Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) 1759-1797
English essayist, novelist, letter writer, author of children's books, and translator.
For additional information on Wollstonecraft's life and works, see LC, Volume 5.
A liberal essayist of the eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft was an ardent proponent of political and social freedom. In her work she combined logic and polemics in arguing for greater social justice and individual autonomy. Influenced by such Enlightenment thinkers as Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Wollstonecraft extended the radical doctrine of the rights of man to include the rights of woman. Many now consider her controversial manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), the first modern feminist tract, thus bearing out Wollstonecraft's claim that she was "the first of a new genus."
Born in London, Wollstonecraft was the daughter of a would-be gentleman farmer and his wife, her father having abandoned the prosperous family trade of weaving in order to pursue farming. The Wollstonecraft family relocated frequently during Mary's childhood, living at various times in London and the surrounding area, Yorkshire, and Wales, but nowhere did Edward John Wollstonecraft succeed in his chosen career. The domestic life of the Wollstonecrafts, never happy, progressively worsened as Mary's father succumbed to alcoholism. Wollstonecraft was frequently a witness to her father's physical abuse of her mother, who meekly suffered her husband's violence. Nor did Wollstonecraft receive support from her mother, who openly preferred and indulged Wollstonecraft's brother, Edward. Resolved to become independent, Wollstonecraft left home against her parents' wishes in 1778 to accept the position of paid companion to a widow in Bath. She was obliged to return to her family in London two years later to care for her dying mother, but upon the latter's death immediately left again, this time living with the family of her close friend Frances ("Fanny") Blood, a young woman about her own age whom she had met some years before and to whom she had formed a strong attachment. Wollstonecraft remained with Fanny Blood and her parents for a few years, contributing with her needlework to the family's meager income. In 1783 Wollstonecraft's sister Eliza suffered a mental breakdown following the birth of a daughter. Believing that her brother-in-law was the cause of his wife's distress, Wollstonecraft arranged to remove Eliza from his house and later obtained a legal separation. Having undertaken responsibility for her sister, and faced with the necessity of earning a living, Wollstonecraft opened a school at Newington Green, near London, with Fanny Blood, Eliza, and another sister, Everina. The enterprise was a success, but the partnership dissolved in 1785 when Blood married a longtime suitor and traveled with him to Portugal. Some months later Wollstonecraft also journeyed to Portugal in order to visit her pregnant and ailing friend, but arrived only to witness Fanny's death in childbirth. Upon her return to England the following month, Wollstonecraft was forced to close the school due to financial difficulties. Soon afterward, she wrote her first essay, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life, and made the acquaintance of the liberal-minded publisher Joseph Johnson, who agreed to issue it. However, conscious of a pressing need for money, Wollstonecraft left England for Ireland, where she took a post as a governess to Lord Kingsborough's children; while thus employed, she wrote her first novel, Mary: A Fiction. In 1787, Wollstonecraft was dismissed from her duties by Lady Kingsborough.
Wollstonecraft subsequently settled in London, determined to support herself by writing. Johnson became her mentor in this new venture, introducing her to literary and political London and charging her to undertake translations and reviews for the Analytical Review, a politically liberal periodical that he and Thomas Carlisle had recently founded. With the publication of her A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, Wollstonecraft fully established herself as an equal in a circle of radical thinkers that included Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Godwin, and the painter Henry Fuseli. Wollstonecraft fell in love with Fuseli, but the feeling was not reciprocated, and when her proposal to join the Fuseli household was firmly rejected by the artist's wife, Wollstonecraft journeyed alone to Paris to recover from her disappointment. Paris in 1792 was in the midst of the chaotic violence of the French Revolution, and while Wollstonecraft, like other liberal English intellectuals, wholeheartedly supported the revolution, she was nonetheless appalled and to some degree endangered by the excesses of the Reign of Terror; her thoughts and the conclusions she drew during this time are recorded in her An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794).
