Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life

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Overview

With Mary Wollstonecraft and her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, a modern female consciousness came clearly into being, one that tied the mind to the body. This beautifully written biography, the first new study of Mary Wollstonecraft in thirty years, argues that it is her life and letters that are her most lasting legacy.Her story reads like a novel -extraordinarily scandalous in conventional terms (a close involvement with a woman, two male lovers, an illegitimate child, and a habit of initiating amorous relationships), yet in her own terms always principled and highly moral. She strove to reconcile integrity and sexual desire, the duties and needs of a woman, motherhood and intellectual life, domesticity and fame.
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Editorial Reviews

Mary Carroll
Todd . . . draws heavily on Wollstonecraft's letters in this thoughtful biography . . . Wollstonecraft traveled uncharted waters: her voice, though egotistical, is unquestionably modern, a ' consciousness . . . sure of its significance, individuality and authenticity. Appropriate where biographies and women's studies are popular.
Anita Desai
Against the richly detailed tapestry of her times, Janet Todd has stitched the bright, vivid, restless, and agitated figure of one of the most fascinating and controversial thinkers of her time and proved -through the sympathy, understanding, and intelligence with which she portrays her -that she remains fascinating today.
Marilyn Butler
In this sparkling new biography Mary Wollstonecraft is set as never before in a crowded world of family, friends, and writers. Todd provides a stimulating portrait of a brilliant, obsessive, imaginative, and infuriating woman who writes her life and scandalously lives her theories.
Christine Stansell
The only full-length scholarly biography to date, it is full of fascinating detail, absorbing, and often surprising.
Lorna Sage
A powerfully realistic new Life of the first modern feminist. Janet Todd is alert to Mary Wollstonecraft's contradictions, but fascinated by her energies. The result is a full-length portrait of an opinionated, passionate puritan, a woman of heroic extremes and a marvelously believable one.
Times Literary Supplement
Todd tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft´s extraordinary life with calm judiciousness, an excellent sense of the social, intellectual, and economic spheres in which her subject lived and wrote, and a good eye for small but telling details.
New Yorker
Throughout this humane and absorbing biography, Todd usefully places the writings, like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in their historical context, but in the end she finds Wollstonecraft's life and her letters more modern in their outspoken sensibility than her formal literary legacy.
Bonnie G. Smith
The hard work and family values attributed to the middle class hardly obtained in the Wollstonecraft entourage, as Janet Todd makes clear in this thorough biography....Todd excels at depicting her subject's evolving personality and layered intellect.
Ruth Jean Shaw
Intelligent, detailed resource on Wollstonecraft.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mary Wollstonecraft may be called "the mother of feminism," but motherhood in all its various aspects represented little but trouble to her. All her life, according to Todd (Aphra Behn), she resented her own mother because she had breast-fed only her brother, leaving Mary to the wet nurse, and because she detested the model of long-suffering patience in the face of paternal tyranny that was her mother's accommodation to marriage. Later, Mary would intervene energetically following the birth of her sister's child, encouraging Eliza to run away from husband and baby to pursue an independent female existence, although Eliza proved to be woefully inadequate at it. Mary's own first-born was the result of a passionate and illicit affair with an American, Gilbert Imlay, who dumped her when the baby was less than a year old. Finally, and tragically, Mary herself died at 38, after giving birth to a second daughter, another Mary, who would grow up to write that classic of grotesque creation, Frankenstein. Despite, or perhaps because of, the burden of her gender, and despite her poverty, frequent depressions and occasional suicidal moments, Wollstonecraft's achievement was astounding: several novels; many essays, reviews and books of advice; and, notably, The Vindication of the Rights of Women, a fundamental feminist document. By Todd's account, Wollstonecraft could be prickly, sometimes needy, often arrogant and wrong-headed. Todd brings her back to life in all her splendid contradictions, without condescension, idealization or, happily, without recourse to intrusive psychologizing. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In this first full-length biography of Wollstonecraft in more than 20 years, Todd (The Secret Life of Aphra Behn) has drawn on past studies but focuses on her life as revealed in her letters and on their relationship to her work. Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman later established her reputation as the mother of feminism, was nearly always troubled by financial and family worries, had a volatile temperament, and craved an enduring emotional and sexual relationship, which led her to two suicide attempts. Nevertheless, Todd sees her as self-confident and outspoken, often prickly, and determined to make her own way as a writer and advocate of women's rights. Ironically, she died a few days after childbirth and less than a year after her marriage to William Godwin, in whom she seemed to have found a satisfactory emotional and intellectual match. One can assume she would have been pleased that their daughter became the writer Mary Shelley. This incisive, scholarly biography is appropriate for academic and large public libraries and all women's studies collections.--Patricia A. Beaber, Coll. of New Jersey, Ewing Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
The New Yorker
Throughout this humane and absorbing biography, Todd usefully places the writings, like "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," in their historical context, but in the end she finds Wollstonecraft's life and her letters more modern in their outspoken sensibility than her formal literary legacy.
Lambda Book Report
It has been a long time since the last biographical study of this influential woman was completed, and Todd dishes the dirt on her personal life, in addition to her career in letters.
Lambda Book Report
Signs - Anne K. Mellor

Todd writes with verve, authority...and rhetorical grace.

Signs
Todd writes with verve, authority...and rhetorical grace.

