Mary Wollstonecraft

No one, I think, can read many memoirs without being impressed principally by the lavishness of nature in creating fine ability, and by the richness of life in attractive and honorable character; nor without becoming convinced that

none of the inevitable ravages of time is more deplorable than its wresting the recollection of these from the memory of the living world. It is therefore at all times a pleasant task to recall to mind those who have wrought out, more perfectly than others, the worthiness of which all human life is capable ; and the task is peculiarly grateful when it may serve to set in a fairer light the acts and words of a beautiful woman, to whom the world has ungenerously refused her due of gratitude. Mary Wollstonecraft was such a woman. The story of her life is the story of the earliest vindicator of the right of her sex to larger freedom and to the opportunity for higher mental and moral accomplishment than had been its lot ; it is the story, too, of the first Englishwoman who cast herself solely upon literature to win her bread; and, besides these extrinsic sources of interest, it is in itself a story of such trial, fortitude, affection, and pathos that I shall venture to tell it in some detail, with the hope of awakening the compassion of those to whom the exercise of sympathy is not an unwelcome pain.

“ Fatigued during my youth by the most arduous struggles, not only to obtain independence, but to render myself useful, not merely pleasure, for which I had the most lively taste — I mean the simple pleasures that flow from passion and affection — escaped me, but the most melancholy views of life were impressed by a disappointed heart on my mind.” In these words Mary Wollstonecraft summed up justly her early life. It was led, indeed, in such vulgar surroundings that her enemies, exaggerating its wretchedness, used it to palliate her faults as if it had been almost an initiation into vice. She was born at Hoxton on the 27th of April, 1759, into a drunkard’s home ; her maiden years were spent in the daily presence of domestic misery wrought by men’s faults or vices. Soon after she was twentyone years old her father’s family, never united by very loving ties, was broken up. She was received into the home of her friend, Fanny Blood, which was made wretched, like her own, by a father’s drunkenness and was disgraced by a sister’s frailty. There she became dear and serviceable, but she was withdrawn from this temporary refuge by the troubles of a sister, whose husband’s violence was driving her insane and at last forced her to desert him. The sisters opened a school, for Mary had had considerable experience in teaching, but after a brief success they got into financial difficulty, in the midst of which Mary was summoned to Lisbon to attend her old friend Fanny. After a hard winter voyage, she arrived only in season to comfort her friend’s last days. Oppressed with her loss, she immediately set sail for England. Ill health and low spirits not unnaturally filled her mind with morbid anticipations of an early death, but the letters in which she records these are softened by patient piety, and lighted up by helpful affection for those with whom kinship or acquaintance bound her. The school came to a lingering end in debt, and she was forced to go to Ireland and take on herself the unwelcome task of teaching Lord Kingsborough’s children, “ literally speaking wild Irish, unformed, and not very pleasing.” Fatigued by the domestic bickerings, unmeaning laughter, and boisterous spirits of a set of silly females, — so she describes her life,—she won the affection of her charges, and thereby lost her situation through the mother’s jealousy.

In the fall of 1788, therefore, by the advice of Mr. Johnson, the book-seller, who had published her first unsuccessful pamphlet two years before, she gave herself to the undivided pursuit of literature in London, but with much hesitation and secrecy for fear of ridicule. She was thus, I believe, the first woman of distinguished ability to follow the example set by Dr. Johnson, thirty years before, in relying for support solely on services to the reading public. Her work, of course, was hack work ; but in the intervals of drudgery she wrote two books that are still remembered : one only because it was illustrated by Blake; the other was the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, at the time a notorious volume, which was the fruit of Rousseau, the French Revolution, Tom Paine, and her own bitter experience, and which earned for her such evil report that nearly forty years after her death the Gentleman’s Magazine spoke of her as “ grossly irreligious, indelicate, and dissolute,” — with what degree of justice will be seen.

