“Mary Wollstonecraft”

Mary Wollstonecraft,” New Quarterly Magazine 10 (July 1878): 390–412.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s’ ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ which has enjoyed the doubtful  privilege of looming in the imagination of the reading world as a terra incognita of the most daring and subversive speculations concerning women, differs considerably from the works on the  same subject published at the present day. (398)

[NOTE: Along with C. Kegan Paul,[1] Mathilde Blind helped rehabilitate Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation in the late-Victorian Period. (Elizabeth Robbins Pennell’s 1884 Eminent Women series biography, which Blind reviewed, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s introduction to an 1891 reissue of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman would later continue this process). Many Victorian feminists remained silent about Wollstonecraft’s importance as an ideological predecessor; as Barbara Caine had noted, they wanted to avoid drawing “connections between personal and sexual revolt on the one hand and feminist conviction on the other.”[2]  References to Wollstonecraft before the late 1870s, with the exception of George Eliot’s essay “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft” (1855), appeared mainly in private writings. Blind’s own, more radical feminism leads her at times to criticize Wollstonecraft’s “separation of spheres” feminism, as when she claims that Wollstonecraft’s manifesto might more accurately have been titled A Vindication of the Duties of Woman: “it is in a great measure that they may properly fulfill duties as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, that she claims for them certain rights, prominent amongst which she considers that of a thoroughly sound education.”]


Whether our sympathies are favourable, opposed, or simply indifferent to the present movement for securing to women certain professional privileges and political rights, from the historic point of view it should at least not be forgotten that it was Mary Wollstonecraft who, in this country, boldly ventured to raise a voice on behalf of her sex.

No doubt the French Revolution, breaking down old landmarks of society in all directions, and making its irresistible influence felt on the thinking minds of a whole generation, served in this case as in so many others to awaken speculations concerning a state of things which, in more ordinary times, people weren’t disposed to regard with the same unquestioning acquiescence with which they accept the changes of the seasons and the alternation of night and day. Indications are not wanting, indeed, that the question as to woman’s political and social status had at length become a subject of inquiry to some of the most advanced thinkers of the time. Thus Condorcet, in his ‘Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’sprit humain,’ says:–

The complete annihilation of those prejudices which have caused an inequality of rights between the two sexes, would be looked upon by us as one of those progressive steps of the human intellect which exercise a most important influence on the general well-being of society.

     A more popular manifestation of the same idea was shown in the fact of a body of women sending a petition to the French National Assembly (Requête des dames à l’Assemblée nationale, 1791), in order to claim political equality with men. About the same time appeared Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ which partly, no doubt, owed its inspiration to the same mighty impulse.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the wife of the once celebrated [391] author of ‘Political Justice,’ and the mother of Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, was born on April 27, 1759. Her father, a man of peculiarly unsettled habits, seems to have led his family almost the life of a company of strolling gipsies; for, with his wife and a numerous offspring, he was so constantly shifting his place of residence that Mary was never able to ascertain the place of her birth with any degree of certainty. Although Mr. Wollstonecraft had inherited a considerable property from his father, who had been a manufacturer in Spitalfields, he managed to squander his fortune, so that as he advanced in years he not only became straitened in means but hopelessly involved in debt.

It is a matter for curious speculation how far the orthodox ideas concerning man’s hereditary supremacy may have been shaken in Mary’s busy little brain, when she saw a man of weak yet violent temper lord it in unquestioned authority over the far more sensible wife and mother; drag this wife from place to place for no reasonable purpose  but the moment; and  actually threaten to inflict personal chastisement on this much-suffering woman. Mary herself, a serious yet impetuous and keenly sensitive child, often had blows dealt by her father’s hand; but these blows, instead of convincing, only roused her to fierce resistance, whereas she never disobeyed her mother’s gentle admonitions.   Meanwhile she had a desultory, haphazard education, going to school or staying at home as happened to be convenient at the time.

The incident which first roused and kindled the ardour of Mary’s nature was her acquaintance with Fanny Blood, a girl of eighteen, and her senior by two years. The friendship of powerful natures–the unfolding of whose sympathies has, owing to untoward circumstance, been long repressed-—is sometimes tinged by a character of fervid and sustained enthusiasm. Such was the friendship which Mary now felt for one who, in her eyes, was the impersonation of all that is good, clever, and beautiful. Let us dwell for a moment on this picture of youthful friendship, which stands out with a certain winning charm from a life of continued struggle, noble self-sacrifice, and tragic sorrows. The first impression of this friend, quaintly recorded by William Godwin in his touching memoir, is too characteristic of the manners of the period to be passed over. This was the time when ‘Werther’ had electrified Europe, and when a hothouse cultivation and parade of sentiment very generally prevailed.


That an impressionable girl of sixteen, with her heard full of ‘Werther,’ should have recognised the very counterpart of the immortal Lotte in a graceful young woman cutting bread and butter for a swarm of sisters and brothers, should, moved to rapture by the sight, ‘take  in her heart the vows of an eternal friendship,’ may,  with many, raise a smile of semi-contempt at her expense, and belongs, no doubt, to  the overstrained sentiment characteristic of the period; yet this  passionate susceptibility to impressions idealized at the very moment they are received, this lavish prodigality of emotion, is exactly the quality which, when matured, will enable the person to dare all, to sacrifice all, for the sake of a principle.

Not that the friendship begun under such romantic auspices was the mere effervescence of superfluous sentiment; it became, on the contrary, the most powerful stimulus of Mary’s development; for the talents of Fanny did not stop short at the cutting of bread and butter; she seems, indeed, to have been a person of rare accomplishments, and by her talents as an artist to have supported her parents and their many children for a considerable time. This young lady, who wore herself out by excessive work, not only painted indefatigably at pictures (probably miniatures) which only brought her in about ten shillings a week, but prepared her own colours; and one of her nephews informs us that their brilliancy is unchanged to this day–a  proof, at any rate, of a solid and conscientious method of painting.

