Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was outspoken enough to criticise condescending phrases of writers regarding women, even in the works of Milton and Rousseau. She devoted her own writing talents mostly to human causes, including womens' rights, at an epoch when women mainly served the interests of the male establishment. Her articulate opinions must also have been influenced by the dramatic events of her own life.

After having inherited a fortune, her father tried to establish himself as a 'gentleman farmer'. But his incompetence and extravagance caused his successive farms to fail. Increasingly frustrated he took to drink and tyrannised his wife. Mary later recounted how she would often have to protect her mother by physically shielding her from his brutality. Sometimes she would even sleep outside their bedroom door in order to intervene should her father ever be violent with her mother after another of his drinking sprees.

She was nineteen years old when she left home, and soon had the opportunity to observe the social life of the upper classes whilst living in Bath, having accepted employment to a rich widow there.
In 1780 she left Bath to nurse her dying mother, and then dedicated herself to helping her sister who, after the birth of her daughter, suffered from a nervous breakdown. Convinced that her sister's condition was the result of her husband's cruelty and abuse, Mary persuaded her to abandon him, and even her baby, as it was then very difficult to procure a divorce.

The sisters were obliged to hide until a grant for a legal separation was issued. The child, automatically confided to the father, died before her first year.

Despite their dire financial situation, the two sisters together with a very good friend of Mary's (Fanny Blood) established a school for girls at Newington Green, not far from London. The school was a success to begin with, but Fanny, although she had contracted tuberculosis, left England for Lisbon to marry someone to whom she had been engaged for some time. Fanny became pregnant and Mary Wollstonecraft travelled to Lisbon to be there with her for the birth. Fanny died in her arms soon afterwards, and sadly the baby was also too weak to survive.

Mary Wollstonecraft was terribly upset by this loss. Her depression grew worse when the Newington school had to be closed down due to lack of funds and support. She nevertheless found the courage to write her first book: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1786).

Mary was then to be employed as a governess for the daughters of the wealthy Viscount Kingsborough in County Cork, Ireland.
Lady Kingsborough may have been jealous of the obvious affection her children had for their governess. This resulted in Mary's dismissal, and her return to London where she published her first novel Mary, (partly an autobiography) and a children's book : Original Stories from Real Life. The latter was a success. It was also translated into German. William Blake illustrated the second English edition with engravings.

Mary Wollstonecraft was virtually an autodictat. She taught herself French and German, publishing translations in both languages.
Her observations and experiences would certainly have influenced her feelings regarding the French Revolution. This was apparent in her response to Edmund Burke's- Reflections on the Revolution in France, an eloquent attack against the Revolution (1790).
Her Vindication of the Rights of Men, was 'powerful propaganda' that sought to expose the terrible suffering of the English lower classes. It was an immediate success, and paved the way for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
The latter is a precise, personal and passionate opinion based on her observations regarding the indignities and injustices suffered by women of the late eighteenth century.

Women then had no political rights, few legal rights, no professional prospects other than menial tasks, and rarely the opportunity, if not the right, to benefit from further education.
Generally women were then oppressed and subservient to men. Their responsibilities were limited to family and domestic concerns. If they were aristocratic, or married to wealthy men of standing, they would have developed refinement and taste, but such 'refinement' devoid of intellect is meaningless.

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft went to Paris to witness the Revolution for herself (from 1793-94). There she fell in love with an American adventurer, an affair which resulted in her giving birth to a daughter. Her lover 'Imlay' proved to be unfaithful however, and after she had published her book- A Historical and Moral View of the origin and Progress of the French Revolution, (1795) certain that she had lost him, Mary tried to kill herself. Discovering her intention however, Imlay managed to save her.
He then persuaded her to go to Scandinavia as his business envoi, (probably more to allow him freedom than for any real business motifs). As stoically as ever she travelled there for four months with a French nurse as well as her baby, 'Fanny'.

On her return to London Mary discovered that Imlay had a new mistress. She again tried to do away with herself by leaping from a bridge into the Thames. Just as she lost consciousness she was saved by a passerby.
Imlay left for Paris with his new girlfriend, and as soon as Mary had sufficiently recovered, she composed a book from the letters she had written to Imlay from Scandinavia recording her observations when in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796).

