuller development of the individual and a greater amount of happiness for the community would be secured by a readjustment to the relation of the sexes. Mary Wollstonecraft had never promulgated such views in her writings, but had acted as if she held them. It was, therefore, easy for Godwin to deal plainly with all the facts of Mary’s life, excepting, perhaps, that one which legally made her Mrs. Godwin. From the point of view of his logic this last proceeding must, indeed, have seemed unprincipled and unphilosophic. But, like his future son-in-law, Shelley, he sacrificed his theories when he realized that by carrying them to their logical conclusion he would do irreparable injury to Mary and to his children. For Godwin, far from having the “heart of stone” for which Roscoe gives him credit, had a genuine fund of deep, if latent tenderness, and it is a pity that his memoir is not republished in a form accessible to the public, for, merely regarded as a piece of literary composition, it is a work of art. Mrs. Pennell seems too much inclined to look upon Mr. Kegan Paul as the literary pontiff who has at last given Mary Wollstonecraft absolution for her sins against society, and rehabilitated her in the eyes of the public. To be the subject of a moral whitewashing, against which Mary Wollsonecraft would have been the first to revolt, is, perhaps, no better fate than it is to fall into the hands of the author of ‘The Real Shelley,’ and be shown up to future generations as having been as black as the European Magazine and the ‘Biographical Dictionary’ had painted her, or to figure in Horace Walpole’s epistles to Hannah More as a “hyena in petticoats.”[1]

One great defect of Mrs. Pennell’s life is its want of background. Although we can well follow the history of poets, novelists, and musicians without entering much into the character of the times they lived in, it is different when we come to deal with the lives of religious or social reformers or leaders of revolutionary thought. The author if the ‘Answer to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution,’ ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ and the ‘Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,’ is a distinctly historical figure, and should have been treated as such. It would have been better to have curtailed the earlier chapters, containing the narrative of Mary Wollstonecraft’s unhappy childhood and youthful struggles, not because these are in themselves uninteresting, but because the real awakening of her faculties was comparatively late, and because the period in which her intellectual life culminated was also the culmination of the great revolutionary drama. To have carefully worked up this period of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life would have given a fresh psychological insight into that portion of it which has been most frequently canvassed. Mar’s true existence began, in fact, when, after a gloomy youth, during which she was in turn companion, schoolmistress, and governess, she came to London in 1788, and settled down to support herself by authorship, “the first of a new genus,” as she truly says. The date is significant. She was no isolated thinker, or “philosophizing serpent,” to quote Horace Walpole again, but a woman of a highly sensitive mental organization, and she felt keenly the influence of her time. Her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ is the offspring of the same intellectual forces that were producing the Revolution on the other side of the Channel; and it was almost imperative on the biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft to have drawn some comparison between the Englishwoman’s way of dealing with this great question and that of her French contemporaries, for in the astonishing reorganization of political institutions there the interests of women were not entirely forgotten. Condorcet wrote an admirable paper, full of a noble spirit, on the subject. In the “Cercle Social,” whose members consisted of the most advanced philosophical Republicans, women as well as men were admitted, and radical changes affecting the position of the female sex used to be discussed. Mrs. Pennell never touches on this subject. She confines her remarks to a cursory analysis of the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ and truly says that many of its leading propositions are to the present advocates of the cause foregone conclusions. Summing up her criticism of this, the best known of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings, Mrs. Pennell says:–

She is too ready to moralize, and her moralizing degenerates unfortunately often into commonplace platitudes. She is even at times disagreeably pompous and authoritative, and preaches rather than argues. This was due partly to a then prevailing tendency in literature. Every writer essayist, poet, and novelist preached in those days. . . . Great as are these faults, they are more than counterbalanced by the merits of the book. All the flowers of rhetoric cannot conceal its genuineness. As is always the case with the work of honest writers, it commands respect even from those who disapprove of its doctrine and criticise its style. Despite its moralizing it is strong with the strength born of an earnest purpose. . . . All her pompous platitudes cannot conceal the earnestness of her denunciation of shams. The “Rights of Women” is an outcry against them.

