Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraftby Diane Jacobs
Pioneering eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft lived a life as radical as her vision of a fairer world. She overcame great disadvantages -- poverty (her abusive, sybaritic father squandered the family fortune), a frivolous education, and the stigma of being unmarried in a man's world.
Her life changed when Thomas Paine's publisher, Joseph Johnson,
Pioneering eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft lived a life as radical as her vision of a fairer world. She overcame great disadvantages -- poverty (her abusive, sybaritic father squandered the family fortune), a frivolous education, and the stigma of being unmarried in a man's world.
Her life changed when Thomas Paine's publisher, Joseph Johnson, determined to make her a writer. Wollstonecraft's great feminist document, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which brought her fame throughout Europe, insisted that women reap all the new liberties men were celebrating since the fall of the Bastille in France.
Wollstonecraft lived as fully as a man would, socializing with the great painters, poets, and revolutionaries of her era. She traveled to Paris during the French Revolution; fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, a fickle American; and, unmarried, openly bore their daughter, Fanny. Wollstonecraft at last found domestic peace with the philosopher William Godwin but died giving birth to their daughter, Mary, who married Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote the classic Frankenstein, and carried on her mother's bold ideas. Wollstonecraft's first child, Fanny, suffered a more tragic fate.
This definitive biography of Mary Wollstonecraft gives a balanced, thorough, freshly sympathetic view. Diane Jacobs also continues Wollstonecraft's story by concluding with those of her daughters. Her Own Woman is distinguished by the author's use of new first sources, among which are Joseph Johnson's letters, discovered by an heir in the late 1990s, and rare letters referring to Wollstonecraft's lover Gilbert Imlay. Jacobs has written an absorbing narrative that is essential to understanding Mary Wollstonecraft's life and the importance it has had on women throughout history.
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But in the winter of 1784, Vindication lay nearly a decade in the future. For now, Mary and Eliza were two high-strung young women living on top of each other in a cold, dreary Hackney boardinghouse. Mary had caught Bishop's cold and fever, and Eliza's head ached perpetually. They had only three guineas between them and few visitors. Eliza's momentous decision appalled (and doubtless threatened) many of their friends like "new married" Mrs. Brooks, who "with grief of heart gave up my friendship," Mary scoffed in a letter to Everina, though plainly the rejection hurt. Worse, none of the Wollstonecraft girls had future prospects. And while Mary's old champions the Clares sent them wine and pie from Hoxton, it took a bolder new friend to find them work.
That friend (whom Mary probably met through the Clares) was bustling Mrs. Burgh, widow of a well-known Dissident educator. A champion of personal freedom, James Burgh called marriage "that most perfect of all friendships" and depicted the ideal wife as intelligent, cheerful, and convinced of the superiority of men. Teaching was an honorable career, in Mrs. Burgh's opinion, and she persuaded Mary, Eliza, Everina, and even reticent Fanny that the answer to their troubles was to open a school. Of course, intellectual courses were out of the question; they'd have to pinch their curriculum to suit parents like their own. Jane Austen claimed she could think of "nothing worse" than being a schoolteacher, but Mary started out hoping for the best, especially when Mrs. Burgh quickly rustled up twenty-odd students and found them a house near her in Newington Green.
Just outside of London, Newington Green was a pastoral community filled with orchards, cornfields, and splendid seventeenth-century mansions surrounding a pretty green. On the north corner of the green stood the Unitarian Church, defiant in its plainness. Like Hoxton, Newington Green abounded in religious Dissenters, ranging from fervid Millennialists, preoccupied with the literal scripture, to Unitarians, who rejected miracles and demanded social change. They gave up sugar, for instance, to protest slavery. Though they scorned pleasure for its own sake, Dissenters -- as much as Anglicans -- valued success and affluence. The Dissident academies were England's finest. Dissident scholars became lawyers or businessmen or doctors, or they opened newspapers to spread their ardor for change.
So Mary began meeting people bent on social improvement, from Mrs. Burgh and her outgoing nephew Mr. Church (whom Mary dubbed "Friendly Church") to the neighborhood celebrities: Unitarian clergyman and philosopher Richard Price; Quaker doctor and philanthropist John Coakley Lettsome; Anglican clergyman and author John Hewlett. Everyone welcomed the bright new teachers, particularly Mary, who made a point of distinguishing herself from the rest.
Mary's most famous early admirer was Dr. Price, a modest, kindly man in his mid-sixties who was revered throughout Britain as a disciple of John Locke. He mumbled his sermons, but wrote eloquently. For Price, love of God meant attacking injustice. He was among the first to speak up for American independence and would soon further infuriate the English government by endorsing the rebellious French. Scorning male exclusivity, he joined one of the few London clubs that admitted female intellectuals. And while he did not convert Mary from her Anglican resignation, he did impel her, some Sundays, to miss her own church service and come sit on a stiff wooden pew in his stark Unitarian chapel, listening to him expound about happiness on earth.
Mary got a touch of literary glamour when someone from the Green took her to visit the great Dr. Samuel Johnson on his deathbed, while her young author friend John Hewlett insisted that she had so many ideas, she should write herself. After all, England had a history of literary females: from philosopher Mary Astell and playwright Aphra Behn during the Restoration to historian Catharine Macaulay and essayist-poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld in Mary's day. But what Hewlett imagined for Mary was a far more audacious step than Mrs. Barbauld's writing on the side while her husband supported her. He wanted Mary to defy the tabu against professional female writers and pursue a literary career.
For the moment, though, Mary was preoccupied balancing school accounts. Emboldened by Mrs. Burgh's initial success with enrollments, she had rushed to rent a larger schoolhouse and now had to take in boarders to make ends meet. Every child who quit the school created a financial crisis. And Eliza, now that she was freed of Bishop, had lost all humility and was mocking the very parents who paid their bills. "Eliza still turns up her nose and ridicules," Mary complained to Fanny's brother, George Blood. Meanwhile, Fanny herself grew sicker. Doctors said her only hope was a warmer climate, so when Hugh Skeys, off in Portugal, at last proposed marriage in the fall of 1784, even Mary urged Fanny to go ahead. Fanny was married in Lisbon on February 24, 1785.