That same year, the renewed acquaintance with the social philosopher, William Godwin, ripened into a passionate love affair.
Her writings to Godwin reveal an openness extremely rare for a woman of the 18th century. With Godwin she gave birth to another daughter (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin). The birth was presumed to be normal, but the placenta was ruptured, and this resulted in Mary Wollstonecraft contracting blood poisoning (septicaemia).
In agony for ten days she finally fell into a coma before dying. 

Her last words were for her husband: 'He is the kindest, best man in the world.'
Godwin wrote the sad news to a friend adding : 'I firmly believe that there does not exist her equal in the world'.

His noble intentions of publishing her Vindication along with her personal letters, (also to Imlay) and accounts of her suicide attempts, were to cause negative consequences by branding her (perhaps conveniently for the 'male establishment') with a scandalous reputation that did nothing to support her passionate defence of womens' and human rights for a considerable period of time. But history always manages to preserve the best of those who are exceptional enough to actively help forge it.

Here is a short passage from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (second revised edition of 1792)
Basically the Vindication is for women to be granted access and encouragement to benefit from further education in order to rise above the subservient role allocated by the male (and religious) establishments, so that future mothers can excel and become even more exemplary as such, and love, according to Mary, can also precede true friendship regarding married relationships.

Nature, or, to speak with strict propriety, God, has made all things right, but man has sought him out many inventions to mar the work. I now allude to that part of Dr. Gregory's treatise, where he advises a wife never to let her husband know the extent of her sensibility or affection. Voluptuous precaution, and as ineffectual as absurd. - Love, from its very nature, must be transitory. To seek for a secret that would render it constant, would be as wild a search as for the philosopher's stone, or the grand panacea°: and the discovery would be equally useless, or rather pernicious to mankind. The most holy band of society is friendship. It has been well said, by a shrewd satirist, "that rare as true love is, true friendship is still rarer".¹
This is an obvious truth, and the cause not lying deep, will not elude a slight glance of inquiry.
Love, the common passion, in which chance and sensation take place of choice and reason, is, in some degree, felt by the mass of mankind; for it is not necessary to speak, at present, of the emotions that rise above or sink below love. This passion, naturally increased by suspense and difficulties, draws the mind out of its accustomed state, and exalts the affections; but the security of marriage, allowing the fever of love to subside, a healthy temperature is thought insipid, only by those who have not sufficient intellect to substitute the calm tenderness of friendship, the confidence of respect, instead of blind admiration, and the sensual emotions of fondness.
This is, must be, the course of nature. - Friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love. - And this constitution seems perfectly to harmonize with the system of government which prevails in the moral world. Passions are spurs to action, and open the mind but they sink into mere appetites, become a personal and momentary gratification, when the object is gained, and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment. The man who had some virtue whilst he was struggling for a crown, often becomes a voluptuous tyrant when it graces his brow;* and, when the lover is not lost in the husband, the dotard, a prey to childish caprices, and fond jealousies, neglects the serious duties of life, and the caresses which should excite confidence in his children are lavished on the overgrown child, his wife (...)'

° A miracle, all curing medicine.
¹La Rochefoucauld  (1613-80) Maxim 473
* Naturally this observation could also be applied to modern day presidential candidates.. 

Mary Wollstonecraft was a pioneer, and one can only greatly respect her for what she lived through and accomplished. Had she lived longer than only 38 years however, it's likely that her opinions would have evolved. Shouldn't real friendship - which has to include respect, confidence and trust- be ultimately integral to true love itself? Such love can sometimes last for as long as one lives.
However it's obtained, there's no doubt regarding the merits of further education, but it will never have any profound effect on the essential disposition, the timeless nature of normal men and women, which is just as well.

Retelling and conclusion © Mirino. Source and passage- Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2. Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1790-1) oil on canvas, 100.5 cm x 87.5 cm (Tate Gallery). Portrait of William Godwin by James Northcote (1802) oil on canvas, 79.9 cm x 62.2 cm (National Portrait Gallery). With thanks to Wikimedia Commons. April, 2012

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