The most important literary event in Mary Wollstonecraft’s career was the publication of the ‘Vindication.’ It made her famous; it brought her into contact with many distinguished contemporaries, and enlarged her views. But in the future the ‘Letters to Imlay’ will be regarded as the most enduring monument of her powers. In them the emotional nature of the woman, the force and the fire of her mind, for the first and only time burst completely through that sententious and pragmatical mode of expression which none but the greatest masters of style escaped in the eighteenth century. This volume, reissued separately by Mr. Kegan Paul, should find its place in the library by the side of Rousseau’s ‘Nouvelle Héloïse.’ Indeed, we may trace Rousseau’s influence through the whole of Mary Wollstonecraft’s intellectual life in spite of her complete divergence from him on such questions as the education of women. Otherwise—in the mode of approaching social questions, in the turn of sentiment, in the worship of nature—she constantly imitates the author of ‘Émile.’ The love of nature was probably not very genuine with her. When she talks of having been listening “to the falling leaves,” or of “having observed the various tints the autumn gave to them,” one misses in her phrases the accents of the genuine lover of the open air. Apropos of this we may cite a curious passage from a German book recently published, the biography of J.G. Schweitzer, not hitherto mentioned in connection with Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, which throws a sudden side light on her character. His wife, who made her acquaintance in Paris, writes:–

I loved Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the ‘Rights of Women.’ She had moments when she was simply exquisite. I could have wished to be permanently able to love her. But by her intolerance she repelled all women not inclined to be subjugated by her, whereas to her servants, inferiors, and the wretched in general she was gentle as an angel. The sensibility of her nature would be exquisite if her massive temperament did not too often gain the upper hand. I passed an evening with her in the country. The delicious blending of the various tints on the horizon enchanted me. Mary turned towards B. de W., who was sitting under a tree gilt by the rays of the setting sun. I was opposite her, and so delighted that I said, ‘Come, Mary, you who adore nature, come and enjoy this magnificent sight, this constant transition from colour to colour.’ But how great was my surprise to see Mary indifferent enough not even to take her eyes off him by whom she happened to be captivated for the moment. She nourishes vast schemes but the magnitude of her ideas wears out her body.

Sentimental as is this passage, it seems to contain a genuine picture as seen from one point of view. We get a glimpse of some off the unavoidable frailties to which human nature is prone, and not of an impossible piece of perfection. Godwin corroborates these remarks of Magdalen Schweitzer when he now and again touches on Mary’s impressionability and her craving for personal affection, although he stands corrected by Mr. Kegan Paul, who, in his prefatory notice to the ‘Letters to Imlay,’ tells us that “Godwin knew extremely little of his wife’s early life”; but how Mr. Paul comes to be so intimately acquainted with the confidences that may or may not have passed between Mr. and Mrs. Godwin he does not say. Be that as it may, Mary Wollstonecraft, although she had failings and committed errors, set in the main the example of an heroic life. The invincible courage of her earlier years, her self-sacrificing devotion to her family and friends, her fearlessness in proclaiming her convictions, irrespective of self-interest, and the stoical simplicity of life which this entailed, helped to make her in Shelley’s eyes that ideal of gentleness and courage which he embodied in Cythna. According to Trelawny, when first brought face to face with her child, Mary Godwin, Shelley’s imagination saw only Mary Wollstonecraft, and he worshipped the mother through the daughter. That noble life, as he tells Mary Shelley in his dedication of ‘The Revolt of Islam,’

Clothed thee in the radiance undefiled

Of its departing glory; still her fame

Shines on thee, thro’ the tempests dark and wild

Which shake these latter days.



[1] This is a pointed reference to John Cordy Jeaffreson’s just-published The Real Shelley: New Views of the Poet’s Life, part of the backlash against Shelley and the “Shelleyites” elicited by the rehabilitative scholarship of Garnett, Rossetti, Thomson, Edward Dowden and Blind herself.  Jeaffreson warns of the increasing influence of “The Shelleyan Socialists,” those “conscientious though misguided persons, who . . . regard with various degrees of approval or tolerance Shelley’s daring . . . proposal for abolishing lawful marriage, and replacing it with the Free Contract. . . ” (2). Blind implies that Pennell contributes to this backlash by diminishing the revolutionary implications of Wollstonecraft’s ideas.