And then Mary suffered. Recently, she'd taken Fanny for granted. Now her old passion returned, and she missed all Fanny's endearing habits -- the sad songs she sang, her soothing encouragements. Mary's charm might win her new friends, but only Fanny loved her as much when she was spiteful as when she was clever. Lonesome for Fanny, Mary grew depressed, physically ill, and morbid. "My harrassed mind will in time wear out my body," she informed Fanny's brother. And: "I have no creature to be unreserved to, Eliza and [Everina] are so different that I could as soon fly as open my heart to them."
Twenty-eight-year-old Fanny, on the other hand, was apparently thriving. Her health improved. By summer, she was pregnant. Though Fanny makes light of her happiness, there's no mistaking it in her single remaining letter (addressed to Eliza and Everina), where she describes Skeys as "a good sort of creature. He has been a dreadful flirt...but I have completely metamorphosed [sic] him into a plain man -- and I am sorry to add that he is much too inclined to pay more attention to his wife than any other woman -- but 'tis a fault that a little time, no doubt, will cure."
But how much time was there left for Fanny? Not much, perhaps, given the difficulty of childbearing for a consumptive mother, which was all the more reason for Mary to hurry to Lisbon to be with her friend when the baby came. This meant abandoning the schoolhouse for at least three months around the Christmas holidays. A neighbor named Mrs. Cockburn threatened to scare away Mary's boarders if she left affairs to her sisters, insisting Eliza was unstable and Everina immature. Dr. Price urged Mary to go anyway, and Mrs. Burgh was so adamant that Fanny's needs came first that in November she anonymously put up the money for Mary's trip.
When Mary landed in Lisbon in early December (after a thirteen-day boat trip), Fanny was already in labor. Four hours later, Fanny delivered a small but seemingly healthy boy. The mother, though, was "so worn out her recovery would be almost a ressurection," Mary wrote her sisters. A week later, both Fanny and the child were dead.
"The grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth," Mary wrote of Fanny years later; "still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath."
After the funeral, Mary stayed on a few weeks, walking around the ruins of the earthquake that had devastated Lisbon thirty years earlier and finding little solace in Hugh Skeys's company. She was relieved, though, when he offered to send money to Fanny's parents, who were as usual in desperate straits. Just before Christmas, she set out on what turned into a harrowing, month-long journey home through turbulent winter waters: "We were several times in imminent danger -- I did not expect ever to have reached land," Mary wrote George. At one point, they spotted a French ship depleted of provisions and on the verge of sinking. Its captain begged Mary's English captain to take them on board. And when the English captain refused, complaining that he had barely enough food for his own passengers, Mary inveighed against his inhumanity and, when this failed, threatened to take him to court -- at which point he relented, and the French lives were saved.
When Mary at last arrived home at Newington Green, her affairs were as chaotic as Mrs. Cockburn had prophesied. Many students had not returned after the holidays. Mary's last boarder had fought with Eliza and Everina and was packing to move her sons next door -- to Mrs. Cockburn's. Mary found a letter from Hugh Skeys, withdrawing his offer to help the Bloods financially. She resolved somehow to scrounge money for them, while her own debts mounted at an alarming speed. Encouraged by her friend John Hewlett, she decided to boost her income by writing a manual on female education. She gave it the long, edifying title: Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life.
About forty-nine pages long, Mary's first book abounds in enlightened maxims and grim depictions of the lives of women like herself. Despite Fanny Blood's lessons, Mary's grammar remains unruly. She frequently repeats her points and lets her sentences run on -- as was the mode for educational primers in the era. Most of her "thoughts" are plucked from philosophers she admires.
Like Rousseau, Mary sings the praise of mothers who suckle their own children. Like Locke and Mrs. Barbauld, she warns parents to practice what they preach. Servants are vilified as ignorant and corrupt influences on impressionable children. Reason, Mary writes, must triumph over vanity, and religion over sensual pleasure, in the education of a young girl.
"Whatever tends to make a person in some measure independent of the senses, is a prop to virtue," Mary primly avers, and she insists that candor is more appealing than fashion to both God and worthy men. Opinions conceived during her contact with high society in Bath and Windsor are trotted out: an early marriage stunts a girl's improvement; playing music and dancing are admirable outlets for feelings, but contemptible when used to show off. And while Mary insists that reading is "the most rational employment, if people seek food for the understanding," she takes the view of her era that "no employment of mind is sufficient excuse for neglecting domestic duties." A married woman must be a wife and mother before all else.
One of the book's more compelling sections is devoted to the love between men and women, and its urgency suggests that Mary may have secretly loved a man. "I think there is not a subject that admits so little of reasoning on as love," Mary begins. "...It is difficult to write on a subject when our own passions are likely to blind us. Hurried away by our feelings, we are apt to set those things down as general maxims, which only our partial experience gives rise to."
But her pedantic voice returns as she chastises women like her mother who cling to ne'er-do-wells: "A delicate mind is not susceptible of a greater degree of misery...than what must arise from the consciousness of loving a person whom their reason does not approve." Such a passion must be "rooted out," declares Mary, who is "very far from thinking love irresistible and not to be conquered." Women who can't control their sentiments are weak, while those who claim they can be content with platonic friendships delude themselves. It is telling that she continues on this last subject so long that she winds up contradicting her earlier point:
Not that I mean to insinuate that there is no such thing as friendship between persons of different sexes; I am convinced of the contrary. I only mean to observe, that if a woman's heart is disengaged, she should not give way to a pleasing delusion, and imagine she will be satisfied with the friendship of a man she admires, and prefers to the rest of the world. The heart is very treacherous, and if we do not guard its first emotions, we shall not afterwards be able to prevent its sighing for impossibilities. If there are any insuperable bars to an union in the common way, try to dismiss the dangerous tenderness, or it will undermine your comfort, and betray you into many errors. To attempt to raise ourselves above human beings is ridiculous; we cannot extirpate our passions, nor is it necessary that we should, though it may be wise sometimes not to stray too near a precipice, lest we fall over before we are aware.