In Paris Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American author and businessman. They became lovers and the following year Wollstonecraft's daughter Fanny was born. Imlay soon ceased to care for Wollstonecraft, but as he was unable or unwilling to admit this, the dissolution of their affair was painful and protracted.Following a brief reunion in London in 1795, Wollstonecraft became so despondent upon learning of Imlay's involvement with another woman that she attempted suicide. Little is known of the circumstances of the attempt—it is thought that she took laudanum—but Imlay prevented its success and persuaded Wollstonecraft to undertake some business of his in Scandinavia, in the hope that the change of scene might prove beneficial to her. Wollstonecraft accordingly embarked with Fanny and her nurse for an extended tour of Scandinavia, which resulted in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). When she returned to England she again despaired of a happy resolution of her affair with Imlay and again attempted suicide—this time by jumping off a bridge into the River Thames—but was rescued by passing boatmen.
Wollstonecraft recovered and eventually resumed writing, contributing material to the periodical the Analytical Review. She also renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin, now famous as the author of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), an essay much acclaimed in radical circles. In time Godwin and Wollstonecraft became lovers and, when Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they married. They did, however, maintain separate residences as a means of retaining independence and keeping their relationship fresh. The arrangement was apparently congenial and marriage happy, though brief. Within days of giving birth to a daughter, Mary (the future Mary Shelley), Wollstonecraft died of postpartum complications.
The tenor of Wollstonecraft's work is intimately related to the time in which she lived, when reason, empiricism, and individualism were beginning to supersede the long-established reliance on faith, prescription, and authority. These Enlightenment ideas are integral to Wollstonecraft's work and form the basis of her argument in her most famous and controversial essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. A Vindication is an important milestone in the development of modern thought: in it Wollstonecraft was the first to advance the tenets of feminism. She contends that the great majority of women are intellectually and ethically inferior to men not because of a lack of native ability or potential but because inferior education and insidious social conditioning render them so. Wollstonecraft argues that women are rational creatures just as men are, and as such are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities. A Vindication combines pragmatic suggestions for ameliorating the status of women with theoretical social philosophy.
Many of the practical aspects of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are an expansion of ideas Wollstonecraft expressed in the earlier Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Thoughts is a lessstartling work but one which contains the germs of the ideas advocated in A Vindication, primarily the implementation of a rational system of education similar to that outlined in Rousseau's Émile (1762), but with one important difference—Wollstonecraft's academic utopia is coeducational. Both the philosophy and the emotion that mark A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are also evident in the earlier A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft wrote this Vindication in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (1790), a denunciation of the tactics of the French Revolution and a caution to England against opting for idealistic democratic schemes without giving due consideration to the political and moral validity of the system of established aristocracy. To Wollstonecraft's mind, Burke's Reflections advocated the preservation of a political status quo which she found unacceptable to human liberty and demeaning to the human spirit. A Vindication of the Rights of Men thus attacks class and economic barriers and asserts the worth of the individual and the natural right of humanity to govern itself.
Wollstonecraft continued her analysis of the French Revolution in An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, which records Wollstonecraft's personal view of the revolution interspersed with philosophical and political theorizing. As a panoramic treatment of the French Revolution, An Historical and Moral View examines both the actual events of the revolution and the social and political causes that gave rise to it. The work also addresses the violations of natural rights that made the uprising inevitable, and outlines the changes in government and society which much take place ' before harmony can be restored.
Wollstonecraft's minor works are also her least controversial. Early works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness contain little innovative thought; indeed the latter, a collection of pedagogical and moral exempla for children and their teachers, is especially redolent of Christian platitudes and moral commonplaces. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark has been described by Mitzi Meyers as "a generic hybrid, a kind of subjective autobiography superimposed on a travelogue." The prototypes of the Letters are letters that Wollstonecraft wrote to Imlay during her sojourn in Scandinavia; purged of the intense emotionalism of the originals, the published letters retain elements of personal feeling and philosophical observations, interwoven with Wollstonecraft's informal descriptions of people and places. Wollstonecraft also wrote two novels, Mary: A Fiction (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, the latter remaining unfinished at the time of her death. both-novels verge on autobiography, particularly Mary, which details the misery of the young heroine's childhood and the fervor of her attachment to a friend who dies young. Each novel describes the unhappy adventures of a young woman at the mercy of her unfeeling husband and of a society that restricts her autonomy. The novels are masterpieces of melodrama, abounding with villainous men and helpless women, treachery, madness, and suicide.