— Anne K. Mellor

The New Yorker

Throughout this humane and absorbing biography, Todd usefully places the writings, like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in their historical context, but in the end she finds Wollstonecraft's life and her letters more modern in their outspoken sensibility than her formal literary legacy.

The New Republic

The only full-length scholarly biography to date, it is full of fascinating detail, absorbing, and often surprising.

Washington Post

The hard work and family values attributed to the middle class hardly obtained in the Wollstonecraft entourage, as Janet Todd makes clear in this thorough biography....Todd excels at depicting her subject's evolving personality and layered intellect.

Booklist

Todd... draws heavily on Wollstonecraft's letters in this thoughtful biography... Wollstonecraft traveled uncharted waters: her voice, though egotistical, is unquestionably modern, a ' consciousness... sure of its significance, individuality and authenticity. Appropriate where biographies and women's studies are popular.

Times Literary Supplement

Todd tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft's extraordinary life with calm judiciousness, an excellent sense of the social, intellectual, and economic spheres in which her subject lived and wrote, and a good eye for small but telling details.

Anita Desai

Against the richly detailed tapestry of her times, Janet Todd has stitched the bright, vivid, restless, and agitated figure of one of the most fascinating and controversial thinkers of her time and proved -- through the sympathy, understanding, and intelligence with which she portrays her -- that she remains fascinating today.

London Review of Books

A much longer revision of theories about nationalism and nations is now needed, to complement the brilliant destructive assaults in... After the Empire.

Time Magazines Literary Supplement
Todd tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft's extraordinary life with calm judiciousness, an excellent sense of the social, intellectual, and economic spheres in which her subject lived and wrote, and a good eye for small but telling details.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231121842
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 8/8/2000
  • Pages: 538
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.51 (h) x 1.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Janet Todd is Research Professor of English at the University of Glasgow. She is the editor of A Wollstonecraft Anthology and her writings include The Sign of Angelica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1600-1800.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

`I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship;
I must have the first place or none'


It began with the will. In 1765 the master silk-weaver Edward Wollstonecraft of Spitalfields died at the age of seventy-six and was buried with some ceremony in the elegant new church of St Botolph's, Bishopsgate. He had ignored babies just born and not necessarily intending to live, but had left legacies to all his other descendants — with the exception of a granddaughter, Mary. She was a child of five, old enough to have made some inroads into an old man's heart.

    The omission was especially blatant when one third of the estate of some £10,000 went to her elder brother, only two years her senior. Seven-year-old Ned (Edward Bland) received a lease on land and a share in a merchant ship, the Cruttendon, on which a relative of the same name had been first officer. The boy `who is to carry the empty family-name down to posterity, as his sister scornfully wrote, was also left his grandfather's portrait as symbol of his importance as `deputy-tyrant of the house'.

    For old Edward Wollstonecraft women were weak and of little worth. He had a surviving daughter from a first union, Elizabeth, married to Isaac Rutson. He had worried how to leave her money without letting it fall, as it legally should from a wife, into the hands of her spouse. In the will he designated it specifically for her `sole use' with no `intermeddling' by her husband. Elizabeth had three living grown-up children; her father took so little interest in thegirls he did not know the first name of his granddaughter's husband, but he did at least leave each grandchild £10, the same as he left to a servant and the local debtors. Elizabeth's Rutson stepdaughter had already `shared sufficiently of my bounty' and he left her what he left each pauper in the St Botolph workhouse: is.

    The beginning of his detailed will of seven pages ordered a lavish funeral for a man whose money made him a `gentleman'. It spoke much of his son, Edward John, product of his second marriage and father of Mary and Ned. He was the main legatee and would now have income from rents of thirty separate tenancies. He could if he chose be a `gentleman' at once, though barely through his apprenticeship.


* * *


The family injustice would embitter and fuel Mary's life. She resented her eldest brother's privileges — he even had their mother's milk, unlike subsequent children. Much has been made of the effects on character of being the second-born, the child who must earn his or her place and is more outgoing, opinionated and unconventional than the eldest; Mary was a classic case. More can be made of the fact that she was a girl in a patriarchal world. In time she used this to form a general and justified reason for personal jealousy,

    She was born on 27 April 1759, a year before the twenty-two-year-old George III ascended the throne proclaiming his intention to encourage `piety and virtue' throughout his realm. The place was Primrose Street, Spitalfields, near where Liverpool Street Station now stands, a rather shoddy, overcrowded area of London noted for its shifting immigrant populations and its weavers, some of whom, like her grandfather, had grown rich. On 20 May, she was carried along busy Bishopsgate to St Botolph's to be christened into the Church of England, second child and first daughter of Elizabeth née Dickson, from a Protestant wine-merchant family in Ballyshannon, Ireland, and Edward John Wollstonecraft.

    Mary was the first of the children to be breast-fed by another woman, the usual practice in middle-class families who could afford the few shillings such service cost. Although maternal breast-feeding had been advocated by English authorities for the child's benefit from the late seventeenth century, women were unconvinced, remaining unsentimental about babies. By mid-century, the French were anxious about the number of infants dying — increasingly blamed on wet-nursing—and men started demanding that wives breast-feed. But in England infant mortality was decreasing and there was no cultural panic. Sometimes the wet-nurse came to the home but more often she took the child to her own poorer house, nursing it along with her own brood. So, for many infants such as Mary, the first experience of nurture came from a surrogate mother whilst their biological parent, when they were handed over to her, would be a relative stranger who had not seen their first steps or heard their first words. It was all conventional enough, but Mary later resented what she heard of her early life: `[A mother's] parental affection ... scarcely deserves the name, when it does not lead her to suckle her children.

