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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)/Chapter 1

< Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)




Mary Wollstonecraft was born on the 27th of April, 1759, but whether in London or in Epping Forest, where she spent the first five years of her life, is not quite certain. There is no history of her ancestors to show from whom she inherited the intellectual greatness which distinguished her, but which characterised neither of her parents. Her paternal grandfather was a manufacturer in Spitalfields, of whom little is known, except that he was of Irish extraction and that he himself was respectable and prosperous. To his son, Edward John, Mary's father, he left a fortune of ten thousand pounds, no inconsiderable sum in those days for a man of his social position. Her mother was Elizabeth, daughter of a Mr. Dixon, of Ballyshannon, Ireland, member of a good family. Mary was the second of six children. The eldest, Edward, who was more successful in his worldly affairs than the others, and James, who went to sea to seek his fortunes, both passed to a great extent out of her life. But her two sisters, Eliza and Everina, and her youngest brother, Charles, were so dependent upon her for assistance in their many troubles that their career is intimately associated with hers.

With her very first years Mary Wollstonecraft began a bitter training in the school of experience, which was to no small degree instrumental in developing her character and forming her philosophy. There are few details of her childhood, and no anecdotes indicating a precocious genius. But enough is known of her early life to make us understand what were the principal influences to which she was exposed. Her strength sprang from the very uncongeniality of her home and her successful struggles against the poverty and vice which surrounded her. Her father was a selfish, hot-tempered despot, whose natural bad qualities were aggravated by his dissipated habits. His chief characteristic was his instability. He could persevere in nothing. Apparently brought up to no special profession, he was by turns a gentleman of leisure, a farmer, a man of business. It seems to have been sufficient for him to settle in any one place to almost immediately wish to depart from it. The history of the first fifteen or twenty years of his married life is that of one long series of migrations. The discomforts and petty miseries unavoidable to travellers with large families in pre-railroad days necessarily increased his irascibility. The inevitable consequence of these many changes was loss of money and still greater loss of temper. That his financial experiments proved to be failures, is certain from the abject poverty of his later years. That they were bad for him morally, is shown in the fact that his children, when grown up, found it impossible to live under the same roof with him. His indifference in one particular to their wishes and welfare led in the end to disregard of them in all matters.

It is more than probable that Mary, in her Wrongs of Woman, drew largely from her own experience for the characters therein represented, and we shall not err in identifying the father she describes in this novel with Mr. Wollstonecraft himself. "His orders" she writes, "were not to be disputed; and the whole house was expected to fly at the word of command. . . . He was to be instantaneously obeyed, especially by my mother, whom he very benevolently married for love; but took care to remind her of the obligation when she dared in the slightest instance to question his absolute authority." He was, in a word, an egotist of the worst description, who found no brutality too low once his anger was aroused, and no amount of despotism too odious when the rights and comforts of others interfered with his own desires. When contradicted or thwarted his rage was ungovernable, and he used personal violence not only to his dogs and children, but even to his wife. Drink and unrestrained selfishness had utterly degraded him. Such was Mary's father.

Mrs. Wollstonecraft was her husband's most abject slave, but was in turn somewhat of a tyrant herself. She approved of stern discipline for the young. She was too indolent to give much attention to the education of her children, and devoted what little energy she possessed to enforcing their unquestioning obedience even in trifles, and to making them as afraid of her displeasure as they were of their father's anger. "It is perhaps difficult to give you an idea of the petty cares which obscured the morning of my life," Mary declares through her heroine,—"continual restraint in the most trivial matters, unconditional submission to orders, which as a mere child I soon discovered to be unreasonable, because inconsistent and contradictory. Thus are we destined to experience a mixture of bitterness with the recollection of our most innocent enjoyment." Edward, as the mother's favourite, escaped her severity; but it fell upon Mary with double force, and was with her carried out with a thoroughness that laid its shortcomings bare, and consequently forced Mrs. Wollstonecraft to modify her treatment of her younger children. This concession on her part shows that she must have had their well-being at heart, even when her policy in their regard was most misguided, and that her unkindness was not, like her husband's cruelty, born of caprice. But it was sad for Mary that her mother did not discover her mistake sooner.

When Mary was five years old, and before she had had time to form any strong impressions of her earliest home, her father moved to another part of Epping Forest near the Chelmsford Road. Then, at the end of a year, he carried his family to Barking in Essex, where he established them in a comfortable home, a little way out of the town. Many of the London markets were then supplied from the farms around Barking, so that the chance for his success here was promising.

