Wollstonecraft, Mary, later Godwin, 1759—1797
by Benjamin Colbert
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in London, the eldest daughter of Edward Wollstonecraft (1736-1803), a merchant turned gentleman farmer, and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft, née Dixon (1730-1782). During Wollstonecraft’s childhood, the family moved frequently as her father sought unsuccessfully a profitable farm. Wollstonecraft was largely self-taught, although she received some formal education when the family resided near Beverley, Yorkshire, a stable period (1768-1775) in which she formed a close friendship with Jane Arden, later Gardiner (1758-1840).
After the Beverley years, her father gave up farming and the family relocated to London, for a time, and Wales. At nineteen, Wollstonecraft went into service as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson, the widow of a rich merchant, and followed her employer to Bath and Windsor. In 1781, she was called back by her family to nurse her dying mother. After her mother’s death, the family household broken up, Wollstonecraft resided with the family of Fanny Blood, a close friend from her London days. With two of her sisters and Fanny, Wollstonecraft next set up a school at Newington Green where she first became acquainted with the radical dissenting circles surrounding Richard Price (1723-1791; ODNB).
In 1785, Wollstonecraft travelled to Portugal to be with her recently married friend, Fanny Blood Skey, who was expecting a child. Blood died in childbirth and Wollstonecraft returned alone, an experience she would fictionalize in her novel, Mary, a Fiction (1788). Before then, she drew on her experiences as an educationalist with her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). Both works were published by the radical dissenting bookseller Joseph Johnson, who helped Wollstonecraft launch her literary career. In Johnson’s employ, Wollstonecraft wrote reviews for the Analytical Review, translated several works from French and German, and compiled The Female Reader … in Prose and Verse (1789).
It was her popular response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), however, that made Wollstonecraft famous. A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) was among the first answers to Burke and was widely circulated. Its sequel, the feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), surpassed even this and was quickly translated into French and German. In her personal life, Wollstonecraft was infatuated in these years with the painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) and proposed a ménage à trois in 1792 (which Fuseli’s wife rejected). In the aftermath of this affair, she travelled alone to Paris where she fell in love with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828), and became pregnant. Registered as Imlay’s ‘wife’ during the Terror, Wollstonecraft escaped prison, but was left on her own to give birth to their child at Le Havre in May 1794.
Back in London, abandoned by Imlay, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide; Imlay in response suggested she travel to Norway to transact business on his behalf. She did so in June 1795, accompanied by her infant (Fanny Imlay) and a French maid servant, writing letters to Imlay that became the basis for her travel book Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). After three and half months abroad, she returned to London, only to find that Imlay had taken another lover. She attempted suicide a second time, throwing herself off of Putney Bridge in October.
Writing Letters was no doubt part of her recovery. In 1796, she called on the radical philosopher William Godwin and later that year they became lovers. She conceived her second child that December, the future Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Shelley (1797-1851). In March 1797, she married Godwin and moved in with him. She died on 10 September 1797 following complications in childbirth.
Taylor, Barbara. 'Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Mary (1759–1797), author and advocate of women's rights'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 1 Sept. 2017. Oxford University Press. Web. 19 Mar. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10893
Todd, Janel. Mary Wollstonecraft: a Revolutionary Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000. Print.
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: New American Library, 1974. Print.
|Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark||1796|