At the age of nineteen Mary left her father’s house to live as a companion with a crotchety old widow lady. Rich, and with no interests to fill her mind, this lady found an arduous occupation in devising new and ingenious methods of tormenting her companions, of whom she boasted a continual succession of fresh victims.  Nevertheless, the energetic yet circumspect Mary succeeded, by dint of management, not only in making her situation tolerable, but in taking the edge off the old lady’s desire for novelty in the shape of companions, and actually remained with her for the space of two years. She finally left, summoned by the news of her mother’s rapidly declining health.

During the latter’s protracted illness Mary was her mother’s nurse, and she was fond in after years of repeating her mother’s dying words: ‘A little patience and all will be over.’ When all was indeed over, the girls left their father’s house for good: it ceased, in fact, to be a fit home for them. Mr. Wollstonecraft married again shortly afterwards; but be became more and more [393] hopelessly entangled in debt, and contracted much low habits that one of his daughters, seeing him some years afterwards, actually recoiled at sight of his ghastly, disreputable appearance.

Thus, at the age of twenty-one, Mary was not only left to shift for herself, but to take anxious thought for her two younger sisters, Everina and Eliza. About this time Everina went to keep house for her eldest brother Edward, an attorney. Mary joined her friend Fanny at Walham Green, adding to the scanty means of the family by assisting Mrs. Blood who took in needlework, while Eliza married a Mr. Bishop. Owing apparently to incompatibility of temper the marriage proved most unhappy. Mary, who had gone to take care of her sister during her  confinement, suffered acutely in seeing her driven to actual frenzy by her domestic troubles. To save the reason of ‘Poor Bess,’ Mary at last urged Mrs. Bishop to the desperate step of secretly leaving her husband. The daring plan was put into practice; and one cold day in January 1784, one can fancy Mrs. Bishop, scarcely venturing to take a last greedy look of her little child, in company of the faithful Mary, stealing like a thief from her home. Once free of the house they got into a coach, and, for fear of   being traced, Mary took the precaution of changing it for another, which deposited them in safety at a Mrs. Dodd’s, opposite the Mermaid at Hackney. Such had been the state of agitation of the fugitive wife that during the transit she had bitten her wedding-ring in pieces. For some time the  sisters kept themselves carefully concealed, trembling at the  sound of  passing wheels, starting at every knock at the door, lest Mr. Bishop should discover them; for as Mary pithily puts it, ‘I could sooner face a lion; yet the door never opens, but I expect to  see him  panting for  breath. I almost wish for a husband, for I want somebody to support me. Bess looks now very wild.’

After ineffectual attempts on the part of her eldest brother, the attorney, to induce Mrs. Bishop to return to her husband, a separation was obtained; nor does she ever appear to have repented of the  step, although she suffered not a little from all the tribulations that generally fall to the lot of governesses. ‘Poor Bess,’ whatever may have been her husband’s sins, seems to have had a temper of her own which, no doubt, made many a place too hot for her.  So that time after time Mary Wollstonecraft, with her gift of attracting friends, bad to exert her [394] influence to gain her a fresh situation; yet, so far from gratitude, Mrs. Bishop evinced on every opportunity a spirit of petty spite, malice, and jealousy, which only adds to our admiration of her sister’s generosity.

The sisters now cast about in their minds what they should do for a living.  Certainly there were not many occupations to choose from. To take in plain needlework or turn governess was all the work society could set Mary Wollstonecraft’s powerful intellect to accomplish. Plain needlework had already been tried and found wanting, so the next scheme was to open a day school at Newington Green in partnership with the accomplished Fanny. About twenty pupils gradually attended the school, and to eke out a small income two ladies with their children were taken in as boarders. Owing to her friend’s ill-health the whole management of the school devolved on Mary, whose energy and talents for education kept it going for two years and a half.

In the meanwhile, Fanny’s health had completely broken down, and a residence in the south of Europe seemed her only chance of recovery. About this time, Mr. Hugh Skeys, who had long been in love with her—although, for some reason or other, he had never declared himself-—made her an offer and was accepted. As his business took him to Lisbon, be went to live there with his wife after their marriage. The change, however, was not productive of the beneficial results that bad been anticipated; and Mary, very anxious about her consumptive friend, determined, at all risks to her own   prospects, to attend her during her confinement. Leaving the school in Mrs. Bishop’s charge, she set sail for Lisbon, only arriving, alas! to do the last kind offices by the dying woman. Grieving profoundly for the friend of her youth, Mary, after a brief stay in Lisbon, returned to England, to find her school, the prosperity of which entirely depended on her exertions, going to rack and ruin. She did her best to set it afloat a gain, but, finding her efforts futile, accepted the office of governess to the daughters of Lord Kingsborough in Ireland.

The frivolous habits of the fine ladies in whose midst Mary was now thrown were profoundly distasteful to her, and she congratulated herself on not having had the misfortune of being born ‘a lady of quality.’ No doubt her descriptions of the manners of fashionable ladies, whose airs and graces are so severely censured in her ‘Rights of Woman,’ were the result of [395] her present experiences. Pining for more congenial society, she devoted herself entirely to her pupils, and when they were ill with fever nursed them with affectionate tenderness, whereas their mother only paid them occasional visits during which she divided her attention between her children and her dogs. In writing to her sister Mary Wollstonecraft says of Lady Kinsborough: ‘To see a woman without any softness in her manners caressing animals, and using infantine expressions, is, you may conceive, very absurd and ludicrous, but a fine lady is a new species to me of animals.’

The letters from which we have hitherto quoted, with the interesting glimpses they afford of Mary’s youth and early womanhood, appeared about two years ago in Mr. Kegan Paul’s valuable biography of ‘William  Godwin,’ to which we are  indebted for many details then published for the first time.