During these years her relatives burdened her time and drained her purse ; nearly all of her numerous family partook in large measure of her hardearned bounty. The glimpses we get of the members of this family, most of whom were sordid and ungrateful, are not pleasant; but if we wish to see what masks life wore to this fine-natured woman, we must look at things which we would gladly avoid. Let this picture of her father, however, given in a letter from her sister in 1791, be enough: his red face convulsed with ill-humor and every unamiable feeling, his hair gray and dirty, his beard long, his body worn to a skeleton, and clad in clothes not worth sixpence, coughing, panting, continually falling. It is no wonder that with such letters in her hand, with the irremediable misery of life thus brought home to her, Mary Wollstonecraft was often in low spirits; no wonder that melancholy views of life were impressed upon her mind. What had life given her but a difficult, precarious subsistence, hard won by continual effort, amid scenes of misery, frivolity, and disgust ? But at length her day of trial seemed to brighten : she became well known in London literary circles; cultivated and agreeable men and women became her friends, and in the fall of 1792 she determined to join Mr. Johnson and the Fuselis in a six weeks’ journey to Paris, and to avail herself of the opportunity of entering society there, which the recent translation of her Vindication assured her; but, her less adventurous companions being frightened (perhaps, at the September massacres), she embarked alone in December.

France then exercised over her the same fascination which set the heart of the youthful Wordsworth in a flame. France was the home of her principles, the spring whence she had drawn no small part of her literary culture, and to France she looked as the source of intellectual light and the hope of political liberty. She arrived in Paris at a great moment in the Revolution. The preceding month the convention had issued that incendiary decree declaring any nation which might rise against despots thereby the sister of France. Soon she saw the king pass under her windows on his way to trial, sitting with more dignity than she would have expected from his character, in a hackney coach clustered about by National Guards, who seemed to deserve the name. That night, as she sat alone in her chamber writing, on lifting her eyes from the paper, she saw eyes gleam through a glass door opposite her chair and bloody hands shaken at her ; in so many frightful shapes, she says, had death taken hold of her fancy. And on going to bed, she adds, “ for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle,”— one of myriad women’s tremors amid those events, that are left unrecorded. The king’s head was quickly off ; the shadow of the oncoming terror fell upon France, and underneath it — ordinary human life continuing undisturbed by the throes of the republic — her own tragedy drew nigh. Her position as an Englishwoman was full of danger; retreat to her own country was cut off, and she found protection among the Americans. On the fall of the Gironde, in which party she counted her French friends, she lost her heart to one of these Americans, Gilbert Imlay, formerly a Revolutionary soldier, a land agent in the back settlements, and a sensible writer upon the Western Territories, but now a fortune-seeker in Paris.

It was a strange love-mating: this woman of extraordinary beauty and eyes the most meaning that Southey ever saw, of conversation that delighted Coleridge, of mental vigor rare if not first among women of her day, of a full and refined sensuous endowment, sensitive, responsive, compact of fancy, imagination, sentiment, and passion, — a woman, too, acquainted with the world, and indulging no illusions concerning manly heroism, — and this gold-greedy adventurer, sensual of life, yet with a better nature dying under the blight of what he deemed the exigencies of the world. In whatever way it came about, Mary Wollstonecraft accepted him as her lover in the spring of 1793, governed only by affection, as she afterwards wrote, and in the rectitude of her own heart “ careless of vulgar precautions,” or, in more intelligible words, of a marriage ceremony.

There is no need to seek a possible excuse for her in the danger which would have attended the necessary declaration of her being an Englishwoman, had she been married in due form, in illustration of which the case of Lord Nelvil and Madame D’Arbigny in Corinne has been fitly cited ; so far as I can perceive, there is no reason to believe she would have desired formal marriage had she been within the shadow of St. Paul’s. With that rash extinction of all forms in their animating spirit characteristic of radical reformers in that age, she believed that affection and choice constituted marriage. Having seen in the only home she had known from childhood the misery of legally compelled unions after the husband had been false to all his duties, it was as easy for her to fall into error in her time as for women to avoid error in our time. She must stand by her mistake ; she looked for permanent association ; Imlay in a legal document called her his wife; and there the matter rests.

The story of their life together is told in the most touching private correspondence of which the sanctity was ever broken. In reading it one cannot avoid a feeling of intrusion. It sprang from the long separation of the lovers, due to Imlay’s business, which first took him to Havre and then to London. In it may be read, in words alive with love or grief or scorn, — words fiery, impulsive, direct, sincere, unchecked, — how peace and fragrance and freshness filled the morning of their new life, and gave place to anxiety, distrust, contempt, and despair ; how she quickly found out that she had “ more mind than he, because she could find food for love in the same object for a longer time,” and that (with her unsexed plainness of speech), while the way to her senses was through her heart, “ there was sometimes a shorter cut to his ; ” how the hope that she could revivify that better nature, which she saw sometimes striving to master his “ commercial face,” so that at the last she and virtue might conquer, faded out; how the birth of her child — that Fanny whose fate is familiar to all who know Shelley’s life — brought the warmth of hope, to be followed by a keener chill ; how she upbraided that greed for money which kept him from her ; and how, at last, her essential nature, lost in affectionate ecstasy for a time, reasserted itself, and let loose her scorn upon his sensuality and threw off his protection for herself and her child.