    Like most childhoods, Mary's was delivered to the public through adult memory. Later anger enveloped her infant rancour and gave form to grudges that inevitably arose from family life. Not long before her death she told William Godwin, her husband and first biographer, how harsh her early years now seemed. She was incensed that, of all the children born before and after her, she was not the favourite of mother or father. She hated the rigid discipline which she felt was imposed uniquely on her. Above her, the firstborn Ned was coddled — below her the system dissolved with increasing numbers. Only she was restrained in trivial matters, made to sit silent for three or four hours in the company of disapproving parents.

    Her parents filled her young vision. They were incompatible, unalike, similar only in indifference to herself. She felt enthralled by them and excluded. Her father was the first to impinge. He was bad-tempered then fond, veering erratically from kindness to cruelty. Such instability in the source of authority bred tension. Edward Wollstonecraft was a despot in his domestic kingdom, dominating the resentful childhood of his daughter, who would note her own mercurial moods and quick temper while never admitting the resemblance — though later she compared herself to Lear, that childish tyrant with three daughters. His first subject-victim was his wife.

    Elizabeth Wollstonecraft's chosen response of submission did not predispose her to appreciate other victims, and she and her eldest girl took no comfort in joint subjection. The pains of marriage were engraved on Mary's mind in this demeaning tie of father-tyrant and mother-slave, and the authority this mother naturally had over her was tainted by the vision of improper submission. Mary always declared her antipathy towards a relationship based on power: with much evidence to the contrary she asserted that women could not be gratified by dependence and that it must be called by its proper name of `weakness' She was further soured as she realised that Elizabeth was finding a substitute for her unloving spouse not in her eager self but in her eldest son, the fortunate and privileged Ned.

    That experiences of early childhood marked the adult was a firm belief of the eighteenth century, based on the theories of Locke, Hartley and others, that no knowledge was innate but came from the senses. As Amelia Alderson, a later friend of Mary, remarked, `whatever [children] are in disposition and pursuit in the earliest dawn of existence, they will probably be in its meridian and its decline.' This idea could lead in several directions. Although some progressive educators suggested that children might be encouraged to develop their own natures, the common view of child-rearing conformed pretty much to the Wollstonecraft practice, that parents' first duty was to control the child and teach it self-control.

    Even their names divided mother and daughter. The eldest son had been named for his father, grandfather, and cousin or uncle, the second daughter would be given her mother's and grandmother's name, Elizabeth. Mary was called after a relative who might be generous in future, possibly her widowed aunt Mary, whose three children had died. But no generous aunt is mentioned in her life, none becomes a surrogate mother. Indeed, although there were other Wollstonecrafts in the area — several sharing her name and no doubt second and third cousins — there was little sense of wider kin. It was the immediate nuclear family that dominated her early and later life; when this disappointed her she had no obvious place to turn.

    Mary's earliest years were spent with brother Ned and two younger children, Henry Woodstock and Elizabeth (Eliza), in the city amidst the bustle and din of crowded streets, trade, and manufacture. She lived in a brick merchant's house on Primrose Street, where the family's tenancies were located. Other silk-weavers were nearby, for the area was noted for fine materials, ever since the skilled Huguenots arrived as refugees from France after expulsion by Louis XIV.

    The wealthy merchants' houses were many-storeyed, deep rather than wide, with gardens or courtyards behind. Like the narrow streets they fronted, they mixed business and living, the ground floors used for offices rather than manufacturing since much of the weaving was done in their homes by journeymen employing their masters' looms. The offices were constantly in use for buying and selling, paying wages and for stock. Outside thronged punks, coachmen, porters, wig- and mantua-makers, tanners, cobblers and shopkeepers; street vendors touted fruit and pies, wagons and carts took vegetables to the market of Spitalfields. The meat and poultry might arrive on foot, depositing filth only haphazardly swept into gutters. There were constant fights and brawls in the overcrowded streets and, in her grandfather's offices, the usual altercations between masters and men whose interests could never quite coincide.

    A man of means wished sometimes to escape the vulgar bustle and live more genteelly in the country. Old Mr Wollstonecraft had felt this need and looked from the grime of London at the open fields of Essex close by. Since he wanted his family to rise in the world, he desired a country retreat even more for his privileged son than for himself. So, along with the city house in Primrose Street, he provided for Edward John's family a farm in Essex, `an old mansion, with a court-yard before it, in Epping Forest, near the Whalebone', an area noted for dairy cattle. There Mary lived when she was four and five; it was the first place of which she was clearly conscious. In Epping, another sister, more flamboyantly named Everina, was born. Perhaps Mrs Wollstonecraft read romantic novels.

    The early experience of city and country was an important inheritance. However she grumbled about the place, Mary was always a Londoner, part of the three-quarters of a million people who inhabited the capital. With the fashionable and growing West End by Hyde Park and Buckingham House, soon to be Buckingham Palace, the royal parks and elegantly planned squares, as well as with the political centre of Westminster and Whitehall, she had little to do. Her London was the old walled commercial City to the east of the Strand. When she moved away as an adult it was to go no further than the new suburbs, still within walking distance of St Paul's, such as Islington or St Pancras. At the same time, a taste for the country fed her imagination and let her find green fields rejuvenating and rustics contented. `God made the country, and man made the town,' wrote William Cowper, the nation's favourite poet when Mary was a young adult. Along with thousands of other city-dwellers who would have groaned for boredom during a winter in Wales, she agreed.