So on one page of Thoughts, an unworthy love must be "rooted out," while two pages farther on, "we cannot extirpate our passions." Love is perplexing since it defies virtue and reason, cornerstones of moral life. Only faith, Mary finds, is stronger than passion. And she ends her chapter unconvincingly advocating piety, fealty to duty, and "that calm satisfaction which resignation [to God] produces."
It was apparent that the author of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters had strong feelings, but not so strong as to dislodge her staunch ideas. Mary's thoughts on love are mostly speculative, while her life is clearly the template for a chapter dourly entitled "Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune." Here Mary laments the few and "humiliating" opportunities open to an intelligent woman without money. She can marry a fool, become a companion or governess, or teach. Mary offers no comforting words about any of these professions, two of which she has practiced and one that she soon will pursue. "A young mind looks round for love and friendship; but love and friendship fly from poverty: expect them not if you are poor."
And yet, "Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties so much as the being obliged to struggle with the world," she announces with a touch of well-earned satisfaction. This is a key remark in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. It speaks to all Mary has suffered -- her father's gambling away his fortune, Mrs. Dawson's condescensions, Eliza's madness, Fanny's death. It embraces valiant gestures like standing up to your sister's husband or to an English captain who wants to desert a floundering foreign ship. And it applauds pipe dreams, like the Bloods' determination to return to Ireland. Mary has experienced life as a battle and concluded ça vaut l'effort, as the French say. Yet, whether admonishing against vanity or insisting we accept God's will, she cannot yet endorse the Dissident view that society is meliorable. There is no banishing injustice. The message of Mary Wollstonecraft's first book is that the best you can do is to improve yourself.
John Hewlett proved true to his word and hurried this book off to his publisher -- who was not just any publisher, but Joseph Johnson of St. Paul's Churchyard. Johnson published some of the most important authors in England: Joseph Priestley, Mrs. Barbauld, and William Blake, to name a few. He had been bold enough to bring out an obscure book on women's legal rights in the 1770s and to publish Benjamin Franklin at the height of America's war against England's king. Johnson was a Dissident by birth and intellectually radical, though he was even-tempered. His face was stern and homely like Dr. Price's, and he shared the minister's honorable, upright ways and kind heart. The worst anyone ever said of Johnson was that he was intractable and sardonic. Most of his large acquaintanceship revered him. He would publish 2,700 works in a career spanning nearly five decades. Johnson was forty-eight and in the middle of his career when John Hewlett brought him Mary's book on education. He accepted it at once.
"You never saw a creature happier than [Mr. Hewlett] was when he returned to tell me the success of his commission," Mary reported to George Blood on the sale of her book. For herself, Mary spoke of no great epiphany. She had not labored out of a need to express herself or from an ambition to see her name in print. She wrote Thoughts quickly and to pay the bills. But then she changed her mind and didn't pay the bills; she passed on the precious ten pounds she received from Joseph Johnson to her dead friend's parents, who used it, of course, to return to Ireland. Surely, their joy surpassed even Mr. Hewlett's. And though Ireland did not miraculously solve their problems (Mary was soon again alluding to Mr. Blood as Mrs. Blood's "torment"), they would never regret the move.
And Mary would never regret giving the Bloods her first literary earnings, though it meant having no money left to pay her own growing debts, "which worry me beyond measure." She left the large schoolhouse and continued to teach whomever she could round up at Mrs. Blackburn's home nearby. Grudgingly, Ned took Everina back. Mrs. Burgh found Eliza another teaching job in Leicestershire. Now that Eliza was gone, Mary felt a perverse "glow of tenderness which I cannot describe" when she read her sister's letter: "I could have clasped you to my breast as I did in days of yore, when I was your nurse."
With summer came new threats from the long list of Mary's creditors. Desperate now, Mary confided her predicament to an acquaintance named Mrs. Prior, the wife of an Eton master, who proceeded to sing Mary's praises to parents of the Eton boys. Lord Robert and Lady Caroline Kingsborough, parents of twelve and the denizens of an Irish castle, were intrigued when Mrs. Prior spoke of Mary's commitment to serious learning for females, and invited her to come home with them to teach their daughters. There would be almost no expenses, and the pay was forty pounds a year, half of which would cancel her debts, Mary -- too optimistically -- figured. The offer "appears so advantageous duty impels me to consider about it -- and yet only duty would influence me if I accept it," Mary told George Blood -- for had she not just expounded on the "disagreeable" lot of the governess in Thoughts?
Still, once she accepted the offer, Mary threw herself into learning French, which was de rigueur for upper-class pupils. "I have made a great proficiency [in French] and have a most excellent master," Mary jauntily informed George Blood at the end of August. George sent Mary yards of fabric for a gown. A former assistant from her school helped her make a "great coat." And while Ned "behaved very rude to me -- and has not assisted me in the smallest degree," Dr. Price was "uncommonly friendly," and Mrs. Burgh surpassed even her usual magnanimity by reimbursing all Mary's creditors so Mary would have only her to repay. "Mrs. Burgh has been as anxious about me as if I had been her daughter," Mary enthused to Eliza, and even prickly Mrs. Cockburn sent Mary off with a blue hat to dazzle the Irish.
Before leaving Newington Green, Mary journeyed to the City of London to meet her publisher at St. Paul's Churchyard. She found in Johnson a short, artless, middle-aged man plagued by asthma; he saw in Mary a tallish, pleasant-looking, twenty-seven-year-old woman, shabbily dressed and with a face that betrayed all her feelings. "She was incapable of disguise," he would later write of her. They spoke of authors they both admired, such as John Hewlett and Mrs. Barbauld. They spoke of education, the subject of Mary's book. There was no sexual attraction, but some important connection was forged at this first encounter, which would prove crucial for both Mary and Johnson in the years ahead. Though he'd read only her first slim volume, Johnson made the highly unusual offer to help Mary in the future when and if she followed Hewlett's suggestion and tried to make a living in the publishing world. But such low-paying work was not an option yet.
So Mary left for Ireland in October 1786. She traveled stylishly in a post chaise, escorted by Lord Kingsborough's butler and accompanied by an intriguing young Anglican clergyman named Henry Gabell, also off to tutor in an Irish castle. They amused each other debating great subjects throughout the long ride. Religion was a favorite topic. Gabell argued that God didn't care about intellectual improvement; Mary argued back: "Why have we implanted in us an irresistible desire to think -- if thinking is not...necessary to make us wise unto salvation?"