In marriage, when love fails, duty steps in ; but she had no place for such duty in her system. “ The little girl and I will take care of ourselves; we will not accept any of your cold kindness, your distant civilities, — no, not we. . . . Do not suppose that, neglected by you, I will lie under obligation of a pecuniary kind to you! No ; I would sooner submit to menial service. I wanted the support of your affection ; that gone, all is over ! ” She had been now two years in France, and this was the result of it, — love, motherhood, desertion ; she had looked forward to “ as much felicity as the world affords.”

Meanwhile, the dark eclipse of the Terror was waning ; and, human hearts being unable to endure a constant rack of emotion, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the pauses of her grief, had written an account of the Revolution, valuable now as being the work of an eyewitness, and remarkable for its sober judgment. She had not yet broken irretrievably with Imlay, and in the spring of 1795 she returned to London, to reconciliation and a distrustful pleasure; she even submitted to take part in his despised business, and, with a maid and her child, set sail for Norway to attend to his embarrassed affairs. From this time the old correspondence begins anew, with scanty hope from the the first, and sadder and more bitter at every writing. In spite of mental distress, the sea and the mountains brought back her health, braced her muscles, she says, and covered her ribs ; but neither health nor her delight in the novel grandeur of nature about her could make her forget her wound. The facts remained, and when, on her return, she met them she could not face their blank stare. “ Let my wrongs sleep with me,” she wrote to Imlay; “soon, very soon, I shall be at peace.” One night in November, having first drenched her clothes by standing in the water, she leaped from Putney Bridge into the Thames. She called this “ one of the calmest acts of reason,” although by it she deserted her friendless child. What would she have said, I wonder, could she have forecast the years, and seen the body of that child, influenced how much by her mother’s example none will ever know, floating lifeless in the waters of that same river ? Some passing boatmen rescued her, and recalled her to a hated life, to new farewells to her old lover, and to her former struggle for an independent living in London, the city for which she now felt a repugnance amounting to horror.

Her life resumed its accustomed ways ; time and labor poured out healing, and, having done her duty toward Imlay, she was at last enabled to be just to herself, and to cast out of her life the remembrance of unworthiness. Meanwhile her descriptive letters from Norway and Sweden were published, and she reentered London literary society, where honor was still in store for her. There she met William Godwin, the almost forgotten philosopher, who once earned fame in more than one stroke for English liberty. At first Godwin was not pleased with Mary Wollstonecraft; he had heard that she spoke slightingly of him, and he thought she took too large a share in the conversation, because he wished to hear Tom Paine talk. Repeated meetings modified his impressions, and gradually friendship, rooted in mutual regard, passed unobserved into the affection that binds man and woman indissolubly. Which was before or which was after, which was the toil-spreader and which the prey, said Godwin, it was impossible to know; and he who believed marriage should be abolished, and had published his opinion and the grounds of it where all might read, married her. Perhaps Mary Wollstonecraft had herself gleaned some experience from the social disrepute into which in a slight degree she had formerly fallen. Certainly this was in Godwin’s mind, for he wrote to a friend that he submitted to the ceremony only in order to secure the social position of the individual ; and having done that, he held himself no otherwise bound than before. They were married in March, 1797, and led a peculiar wedded life; for Godwin had some bachelor-bred notions among which one was that members of a family should not live together continually, for fear of becoming tired of each other’s society ; and consequently he took lodgings apart from his wife, where he spent a considerable portion of his time. Sometimes they walked together in the morning, but frequently did not meet until dinner, after which it was not unusual for them to separate for different social assemblies. Their life was happy ; but this late-found content was not to last. On the 30th of August their daughter Mary was born, and, after a painful illness, the mother died on the 10th of September, leaving Godwin in intense grief and loneliness to the melancholy task of writing her memoir and editing her unfinished works. Afterward, in the novel of St. Leon, he drew her character as it was revealed to him in their private life.