This place was the scene of Mary's principal childish recollections and associations. Natural surroundings were with her of much more importance than they usually are to the very young, because she depended upon them for her pleasures. She cared nothing for dolls and the ordinary amusements of girls. Having received few caresses and little tender nursing, she did not know how to play the part of mother. Her recreation led her out of doors with her brothers. That she lived much in the open air and became thoroughly acquainted with the town and the neighbourhood, seems certain from the eagerness with which she visited it years afterwards with Godwin.

Only too often the victim of her father's cruel fury, and at all times a sufferer because of her mother's theories, she had little chance for happiness during her childhood. She was, like Carlyle's hero of Sartor Resartus, one of those children whose sad fate it is to weep "in the playtime of the others." Not even to the David Copperfields and Paul Dombeys of fiction has there fallen a lot so hard to bear and so sad to record, as that of the little Mary Wollstonecraft. She was then the most deserving object of that pity which later, as a woman, she was always ready to bestow upon others. Her affections were unusually warm and deep, but they could find no outlet. She met, on the one hand, indifference and sternness; on the other, injustice and ill-usage.

To whatever town they went, the Wollstonecrafts seem to have given signs of gentility and good social standing, which won for them, if not many at least respectable friends. At Barking an intimacy sprang up between them and the family of Mr. Bamber Gascoyne, a member of Parliament. But Mary was too young to profit by this friendship. It was most ruthlessly interrupted three years later, when, in 1768, the restless head of the house, whose industry in Barking had not equalled the enterprise which brought him there, took his deparure for Beverly, in Yorkshire.

This was the most complete change that he had as yet made. Heretofore his wanderings had been confined to Essex. But he either found in his new home more promising occupation and congenial companionship than he had hitherto, or else there was a short respite to his feverish restlessness, for he continued in it for six years. It was here Mary received almost all the education that was ever given her by regular schooling. Beverly was nothing but a small market-town, though she in her youthful enthusiasm thought it large and handsome, and its inhabitants brilliant and elegant, and was much disappointed when she passed through it many years afterwards, on her way to Norway, to see how far the reality fell short of her youthful idealizations. Its schools could not have been of a very high order, and we do not need Godwin's assurance to know that Mary owed little of her subsequent culture to them. But her education may be said to have really begun in 1775, when her father, tired of farming and tempted by commercial hopes, left Beverly for London, and settled in Hoxton.

Mary was at this time in her sixteenth year. The effect of her home life, under which most children would have succumbed, had been to develop her character at an earlier age than is usual with women. In spite of the tyranny and caprice of her parents, and, indeed, perhaps because of them, she had soon asserted her individuality and superiority. When she had recognized the mistaken motives of her mother and the weakness of her father, she had been forced to rely upon her own judgment and self-command. It is a wonderful proof of her fine instincts that, though she must have known her strength, she did not rebel, and that her keen insight into the injustice of some actions did not prevent her realizing the justice of others. Her mind seems to have been from the beginning too evenly balanced for any such misconceptions. When reprimanded, she deservedly found in the reprimand, as she once told Godwin, the one means by which she became reconciled to herself for the fault which had called it forth. As she matured, her immediate relations could not but yield to the influence which she exercised over all with whom she was brought into close contact. If there be such a thing as animal magnetism, she possessed it in perfection. Her personal attractions commanded love, and her great powers of sympathy drew people, without their knowing why, to lean upon her for moral support. In the end she became an authority in her family. Mrs. Wollstonecraft was in time compelled to bestow upon her the affection which she had first withheld. It was the ugly duckling after all who proved to be the swan of the flock. Mr. Wollstonecraft learned to hold his eldest daughter in awe, and his anger sometimes diminished in her presence.

Pity was always Mary's ruling passion. Feeling deeply the family sorrows, she was quick to forget herself in her efforts to lighten them when this privilege was allowed to her. There were opportunities enough for self-sacrifice. With every year Mr. Wollstonecraft squandered more money, and grew idler and more dissipated. Home became unbearable, the wife's burden heavier. Mary, emancipated from the restraints of childhood, no longer remained a silent spectator of her father's fits of passion. When her mother was the victim of his violence, she interposed boldly between them, determined that if his blows fell upon any one, it should be upon herself. There were occasions when she so feared the results of his drunken rage that she would not even go to bed at night, but, throwing herself upon the floor outside her room, would wait there, on the alert, to meet whatever horrors darkness might bring forth.