In Dublin, Mary and Henry Gabell parted, and Mary remained a few days visiting the Bloods before traveling on to the Kingsborough estate in southern Ireland, near Cork. Here gloom descended. For though the scenery was magnificent and the Kingsboroughs invited her everywhere, she felt humiliatingly demeaned by her lowly role in the house. The castle was a "Bastille," she told her sisters, the work was exhausting, the children spoke "wild Irish," and what a spectacle the grown-ups made!
In the only remaining portraits of the Kingsboroughs, Lord Robert wears a close-fitting vest of cerulean blue and a fur-edged silver topcoat, with a cape billowing romantically above his head. His hair is tightly curled, his thick brows are black, and his clear blue eyes look frankly at the viewer. The nose is ample, but everything else about him, from the girlish lips to the cinched waist, is delicate and petit. Lady Caroline Kingsborough, captured in profile, looks twice the girth of her husband, with a voluptuous bosom, long draping arms, and a full face. Her thick brown hair piled high on her head trails braids down past her shoulders. She has three beauty marks on the left side of her wide neck and a commanding air. Lady K. was "very pretty -- and always pretty," Mary caustically remarked.
Mary found Lord Kingsborough vapidly jovial, while Lady Caroline was "clever" and "shrewd." She doted on her dogs, but neglected her children, The house was full of company, all fatuous high society. The one intriguing visitor was George Ogle, a poet and member of Parliament, who was "between forty and fifty -- a genius and unhappy: such a man," Mary wrote Everina, "you may suppose would catch your sister's eye." And though she did not love Ogle, she enjoyed flirting with him, particularly since he was Lady Kingsborough's favorite as well. She began competing with her boss.
Still, for all Mary's pettishness, she proved an ideal governess, patiently teaching the girls music and French on top of a liberal boys' curriculum (excepting classical languages); assigning imaginative books like Sarah Trimmer's Fabulous Histories rather than moral tracts. Whenever she could, she avoided rote learning: she taught justice and perseverance by discussing real-life experiences and showed the importance of charity by having the girls take food to the poor. The most responsive of her three students by far was the eldest, fourteen-year-old Margaret, who shared Mary's volatile spirits, agile intellect, and strong will. Soon Margaret was ignoring her frivolous mother and turning to Mary for counsel, which, coupled with Mary's flirtations with Ogle, stoked Caroline Kingsborough's resentment.
"My poor little favourite has had a violent fever -- and can scarcely bear to have me a moment out of her sight," Mary wrote Eliza around Christmas. Margaret's recuperation was slow, and Mary, staying by her side throughout, for the first time felt "something like maternal fondness." But she remained resentful of her dependent position, and, when there was little fanfare surrounding the publication of her first book in early January, she despaired of ever finding better work. "I have been thinking 'how stale, flat, and unprofitable' this world is grown to me," she informed Henry Gabell, her friend from the carriage ride, when she sent him a copy of Thoughts.
She was even more dramatic in a letter to her publisher, Joseph Johnson: "A state of dependance must ever be irksome to me, and I have many vexations to encounter, which some people would term trifling -- I have most of the...comforts of life -- yet when weighed with liberty they are of little value. -- In a christian sense I am resigned -- and contented; but it is with pleasure that I observe my declining health, and cherish the hope that I am hastening to the Land where all these cares are forgotten."
At the beginning of February, the Kingsboroughs left the castle to spend spring at Lord Robert's father's Henrietta Street town house in northeast Dublin. Here Mary socialized with the Bloods and Henry Gabell, who now had a fiancée. There were excursions to plays and concerts, and there was a masquerade at which Mary dressed up in a black cape and mask and captivated all Caroline Kingsborough's friends. Since she'd arrived in Ireland, Mary had immersed herself in educational literature. At the castle, she'd enjoyed Madame de Genlis's engaging stories Les Veillées du Chareau. In Dublin, Mary had more time and was profoundly impressed by the first half of Rousseau's Émile (before the "Sophy" section, where he betrays his low opinion of women). Yet she continued to worry about Margaret, whose illness lingered. Mary's "anxiety on her account [was] very much augmented by her Mother's improper treatment -- as I fear she will hurry her into a consumption." The struggle over Margaret was in full force.
Then, one Sunday, Mary herself collapsed in "a violent fit of trembling." Worse, she experienced new symptoms terrifyingly like Eliza's when she went mad. This could have been brought on by Mary's longing for love and, above all, money. For she could not hope to leave the increasingly irksome Kingsboroughs until she'd paid back Mrs. Burgh, and she'd either spent too much or owed more than she imagined, because her biannual salary would by no means cancel her debt.
In June, the family left Dublin to summer at the English bathing resort Bristol Hot-Wells. Here, Mary brooded over "intolerably bad" weather and began writing a new book. "I hope you have not forgot that I am an Author," she reminded Eliza. This time, Mary was writing as much out of personal need as financial pressure. And she was writing a novel: creating a world that she alone controlled. "Mary" would be not just the author but the name of the heroine and the title of this new work, which would demonize Mary Wollstonecraft's enemies and plead her superiority to most everyone she'd ever met.
The first chapters of Mary depict thinly fictionalized versions of Ned, Lady Kingsborough, and Mary Wollstonecraft's parents. The heroine's father, Edward, is a "tyrannical and passionate" alcoholic womanizer who despises intelligent women. Her mother, Eliza, compounds Mrs. Wollstonecraft's dolor with Lady K.'s false delicacy and fussy devotion to her dogs. The favored elder brother is born "a feeble babe" and dies early.