Although Mary Wollstonecraft remained  scarcely a year in Lord  Kingsborough’s family, her eldest pupil, Margaret, showed such warm affection for her governess  that her mother became  jealous at last , and, on their coming up to London found a   pretext for parting with her. Margaret, afterwards Lady Mountcashel, not only retained her  attachment to her teacher through life, but extended it to Godwin and other members of her family. The pupil’s conduct, which afterwards was unfortunately questionable, has often been urged as a proof of the demoralising views instilled into her by Mary Wollstonecraft. But to refute so mistaken a belief one need only glance at her correspondence, or the works she published afterwards, breathing throughout a spirit of piety, self-abnegation, and moral  rectitude; if they are to be found fault with, it is that they savour too much of the cut and dried morality of the copy-books. Nothing is less probable, therefore, than that a girl of eleven should have imbibed improper notions from her, and nothing more likely than that the general tone of unmeaning frivolity in the family, deprecated by Mary Wollstonecraft, should have injured her character.

While we are on this subject we may as well mention a curious anecdote recently told us, which although  not directly related to our subject, is interesting from its connection with a great poet.  Lady Mountcashel, who had a fancy to  disguise herself as a man at times, and seems to have thoroughly looked the part, happened to stay at  Pisa at the  same time as Shelley and his wife. Shelley, then deeply distressed at the fate of the [396] beautiful Emilia Viviani, immured by her father in the Convent of St. Anne, proposed to his friend to don male attire, elope, with the young lady, and make a pretence of marrying her. His extraordinary scheme, whether serious or not, remained a poet’s dream.

The autumn of 1788, Mary Wollstonecraft was once more thrown on the world. It was then that she formed the resolution of devoting herself to literature and becoming, as she aptly puts it, ‘the first of a new genus.’

The autumn of 1788, Mary Wollstonecraft was once more thrown on the world. It was then that she formed the resolution of devoting herself to literature and becoming, as she aptly puts it, ‘the first of a new genus.’ It is true England boasted of not a few authoresses, as is proved by such names as Mrs. Barbauld, Miss Burney, Mrs. Inchbald, Mrs. Radcliffe, Mrs. Opie, &c. But none of them, we believe, determined, in the same spirit of independence, to take up literature as a profession. With the exception of Mrs. Inchbald, who was an actress, they were ladies with homes of their own, writing as amateurs rather than professional authors.

Are we yielding to the notorious weakness of a biographer for his subject in recognizing a gleam of true heroism in the fact of a woman without money, without influential connections, without even the previous advantages of a liberal education, not only taking up the already sufficiently hard struggle of securing an independence–that independence which she nobly says, ‘I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath,’–but that far more arduous struggle for principles so new and startling, that the person becoming their advocate might expect to be stigmatized as “infamous”?

And who is the woman who has the grand daring to venture upon such a career? Does she bear any affinity to the popular notion of what a ‘Woman’s Rights Woman’ must necessarily be according to the eternal fitness of things? Would that the reader could see the admirable portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, painted by Opie, in the possession of Sir Percy Shelley, her grandson—could see the lovely face, with its soft winning eyes, dimpling cheek, and abundant coils of rich brown, silken hair, encircling a countenance essentially feminine in its contour! No doubt there is an unusual amount of firmness and energy evinced in the mouth and chin, which does not clash, however, with the almost pleading childlike sweetness of her expression. No less winning, according to William  Godwin, were the manners of this  remarkable  woman, whose smile of bewitching tenderness, he says, all who know her will so well [397] recollect, and which won, both heart and soul, the affection of almost every one who beheld it.

Such was the author of a treatise, the first in our language, on a subject which in our day has roused such ardent partisanship and antagonism.  But before its composition in 1791-92, years of steady, laborious, and unobtrusive literary work had  intervened. On first  contemplating the scheme of getting a  living by her pen, Mary sought the advice of Mr. Johnson, the well-known Radical publisher, who had already brought out her ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,’ a pamphlet she had written  with the intention of assisting the parents of Fanny Blood with its  proceeds. Mr. Johnson, who had formed the highest opinion of Mary’s talents, proved an invaluable friend to her; and who knows how hardly it might have fared with the solitary woman fighting her battle unaided, amidst an unheeding multitude, but for the bookseller’s kindly, almost paternal, interest? Was Mr. Johnson who kept her supplied with literary work, under whose roof she stayed till he had found lodgings for her in George Street, near Blackfriars Bridge, not far from his house of business, and at whose evenings she met many of the leading men and reformers of her time, such as Holcroft, Thomas Paine, Blake, Fuseli, and William Godwin.

Once launched on her career as authoress, Mary Wollstonecraft readily undertook whatever work came in   her way. She translated several works from the French and German, such as ‘Necker on Religious Opinions,’ ‘Lavater’s Physiognomy,’ and “Salzmann’s Elements of Morality;’ compiled  the ‘French Reader,’’ and wrote many essays for ‘The Analytical Review.’ She had before this written a story entitled ‘Mary,’ in which some of the incidents of her friendship with Fanny seem embodied—although the character of the sick girl is in many respects unlike that of her friend. This little work, greatly admired by Godwin for the truth and delicacy of it sentiments, has too much of a moralizing and sentimental strain to be relished by modern readers. The first original effort in her new abode was a volume of ‘Stories from Real Life’ for children. Terribly real these tales certainly are; and their unflinchingly truthful presentment of some of the most painful facts in life, when taken along with the quaint and sometimes terrible illustrations by Blake, must have left a forcible impression on the imagination of young readers, and enlisted their sympathies on the side of the poor and oppressed.


For several years Mary Wollstonecraft was so much occupied in acquiring a  livelihood, that she had  but little time for original work.  Not that her wants were many, her habits, at this time, being of Spartan simplicity;  but in reality she had all the cares of a large family on    her hands, as she not only supported herself, but helped to start her sisters and brothers in life. She procured better instruction for the former, even sending Everina to Paris to acquire the French language; one of her brothers, who intended emigrating to America, she placed with a farmer, and Sent another to Woolwich to qualify him for the navy. Her father too, during the last years of his life, was entirely dependent on her assistance, as his son the attorney (from self-interested motives, it is to be feared) had so mismanaged his affairs that he was left quite destitute.