    When his father died, Edward John became moderately wealthy. He had inherited his parent's vanity of status and disliked the squalor and trade of Spitalfields; he yearned to define himself entirely by the title his father assumed in death: `gentleman'. Despite the long years of apprenticeship, he determined at once to quit London. Weaving was in recession and masters reduced the rate they paid workers. This led to strikes and general unrest among the trading groups of London. In the late 1760s the unrest was harnessed by the radical populists John Wilkes and Horne Tooke, who used it to open up politics to the people and agitate for greater individual freedom.

    The upheavals, only just contained by the City authorities, justified Edward's escape from a business he never liked. He had been given money without work and did not necessarily associate the two. To him it did not seem difficult to hold what had come easily. While keeping the Primrose Street houses for their rent, he would become a gentleman farmer, a more socially acceptable occupation than weaving handkerchiefs, but one for which he had no training. He found a property in Essex, in Ripple Ward, Barking, near the river Roding. There another son, James, was born.

    In Barking, Edward was a substantial citizen, assessed expensively for poor rates and appointed overseer of the area's madmen and paupers. He hobnobbed with gentry, such as the Gascoynes, who had also moved from London trade into county respectability some years before. Edward had sufficient means to succeed in farming in a fertile district of moderately sized properties. It was a time of agricultural change, however, and, although the area round Barking was as yet unaffected, farmers elsewhere were busy improving land by enclosing it and taking in nearby commons. The social result, the turning of cottagers into expatriate city workers or day-labourers without common rights, was painful to many, but the growth in food production was considerable and would support the steep rise in the English population in the next decades. Landowners had a chance to enrich themselves if they took risks and invested wisely.

    Much enjoying the new gentry life and society, Edward paid little attention to such capitalist activity and in less than four years his farm failed. His money was seeping away, but its psychological result in snobbery and contempt for its source in trade had already reached his children, along with shame at the family's decline. His eldest daughter, Mary, would always be concerned to establish her social significance in the world and mock those who gained theirs through trade.


The failure of the Barking farm began the zigzag of Edward's career across England and Wales. It made his children rootless and squandered his inheritance. Each farm he took was poorer and remoter than the last. Each time he left, he was more impecunious than when he had arrived. Such experiences would have soured the temper of a stabler man than Edward Wollstonecraft. As he grew drunken and violent, he circumscribed Mary's life more and more with his rages and remorse. She found him irritating, powerful, engrossing and appalling, and in time he would mark and mar her choice of lovers. In her public works he entered as tyrant, the embodiment of improper masculinity and weak despotic power, but also as a yearning for a complicated tainted love which had as much submission as sustenance within it. Perhaps the worst thing she wrote of him came in a private letter: `I never had a father.'

    From Barking the Wollstonecrafts moved in October 1768 to a farm near the village of Walkington, three to four miles from Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It is not known why they went so far or how they found the place. There seem to have been no close relatives in the area but Edward might have been attracted to lower farm rents and have come across an enticing newspaper advertisement. Those wanting to sell and rent out their properties to `small genteel families' put notices in local papers, in this case the York Courant, chock-full of farms available in the area, or they could put a similar notice in newspapers from other farming regions. The land near Walkington was suitable for pasturing and Edward might have thought to succeed at the same sort of agriculture he had tried in Barking, if he had lower overheads.

    However similar in type, the open rolling countryside of the Yorkshire wolds seemed decidedly foreign to the southern family when they arrived. The climate was colder and windier, and some of the land flooded; more of it was needed to produce a good living than in the warmer south. Walkington was near enough for a quick horse-ride into Beverley or even, on a fine day, a brisk walk through fields, but in winter it must have felt remote from company and all forms of entertainment; Edward with his taste for high living cannot have been happy — nor can the children who depended on him. There in Walkington in the summer of 1770 the seventh and last child, Charles, arrived.

    Farming was of course no easier in Yorkshire than in Essex. Owners were enclosing their land in parts of the East Riding as well, although no application from Walkington was made until the 1790s. Since Edward Wollstonecraft's farm was presumably on a short lease, he would not have thought to enclose his land and thus improve his farming position, but he would have had the same trouble from the poor as more forward-thinking owners; labourers were responding to the removal of common rights by poaching and coursing without leave, both of which carried draconian penalties.

    After three years Edward could stand no more. He quit the farm and moved his family into Beverley. It was probably a relief to all of them. Rainy days kept children indoors and it was not the sort of family that thrived on closeness and its own company. Gloomily contemplating his failing fortunes, Edward cannot much have enjoyed the clatter of children or taken pleasure in their clever sayings or sudden accomplishments.

    No doubt the boys and girls slid on the frozen pond in the middle of Walkington village and went nutting in the hedgerows like others of their age, but such recollections did not loom large in their memories in later life. Mary's contemporary Thomas Holcroft thought that the anecdotes of childhood provided an onlooker with a guide to the character and temperament of the adult, and on his deathbed was at pains to record such moments: getting off a horse to pick up a dropped hat and being unable to get back on, a sister's thumb being sliced in half by a window shutter, his wonder at the relationship of sounds to letters. When remembering her own childhood Mary described no such anecdotes, only the general sense that she despised dolls and liked hardy boys' sports. There are memories of feelings but few active tales. She gives little impression of the rough and tumble of families: despite her numerous siblings, she felt much like an only child or, rather, a far older daughter, too responsible too young.