Her life, which I have described by its simplest human elements, gathered dignity and lustre from the character of her thought. She was an enthusiast in a cause which she served with all her powers, — with novel, tract, and dissertation ; in nearly everything she wrote, she had the elevation of her sex most at heart. Should any look into her volumes for radical views, however, they would find little to reward them ; the rights of woman which she vindicated were few and primitive, and words which, coming from her, were novel and vigorous have become commonplaces upon our lips. Women, as she observed them, — and there is only too much in the memoirs and romances of that age to bear out her description, — were feeble and foolish creatures, moving in a mean and narrow sphere, without an aim except to get married, without a motive except to better themselves, with no conception of conquest except what voluptuous promise might win over men’s eyes ; in her eighteenth-century rhetoric,

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage only seeks to adorn its prison.” Under this ideal of women’s life, decreed alike by Rousseau and the English clergy, the bent of the education of women was, in her own words, to make them alluring mistresses, and the result of it was empty-headed or faithless wives, unfit to bear or rear children, and unable to retain their husband’s attentions.

Against this system Mary Wollstonecraft protested; but the reform she proposed went no farther than that her sex should add to the person of a woman the character of a rational being by the acquisition of virtue and knowledge, through the exercise of that reason of which the perfectibility was her surest ground for looking forward to an immortal life; and the utmost privilege she asked was an equal opportunity with men to develop those mental and moral capacities which are the immortal part of humanity. To become the companions, rather than the toys, of man; to win the honor of his respect rather than the homage of his gallantry; to set their minds on making happy, healthy, and chaste homes; to discharge the duties of wives, sisters, and daughters ; to be worthy of a life to come, — these were the simple and inoffensive aims which Mary Wollstonecraft set before women. She uttered no radical views upon marriage, which, on the contrary, she professed to respect as the foundation of almost every social virtue.

Perhaps, in her own day, her book, which is essentially an appeal for the education of woman, founded on the social value of such a reform in its effects upon family life, would not have been so censured, had she not urged her opinions with a plainness of speech which would be offensive, were it not that such freedom was usual in books of the kind, and necessary, as she thought, for her cause. I fear, however, that while she possessed that delicacy which shows itself actively in perception and thoughtfulness, she lacked that other delicacy of reserve which shows itself in reticence. She bares her thoughts, and they are sometimes such as women seldom put even into veiled speech. Her novels, which are simply moral essays, cannot be freed from the blame of opening in too rude and blunt a way the hideousness of some parts of human life ; her characters are like persons in a hospital, brought together to illustrate the disease of humanity, not to exhibit its normal nature. I do not doubt that in composing these half-finished works she was filled with the purest philanthropic spirit; but certainly in feminine delicacy as well as in literary art she was at fault.

Two subsidiary points in her Vindication ought not to be passed over : one of them is her advocacy of day schools for both sexes, in opposition to the academical system, which she denounced in unmeasured terms as giving rise to institutions where the relaxation of the junior boys was mischief and that of the senior vice ; the other, the first deliberate avowal by a woman of the benefits of woman suffrage with winch I am acquainted, as follows : —

“ Though I consider that women in the common walks of life are called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers by religion and reason, I cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence. I may excite laughter by dropping a hint which I mean to pursue some future time, for I really think that women ought to have representatives instead of being arbitrarily governed, without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government. But as the whole system of representation is now in this country only a convenient handle for despotism, they need not complain, for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hard-working mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can hardly stop their children’s mouths with bread.”

From the opinions already spoken of it is clear that Mary Wollstonecraft was not wholly irreligious; but she was not orthodox. She expressly rejected the doctrines that man introduced evil into the world, and that men will be punished hereafter for purposes of vengeance. She clung only to the being of God and the hope of immortality ; submitting all else to the test of reason, she found skepticism or ignorance her portion. In lesser matters, she thought piety sometimes indicative of villainy; she distrusted the value of private and public charities; and she especially reprobated the forced religion of the public schools which made a youth “receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to avoid forfeiting half a guinea, which he probably afterward spent in some sensual manner.” She called the observance of Sunday in the decorous London streets stupid, and thought the gladness she had seen in France of a Sunday was a “ sentiment more truly religious ; ” then she goes on to give us a glimpse of country manners: —