The publication of her ‘Answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution’ in 1790, and of the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1791, suddenly made a famous woman of Mary Wollstonecraft.

The publication of her ‘Answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution’ in 1790, and of the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1791, suddenly made a famous woman of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s’ ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman,’ which has enjoyed the doubtful  privilege of looming in the imagination of the reading world as a terra incognita of the most daring and subversive speculations concerning women, differs considerably from the works on the  same subject published at the present day. Compared  with the claims which have been advanced on behalf of the female sex by John Stuart Mill and others, the rights vindicated by Mary Wollstonecraft are, on the whole, of the most modest character, and but few of her demands, chiefly relating to the higher education of women, would be disputed by enlightened people of the present day; much of what she desired    in that respect having, indeed, been put into practice–for example, in the classes opened for ladies at the London, Oxford, and Cambridge Universities and in the degrees now offered to them.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise might perhaps with some justice be called the Duties instead of the Rights of Woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise might perhaps with some justice be called the Duties instead of the Rights of Woman. For its authoress is eloquent   on the subject of the former; and it is in a great measure that they may properly fulfill duties as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, that she claims for them certain rights, prominent amongst which she considers that of a thoroughly sound education. She can never sufficiently condemn the erroneous theories concerning female education advocated by Rousseau and other popular writers [399] of that time; and she is up in arms, with all the enthusiasm of a female John Knox, against the arts of coquetry and all the ‘wanton wiles’ of flirtation inculcated by the author of ‘Emile’ as the ne plus ultra of female accomplishment. The stern Scotch Reformer himself might have applauded the zeal with which Mary Wollstonecraft declaims against the faults of her sex, and the fervour with which she adjures them not to consider love-making as the be-all and  end-all of existence, but to remember that ‘the  plan of life which enables us to carry some knowledge  and virtue into another world, is the one best calculated to ensure content in this.’

One may say that  the fundamental idea running through this work, is that women, like men, should  primarily be considered rational creatures, whose understandings, if properly cultivated, might serve for their guidance in life without constant masculine assistance; . . . .

One may say that  the fundamental idea running through this work, is that women, like men, should  primarily be considered rational creatures, whose understandings, if properly cultivated, might serve for their guidance in life without constant masculine assistance; and that that therefore their education ought to  be conducted on solid principles, instead of those merely ornamental ones which then prevailed. In accordance with these views, she maintains that instead of ‘giving a sex to morals’ with a view to rendering women more alluring, their virtues should be the same in kind, if not in degree. For although she allows that women have different duties to fulfill from men, she points out, not without a spice of sarcasm, that ‘they are human duties,’ and that consequently ‘the principles that should regulate the discharge of them must be the same.’

Thus much for her innovations. So far from wishing (as she has been accused of doing) to abrogate the institution of marriage, she never wearies of expressing her respect for family life ‘as the foundation of almost every social virtue.’

When Mary Wollstonecraft protested that if women were only properly taught, so far from being driven into distasteful duties as a refuge for the destitute, or of becoming  helpless and often burdensome dependents on the bounty of relatives, or painfully earning  their bread as down-trodden governesses and still more despised ‘milliners and mantua-makers,’ or lastly of sinking still lower in the social scale, they might, instead, engage in various kinds  of trade, turn clerks and artificers, or practice as physicians, she had learned the lesson she wished to inculcate in the hard  school of experience; and the  bread she then cast upon the waters has been found after many days.

As a corollary to the “Rights,’ one should study Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Wrongs of Woman.” For although this book is a [400] novel written in the last years of her life, and left unfinished at her death, yet, in the form of a story, it is nothing but an illustration of the trials, the sufferings, and the mortifications to which women were and are still partly liable owing to the disabilities they are under. For   originality of invention, tragic incident, and a certain fiery eloquence of style, this is certainly the most remarkable and mature of her works, although one may object that for a novel the moral purpose is far too obvious, the manner too generalized, and many of the situations revolting to the taste of a    modern reader. But, with all its faults, it is a production, that in the implacable truth with which it lays open the festering sores of society, in  the unshrinking  courage with which it drags into the light  of day the wrongs the feeble have to suffer at the hands of the strong, in the fiery enthusiasm with which it lifts up its voice for the voiceless outcasts, may be said to resemble ‘Les Miserables’  by Victor Hugo. Had the writer’s creative power and artistic rendering been at all on a par with her fertility of invention and breadth of sympathy, we should have had in her “Wrongs of Woman’ a representative work of its kind.

To sum up our necessarily brief sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft’s scheme for improving the position of woman, the reforms she advocated were as follows:–

That women should enjoy the same educational advantages as men.

That they should be admitted to a wider sphere of employment, such as trades, professions, and scientific pursuits.

That married women should have the right of owning property, the same as men–a custom prevalent in most of the civilized countries of Europe, excepting England.

That married women should have greater facilities of divorce when united to men of unprincipled conduct.

That in case of separation the custody of the children should belong equally to both parents.

That a man should be legally responsible for the support of his illegitimate children.

And, what perhaps horrified the virtuous more than any other of her doctrines, that he should be bound to maintain the woman he bad wronged.

     It may be added that she says further, but quite incidentally, and fearing that she may raise a laugh at her expense, ‘that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily [401] governed, without having any share allowed them in the deliberations of government.’

One more reform–perhaps the farthest reaching of all she advocates, and which has to some extent been realised in our school-boards–is her grand scheme of national education, without distinction of class or sex. Some of her remarks on this subject are well worth quoting at the present day.

