Ahead of the 260th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birth, Professor Pamela Clemit revisits the tragically brief life but enduring influence of the radical early feminist
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) thought that a woman’s place was in the resistance. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), anticipated most of the ideas of modern feminism. Revolutionary thinker, Romantic traveller, citizen of the world, lover, wife, and mother: she packed a huge range of experiences into a short life.
She made up her life as she went along, testing out new roles. She was born in Spitalfields, London, into a middle-class family of declining fortunes. At the age of twenty-four Wollstonecraft and her sisters opened a school at Newington Green, then a village north of London. Here she met the luminaries of rational dissent, the troublemaking, heterodox wing of English religious nonconformity (later known as Unitarians).
The school failed and Wollstonecraft went to Ireland as governess to an aristocratic family. Here she wrote her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), drawing on her own experiences. When she encouraged the eldest daughter to rebel against her parents, she was dismissed. ‘I am … going to be the first of a new genus’, she wrote to her sister Everina: ‘You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track—the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on’. She was signed up by Joseph Johnson, the leading radical publisher of the day, to write for the Analytical Review.
Johnson acted as a surrogate parent to Wollstonecraft. She joined a circle of progressive writers, artists, theologians, and political reformers who met for afternoon dinners above his shop. Most of them welcomed the French Revolution of 1789 as the start of the millennium promised in scripture. Philosopher Richard Price distilled their euphoria into a sermon, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789), which provoked Edmund Burke’s counter-attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Within a month Wollstonecraft published a reply, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. She poured scorn on Burke’s ‘pampered sensibility’ and condemned hereditary riches. Suddenly she was famous.
In September 1791, the French National Assembly proposed a new system of education which excluded women from civic life. Wollstonecraft responded with her most celebrated work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, completed in six weeks. Middle-class women, she argued, were degraded by the attitudes of pleasure-seeking men, and by the unnatural distinctions of social rank. A proper education for women would be transformative. It would equip them to be better wives and mothers, to enter civic and professional life—and to reform the world. ‘These may be termed Utopian dreams’, she wrote. They went viral. By the end of 1792 her fame had spread across Europe.
Wollstonecraft began to experience the tensions between ideas and life. In the summer of 1792 she travelled to Paris to witness the French Revolution at first hand, where she joined a group of British and American radicals at White’s Hotel, imbibing cocktail of politics, espionage, and bohemian living. She fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, a former American army officer seeking easy profits from the war in Europe. By the end of the summer of 1793, she was pregnant. ‘I have felt some gentle twitches’, she wrote to Imlay in November, ‘which make me begin to think, that I am nourishing a creature who will soon be sensible of my care.—This thought has … produced an overflowing of tenderness to you.’
In May 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter, Frances (Fanny) Imlay, and became absorbed in motherhood: ‘My little Girl begins to suck so manfully’, she reported to a woman friend, ‘that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R—ts of Woman.’ Imlay moved on, this time to London, leaving Wollstonecraft alone in Paris with her baby daughter and French nursemaid, Marguerite. When Wollstonecraft finally joined Imlay in London in the spring of 1795, she found he had been unfaithful. She took an overdose; he saved her life.
Imlay held out the promise of reconciliation if she would go to Scandinavia to sort out a failed shipping exploit. In June 1795 she embarked with the thirteen-month-old Fanny and her French maid, spending the next four months on lonely sea-journeys to provincial Nordic towns, bargaining with officials, recording her impressions of Scandinavian scenery, and of how women occupied their time in different countries.
When she got back to London, Imlay was living with an actress. Wollstonecraft took a boat and rowed to Putney Bridge, walked up and down in the rain to drench her clothes, and threw herself into the Thames. She was saved by two watermen. Wollstonecraft did not make the final break with Imlay until March 1796. She wrote in her last letter to him: ‘I part with you in peace.’
Wollstonecraft kept on working. She recast her private letters to Imlay in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a mixture of travel narrative, sociological analysis, and personal reflection:
‘When a warm heart has received strong impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments; and the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent, by fondly retracing them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten,—nor looks I have felt in every nerve which I shall never more meet.’
The book melted hearts. William Godwin, author of the anarchist magnum opus An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), later observed: ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’
Wollstonecraft and Godwin first began to see each other in January 1796. In July, while Godwin was visiting friends in Norfolk, Wollstonecraft moved with Fanny to Judd Place West on the edge of Somers Town, close to Godwin in Chalton Street (near what is now the British Library in St Pancras). In mid-August, they became lovers.
‘We did not marry’, wrote Godwin, who had objected to marriage in Political Justice: ‘We felt alike in this, as we did perhaps in every other circumstance that related to our intercourse.’ Their letters record an enlightened intimacy, with up to three exchanges a day, as they tried to live out their most deeply held convictions. They lived and worked apart, read and criticized each other’s works in progress, and ‘woo[ed] philosophy’ together—for, Wollstonecraft declared, ‘I do not like to lose my Philosopher even in the lover.’ She began a second novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, and discovered she was pregnant again.
Wollstonecraft and Godwin married quietly at Old St Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. They settled together at 29 Polygon Buildings in Somers Town, caring jointly for ‘little Fannikin’, while Godwin took a separate room for work nearby. On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to their daughter, Mary (future author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley). The child was healthy, but eleven days later Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever.
‘I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again’, Godwin wrote to Thomas Holcroft, his closest friend. He gave her a Christian funeral, but was too distressed to attend. She was buried in Old St Pancras Churchyard on 15 September.
Within half a century of Wollstonecraft’s death, suffragist feminists in America and Europe began to champion her. The suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote an introduction to the 100th anniversary edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1891). Left-wing thinkers such as Eleanor Marx and Emma Goldman were drawn to her fusion of political, social, and emotional rebellion, while Virginia Woolf, the progressive modernist writer, applauded her ‘experiments in living’.
Mary Wollstonecraft lives on. She stands for a society based on equality, toleration, and humanity, and free from misogyny and sexual injustice. She saw that the tyranny of commercial wealth could be as destructive as that of rank and privilege. ‘She is alive and active’, as Virginia Woolf says, ‘she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.’
A longer version of this piece appeared in Idler 54. If you’d like to learn more about the life and legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft, join Roberta Wedge of the Wollstonecraft Society on a walk through Somers Town on 11 May. We’ll visit the location of Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s home as well as the memorial in St Pancras Old Church graveyard.
Pamela Clemit is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include The Godwinian Novel (Oxford, 1993, 2001). She has published numerous scholarly and critical editions of William Godwin’s and Mary Shelley’s writings, including Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for Broadview Press (2001). She is the General Editor and principal Volume Editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford, 2011-). Follow her on Twitter @Godwin_lives