“ I recollect in the country parts of England the church-wardens used to go out during the service to see if they could catch any luckless wight playing at bowls or skittles; yet what could be more harmless ? It would even, I think, be a great advantage to the English if feats of activity — I do not include boxing matches — were encouraged of a Sunday, as it might stop the progress of Methodism and of that fanatical spirit which appears to be gaining ground. I was surprised when I visited Yorkshire, on my way to Sweden, to find that sullen narrowness of thinking had made such a progress since I was an inhabitant of that country. . . . Besides, many of these deluded persons, with the best meaning, actually lose their reason and become miserable, the dread of damnation throwing them into a state which merits the term ; and still more, in running after their preachers to promote their salvation, they neglect the interest and comfort of their families; so that in proportion as they attain a reputation for piety they become idle.”

Apparently, therefore, her own early and trustful piety had been destroyed; or, rather, when its speculative basis had been undermined by her mental growth and her reading of the French philosophers, it was transformed into a humanitarian religion similar to the advanced Unitarianism of our own days.

Leaving on one side that fund of observation which in her important works attracts the student of history and manners, and displays the largeness, justness, and penetration of her mind, these were the opinions she thought out and sought to make prevail. A liberal woman who speaks out her whole mind is nearly certain to give offense; for liberality implies a disposition to tolerate condemned views and to introduce new practices, both of them actions inconsistent with that bearing which the ordinary man admires in woman. For this reason she gave offense in her own day by originating and advocating opinions which are now so familiar that we forget they ever were original, and can hardly believe there was ever any necessity for advocating them. Her work and life, therefore, are a tide-mark of opinion, and are valuable on that account, even if they possess no other virtue for us ; they reveal the great ebb of convention and prejudice in our century, the advance our time has made in lines of civilization more important than material progress, — in the ideal of life, and the opportunities granted by legislation and public opinion for the attainment of that ideal. The causes which she served are now living, and many of them are advanced in victory probably beyond her hope ; the abuses she denounced are dead or languishing. There is only one act of hers which will meet with universal blame, and that was an error in conduct for which her early experience and the support of contemporary speculation plead forcibly. The race has found the institution of marriage too essential to social safety to allow any attack upon it to pass unquestioned. She, by her conduct if not by her pen, set herself against this, and was consequently overborne and trampled down, her name slandered, and the virtue that was in her lost sight of ; for, in such cases, the ordinary man is incapable of discriminating between acts which result from defective theories and those which result from moral depravity rooted in licentiousness and sensuality. Excepting this error, it would be difficult to find in her life anything more blameworthy than rational and active liberalism.

Posterity has passed her by, for she performed no notable act and produced no great literary work. She exercised only a contemporary influence (I find, however, an unknown authority asserting that she exercised a direct and powerful influence upon Englishwomen, particularly in the provinces, for fifty years) ; but, like the character of forgotten ancestors shaping in some degree our own acts and thoughts, her work lives in the great body of public opinion, which in respect to the themes she treated is so much more elevated and pure than it was a century ago. She lies among the undistinguished dead; but it is a grateful task to recall the names of those who have contributed to make human life more clean and more beneficent.

The circumstances of her life and the character of her opinions it is easy to tell; but there is comparatively no record of the woman whose feminine charm and beauty are lost to memory, except so far as the applause of her friends and the loveliness of her portraits reveal them. In one of these portraits there is a peculiar charm of expression, at once a dignity and a pathos, that stirs compassion in the heart. Looking upon it, it is easy to believe that she was courageous, enduring, and loving in life, as well as original, liberal, and fearless in thought; that she united the charities of daily ministry to her friends with the graces of a mind cultivated by literature and acquainted with philosophy ; that she was as open to human emotion and sympathy as to the loveliness of nature, her joy in which, before the days of Burns and Wordsworth, was her refuge and comfort; that in her struggle with life she neither lost nor harmed the most admirable qualities of womanhood. I am tempted to link her name with that of George Sand; in many ways she suggests the great Frenchwoman ; vast as was the difference in their genius, they belong to the same order of women. Her name, nevertheless, which seems to me the name of the worthiest Englishwoman in literature up to her time, will remain obscure; and the last memory of her will be, that over her grave in old St. Pancras church-yard Shelley wooed and won the daughter in bearing whom she died.

“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; still her fame
Shines on thee.”

George E. Woodberry.