Mary, while physically robust, is an intense, often melancholy child who cherishes lofty thoughts, tenderness, and a passion for social justice, which her parents can't comprehend. "Neglected in every respect, and left to the operations of her own mind, she considered every thing that came under her inspection, and learned to think." Mary "eagerly" befriends an older girl named Ann, who is penniless but educated. Ann teaches Mary refinement and "tolerable" writing. Mary loves Ann wholeheartedly. But Ann still suffers from being jilted by a wealthy suitor and cannot love Mary as much in return. "When her friend was all the world to her, [Mary] found she was not as necessary to [Ann's] happiness; and her delicate mind could not bear to obtrude her affections, or receive love as an alms, the offspring of pity. Very frequently she ran to her with delight, and not perceiving any thing of the same kind in Ann's countenance, she has shrunk back; and falling from one extreme into the other, instead of a warm greeting that was just slipping from her tongue, her expression seemed to be dictated by the most chilling insensibility."
Dramatic events proliferate. To settle a land dispute, Mary's father forces her to marry his adversary's repulsive son, who, to her relief, goes directly from the wedding to study on the Continent. Still, dread of his return plagues her. "It was the will of Providence that Mary should experience almost every species of sorrow." First her mother dies, then her father. When Ann develops consumption, Mary rushes her to an invalid hotel in Lisbon, hoping the warmer climate will restore her health. But Ann's body is already weakened by lovesickness, and she dies in Mary's arms.
Grieving, Mary turns to Henry, another consumptive at the hotel, who is physically ugly, but thoughtful and wise. They fall in love, and Henry follows Mary home to England. Here his health rapidly deteriorates, and like Ann he dies in her arms. In a final blow, Mary's husband returns. "Benevolence and religion" help her endure life with a man she despises. But now her own body weakens and "in moments of solitary sadness, a gleam of joy would dart across her mind -- She thought she was hastening to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage." In other words, death.
Mary Wollstonecraft told Henry Gabell that her purpose in writing Mary was "to illustrate an opinion of mine, that a genius will educate itself." And in her introduction she forswears the usual self-effacements to announce that she, Mary Wollstonecraft, will "not be an echo," even of the great Samuel Richardson and Rousseau. She will speak her own mind in her own manner. And so she does: Mary, for all its patent melodrama, could be written only by Mary Wollstonecraft. And this is not just because of its abundance of autobiographical references -- including a depiction of Henry that strongly suggests Henry Gabell (who, though not dying, was also romantically unavailable since he was engaged to another woman) and sketches of women at the Lisbon invalid hotel who could pass as guests in Lady Kingborough's home. Or even because of its wish fulfillments, like Mary's mother's deathbed repentance: "My child...My child, I have not always treated you with kindness -- God forgive me! do you?"
What defines Mary as unique is the way Wollstonecraft's contradictory personality -- ardent, whiny, arrogant -- informs every passage, whether her heroine is ruminating about the horrors of marriage or clamoring for the reader's love. And though Wollstonecraft's style is naïve and her prose awkward; though she disobeys cardinal rules of fiction and announces rather than displays her themes while descanting for pages on familiar topics; still Mary would be noteworthy beyond its biographical interest for its striking descriptions of the English poor. In an era whose readership relished Richardson's upper-class melodramas and Fanny Burney's satires of high-society life, Mary was the rare novel that took pains to depict not the abstract fear of losing a fortune but the concrete reality of getting through the day without sufficient food. Here, for instance, Wollstonecraft vividly evokes an indigent household:
It was crowded with inhabitants: some were scolding, others swearing, or singing indecent songs...On the floor, in one corner of a very small room, lay an emaciated figure of a woman; a window over her head scarcely admitted any light, for the broken pains were stuffed with dirty rags. Near her were five children, all young, and covered with dirt; their sallow cheeks, and languid eyes, exhibited none of the charms of childhood. Some were fighting, and others crying for food; their yells were mixed with their mother's groans, and the wind which rushed through the passages.
Vivid too is Wollstonecraft's point that, when supported by a benefactress, the sick mother quickly recovers to watch her infinitely improved children "sporting on the grass." Money, not virtue or piety or forbearance or even love, is what poor people require.
During her meeting with Joseph Johnson in the summer of 1786, Mary had complained about the burdens of poverty and indebtedness. Her correspondence to him from Ireland continued in the same tone. Typical is an April 1787 letter from Dublin in which she calls herself "a poor solitary individual in a strange land" and asks, "How can I be reconciled to life, when it is always a painful warfare, and when I am deprived of all the pleasures I relish? -- I allude to rational conversation, and domestic affections." Though he could easily have dismissed Mary as wallowing in self-pity, Johnson sympathized and sent her money. It was not a loan, he told her, but a present, and obviously not a great enough sum to pay back her creditors because she remained at her job until August 1787, when Lady K., fed up with Mary's arrogance and influence over Margaret, suddenly fired her.
It is hard to imagine that Mary was sad about losing her position, but Margaret was initially devastated, and Mary and Margaret would both speak affectionately of each other for the rest of their lives. Still, the future was before them now. In no time, Mary had packed and determined on a next course of action, which she intended to pursue joyously and with no end in sight. She would go to London and become a professional writer. "I am determined! -- " she wrote Joseph Johnson. "Your sex generally laugh at female determinations; but let me tell you, I never yet resolved to do, any thing of consequence, that I did not adhere resolutely to it, till I had accomplished my purpose, improbable as it might have appeared to a more timid mind."
Copyright © 2001 by Diane Jacobs
This time, Imlay had gone to Paris. He needed to chastise a business associate who'd committed some "knavery" and to look into new commercial prospects now that Robespierre was dead. He would be back soon, Gilbert once again promised Mary, but he no longer soothed her with talk about making just 1,000 pounds so they could buy a farm in America. He wanted "a certain situation in life," which demanded wealth.
"Pray ask some questions about Tallien -- I am still pleased with the dignity of his conduct," Mary wrote Imlay on August 20, 1794, soon after he left Le Havre. She also wanted Imlay to inquire "whether as a member declared in the Convention, Robespierre really maintained a number of mistresses." The answers were disappointing. The same Tallien who now nobly condemned the Terror as "an instrument of tyranny" and demanded, "What does it matter to me if a man was born noble if his conduct is good?" had two years earlier ordered the death of Bordeaux's wealthiest citizens, then helped himself to their jewels. Meanwhile, the terrible Robespierre was an impeccable family man and even a good person by his own lights. So sorting out heroes and villains in France was as confusing as ever. And while Parisians of all classes rejoiced at the end of the bloodshed, perfect liberty and equality eluded them still. Indeed, as they rushed to open new dress shops or queued for the theaters, Parisians were acting very like Voltaire's long-suffering optimist Candide, who finally determines just to cultivate his own garden. The larger world is too wicked to assail.
