The Enlightenment Period
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
How did the facts of Wollstonecraft’s life obscure her work?
Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was tumultuous in a way that was shocking to her peers and many later thinkers. Her husband, the philosopher William Godwin (1756–1836), wrote The Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a year after Mary had died in childbirth at the age of 37. Godwin, the founder of modern anarchism, was vilified by the poet Robert Southey for “the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked,” and in a satire called The Unsex’d Females, A Poem (1798) published by Richard Polwhele.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields, London, and her father squandered their money and took over her own small inheritance. He drank excessively and beat Mary’s mother. Her sisters, Everina and Eliza, were also to have unhappy marriages. In her teens, Mary became friends with Jane Arden, whose family had intellectual interests, and Fanny Blood, with whom she later started a school in Newington Green, which was known as a “dissenting community.”
Blood married, became ill, and died. The school fell apart, and Wollstonecraft worked as a governess, leaving after a year when she decided to support herself by writing. This was a very daring ambition for a woman at the time, and Wollstonecraft called herself “the first of a new genus.” In London, she was assisted by the publisher Joseph Johnson; she became part of a circle that included Thomas Paine and William Godwin, and supported herself by translating French and German texts after learning those languages. She had an affair with the married artist Henry Fuseli, who rejected her when his wife refused a platonic ménage à trois.
She then wrote Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), followed by Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and traveled to France a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There she fell in love with the adventurer Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had her daughter, Fanny. Imlay rejected Mary, and when she returned to England she twice tried to commit suicide. Eventually, she became romantically attached to Godwin and they married so that their child would be legitimate, though they lived in separate houses. Their daughter, Mary, became Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Fanny committed suicide at the age of 22.