Day schools should be established by Government in which boys and girls might be educated together. The school for the younger children, from five to nine years of age, ought to be absolutely free, and open to all classes . . . . where boys and girls, the rich and the poor, should meet together. To prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The school-room ought to be surrounded by a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time. But these relaxations might all be rendered a part of elementary education, for many things improve and amuse the senses when introduced as a kind of show, to the principles of which dryly laid down children would turn a deaf car. For instance, botany, mechanics, and astronomy. Reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, and some simple experiments in natural philosophy might fill up the day, but these pursuits should never encroach on gymnastics in the open air. The elements of religion, history, the history of man, and politics might also be taught by conversations in the Socratic form.

After the age of nine, girls and boys intended for domestic employments or mechanical trades ought to be removed to other trades, and receive instruction in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning, but in the afternoon the girls should attend a school where plain work, mantua making, millinery, &c., would be their employment, whereas the young people of superior abilities or fortune might now be taught in another school.[3]

Girls and boys still together? I hear some reader ask. Yes. And I should not fear any other consequence than that some early attachment might take place, which, whilst it had the best effect on the moral character of young people, might not perfectly agree with the views of the parents, for it will be a long time, I fear, before the world is so enlightened that parents only anxious to render their children virtuous will let them choose companions for life themselves.

     And this theory was propounded, be it remembered, nearly a century ago.

. . . although the reforms advocated in the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ are neither startling nor subversive according to nineteenth-century ideas, yet at the time of its publication it met with violent opposition.


But although the reforms advocated in the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ are neither startling nor subversive according to nineteenth-century ideas, yet at the time of its publication it met with violent opposition. The following appeared in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ of November, 1778:–

Surely parents and guardians should with the most affectionate earnestness, for the sake of their country, of themselves, of their dearest hopes, of every institution, divine or human, warn and caution young female readers against such writings as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s, if they perceive an inclination in them to peruse her work.

     After her publication of  the ‘Rights of Woman,’ Mary Wollstonecraft conceived herself justified in modifying, to some extent, the system of rigid economy hitherto practiced by her, and which had been  carried to the length, amongst other things, of scarcely ever indulging in animal food or wearing any but the coarsest apparel. At Michaelmas 1791 she therefore moved to a house in Store Street, furnished with a greater degree of comfort  than she  had yet allowed herself, her dress, likewise, being chosen with an eye to beauty as well as use.

About this time her chosen friend was the painter Henry Fuseli, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. He was a man of genius and of fascinating conversation—such conversation, indeed, as she had not hitherto had many opportunities of enjoying. Godwin himself, with his usual candour, informs us that the delight she derived from his intercourse gradually led to something very much akin to love; and a good deal of vague and unreliable   gossip has been retailed on this matter, such as more especially finds expression in Mr. Knowles’s ‘Life of Fuseli.’ But the author’s untrustworthiness is proved by his speaking of Mary Wollstonecraft’s residence at Bath (surrounded by amusements) having continued for many years, whereas she only spent a month there as governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough.

According to the above-mentioned report Mary Wollstonecraft’s chief object in going to France was to overcome this unfortunate attachment, although in reality it seems more likely that she should have gone thither impelled by her enthusiastic interest in the events which were then taking place in that country. No doubt it was a daring thing for a woman, at such a time to venture all alone into the very heart of revolutionary France. She arrived there in December 1792, just before the trial and execution of Louis XVI. Indeed, during her residence in Paris, [403] which, with some intermission, lasted above two years, she was a witness of most of the thrilling and terrific incidents of the French Revolution.   Shortly after her arrival, France declared war against England, and her position as an English subject was attended with considerable inconvenience if not actual danger. She herself, when afterwards recalling her experiences, said that no words could describe the feelings which the scenes she witnessed gave birth to continually–it was a sort of indefinite terror. Every day brought some astounding change–some deed of sublime heroism–some tale ‘of blood iron’—till it seemed as though the known order of things were passing away. How the execution of the twenty-two Girondins, who mounted the guillotine singing the Marseillaise, affected Mary Wollstonecraft is told in an anecdote recorded in Mrs. Opie’s Life. ‘She was sitting alone, when Imlay came in and said, “I suppose  you  have  not heard the sad news of today?” “What is it? is Brissot guillotined?” “Not only Brissot, but one and twenty are.” Amongst them she immediately could conjure up the faces of some lately endeared acquaintances, and, before she was conscious of the picture, she sank lifeless on the floor.’ During her stay in France Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ‘Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution,’ of which, however, only one volume was completed, ending with the removal   of Louis XVI. To Paris in 1789. For written on the spot by an Englishwoman it shows remarkable breadth of view as well as great discrimination and liberality–qualities all the more striking when one remembers that such great Liberal as Burke enacted about this time his celebrated dagger scene in the House of Commons. This History is still a very readable book, although one may object to the somewhat lengthy moral reflections interspersed throughout the volume.

But an event of a more private nature than those just recorded was now destined to exercise a powerful influence over her fortunes. This event was her acquaintance with Mr. Gilbert Imlay, an American, then resident at Paris, whom she repeatedly met, some months after her arrival, at the house of a mutual friend. Mr. Imlay was at one time a captain in the army of the United States; then a commissioner for laying out land in the back settlements; finally a speculator immersed in commercial pursuits, the nature of which is never distinctly stated, but which judging from Mary’s query, ‘Shall I talk about [404] alum or soap?’ seems to have been connected with the importation of soap, in defiance of English cruisers, by American blockade runners. But whatever may have been the nature of Mr. Imlay’s transactions, he was evidently a gentlemanlike person of captivating manners; and it is a curious freak of nature that the writer who so frequently censures her sex for being habitually attracted by men of superficial refinement instead of sterling worth, should herself have succumbed to the charms she deprecated. In writing about Mr. Imlay to her sister, Mary describes him as ‘a most worthy man, who joins to uncommon tenderness of heart and reasonableness of temper rarely to be met with. Having also been brought up in the interior parts of America he is a most natural, unaffected creature.’

After a short intercourse, in which they became mutually attached to each other, they formed a closer connection, without, however, as far as one can judge, actually contracting marriage.

But for those letters, so full of passion and pathos, breathing in every line the very soul of fidelity and love, we should have had a comparatively cold and shadowy idea of Mary Wollstonecraft’s genius.