With her works a mixture of history, ethics, political doctrine, and propaganda, Wollstonecraft has been examined more for the ideas embodied in her writing than for the quality of that writing. Early critical assessment of Wollstonecraft's more controversial works depended upon the political stance and social view of the individual critic. The attention excited by the two Vindications and An Historical and Moral View amounted to fame in some circles and infamy in others. Lauded by like-minded progressive intellectuals as an intrepid champion of human rights, she was derided by more conservative critics as a rebellious, haranguing "hyena in petticoats," as Horace Walpole put it. Much of this early antipathy to Wollstonecraft's work was linked with censure of her personal life; she was reviled as a promiscuous woman whose depravity could not fail to exert a corrupting influence on those who read her essays.
The furor of controversy surrounding Wollstonecraft's work abated as the conflicts of the Enlightenment period faded and as many of Wollstonecraft's revolutionary precepts became political reality. Still, some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics who agreed with her principles took exception to the manner in which they are expressed: Edward Dowden chided her for "a want of becoming reserve," and George Edward Woodberry in 1921 regretted her lack of "feminine delicacy." On the whole, after the original controversy had died down, interest declined in Wollstonecraft's work, though such nineteenth-century literary women as George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant praised her efforts and innovation.
The changing status of women in the twentieth century and the growing acceptance of feminism have wrought both an upsurge of interest in Wollstonecraft and a corresponding change in the critical appraisal of her work. Few modern critics debate Wollstonecraft's ideological stance; with the controversy thus defused, critical attention has shifted to a more careful consideration of her literary and stylistic merit. Seen from this standpoint, Wollstonecraft's writings have drawn mixed reviews. One frequent objection is that, although Wollstonecraft's ideas are firmly grounded in philosophy, they are often loaded with emotional polemics. The two Vindications and An Historical and Moral View, indicative as they are of the fervently held beliefs of their author, are thought by many commentators to be too passionate to succeed as political disquisitions. V. S. Pritchett's description of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as "a passionate, assertive, headlong, slapdash book, terribly repetitious andexclamatory" could well be applied to the other two essays as they are all characterized by indignation and anger expressed in strong and certain terms. Other critics contend that the essays succeed precisely because of the passion that informs them, and that their undeniable sincerity heightens their effect. On balance, Wollstonecraft's shortcomings are considered of minor importance in relation to the ideological innovation of the essays, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski has declared the "prototype of feminist protest literature."
Those works most favored by the majority of eighteenth-century critics—Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Original Stories—though once quite popular, have, since been consigned to relative obscurity. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is the only work of Wollstonecraft to be consistently praised since its publication as an appealing combination of objective description, philosophical rumination, and personal narrative. The novels Mary and Maria, though considered interesting from an autobiographical standpoint and as indicators of Wollstonecraft's deepest feminist concerns, are generally agreed to be failures as works of literature. As Edna Kenton has remarked, Wollstonecraft was "too much the propagandist to be the artist"—her habitual emotional insistence on her point, while excusable or even admirable in the essays, is unpleasantly jarring in her fiction. Critics have faulted Wollstonecraft's characterization as superficial and her narrative impartiality as nonexistent; Janet Todd has observed that Wollstonecraft is "flauntingly partisan" on behalf of her protagonist, Mary, a fact which fails to endear the character to the reader. The novels have been defined as an uneasy blend of Gothic horror, sentimentalism, and feminist propaganda. Margaret George has summed up Wollstonecraft's novelistic talent thus: "As a writer of fiction … she worked with conscientious mediocrity within the worst conventions of her time; to the modern mind, her novels are the essence of sentimental nonsense, contrived plots of nobly suffering females and beastly males, all of them pretentiously and clumsily drawn." Recently, however, a number of critics have read these novels as extensions and critiques of her theoretical work, and their importance in Wollstonecraft's oeuvre has been reevaluated.
It is primarily for her radical essays that Wollstonecraft is remembered, however. As a writer, her primary concern throughout her life was independence, and it is for her independent thought, particularly as it is expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that she is renowned. Once derided as "this female lunatic," she is now recognized, as Ellen Moers has said, as "the greatest of polemical feminists," and is credited with being the first author to articulate modern feminist principles. Perhaps the widely recognized fundamental validity of her work is best described by Virginia Woolf's remark that A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, once thought sorevolutionary, "are so true that they seem now to contain nothing new in them—their originality has become our commonplace."