    In Beverley, the Wollstonecrafts took lodgings in the triangular Wednesday Market where there was a bustling trade in farm stuff and leather every week. The town, with about 5000 inhabitants, was small and neat, `admirably built and paved'. At the beginning of the century its society was dominated by county families who kept large detached mansions. Later it grew increasingly middle class, led less by gentry than clergymen, merchants, army officers and professional men, who built semi-detached and terraced houses. These were often leased to visitors who found the town relatively cheap, while being attracted to its cultured style and amenities.

    One such house was probably the rented home of the Wollstonecrafts. Beverley Minster, built on cathedral-scale, was their nearest church and Mary took a short walk down Highgate to reach it. Contemplating it she could not have avoided gaining some taste for religious beauty. Its elegant late Gothic architecture had been recently restored and augmented by intricate lacy choir stalls carved above medieval misericords. These latter depicted town life and fabulous anecdotes: a man madly shoeing a goose, a cat playing the fiddle to her kittens. Mary was not a devotee of religious magnificence and she came to despise the `childish routine' of `slovenly' services in great cathedrals, but she found huge Gothic piles sublime and, after living so close to such a towering edifice, could never warm to Dissenting austerity in places of worship. She scorned the small, mean chapels of the Methodists being established in Beverley and the villages. True to her class, she found them and their worshippers inelegant and vulgar.

    Apart from its Minster and restrained aesthetic, Beverley had the civic attractions burgeoning by mid-century in provincial towns; they appealed to a teenaged girl who had spent the previous three years in the country: a theatre, assembly rooms for concerts, meeting and dancing, a nearby poetry society, and a circulating library, an innovative system of lending books through subscription, paid yearly, quarterly, or even weekly by poor subscribers. Reading was an important part of life, especially for women whose literacy was increasing faster than men's, and the most famous contemporary man of letters, Dr Johnson, was right in his remark that `General literature now pervades the nation through all its ranks.' London books by Goldsmith and Smollett could be purchased in York and Hull, while local authors offered sentimental romances and manuals on farming and cookery. Practical books on education were becoming popular, as well as the usual improving works for young persons such as Youth's Faithful Monitor, but it seems unlikely that Edward Wollstonecraft rushed to purchase these aids for his young brood. He himself probably avoided the Complete English Farmer advertised in the local paper, but might have taken one of the town-and-country magazines that kept provincials in touch with London, helped support a gentlemanly status, and provided tips on horse-racing along with national news.

    Unhappily for his family, there was a race-course just outside the town on the Walkington side. Its grandstand was first erected in the year they arrived. Indeed its proximity might have influenced Edward in his initial choice of farm. The main races were in Whit week, and the newspapers carried descriptions of contestants. With a little travelling on the horse he so much enjoyed, he could attend race-weeks through much of the year. When Beverley was over, there were York, Richmond, Wakefield, and Doncaster. The rest of the time he could spend drinking and abusing his family. Sometimes he hit his eldest daughter, but he did not whip her.

    In the little provincial town where everybody knew everyone's business, Edward Wollstonecraft became a byword for foul temper and drunkenness. He upset his children and caused especial chagrin to Mary. Under the onslaught, his wife could do little but suffer and hug her favourite son. `The good folks of Beverley (like those of most Country towns) were very ready to find out their Neighbours' faults, and to animadvert on them; — Many people did not scruple to prognosticate the ruin of the whole family, and the way he went on, justified them for so doing,' she wrote.

    In response to parental failings and neglect, she assumed a mother's role for the children that followed, especially the girls. Though too young for it, she yet found the role gratifying. Her bid for power even extended to her mother: she later told Godwin she had slept at nights on the landing near her mother's bedroom door to shield her from her drunken father's blows, not a situation Elizabeth Wollstonecraft can much have relished. The shielding might have answered Mary's desire to be useful, but the sight of a mother being beaten by an angry father must have troubled a sensitive girl: she felt hostile to the man who hit and the woman who succumbed. Marriage and tyranny were joined, as were love and power.

    The experience of public and private shame strengthened and undermined Mary's character. In these Beverley days she became competitive, firm and determined, yet always threatened by an impulse towards abjection and self-disgust. To compensate, she later took fierce pride in her early struggles; towards the end of her life she wrote, `strong Indignation in youth at injustice &c appears to me the constant attendant of superiority of understanding.' And, less complacently, `A degree of exertion, produced by some want, more or less painful, is probably the price we must pay for knowledge' Her knowledge included rejection of her inadequate parents and the resolution `never to marry for interested motives, or endure a life of dependence'. In time she made her childhood unhappiness serve her purpose, but she never shed it.


Beverley had the advantage of allowing Mary some education. The eldest boys, destined for law and medicine, must have had formal training and, at some early affluent time, the parents planned a governess for the girls. But Edward's extravagance killed the scheme and they had to make do with occasional schooling, the sort which, according to the educationist Dr Gregory, would enable them `to fill up, in a tolerably agreeable way, some of the many solitary hours [they] must necessarily pass at home'. Presumably their mother taught them their letters with counters and cards and, as the eldest, Mary enforced the teaching on the younger siblings.

