1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft

GODWIN, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759–1797), English miscellaneous writer, was born at Hoxton, on the 27th of April 1759. Her family was of Irish extraction, and Mary’s grandfather, who was a respectable manufacturer in Spitalfields, realized the property which his son squandered. Her mother, Elizabeth Dixon, was Irish, and of good family. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, after dissipating the greater part of his patrimony, tried to earn a living by farming, which only plunged him into deeper difficulties, and he led a wandering, shifty life. The family roamed from Hoxton to Edmonton, to Essex, to Beverley in Yorkshire, to Laugharne, Pembrokeshire, and back to London again.

After Mrs Wollstonecraft’s death in 1780, soon followed by her husband’s second marriage, the three daughters, Mary, Everina and Eliza, sought to earn their own livelihood. The sisters were all clever women—Mary and Eliza far above the average—but their opportunities of culture had been few. Mary, the eldest, went in the first instance to live with her friend Fanny Blood, a girl of her own age, whose father, like Wollstonecraft, was addicted to drink and dissipation. As long as she lived with the Bloods, Mary helped Mrs Blood to earn money by taking in needlework, while Fanny painted in water-colours. Everina went to live with her brother Edward, and Eliza made a hasty and, as it proved, unhappy marriage with a Mr Bishop. A legal separation was afterwards obtained, and the sisters, together with Fanny Blood, took a house, first at Islington, afterwards at Newington Green, and opened a school, which was carried on with indifferent success for nearly two years. During their residence at Newington Green, Mary was introduced to Dr Johnson, who, as Godwin tells us, “treated her with particular kindness and attention.”

In 1785 Fanny Blood married Hugh Skeys, a merchant, and went with him to Lisbon, where she died in childbed after sending for Mary to nurse her. “The loss of Fanny,” as she said in a letter to Mrs Skeys’s brother, George Blood, “was sufficient of itself to have cast a cloud over my brightest days. . . . I have lost all relish for pleasure, and life seems a burden almost too heavy to be endured.” Her first novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788), was intended to commemorate her friendship with Fanny. After closing the school at Newington Green, Mary became governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, in Ireland. Her pupils were much attached to her, especially Margaret King, afterwards Lady Mountcashel; and indeed, Lady Kingsborough gave the reason for dismissing her after one year’s service that the children loved their governess better than their mother. Mary now resolved to devote herself to literary work, and she was encouraged by Johnson, the publisher in St Paul’s churchyard, for whom she acted as literary adviser. She also undertook translations, chiefly from the French. The Elements of Morality (1790) from the German of Salzmann, illustrated by Blake, an old-fashioned book for children, and Lavater’s Physiognomy were among her translations. Her Original Stories from Real Life were published in 1791, and, with illustrations by Blake, in 1796. In 1792 appeared A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the work with which her name is always associated.

It is not among the least oddities of this book that it is dedicated to M. Talleyrand Périgord, late bishop of Autun. Mary Wollstonecraft still believed him to be sincere, and working in the same direction as herself. In the dedication she states the “main argument” of the work, “built on this simple principle that, if woman be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence or general practice.” In carrying out this argument she used great plainness of speech, and it was this that caused all, or nearly all, the outcry. For she did not attack the institution of marriage, nor assail orthodox religion; her book was really a plea for equality of education, passing into one for state education and for the joint education of the sexes. It was a protest against the assumption that woman was only the plaything of man, and she asserted that intellectual companionship was the chief, as it is the lasting, happiness of marriage. She thus directly opposed the teaching of Rousseau, of whom she was in other respects an ardent disciple.

Mrs Wollstonecraft, as she now styled herself, desired to watch the progress of the Revolution in France, and went to Paris in 1792. Godwin, in his memoir of his wife, considers that the change of residence may have been prompted by the discovery that she was becoming attached to Henry Fuseli, but there is little to confirm this surmise; indeed, it was first proposed that she should go to Paris in company with him and his wife, nor was there any subsequent breach in their friendship. She remained in Paris during the Reign of Terror, when communication with England was difficult or almost impossible. Some time in the spring or summer of 1793 Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American, became acquainted with Mary—an acquaintance which ended in a more intimate connexion. There was no legal ceremony of marriage, and it is doubtful whether such a marriage would have been valid at the time; but she passed as Imlay’s wife, and Imlay himself terms her in a legal document, “Mary Imlay, my best friend and wife.” In August 1793 Imlay was called to Havre on business, and was absent for some months, during which time most of the letters published after her death by Godwin were written. Towards the end of the year she joined Imlay at Havre, and there in the spring of 1794 she gave birth to a girl, who received the name of Fanny, in memory of the dear friend of her youth. In this year she published the first volume of a never completed Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution. Imlay became involved in a multitude of speculations, and his affection for Mary and their child was already waning. He left Mary for some months at Havre. In June 1795, after joining him in England, Mary left for Norway on business for Imlay. Her letters from Norway, divested of all personal details, were afterwards published. She returned to England late in 1795, and found letters awaiting her from Imlay, intimating his intention to separate from her, and offering to settle an annuity on her and her child. For herself she rejected this offer with scorn: “From you,” she wrote, “I will not receive anything more. I am not sufficiently humbled to depend on your beneficence.” They met again, and for a short time lived together, until the discovery that he was carrying on an intrigue under her own roof drove her to despair, and she attempted to drown herself by leaping from Putney bridge, but was rescued by watermen. Imlay now completely deserted her, although she continued to bear his name.

In 1796, when Mary Wollstonecraft was living in London, supporting herself and her child by working, as before, for Mr Johnson, she met William Godwin. A friendship sprang up between them,—a friendship, as he himself says, which “melted into love.” Godwin states that “ideas which he is now willing to denominate prejudices made him by no means willing to conform to the ceremony of marriage”; but these prejudices were overcome, and they were married at St Pancras church on the 29th of March 1797. And now Mary had a season of real calm in her stormy existence. Godwin, for once only in his life, was stirred by passion, and his admiration for his wife equalled his affection. But their happiness was of short duration. The birth of her daughter Mary, afterwards the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the 30th of August 1797, proved fatal, and Mrs Godwin died on the 10th of September following. She was buried in the churchyard of Old St Pancras, but her remains were afterwards removed by Sir Percy Shelley to the churchyard of St Peter’s, Bournemouth.

Her principal published works are as follows:—Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, . . . (1787); The Female Reader (selections) (1789); Original Stories from Real Life (1791); An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the effects it has produced in Europe, vol. i. (no more published) (1790); Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); Vindication of the Rights of Man (1793); Mary, a Fiction (1788); Letters written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796); Posthumous Works (4 vols., 1798). It is impossible to trace the many articles contributed by her to periodical literature.

A memoir of her life was published by Godwin in 1798. A large portion of C. Kegan Paul’s work, William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, was devoted to her, and an edition of the Letters to Imlay (1879), of which the first edition was published by Godwin, is prefaced by a somewhat fuller memoir. See also E. Dowden, The French Revolution and English Literature (1897) pp. 82 et seq.; E. R. Pennell, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1885), in the Eminent Women Series; E. R. Clough, A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman (1898); an edition of her Original Stories (1906), with William Blake’s illustrations and an introduction by E. V. Lucas; and the Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay (1908), with an introduction by Roger Ingpen.