But Mary Wollstonecraft found little comfort in her domestic circumstances. Her letters to Imlay during his 1794-1795 absence are more bitter and desperate than those of the previous year. Then, she had been a childless woman creating an important book that she hoped would make money. Now, she was a mother dependent both emotionally and financially on a capricious man.
Later, Mary acknowledged that she suspected Imlay had fallen out of love with her by the time he left Le Havre. But at the time, she pretended to believe he was called away by greed. "The demon of [commerce] will ever fright away the loves and graces," she resumes her crusade against business in a first letter to Imlay in Paris. She'd come from dinner with a boarish merchant in an ugly house that "smelt of commerce from top to toe," she complains, adding peckishly that "business is the idea that most naturally associates with your image, I wonder that I stumbled on any other."
Soon after, she is informing Imlay that she wants him only if he wants her: "Your attention to my happiness should arise as much from love, which is always rather a selfish passion, as reason -- that is, I want you to promote my felicity, by seeking your own...Unless the attachment appears to me clearly mutual, I shall labour only to esteem your character, instead of cherishing a tenderness for your person."
But since Mary could not stop loving Imlay, she had to convince herself that he loved her still -- even when, instead of returning to Le Havre, he set off alone for London in the early fall. All my "emotion is on the same side as my reason, which always was on yours -- " Mary wrote. "Separated, it would be almost impious to dwell on real or imaginary imperfections of [your] character. -- I feel that I love you."
Mary wrote also of Fanny, "the little damsel," who was "almost springing out of my arm...Poor thing! When I am sad, I lament that all my affections grow on me, till they become too strong for my peace, though they all afford me snatches of exquisite enjoyment -- This for our little girl was at first very reasonable -- more the effect of reason, a sense of duty, than feeling -- now, she has got into my heart and imagination, and when I walk out without her, her little figure is ever dancing before me."
But it was the rare moment when Mary managed to steal out without Fanny. Mostly, she took her baby everywhere because there was no one to watch her at home. Guiltily, Mary admitted there were times when she felt a "slave" to her lively infant.
Nonetheless, Mary's mind was free and elastic. When she'd tucked Fanny in at night or at nap time, she had the leisure to look out at the boats wandering in and out of the Le Havre port and to speculate philosophically. Her ideas had changed considerably since Vindication. Then, she'd felt so sure of the perfectibility of mankind. Now, she wondered. And unlike Rousseau, who advocated rigorous attention to one's offspring while sending his own babies off to foundling homes, Mary demanded a theory consistent with her own decisions. Before she had come to France, Mary had scorned romance and mistrusted the imagination, especially woman's imagination, which sketched such "dangerous pictures" of marital bliss. Reason alone was the spur to progress, she'd felt then. Now, without demeaning reason, she spoke eloquently of dreams and sensual feelings. In an August letter, Mary for the first time refers to romance as a partner to, rather than an enemy of, thought. "I will allow you to cultivate my judgement, if you will permit me to keep alive the sentiments in your heart, which may be termed romantic," she tells Imlay. And in one of the loveliest passages in all her writing, she muses:
Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination -- I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions -- animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her off-spring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts.
In September, Mary decided to return to Paris. The journey was "the most fatiguing...I ever had." Four times, the carriage tipped. And Mary's current servant was useless during the crisis and afterward couldn't even manage to take Fanny off her hands. "I still continue to be almost a slave to the child," Mary complained to Imlay, but quickly added that Fanny was "a sweet little creature" whose "eyes are not the eyes of a fool -- I will swear."
Fanny relished urban living. Her favorite activities, Mary reported, were "looking at me," riding in a coach, glimpsing a French scarlet waistcoat, and hearing loud music. These pleasures abounded throughout Paris, where cheerfulness pervaded and having fun was in favor once more. Salons reopened, church bells rang, and theaters filled. Baggy trousers and red wool hats were decidedly outré. Men strutted out in tight-waisted pants and high collars, while women wore transparent dresses and décolletage. It was fashionable to stand out again. Madame de Staël wrapped herself in stoles and a turban; Tallien's wife had her gowns slit to the thigh.
"Not to have suffered persecution during the tyranny of Robespierre, is now to be disgraced," wrote Helen Maria Williams. There were bals de victimes for relatives of the Terror's victims -- widows cropped their hair and twined thin red ribbons around their necks to signify blood. Newspapers advocating all points of view returned to the stands. "[The Parisians] write now with great freedom and truth, and this liberty of the press will overthrow the Jacobins," Mary predicted to Imlay.
Still, the Jacobins were not yet finished. Marat remained a national hero. His body was lowered into the Panthéon on September 21. Mary took Fanny to enjoy the accompanying festivities (though privately she mourned for her own martyrs, such as Condorcet, who had been discovered and arrested and died in his jail cell -- probably from swallowing poison -- before Robespierre's demise). And though they were quiet for now, the radical women would rise once more, in the upcoming May, to lead a siege on the Convention, to call for the Mountain to return to power, and to demand death for the new regime. It would take the military to defeat them, reflecting the growing power of the French armed forces. But defeated they would be, so thoroughly that in the spring of 1795 the Convention banned all unaccompanied women from its meetings and forbade more than five females to walk together in the street.
But in the fall of 1794, Mary was free to walk with whomever she wanted. She moved into her old St-Germain apartment, hired a promising nursemaid named Marguerite, and quickly struck up a friendship with a German family, who shared Mary's passion for education and swapped tips with her about teething, early morning wake-ups, and the amount of time a child should nurse. While the German family was "just above poverty, I envy them -- " Mary wrote Imlay. "She is a tender, affectionate mother -- fatigued even by her attention. -- However, she has an affectionate husband in her turn, to render her care light, and to share her pleasure...I will own to you that, feeling extreme tenderness for my little girl, I grow sad very often when I am playing with her, that you are not here, to observe with me how her mind unfolds, and her little heart becomes attached!"