    She herself attended a local day-school for girls, one of the many flourishing in the eighteenth century. A city like Chester had dozens, London far more. Beverley would have had at least two or three, none very expensive. Mrs Bine's boarding-school in nearby Hull taught girls for £15 a year and half a guinea entrance fee; day pupils could attend for half a guinea a quarter. Mrs Idle of York declared that her school discouraged `too high Notions' and attended to housewifery and morals, but mostly the curriculum aimed at making a girl marriageable and ladylike — the nation's increased commercial wealth allowed men to enter new professions; for middle-class women it opened up the new role of `lady'. For this a girl needed rudimentary French, needlework, music, dancing, writing, possibly some botany and accounts. Schools with more elevated pupils would stress deportment, fancy needlework and more French. Ann Hill of York made pupils converse in the language, so could charge over the going rate: fifteen guineas for boarders and 15S per quarter for day students. Beverley is unlikely to have offered so much; the later trouble Mary had with French indicates little progress with the language as a child.

    Latin was a staple subject of a boy's education: it opened up the classics and some science and philosophy, still available only in that language. Occasionally, Latin might be offered to a girl in school or at home from ambitious parents. But there was such cultural fear of the learned bluestocking as a byword for unmarriageability that few persevered. The clever Hester Chapone recoiled from a woman's `exchanging the graces of imagination for the severity and preciseness of a scholar'. By Wollstonecraft's time a degree of learning might be part of ornamental accomplishments, useful for quieting a woman at home, but anything more was unnatural.

    As a rigorously trained man, Godwin later described Mary's Beverley schooling condescendingly: `it was not to any advantage of infant literature, that she was indebted for her subsequent eminence; her education in this respect was merely such, as was afforded by the day-schools of the place.' Yet, however short and inadequate, there is little doubt that she gained something: a knowledge of arithmetic perhaps, practice in writing and memorising quotations. Years later, when she considered national education, she praised the `country day-school' for its inclusiveness and preparation for citizenship, in marked contrast to the great exclusive male public schools teaching vice and tyranny.

    At home or with friends she read general books, magazines and newspapers, learning to consider social issues troubling the nation — and Beverley. The growth of vagrancy, for example: one eighteen-strong gang afflicted the town and taxed its small House of Correction. Elsewhere, the poor responded violently to inflation and monopolies: market-women in Norwich overturned traders' carts, believing their owners were keeping prices artificially high. Mary did not care for violence or mass action: she had a strong sense of the individual.

    Trade was further interrupted by rumblings from America, the faraway continent which seemed a distant part of England. Already in 1771, the York Courant, excerpting news from London papers, described militant Boston patriots contemptuously returning a chest of millinery items to Bristol as `unnecessary Gew-Gaws'. Over the next years the `unhappy Differences with America' swelled into war. There was little jingoism in reports, more a sadness at a squabble among brothers that seemed to have gone tragically wrong. The later liberal sophistication of several Wollstonecraft children suggests that they read newspapers when young and possibly discussed politics at home or outside. Many thinking people sympathised with the American cause, despite its antagonism to England, and, when she later came to pronounce on past events, Mary echoed this sympathy.

    The newspapers also printed comic anecdotes, often lightly misogynous; it was easy to gauge the culture's thinking on women. For example, they told of a London lady who, having ordered an elegant masquerade costume, went to boast to friends. While she was out, a creditor called and encountered the husband, a man of `humorous Turn'. He bade him take and sell the costume in payment. On learning what had happened, the lady took `to her Bed with Vexation'. Yet, however trivially they were represented in papers, Mary could note how keenly women were solicited as readers. The Lady's Magazine had now become two rival periodicals each desperately touting for business.

    Although so far from the London rulers, she could yet note the doings of the rich through the press. At Windsor, a ceremony of aristocratic installation was on so grand a scale that provincials could only gape. A hairdresser near St James's engaged ninety-four journeymen at half a guinea a day to decorate genteel heads, while the Duke of Grafton's robes cost 3000 guineas, excluding diamonds. In Windsor Castle 2000 beds were prepared; there were 2000 tables and 17 kitchens with 50 cooks in each. In one episode of the dinner, ladies were to swap places with the populace, but `the Canaille', as the York Courant called them, `were too impatient to wait ... the Moment the Desert was brought in, they rushed forward, & entirely cleared the tables in 2 minutes'. They also demolished in seconds a fountain of confectionery, while commandeering all the dinner of the King's Watermen and Gentlemen Pensioners. At the end of the festivities Windsor Castle had lost ten dozen spoons, much table linen and china, and suffered countless breakages. Velvet had been cut from chair backs, and tails of gowns ripped off ladies; one guest had her pearl ear-ring snatched by the `rapacious' many. Still, the whole was a magnificent event and Drury Lane staged a representation in their next theatrical season.

    The polarisation of rich and poor indicated in such incidents disturbed thinking people. They sensed a gulf that might violently be bridged between landowners and landless. Newspapers told of poachers punished with the `utmost Rigour of the Law' and of press gangs coming up the nearby river Ouse to capture unwilling `Hands' from villages, stealing them from poor families. On one such occasion Hannah Snell, the famous Amazon who had fought in campaigns, offered to defend a victim: she would fight anyone with fists, sticks or staffs — when she had `put off her Stays, Gown, and Petticoats, and put on Breeches'. She had, she boasted, sailed the world, suffering more wounds than they had fingers: they should get back to sea and stop sneaking around like `Kidnappers'. Then she snatched `the poor Fellow from the Gang, and restored him to his Wife'. So the `long Petticoats, headed by a Veteran Virago, overcame the short Trowsers.' Edward Wollstonecraft probably thought this ridiculous. He kept his wife where she should be, under his control.