No one, however, who has read Mary’s letters to Mr. Imlay can fail to see that she considered this union of the most sacred nature. But for those letters, so full of passion and pathos, breathing in every line the very soul of fidelity and love, we should have had a comparatively cold and shadowy idea of Mary Wollstonecraft’s genius. In those effusions alone–now glowing with ineffable tenderness, now tremulous with forebodings of evil, and, again, poignantly eloquent of ‘the pangs of despised love’–the sweet, noble, affectionate nature of the woman stands fully revealed. The very style and language in which they are   couched are more impregnated with life and vigour than those of her other works. Indeed,  her writings in general, whatever their merits, are marred by the defects common to the eighteenth century—hasty generalisations reflections, and copious use of what strikes us now as rather stilted sentiment. The style of these letters, however, is always simple, direct, full of fire and spontaneity, and it is no exaggerated praise to compare them to the famous ‘Sorrows of Werther’ for the impassioned beauty with  which the joys and sufferings of an intensely sensitive spirit are expressed.

As yet it was all joy in this spring-time of love, when Mary, in the early summer of 1793, used to sally forth from the solitary house at Neuilly to meet her lover at one of the barriers near Paris.

With a heart full of affection and belief in the ‘tenderness [405] and worth’ of Mr. Imlay, she left Neuilly about July or August of this year, and came to live with him in Paris as his wife.

Opinions have been considerably divided in this matter, and Mr. Kegan Paul seems to think that for various reasons–such as the suspension of the marriage laws for a short period about that time of the French Republic, and the fact of Mr. Imlay, at a subsequent date, giving Mary, for purposes of business, a document in which she is designated as his wife—their union was equivalent to a legal marriage. To some extent his conviction seems corroborated by Godwin’s statement, that Mary conceived herself entitled ‘to obtain a certificate from the American ambassador as the wife of a native of that country.’ Certainly, as civil marriage had been introduced into France in 1792, the marriage of an American subject at the house of his ambassador would have been thoroughly valid.[4] But, in order to render it so, the parties desirous of being united in wedlock would have had to declare that such was their intention, as well as had witnesses to the ceremony; whereas all that we hear is that Mary took the name of Imlay, and wished to obtain a certificate of marriage.   We are not even informed whether Mr. Imlay accompanied her to the Embassy, or whether she actually obtained the certificate, which she probably wanted as a kind of passport to ensure her safety in consequence of the war between England and France. Had it been  otherwise, Godwin, who must be supposed to have known the facts of the case, would scarcely have stated that no marriage had taken place, and have  even given the reasons which prevented it; the chief of which seems to have been that Mary shrank from involving the man she loved in her pecuniary liabilities, more especially as Mr. Imlay, being a speculator, was of uncertain prospects and fluctuating fortunes. Her boundless generosity of disposition led her to regard the sacrifice of her own position in life as nothing compared with the endangering of his. Perhaps, also, the wild revolutionary excitement around her worked on her already too susceptible nature, and caused her to think that the individual was justified in thus disregarding social law.

Judging of the depth of Mr. Imlay’s affection by her own, [406] she deemed that at last her life of struggle and chilling solitude was over, and the womanly qualities of her nature expanded freely in the atmosphere of home. But only a few months after they had settled in Paris together, Mr. Imlay, whose restless disposition soon revealed itself, left that city to engage in some kind of business at Havre. Mary, who was left behind, bore his silence cheerfully for a time, sometimes playfully reproaching him, as when she writes:-

I will cork up some of the kind things that were ready to drop from my pen, which has never been dipt in gall when addressing you; or, will only suffer an exclamation—‘The creature!’ or a kind look to escape me, when I pass the slippers—which I could not remove from my salle door, though they are not the handsomest of their kind.’

     At the end of the year Mary joined  Mr. Imlay at Havre; and there, in May 1794, she gave birth to a daughter, called Fanny after the friend she had lost. For some time the pair seem to have lived happily together; but in the autumn of the same year he took his departure for London, where, as he has said, his presence was imperatively required for a few months to carry on the business transactions be was then engaged in. Mary returned to Paris. But month after month elapsed, and tender expectation changed to the sickness of hope deferred, and still the father of her child, which at this time was her only source of consolation, did not return. Then the irrepressible cry burst from her:–

Come to me, my dearest friend, husband, father of my child! All these fond ties glow at my heart at this moment, and dim my eyes. . . . I will own to you that, feeling extreme tenderness for my little girl, I grow sad very often when I am playing with her, that you are not here, to observe with me how her mind unfolds, and her little heart becomes attached!—These appear to me to be true pleasures—and still you suffer them to escape you, in search of what we may never enjoy.

. . . Mr. Imlay was equally deaf to the voice of duty and affection, although he seems still in his letters to have made a show of the latter,

But Mr. Imlay was equally deaf to the voice of duty and affection, although he seems still in his letters to have made a show of the latter, as when he wrote: ‘Business alone has kept me from you. Come to any port and I will fly down to my two dear girls with a heart all their own’–thus keeping the unfortunate woman continually racked between hope and fear. Consequently Mary was induced to join him in London, where she passed several [407] weeks from April to June 1795. Face to face once more with the man whose character she had unconsciously transformed in the crucible of her imagination, she could no longer escape the  bitter knowledge that his heart was estranged from her, and that the longed-for meeting, instead of joy, brought only disappointment and sorrow unspeakable.   But, unhappy as she was, she still nourished the belief that Mr. Imlay might finally have a return of tenderness, or at any rate the wish to settle down with her, if only for his child’s sake.  In the hope of doing something towards effecting this, Mary proposed going to Norway on Mr. Imlay’s account, in order to collect certain doubtful debts and moneys dependent on a lawsuit requiring the presence of a clear-headed and thoroughly trustworthy person. To enable her to do so Mr. Imlay gave her a power of attorney, authorising Mary Imlay, ‘his best friend and wife, to take the sole management and direction of all his affairs.’