Mary's existence up to 1775 had been, save when disturbed by family storms, quiet, lonely, and uneventful. As yet no special incident had occurred in it, nor had she been awakened to intellectual activity. But in Hoxton she contracted a friendship which, though it was with a girl of her own age, was always esteemed by her as the chief and leading event in her existence. This it was which first aroused her love of study and of independence, and opened a channel for the outpouring of her too long suppressed affections. Her love for Fanny Blood was the spark which kindled the latent fire of her genius. Her arrival in Hoxton, therefore, marks the first important era in her life.

She owed this new pleasure to Mr. Clare, a clergyman, and his wife, who lived next to the Wollstonecrafts in Hoxton. The acquaintanceship formed with their neighbours ripened in Mary's case into intimacy. Mr. Clare was deformed and delicate, and, because of his great physical weakness, led the existence of a hermit. He rarely, if ever, went out, and his habits were so essentially sedentary that a pair of shoes lasted him for fourteen years. It is hardly necessary to add that he was eccentric, but he was a man of a certain amount of culture, and had read largely, his opportunity for so doing being great. He was attracted by Mary, whom he soon discovered to be no ordinary girl, and he interested himself in forming and training her mind. She, in return, liked him. His deformity alone would have appealed to her, but she found him a congenial companion, and, as she proved herself a willing pupil, he was glad to have her much with him. She was a friend of Mrs. Clare as well; indeed, the latter remained true to her through later storms which wrecked many other less sincere friendships. Mary sometimes spent days and even weeks in the house of these good people; and it was on one of these occasions, probably, that Mrs. Clare took her to Newington Butts, then a village at the extreme southern end of London, and there introduced her to Frances Blood.

The first meeting between them, Godwin says, "bore a resemblance to the first interview of Werter with Charlotte." The Bloods lived in a small, but scrupulously well-kept house, and when its door was first opened for Mary, Fanny, a bright-looking girl about her own age, was busy, like another Charlotte, in superintending the meal of her younger brothers and sisters. It was a scene well calculated to excite Mary's interest. She, better than anyone else, could understand its full worth. It revealed to her at a glance the skeleton in the family closet,—the inefficiency of the parents to care for the children whom they had brought into the world, and the poverty which prevented their hiring others to do their work for them. And at the same time it showed her the noble unselfishness of the daughter, who not only took upon herself the burden so easily shifted by the parents, but who accepted her fate cheerfully. Mary then and there vowed in her heart eternal friendship for her new acquaintance, and the vow was never broken.

Balzac, in his Cousine Bette, says that there is no stronger passion than the love of one woman for another. Mary Wollstonecraft's affection for Frances Blood is a striking illustration of the truth of his statement. It was strong as that of a Sappho for an Erinna; tender and constant as that of a mother for her child. From the moment they met until they were separated by poor Fanny's untimely death, Mary never wavered in her devotion and its active expression, nor could the vicissitudes and joys of her later life destroy her loving loyalty to the memory of her first and dearest friend. "When a warm heart has strong impressions," she wrote in a letter long years afterwards, "they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments: and the imagination renders 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 grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth; still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath."

There was much to draw the two friends together. They had many miseries and many tastes and interests in common. Fanny's parents were poor, and her father, like Mr. Wollstonecraft, was idle and dissipated. There were young children to be reared, and an incompetent mother to do it. Fanny was only two years older than Mary, but was, at that time, far more advanced mentally. Her education had been more complete. She was in a small way both musician and artist, was fond of reading, and had even tried her powers at writing. But her drawing had proved her most profitable accomplishment, and by it she supported her entire family. Mary as yet had perfected herself in nothing, and was helpless where money-making was concerned. Her true intellectual education had but just begun under Mr. Clare's direction. She had previously read voluminously, but, having done so for mere immediate gratification, had derived but little profit therefrom. As she lived in Hoxton and Fanny in Newington Butts, they could not see each other very often, and so in the intervals between their visits they corresponded. Mary found that her letters were far inferior to those of her friend. She could not spell so well, and had none of Fanny's ease in shaping her thoughts into words. Her pride was hurt and her ambition stirred. She determined to make herself at least Fanny's intellectual equal. It was humiliating to know herself powerless to improve her own condition, when her friend was already earning an income large enough not only to meet her own wants but those of others depending upon her. To prepare herself for a like struggle with the world, a struggle which in all likelihood she would be obliged to make single-handed, she studied earnestly. Books acquired new value in her eyes. She read no longer for passing amusement, but to strengthen and cultivate her mind for future work. It cannot be doubted that under any circumstances she would, in the course of a few years, have become conscious of her power and the necessity to exercise it. But to Fanny Blood belongs the honour of having given the first incentive to her intellectual energy. This brave, heavily burdened young English girl, accepting toils and tribulations with stout heart, would, with many another silent heroine or hero, have been forgotten, had it not been for the stimulus her love and example were to an even stronger sister-sufferer. The larger field of interests thus opened for Mary was like the bright dawn after a long and dark night. For the first time she was happy.