Beyond schooling and access to print, Beverley gave Mary cultured society. This included young Jane Arden, her especial friend. Jane made her declare the Beverley time a period of serenity as well as shame: `I often recollect with pleasure the many agreeable days we spent together when we eagerly told every girlish secret of our hearts — Those were peaceful days.' Together the girls read, talked of books and shared secrets. Since the mid-teens were the median age for menstruation, they probably whispered about the troublesome effluence of the female body which, in popular belief, curdled milk, rotted meat and stopped bread rising. They laughed `from noon 'till night', gossiped about boys, and took rolling walks on the meadows and woods past windmills and ruins on Westwood common.

    Mary had met Jane at her father's lectures. Poor but proudly terming himself a `philosopher', John Arden was one of several itinerant lecturers who visited larger provincial towns responding to the new interest in experimental science. At this transitional point when science had entered general polite culture but not become professionalised it was accessible to laymen — and women. Arden had acquired a special portable laboratory of instruments, even inventing an electric orrery himself. The Catholic landowner William Constable from Burton Constable Hall in Hull, a great collector, used him as his agent, in one year spending the huge sum of £191; John Marshall, the maker, charged £12 for an instrument demonstrating electricity and £9 for another made of 7 lb of brass, with a further 15S for a covering of buckskin. High temperature thermometers were expensively obtained from the Staffordshire Wedgwoods, who shared the interest in science. With his elaborate instruments Arden taught a course on electricity, gravitation, magnetism, astronomy, optics and the expansion of metals. Students could use the cheaper microscopes and telescopes themselves; they would learn to read maps and globes showing the configuration of earth and planets.

    Mary attended the lectures; later she visited the Ardens' home, finding it intellectual and harmonious beside her own turbulent one. Mr Arden encouraged her and taught her with Jane: she was proud to compete for praise.


When Jane went away Mary solaced herself by writing letters, desperate to keep herself in focus and impress with her sensitivity. They foreshadow a lifetime of prickly correspondence, in which she would assume postures alternately of neediness and lofty independence. They do more: they provide an extraordinary window on the mind of a fourteen-year-old girl with all her awkward yearnings and intellectual desires. They differ from the letters of the adult vindicator of women in style and vocabulary-but bear remarkable resemblances in mannerisms and tone.

    The first extant letters come from 1773 or early 1774, when Jane was visiting a Miss C in Hull. Mary made a few spiteful remarks about other girls, including Miss R[udd?], who, she feared, was usurping her place as `best friend'. Then she quoted some dire local verses:


What nymph so fair as Dolly,
Smart as Stanhope's polly,
Should you be seen, with gout or spleen
They'll cure your melancholy.


Nine stanzas of this mock-ballad were copied out for her friend, presumably rather admired by young Mary. If only she could be the object of poetry herself, she sighed, be numbered among the `Beverley beauties'.

    Having displayed her literary bent, she was eager to apologise for defects she might expose — she had had little schooling and was no calligrapher:


I have just glanced over this letter and find it so ill written that I fear you cannot make out one line of this last page, but — you know, my dear, I have not the advantage of a Master as you have, and it is with great difficulty to get my brother to mend my pens.


Jane answered from Hull, describing Miss C's impudence to her parents, as well as the absurd `beau' plaguing her. Mary was delighted at the cattiness and replied, `I cannot help pitying you; a girl of your delicacy must be disgusted with such nonsense.'

    Then Jane returned to Beverley and Miss C came to stay. The intimacy of the letters diminished; Mary felt excluded. Jane argued that a person could have many equal friends; Mary doubted it, believing there was always a hierarchy — she needed to be on top. The girls quarrelled and refused to speak to each other. So Mary dashed off an aggrieved note:


Your behaviour at Miss J—'s hurt me extremely, and your not answering my letter shews that you set little value on my friendship. — If you had sent to ask me, I should have gone to the play, but none of you seemed to want my company. — I have two favors to beg, the one is that you will send me all my letters; — the other that you will never mention some things which I have told you. — To avoid idle tell-tale, we may visit ceremoniously, and to keep up appearances, may whisper, when we have nothing to say: — The beaux whisper insignificantly, and nod without meaning. — I beg you will take the trouble to bring the letters yourself, or give them to my sister Betsy [Eliza].


The note produced no response, and Mary grew more frantic and self-revealing:


Miss Arden. — Before I begin I beg pardon for the freedom of my style. — If I did not love you I should not write so; — I have a heart that scorns disguise, and a countenance which will not dissemble: — I have formed romantic notions of friendship. — I have been once disappointed: — I think if I am a second time I shall only want some infidelity in a love affair, to qualify me for an old maid, as then I shall have no idea of either of them.- I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none ... I would not have seen it, but your behaviour the other night I cannot pass over; — when I spoke of sitting with you at Church you made an objection, because I and your sister quarrelled; — I did not think a little raillery would have been taken in such a manner, or that you would have insinuated, that I dared to have prophaned so sacred a place with idle chit-chat.
I once thought myself worthy of your friendship; — I thank you for bringing me to a right sense of myself. — When I have been at your house with Miss J—the greatest respect has been paid to her; every thing handed to her first; — in short, as if she were a superior being: — Your Mama too behaved with more politeness to her.
... There is no accounting for the imbecillity of human nature — I might misconstrue your behaviour, but what I have written flows spontaneously from my pen and this I am sure, I only desire to be done by as I do; — I shall expect a written answer to this ...