Some time in June, therefore, Mary, with a nurse and infant daughter, started on her voyage to Sweden and Norway. As she happened to be on board a vessel bound for Elsinor, she had to be put in a boat some way off the coast of Norway and rowed ashore. On landing, she found herself on a lonely rocky coast, with no sign of a human dwelling but a rude hut; and, enfeebled by sickness and sorrow as she was, the sense of her forlorn situation so overcame her  that  she fell  senseless on the bare rock, remaining in a stupor for a quarter of an hour.

.  . . her ‘Letters from Norway,’ originally addressed to Mr. Imlay, afterwards published with all the personal matter omitted . . . are among the most captivating if not the greatest of her works,

Nevertheless the change of air, the excitement of travelling, and the practical exertions she was   forced to make, acted beneficially on her health and spirits. From thence she wrote her ‘Letters from Norway,’ originally addressed to Mr. Imlay, afterwards published with all the personal matter omitted. These are among the most captivating if not the greatest of her works, and at the time commanded a wide popularity. Abounding in pregnant observations of the country and the people, and in fine descriptive touches, they are steeped in a subtle element of subdued yet irrepressible sentiment which lends them a peculiar charm.

Writing to Mr. Imlay about this time, she says:–

‘I wish for us to live together, because I want you to acquire an habitual tenderness for my poor girl. I cannot bear to think of leaving her alone in the world, or that she should only be protected by your sense of duty. Next to preserving her, my most earnest wish is not to disturb your peace. I have nothing to expect, and [408] little to fear, in life–There are wounds that can never be healed–but they may be allowed to fester in silence without wincing. . . . . Little reason have I to expect a shadow of happiness, after the cruel disappointments that have rent my heart; but that of my child seems to depend on our being together.’

She returned to England in the autumn of 1795, and, as Mr. Imlay did not come to meet her when she landed, the sad conviction of her desolate position flashed at last with irresistible force upon   her. Nor was it long before her worst fears were confirmed. She discovered that Mr. Imlay had formed a connection with an actress, and the explanations which followed were of so painful a nature that she exclaims she ‘would sooner encounter a thousand deaths than a night like the last.’ So keen and terrible was the revulsion of her feelings when the pitiless truth was revealed to her, so profound her discouragement on discovering how wide was the gulf between the actual man and her conception of him, that under the influence of this intolerable anguish, which had thrown her mind ‘into a state of chaos,’ she determined to put an end to herself.

     After writing a heart-rending letter to Mr. Imlay, giving her last directions about their child, she set out on a stormy evening towards Putney, and there walked on  the bridge in the pouring rain till her clothes were thoroughly soaked, when she cast herself into the Thames.  She did not sink at once, but at last became insensible, being rescued (we are not told how) before life had entirely left her, and gradually  brought back to a painful consciousness of her sufferings.

I want no such vulgar comfort, nor will I accept it. I never wanted but your heart—that gone, you have nothing more to give. (Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay)

Soon after the frustration of her tragic purpose, she, with desperate energy, wrenched herself free from her passion. Proudly resenting Mr. Imlay’s offers of pecuniary assistance, she says in one of the last letters addressed to him: ‘I want no such vulgar comfort, nor will I accept it. I never wanted but your heart–that gone, you have nothing more to give.’

Once more she had to nerve herself for the struggle of existence, having now also to provide for her child. It is true Mr. Imlay had  proposed   settling a certain sum of money on his daughter, of which the interest was to be used for her maintenance; but neither capital nor interest was ever forthcoming.

For the sake of her literary work, Mary Wollstonecraft was obliged once more to enter London society; and she soon greatly enlarged her circle of acquaintances.  It was at this time probably when, as she says in a letter to Miss Alderson, she had [409] been ‘unfortunately the object of observation,’ that she had several very advantageous offers of marriage. But in what light she regarded a marriage of self-interest may be seen from a letter written in indignant protest against what she considers an insult to her dignity. It is so characteristic of her proud, independent spirit that we quote it here the more readily as the volumes from which we have already made various extracts are almost impossible to procure at the present day.

Writing to the person who had made proposals to her on behalf of a friend, she exclaims:–

I am, sir, poor and destitute. Yet I have a spirit that will never bend, or take indirect methods, to obtain the consequence I despise; nay, if to support life it was necessary to act contrary to my principles, the struggle would soon be over. I can bear anything but my own contempt.

In a few words, what I call an insult, is the bare supposition that I could for a moment think of prostituting my person for a maintenance; for in that point of view does such a marriage appear to me, who consider right and wrong in the abstract, and never by words and local opinions shield myself from the reproaches of my own heart and understanding.

     Some of the  friends she chiefly associated with at this time were Mr. and Mrs. Twiss, Miss Alderson (afterwards Mrs. Opie), Mrs. Inchbald, Mr. Holcroft, and William Godwin. She had known the latter for some years, having first met him one evening in November 1791 at Mr. Johnson’s, in company of Thomas Paine, the author of the celebrated ‘Rights of Man.’ Godwin, who had gone there to see Mr. Paine, found himself involved in a discussion with Mary Wollstonecraft, in which they happened to disagree on almost every topic; so that he says, in his plain-spoken manner, ‘I , of course, heard  her  very frequently when I wished to hear Paine.’

On Mary’s return from Norway they again met from time to time; and although  Godwin, on his perusal of the ‘Letters from Norway,’ not only formed a much higher estimate of her powers as an authoress, but  of her attractions as a woman, it was not till the April of 1796 that their friendship ripened into closer intimacy.

William Godwin, whose true and tender affection was destined to shed a parting brightness on the last months of Wollstonecraft’s agitated existence, had attained about this time to the height of his fame. Born in the year 1756, he [410] had, after a life spent in incessant literary labours of the most miscellaneous kind, by the publication of “Political Justice’ in 1793, and of ‘Caleb Williams’ in 1794, become one of the leading literary men of his time.

