Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was thus a foremother of feminism. She was also a war reporter, a pedagogue, a spiritual quester, a radical republican, a single mother, a passionate & taboo-breaking lover.
Her story is ripe for the telling. This blog gathers anecdotes, freelance research, resources, and news of current projects: your one-stop Mary Wollstonecraft shop!
I am not a historian, a phrase I abbreviate in emulation of non-legal friends. IANAH. Please bear this in mind. Mary Wollstonecraft is a hobby for me, a passion, but not a source of income, directly or indirectly. Over the last couple of years I've discovered angles on her that aren't mentioned in the standard biographies. Some of these tidbits are established fact, and some are speculation on my part. This blog will spell them out, in between telling the story of Mary's life, and sharing resources for Marian idolatryadoration edification. In today's entry, I'll describe how this non-historian goes about that most rewarding of intellectual pass-times, finding things out, especially things that no one, or hardly anyone, seems to have noticed before.
Beginning my amateur research
I started out by looking for full text, out of copyright, digital copies of her works. I went to www.archive.org and searched the text section for Wollstonecraft. So far, so simple. The first result was, as one might expect, something by our Mary, although not a Vindication, but her work of children's literature, Original Stories. Then, to my surprise, many of the following entries were copies of a biography by Elizabeth Robins Pennell. Here is where I expose my ignorance: remember, IANAH. I am hardly the first to come across this 1884 work, but, having read the standard modern biographies, I had the impression that Mary had been dropped during the nineteenth century, pretty much from when the dust settled on her distraught widower's well-meaning but ill-judged memoir. (Lyndall Gordan's 2005 Vindication tries to make up for this, and devotes whole chapters to Mary's after-life, as it were, but does not mention ERP in her bibliography or index.) I knew that the early twentieth century Modernists paid homage to her long before the feminism of the 1960s, but I had no idea that she had been exhumed as early as 1884. Clearly, I need to educate myself.
Elizabeth Robins Pennellturns out to be an American author (1855-1936), connected to artists including Whistler, and this was her first book, completed in her late 20s. Archive.org lists multiple copies, held in different libraries and possibly representing different editions (I didn’t look), which have been scanned. The one I read and cite here was rife with OCR artifacts, which I’ve interpreted and brushed away. The biography was published in Boston by Roberts Brothers, as part of the Famous Women Series, the next volumes being Madame Roland (supporter of the French Revolution) by Mathilde Blind, and Harriet Martineau (pioneer sociologist) by Florence Fenwick Miller. A page of publication information states:
"Copyright, 1884, By Roberts Brothers.University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge." So -- a co-publication on both sides of the Pond? Interesting assertion of copyright....
The preface grabbed my attention. In its entirety it reads:
Comparatively little has been written about the life of MARY Wollstonecraft. The two authorities upon the subject are Godwin and Mr. C. Kegan Paul. In writing the following Biography I have relied chiefly upon the Memoir written by the former, and the Life of Godwin and Prefatory Memoir to the Letters to Imlay of the latter. I have endeavored to supplement the facts recorded in these books by a careful analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft's writings and study of the period in which she lived.
I must here express my thanks to Mr. Garnett, of the British Museum, and to Mr. C. Kegan Paul, for the kind assistance they have given me in my work. To the first named of these gentlemen I am indebted for the loan of a manuscript containing some particulars of Mary Wollstonecraft's last illness which have never yet appeared in print, and to Mr. Paul for the gift, as well as the loan, of several important books.
E. R. P.
London, August, 1884.
So she is under the impression that nothing serious had been written about MW between Godwin's hasty Memoir and ... who is this C. Kegan Paul chap? That leads me yet further backwards. He turns out to have been a publisher and prolific writer; given his helpfulness to young and unpublished ERP, one is tempted to see him as a Joseph Johnson figure. His publishing house is now part of Routledge. What drove him to resuscitate MW’s reputation is something I have yet to discover. And Mr Garnett must be Richard Garnett, big wig at the British Library.