The Magazine

Mary, Quite Contrary

A feminist heroine in the Age of Johnson

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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By age 19, Mary, largely self-educated, was on her own. She became a paid companion to a rich widow, a near-servant's job that she loathed. In 1784, she and her two sisters opened a school in Newington Green, two miles north of London. There she started attending a dissenting chapel presided over by Richard Price, a famous London rationalist who did not believe in the biblical doctrine of original sin but did believe in the American Revolution and its republican promise. The Adamses, when in London, were part of Price's congregation. Through Price, Wollstonecraft met the chemist Joseph Priestley, another rationalist and republican, and also Joseph Johnson, who persuaded her to write her first book about female education. She also met Samuel Johnson and got along with him surprisingly well, considering their different politics. She spurned several suitors, lavishing her emotional energies on intense female friendships. In 1786, she became a governess for a family of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, the Kings, but she declined to make herself agreeable and was dismissed within a year.

She returned from Dublin to London determined to make a living by her pen, which was almost unheard-of for a woman. Joseph Johnson gave her work doing translations, for which she taught herself French and German. She also wrote the first of a series of heavily autobiographical novels. In 1789 Price preached a sermon praising the French Revolution, and in response, Edmund Burke wrote his famous anti-Jacobin Reflections on the Revolution in France. In response to Burke, Mary published a tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, denouncing not only aristocracy but also slavery (the abolitionist William Wilberforce was an acquaintance of the Price set), which won her the admiration of Thomas Paine. Her Rights of Woman followed in 1792, making her famous although not rich, as did her pursuit of Fuseli, who turned down flat her offer to move in with him and his wife.

Perhaps stung by Fuseli's rejection, Mary sailed off to France to take a firsthand look at the French Revolution she admired so much. She arrived just in time for the trial and decapitation of Louis XVI and the attendant bloodbath, which horrified her but did not dampen her support for the rising. In Paris she met and fell for Gilbert Imlay. As Gordon suggests, despite her advocacy of free love, Wollstonecraft was probably still a virgin at age 33, although not for long.

Typical of America-worshipping intellectuals of her time, she took Imlay for a backwoods philosopher, when he was in fact from a well-off family in New Jersey. Imlay was a piece of work through whom only a bluestocking like Wollstonecraft could have been innocent enough not to see. He already had left a trail of broken female hearts in his wake, and in Paris he was simultaneously conniving to get himself appointed governor of French-held Louisiana and trying to make money off the Terror. Fanny was born in 1794. Shortly thereafter, he left Mary and the baby to live in London. By the time Wollstonecraft and their daughter joined him in April 1795, he had taken up with an actress. Wollstonecraft swallowed an overdose of laudanum, to be rescued by her lover at the last minute.

As a kind of consolation prize, Imlay made Wollstonecraft his business partner, sending her and toddler Fanny off to Sweden to pursue a lawsuit over one of his ventures: a shipload of silver seized from guillotined French aristocrats. The ship had disappeared, only to turn up partially wrecked and missing its cargo. Wollstonecraft was supposed to recover the silver, or else compensation, from the ship's captain. But the trial dragged on without resolution, and when she returned to London, Imlay had acquired yet another mistress. This time Wollstonecraft jumped off a Thames bridge; she was rescued again, although not by Imlay. Through all of this she wrote furiously: novels, a Scandinavian travel memoir, a book about the French Revolution, sheaves of letters.

Eventually she resolved to seduce Godwin, a minister-turned-atheist whom she had met through Joseph Johnson. Godwin was a cold fish of unprepossessing looks who carefully noted each of his sexual encounters with Wollstonecraft in coded diary entries, but he was loyal enough. Although he was as philosophically opposed as she to marriage, the two were wed just five months before little Mary's birth, and he adopted Fanny. They tried to make it a union of two independent spirits, but Wollstonecraft felt hurt that Godwin interpreted that to mean regular dining out with his own circle of friends (including Johnson and Fuseli), a circle that did not include her. One wonders what would have happened had she lived longer.

As Gordon points out, the high drama that was Mary Wollstonecraft did not end with her death. Godwin soon married again, and there was a third daughter, Clara Mary Jane. All three girls took over the Wollstonecraft impetuosity, and as with Wollstonecraft, it did not lead to happiness. Mary eloped with Shelley at age 16 and pregnant, ignoring the fact that he already had a pregnant teenage wife, Harriet, with whom he had also eloped. Harriet committed suicide, and Mary had to endure several infidelities herself before Shelley drowned at age 30. Meanwhile Fanny, who had been Shelley's first love in the Godwin household and was clearly heartbroken that he turned to her half-sister, committed suicide, too. Clara, professing free love, threw her virgin self at Lord Byron, but the poet not only declined to marry her when she got pregnant (she was beneath him socially) but refused to let her near their daughter, Allegra. Clara at least lived long enough to know Henry James at century's end. And then there was Wollstonecraft's Anglo-Irish tutee, Margaret King, later Lady Mount Cashell, who frolicked all over the continent of Europe cross-dressing and bearing offspring legitimate and illegimate by a number of men.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a powerful and eloquent writer. Much of what she wrote has not stood the test of time, nor have many of her ideas. Yet she did advocate rights for women in a day when women had precious few of them and when life without a husband was a terrifying prospect instead of, as now, merely a lonely one. She urged the creation of "an open road by which [women] can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence," but, unlike many of today's feminists, instructed women that they had to take responsibility for being treated seriously by men.

Wollstonecraft had the misfortune to live at "that dawn" of modernity at which, according to her contemporary, William Wordsworth, it was supposed to be "bliss . . . to be alive." It was not, at least not for Mary Wollstonecraft. But she did not have the benefit of two centuries of experience with some of the brave new theories she espoused.

Charlotte Allen is author, most recently, of The Human Christ.