In private life William Godwin endeavoured as much as possible to make his conduct square with his principles. His character seems to have been a strange mixture of enthusiasm and formality, of genuine affectionateness ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast’ of his frigid philosophy, and of a veracity so uncompromising as continually to offend against the proprieties of society. Rigorous as to his own expenditure, he considered himself bound, according to his theories, to use such money as he did not absolutely require, for the benefit of those who needed it more than himself.   But, being of opinion that he could be most serviceable to the community by devoting himself to such composition as could only be the result   of painstaking and unremunerative research, he sought to restrict himself to the simplest necessaries of life.

. . . his views on marriage were of the most subversive nature, as he considered it wrong, nay immoral, for a person to appropriate another, as happens in matrimony;  . . . .

At this time it was that, being thrown into closer companionship with a woman so well calculated to sympathize with him, he conceived a profound  affection for her, and found it reciprocated. His views on marriage were of the most subversive nature,  as he considered it wrong, nay immoral, for a person to appropriate another, as happens in matrimony; for, according to him, love, like friendship, should be given in exact proportion to a person’s moral and intellectual worth.

Their union was not at first entered in to according to legal forms; but it seems to have been only some months afterwards that Godwin, for the  sake of his wife, consented to  forego his philosophic theories. They were accordingly married in Old St. Pancras Church, on March 29, 1797, although their marriage was not made public till some time in April.  The union of two such eminent persons naturally gave rise to much comment in certain circles, friendly and the reverse. Several ladies, some of whom seem to have been but too partial to the ‘philosophical Godwin,’ of whom Miss Alderson had but lately said in a letter, ‘he is much  more amiable than ever he was,’ now   suddenly stood on their dignity, and considered it necessary to break off their acquaintance with Mary Godwin, with whom, as Mrs. Imlay, they had been most friendly. Such annoyances as these, however, were  not able to cloud for long her   new-formed tranquility.


In conformity with certain views that married people should not be too constantly in each other’s society, Godwin had taken a room a stone’s throw from their house in the Polygon, where he passed a great part of his time. The chief object, no doubt, was to be as little disturbed as possible during the hours of literary work.   But it seems questionable whether they effected their purpose. For although by this means the loquacity of husband and wife was effectually stemmed, yet they probably spent  more time  in scribbling off notes to each other (sometimes as many as seven a day), at all hours, and on all sorts of subjects, than would have been required for a good deal of conversation. Lady Shelley has in her possession unpublished specimens of this curious correspondence we have been graciously permitted to publish. It was apparently written at the beginning·of their courtship, and conveys a vivid impression of Mary’s sprightly and fascinating style of letter-writing when cheered by happier auspices.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Godwin:–

July 1, 1796

I send you the last volume of ‘Heloise,’ because, if you have it not, you may chance to wish for it. You perceive by this remark that I do not give you credit for as much philosophy as our friend, and I want besides to remind you, when you write to me in verse, not to choose the easiest task, my perfections, but to dwell on your own feelings–that is to say, give me a bird’s-eye view of your heart. Do not make me a desk ‘to write upon,’ I humbly pray-unless you humbly acknowledge yourself bewitched.

Of that I shall judge by the   style in which the eulogiums flow; for I think I have observed that you compliment without rhyme or reason, when you are almost at a loss what to say.

Yours sincerely,


     The principal work on which Mary was engaged during her married life was the ‘Wrongs of Woman,’ of which mention has already been made; and Godwin is no doubt right in affirming that, ‘if she had lived, the world would have bad very to complain of any remission of her industry.’

But alas when the hottest of the fray was over, and a fair prospect of uninterrupted usefulness and domestic affection opening out before her, the end was nigh.

On Wednesday, August 30, she gave birth  to a daughter, even that Mary, inheritor of much of her mother’s genius, to [412] whom Shelley, in his dedication of the ‘Revolt of Islam,’ addresses the beautiful lines:–

They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,
Of glorious parents thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not–for One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
Of its departing glory.[5]

     But a few days more of lingering sickness were granted to the mother, but a few days of agonised suspense to the unhappy Godwin, who scarcely left his wife’s bedside during the ten days that her life trembled in the balance. All that the skill of the most eminent physicians, the loving care of friends, the devoted attentions of a husband could do to save so precious a life was done, but all in vain, and on September 10 she passed quietly away.

She was buried in  Old  St. Pancras Churchyard, but her remains as well as those of William Godwin have since then been removed by the tender care of relatives. They now lie in the same grave with those of their daughter, Mrs. Shelley, under a plain grey slab thickly covered with ivy in the still green churchyard of Bournemouth.

Born in an age of unparalleled mental activity, when men appeared to themselves to have suddenly awakened to a penetrating  sense of freedom and power, and, nursing a divine if delusive hope, believed themselves called in their own day and generation to reorganise society from its very foundation, Mary Wollstonecraft took her share in the work of that time, by eloquently pointing out that if there is  to be real progress women must be educated in a rational manner, and fitted by their social position to co-operate in promoting the welfare of humanity. Although her writings are at this day but  little known and still less read, the spirit that animates them has,  to a great extent, become part of the thought of our age, and at present men and women are putting into practice many of the theories she broached nearly a century ago.



[1] See William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 1876 (London: Henry S. King), and Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters to Imlay, With Prefatory Memoir (London: C.K. Paul), 1879.

[2] See “Victorian Feminism and the Ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft,” Women’s Writing 4.2 (1997): 261–75.

[3] Whether Blind or the New Quarterly editor omitted it, this sentence continues: “. . . the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and continue the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature.”

[4] ‘Practice,’ says Story,’ has sanctioned the marriage of foreign spouses of the ambassadors of the foreign country to which they belong. And the reputation which the validity of such marriages has acquired makes such a recognition by no means improbable on the part of English courts of justice if such a question were brought to judgment.’ [Blind’s note]

[5] (Semicolon in the original verse line, marking the caesura).