Mary Wollstonecraft is not a well-known author, historical figure, or literary character despite the numerous publications about her writings and her life. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) which was not her first publication but her third. Wollstonecraft was born in London as the second daughter of seven siblings in an average middle-class family of the eighteenth century. Her father was an abusive, irresponsible man who did little to provide for his family. His lack of financial support for his family and his abusive nature toward his wife and children had a great impact upon Wollstonecraft’s life. The lack of resources for formal education or training forced Wollstonecraft to learn as much as she could on her own.
Given her family’s lack of financial resources for a suitable dowry, her meager self-education, and a desire to escape a dysfunctional family setting, Wollstonecraft pursued courses of employment available to women of her social status. She began work as a lady’s companion for roughly one year before she was forced to return home to care for her dying mother and her siblings. While caring for her siblings, she also managed to rescue her married sister, Bess, shortly after the birth of her child from what biographer Lyndall Gordon alludes to as a sexually abusive marriage. In need of some means of support, Mary and Bess set out to found a progressive school and boardinghouse. Their venture was successful enough to provide a means of support, and Mary was able to have her other sister, Everina, join them at the school. At this point Wollstonecraft’s life as a teacher was beginning to look more promising until the death of her dear friend Fanny Blood, to whose aid Wollstonecraft rushed in Portugal. When she was finally able to return to England, Wollstonecraft discovered that her sisters had let the school and boardinghouse fall into a financial shambles. She was forced to close the school and then took a position as governess in the home of Viscount and Lady Kingsborough in Ireland.
Of all the positions Wollstonecraft held, that of governess appears to be the one she detested most, yet her ideas on the education of women had a profound impact on her charges, especially on Margaret King, who went on to study and practice medicine in Spain. After working several years as a governess, Wollstonecraft was able to resign thanks to a generous gift from an acquaintance. She repaid her debts and moved to London to begin a new life as a writer. She was somewhat secretive in this endeavor, perhaps out of fear that she would fail but more likely because success might bring her eldest brother and father to lay claim to her earnings. The lack of substantial income either from her family or through her own pursuits, as well as her apparent loathing for positions of servitude, appear to be driving forces behind her desire to pursue an independent course as a writer. While marriage was a common means for women to obtain financial support, Wollstonecraft’s lack of a substantial dowry left her few choices. Although it can be argued that marriage as relief from financial burdens is not necessarily a choice either, and given the circumstances of the eighteenth century when women were considered property with few rights, it can easily be seen that this was no option for a free-thinker such as Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft was able to support herself through her writings and appears to have been comfortable in the life she created for herself in London. Eventually, she chose to go to Paris to report on the events of the French Revolution. Gordon notes that there are discrepancies among accounts of the circumstances surrounding this decision. Without additional primary source documentation, Wollstonecraft’s exact reasons for leaving for Paris will remain mysterious. Once in France, Wollstonecraft found old acquaintances from England and was eventually introduced to Gilbert Imlay, best...
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