There was therefore much in her life at Hoxton to relieve the gloomy influence of the family troubles. Work for a definite end is in itself a great joy. Many pleasant hours were spent with the Clares, and occasional gala-days with Fanny. These last two pleasures, however, were short-lived. The inexorable family tyrant, her father, grew tired of commerce, as indeed he did of everything, and in the spring of 1776 he abandoned it for agriculture, and removed to Pembroke, where he owned some little property. With a heavy heart Mary bade farewell to her new friends.

Of external incidents the year in Wales was barren. The only one on record is the intimacy which sprang up between the Wollstonecrafts and the Allens. Two daughters of this family afterwards married sons of the famous potter, Wedgwood, and the friendship then begun lasted for life. To Mary, herself, however, this year was full and fertile. It was devoted to study and work. Hers was the only true genius,—the genius for industry. She never relaxed in the task she had set for herself, and her progress was rapid. The signs she soon manifested of her mental power added to the respect with which her family now treated her. Realizing that the assistance she could give by remaining at home was but little compared to that which might result from her leaving it for some definite employment, she seems at this period to have announced her intention of seeking her fortunes abroad. But Mrs. Wollstonecraft looked upon the presence of her daughter as a strong bulwark of defence against the brutal attacks of her husband, and was loath to lose it. Mary yielded to her entreaties to wait a little longer; but her sympathy and tender pity for human suffering fortunately never destroyed her common sense. She knew that the day must come when on her own individual exertions would depend not only her own but a large share of her sisters' and brothers' maintenance, and, in consenting to remain at home, she exacted certain conditions. She insisted upon being allowed freedom in the regulation of her actions. She demanded that she should have a room for her exclusive property, and that, when engaged in study, she should not be interrupted. She would attend to certain domestic duties, and after they were over, her time must be her own. It was little to ask. All she wanted was the liberty to make herself independent of the paternal care which girls of eighteen, as a rule, claim as their right. It was granted her.

At the end of another year, the demon of restlessness again attacked Mr. Wollstonecraft. Wales proved less attractive than it had appeared at a distance. Orders were given to repack the family goods and chattels, and to set out upon new wanderings. On this occasion, Mary interfered with a strong hand. Since a change was to be made, it might as well be turned to her advantage. She had, without a word, allowed herself to be carried to Wales away from the one person she really loved, and she now knew the sacrifice had been useless. It was clear to her that one place was no better for her father than another; therefore he should go where it pleased her. It was better that one member of the family should be content, than that all should be equally miserable. She prevailed upon him to choose Walworth as his next resting-place. Here she would be near Fanny, and life would again hold some brightness for her.

It was at Walworth that she took the first step in what was fated to be a long life of independence and work. The conditions which she had made with her family seem to have been here neglected, and study at home became more and more impossible. She was further stimulated to action by the personal influence of her energetic friend, by the fact that the younger children were growing up to receive their share of the family sorrow and disgrace, and by her own great dread of poverty. "How writers professing to be friends to freedom and the improvement of morals can assert that poverty is no evil, I cannot imagine!" she exclaims in the Wrongs of Woman. She cared nothing for the luxuries and the ease and idleness which wealth gives, but she prized above everything the time and opportunity for self-culture of which the poor, in their struggle for existence, are deprived. The Wollstonecraft fortunes were at low ebb. Her share in them, should she remain at home, would be drudgery and slavery, which would grow greater with every year. Her one hope for the future depended upon her profitable use of the present. The sooner she earned money for herself, the sooner would she be able to free her brothers and sisters from the yoke whose weight she knew full well because of her own eagerness to throw it off. Unselfish as her father was selfish, she thought quite as much of their welfare as of her own. Therefore when, at the age of nineteen, a situation as lady's companion was offered to her, neither tears nor entreaties could alter her resolution to accept it. She entered at once upon her new duties, and with them her career as woman may be said to have begun.