Many of Mary's old friends had left the country -- the Christies for first Switzerland and then England; the Barlows to Hamburg, where Joel had found work. The Schweizers remained. Once, while Mary composed a letter to Gilbert, Madeleine Schweizer sat beside her, reading Imlay's first book. "She desires me to give her love to you, on account of what you say of the negroes," Mary informed the author.
In her journal, Madame Schweizer was less flattering about Mary:
I was very fond of Mary Wollstonecraft...and should have liked to regard her with constant affection, but she was so intolerant that she repulsed those women who were not inclined to be subservient to her; whilst to her servants, her inferiors, and the wretched in general, she was gentle as an angel. Were it not for her excessive sensibility, which too often gains the upper hand, her personality would be exquisite. I passed one evening with her in the country. The blending of the varying tints of colour in the sky were of a marvelous poetic beauty. Mary was sitting with [a baron] beneath a tree gilded by the rays of the setting sun. I was opposite them, and was so enraptured by the scene that I said...: "Come Mary, -- come nature lover, -- and enjoy this wonderful spectacle -- this constant transition from colour to colour!" But, to my great surprise, Mary was so indifferent that she never turned her eyes from him by whom she was at the moment captivated.
So mothering and lovesickness did not keep Mary from (in her old friend George Blood's words) "assuming the Princess" and charming barons or counts, as in the case of Count von Schlabrendorf, who was out of prison and continued to adore her. There was also a certain judge she found attractive, and handsome Claude-Joseph Rouget de l'Isle, author of the "Marseillaise," whom Mary would be "half in love with" if Imlay did not return soon.
She made a new friend named Archibald Hamilton Rowan, an Irish patriot whom the British had unjustly accused of sedition and thrown into jail. He had escaped and, leaving his wife and eight children behind in Ireland, fled to Paris, where he arrived in the last days of the Grand Terror and remained after the death of Robespierre, waiting to be exonerated by the British king. Rowan was forty-two and breathtakingly handsome. He first spotted Mary walking with Marguerite and Fanny in the fall of 1794. "[A friend] whispered to me that she was the author of the 'Rights of Woman.' I started! 'What!' said I within myself, 'this is Miss Mary Wollstonecraft, parading about with a child at her heels, with as little ceremony as if it were a watch she had just bought at the jeweller's. So much for the rights of women,' thought I."
But Rowan and Mary quickly established a close rapport. "I got a dish of tea and an hour's rational conversation, whenever I called on her," Rowan recalled. Their talks were often intimate. Once, Mary dismayed Rowan by announcing that love was the only justification for perpetuating a marriage. If so, he wondered, would he lose his far-off wife? No, Mary assured him, "for...when a person whom we have loved [is] absent, all the faults he might have [are] diminished, and his virtues augmented in proportion." They surpassed each other boasting of their partners. Mary's "account of Mr. Imlay made me wish for his acquaintance; and my description of my love made her desirous of your acquaintance," Rowan wrote his wife in Ireland.
Also in Ireland, still governessing, was Mary's sister Everina, who'd lately received a series of shocking reports. First, in the spring of 1794, Mary's letter from Le Havre arrived, implying that she was in love with an American. A few months later, Charles wrote from Philadelphia announcing that Mary was married and had a child. "I own I want faith -- nay I doubt my senses," gasped Eliza. But when Joseph Johnson (who'd consulted with the repatriated Christies) confirmed Charles's report, Eliza expected to be summoned to Paris at any moment. She hired a fifty-year-old escaped royalist (who reminded her of Joseph Johnson and had "the manners of a gentleman blended, with great simplicity of character") to perfect her French.
And, if this weren't enough, Charles invited Eliza to join him in Philadelphia: "In the autumn I will remit you 100 pounds...which will pay your passage to this country and you shall have a room in my house, and a quiet horse to ride -- or it will go hard with me. If you can resolve to leave England you may rest assured of everything in my power being done to render life comfortable to you -- and that elegant ease you have often longed for I will assure you." Good-bye, Upton Castle! Eliza exulted. If her Paris plans failed, she would embrace the New World.
Eliza quit her governess job and moved into nearby Pembrokeshire. "Three and a half [years] I lingered in this dungeon [Upton Castle]. Yet I am sad -- ," she told Everina, for parting from the family's little boy was "like losing a limb...This is the Last child I ever Love!" she vowed.
Meanwhile, Everina received a baffling note from Mary, telling her "You must, my dear Girl, have received several letters from me, especially one I sent to London with Mr. Imlay." But the sisters had not received Mary's letters, nor had Imlay contacted them in the two and a half months since he'd left France. Also perplexing was Mary's offhanded suggestion that Everina visit Paris in the springtime. "If possible in Spring, my Everina, why not have gone [to Paris] with Mr. Imlay [now] could he have written to us!" Eliza exclaimed.
Why not, indeed? Eliza promptly wrote to Imlay in care of Joseph Johnson at St. Paul's Churchyard. And here is the tortuous letter she received in reply:
My dear Madam
Mr. Johnson gave me your acceptable favor inclosing one to Mrs. Imlay saying it was for her; which leaving me ignorant of being included I could not return an immediate answer. Since which time I have been out of Town. I hope this circumstance will appear to you a sufficient apology for my silence, and that you will be pleased to consider it a good reason for preventing a forfeight of that claim to humanity, or at least respect, I esteem for a person so affectionately loved by my dear Mary as yourself which you say had already been impressed on your mind -- As to your sister's visiting England, I do not think she will previous to a peace, and perhaps not immediately after such an Event. However be that as it may we shall both of us continue to cherish feelings of tenderness for you and a recollection of your unpleasant situation, and we shall also endeavor to allviate its distress by all the means in our power -- the present state of our fortune is rather pre[carious] -- However you must know your sister too well -- and I am sure you judge of that knowledge too favorably to suppose that whenever she has it in her power that she will not apply some specific aid to promote your happiness. I shall always be happy to receive your letters, I shall most likely leave England the beginning week I will thank you to let me hear from you as soon as convenient and tell me ingenuously in what way I can serve you in any manner or respect. I am in but indifferent spirits occasioned by my long absence from Mrs. Imlay and our little girl while I am deprived of a chance of hearing from them
Adieu yours --
So Imlay "cherish[ed] feelings of tenderness" for Mary's sisters, but had no plans to meet them. He'd love to help them out -- some other time. And he'd "always be happy to receive your letters" but was leaving the country. What a muddle of downright deceit and unctuous dissimulation, not to mention bad grammar. And to add to the insult, when Eliza in a fury wrote Imlay that she needed neither him nor his wife and was positively bent on leaving for America, Imlay failed to reply.