The outpouring seems to have affected Jane, and Mary was slightly mollified; she needed to forgive her friend sufficiently to allow continued corresponding and talking. With little significance at home, she wanted consequence outside: for who she was, not just for what services she might fulfil.

    The delicate manoeuvre of partial forgiveness was effected in the next letter through some popular lines of poetry. She had already displayed her enthusiasm for Beverley's verse, now she could show she also knew Gray, Pope and Dryden:


I have read some where that vulgar minds will never own they are in the wrong: - I am determined to be above such a prejudice, and give the lie to the poet who says —


`Forgiveness to the injured does belong
`But they ne'er pardon, who have done the wrong'


and hope my ingenuously owning myself partly in fault to a girl of your good nature will cancel the offence — I have a heart too susceptible for my own peace: - Till Miss C— came, I had very little of my own; I constantly felt for others; -


`I gave to misery all I had, a tear,
`I gained from heaven, `twas all I wished a friend.' ...


As to the affair at Miss J—'s I am certain I can clear myself from imputation. — I spent part of the night in tears; (I would not meanly make a merit of it.) — I have not time to write fully on the subject, but this I am sure of, if I did not love you, I should not be angry. — I cannot bear a slight from those I love ...


    A postscript told Jane that she kept her letters `as a Memorial that you once loved me, but it will be of no consequence to keep mine as you have no regard for the writer.' She returned an `Essay upon friendship which your Papa lent me the other day ... Friendship founded upon virtue Truth and love; — it sweetens the cares, lessens the sorrows, and adds to the joys of life. — ... Happy beyond expression is that pair who are thus united ...' The essay was a blueprint for friendship and Jane was urged to live up to it.

    Thereafter the girls settled down and recommended books to each other again. Both continued lessons with Jane's father, Mary still (jokingly) competitive: `Pray tell the worthy Philosopher, the next time he is so obliging as to give me a lesson on the globes, I hope I shall convince him I am quicker than his daughter at finding out a puzzle, tho' I can't equal her at solving a problem.'


In these letters to Jane Arden Mary sought to create herself as a literary lady who would never write frivolously of her feelings: she had already internalised a notion that her writing was authentic, expressing `true' emotion and that her raw articulation was superior to conventional polish. The letters show that she found a partly nurturing, partly admonitory authority in books, substituting for that of unacceptable parents. Apart from the Beverley doggerel, she quotes the usual canon of male literature urged on women in the conduct manuals of the day: she read anthologies that excerpted their most serviceable and soothing lines and told genteel young girls to store them up against future trials of the female life. Surprisingly, she was not fascinated with romance, that staple of circulating libraries which fed the imaginations of most literate girls and against which the culture sternly warned. She did not even refer to Richardson's Pamela and its fable of virtuous feminine power. Perhaps she was reacting to her mother. There is no special evidence that Mrs Wollstonecraft liked novels, but, in her fictional depiction of an inadequate mother, Mary portrays a reader of romance.

    However uncommon her avoidance of romance, Mary was a child of her time in her fantasy of sentimental friendship. In the Lady's Magazine of 1779 in a story called `Matilda: or, the Female Recluse', the wealthy heroine, finding her suitor desiring her money, retires with her friend to lead an idyllic life of reading without men, sharing `one house ... one purse ... one heart', much as the real-life Ladies of Llangollen had done with éclat some years before and the poet Anna Seward wanted to do with her adopted sister. In both her novels, Mary, A Fiction and The Wrongs of Woman, Mary portrayed powerful female ties that improved on the unsatisfactory one of mother and daughter. They were so intense they transformed friends into family.

    While seeking to define elevated friendship Mary made extreme emotional demands on Jane. The letters display a mental masochism as Mary pursued what must in the end cause misery: the demand for more significance than Jane could grant. She wanted from her friend what literary romance allowed the heterosexual couple: that the pair form a little island against the world, each first with the other. It was a demanding notion, one never quite abandoned. Declaring herself desperate for independence throughout her life, she was never solely satisfied with pursuing autonomy; insufficiently loved, she competed relentlessly for affection and, lacking self-worth, desperately desired to be first with someone — anyone except her parents or herself. This power in longing, coupled with powerlessness in society, gave her mature writing its raw energy — as it gives these early letters.

    Energy also came from her belief that she could change others with her words. At fourteen or fifteen Mary had little desire to change herself and did not wonder at her own attitudes or deviate from her tones of hurt, peevishness or apology. She took pride in her instability and especial sensitivity. Tossing out her letters to control her friend's attitudes, she did not stop to think whether they should be sent. As thoroughly as any American of the 1970s, Mary was caught in the sentimental myth that it was good to express every emotion, to let everything hang out. She had not the benefit of reading Jane Austen, born during these years, and of learning that sometimes one needed to keep quiet or not write. Neither young Mary nor the adult Wollstonecraft would have anything of this mannerly reticence. She must be taken as she was or feel rejected and bite back.

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations vii
Preface ix
List of principal characters xiii
PART I 1
PART II 121
PART III 203
PART IV 365
Notes 459
Bibliography 497
Index 507
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