The above note to Eliza is one of Imlay's few surviving letters. How different he sounds here than in his books. While the author is compassionate and idealistic, the correspondent is avid only to avoid trouble. The first is forthright, while the latter is abstruse. Mary alludes to another disparity between the two Imlays in one of her increasingly unchecked outbursts. "Reading what you have written [in your books] relative to the desertion of women, I have often wondered how theory and practice could be so different."
If Imlay's letters to Mary were half as sly as his reply to Eliza, it must have been hard work convincing herself that he intended to return. Still, she was too proud to confide her doubts to her sisters and, rather than lie, simply ignored them during the terrible winter of 1795.
It was the coldest winter of the century. The Seine and all the Paris water fountains froze. Coal was a luxury one stood hours on line to purchase, and wood was so scarce women and children chopped logs from the trees in the Bois de Boulogne. When, in December, the Convention abolished more price and wage controls, the cost of bread shot up, and the value of the currency plunged. People died because they couldn't afford bread or fuel for their fires, or they killed themselves -- suicide rates rose drastically. Wolves howled at the gates of Paris. And the traditional recourse of the poor, the Church, was so devastated by the Terror that it could do little to help.
Mary caught a cold and was feverish and coughing as madly as when she'd first arrived from London. Only now she was responsible for a shivering infant and had to drag herself from bed and walk great distances to find wood. "This however is one of the common evils which must be borne with -- bodily pain does not touch the heart, though it fatigues the spirit," she wrote Imlay. Indeed, while Mary freely confided her mental suffering, she was proud of her strong body and despised admitting any physical need. She admitted her need now -- in early January -- because she wanted Imlay to pay for a servant to relieve her and Marguerite -- who was now part of the family -- from wood carrying. He would agree, she knew, which made asking all the harder: Imlay's eagerness to pay Mary's bills merely underscored his emotional negligence.
Mary had expected her lover in late December and so was "tormented by fears" at Christmastime when some British ships sunk in a Channel gale. For once, it was a relief to learn that business had kept Imlay safely in London. But "How I hate this crooked business!" she was soon again expostulating, "...This intercourse with the world, which obliges one to see the worst side of human nature! Why cannot you be content with the object you had first in view [the farm in America] when you entered into this weary labyrinth?" More than ever, she despised her financial dependence. She was determined to find a way to support her child and herself. "I have two or three plans in my head to earn our subsistence; for do not suppose that, neglected by you, I will lie under obligations of a pecuniary kind to you! -- No; I would sooner submit to menial service."
Fanny did not catch Mary's cold or gloomy perspective. All through the blighting winter, she made the normal progress. She began crawling and grew two teeth. She sucked from Mary's breasts and gnawed at crusts of bread and biscuits. She was like a squirrel, the way she husbanded her treats. And "after fixing her eye on an object for some time, [she darted] on it with an aim as sure as a bird of prey." She had more spirit than physical beauty. She looked like Imlay, her mother thought.
In February 1795, Mary, still feverish and with her cough worsening, believed she had tuberculosis and began seriously to plan for the worst. She moved in with her German friends, who said they would bring up Fanny with their own child should Mary die. Mary "conjured" Imlay "by all you hold sacred" to accede to this plan.
"Brought up here my girl would be freer," wrote Mary, showing some stirring of her old faith in the French, as well as an increasing aversion to England. Meanwhile, Imlay continued to hem and haw about returning to Paris, while his French associate maddened Mary with announcements of fresh delays.
In late winter, Mary threatened Imlay that if he delayed any longer she would refuse to accept his money. His failing to love her would impoverish and probably kill her, in other words. So in February, Imlay went through the motions of inviting Mary to join him in England. But the formal tone of his letter infuriated Mary, who suspected he would be off again as soon as she and Fanny came. "Am I only to return to a country, that has not merely lost all charms for me, but for which I feel a repugnance that almost amounts to horror, only to be left there a prey to it!" Then Imlay rephrased the offer: "Business alone has kept me from you. -- Come to any port, and I will fly down to my two dear girls with a heart all their own."
So in April 1795, Mary, Fanny, and loyal Marguerite left Paris. Once again, Mary was in good health. "Here I am in [Le Havre]," she wrote Gilbert, "on the wing towards you, and I write now, only to tell you, that you may expect me in the course of three or four days; for I shall not attempt to give vent to the different emotions which agitate my heart...I cannot indulge the very affectionate tenderness which glows in my bosom, without trembling, till I see, by your eyes, that it is mutual."
For once accepting conventional wisdom, Mary weaned Fanny so she'd be prepared to make love. "I did not wish to embitter the renewal of your acquaintance with [Fanny], by putting [the weaning] off till we met," she delicately wrote. "It was a painful exertion to me," for she relished suckling. But "I thought it best to throw this inquietude with the rest, into the sack that I would fain throw over my shoulder." She was indulging hope.
In Le Havre, Mary packed up her clocks and linens and asked "the good people here" to sell her furniture. After two and half years in France, on April 9, 1795, she boarded a boat heading home. Then the "awkward pilot" grounded the ship in the harbor! She had to disembark and go back to town and wait some more. "With the heart and imagination on the wing you may suppose that the slow march of time is felt very painfully," she wrote Hamilton Rowan, and flirtatiously continued: "If you were to pop in I should be glad, for in spite of my impatience to see [Gilbert Imlay], I still have a corner in my heart, where I will allow you a place, if you have no objection."
But her last words from France were oddly apprehensive. "Take any precaution to avoid danger," Mary warned her Irish friend.
Copyright © 2001 by Diane Jacobs
Meet the Author
Diane Jacobs is the author of Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, published by the University of California Press. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Village Voice. She lives in New York with her daughter.
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