Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary's life in five minutes

Here is the talk I gave at IGNITE London 3. Speaking clearly but swiftly, it took five minutes, as it had to:

Mary Wollstonecraft, an international Londoner, was a remarkable radical. Both her Vindications are still read in politics classes, but her life is less known.  Mary’s father inherited plenty of money, but drank and gambled it away. Mary, hungry for learning, at nine years old fell for Jane Arden, whose father had a library, and more or less taught herself. Sharing a bed was the norm. Mary and Ardent Jane were very close until their mid-teens when she transferred her schoolgirl crush to her new best friend Frances, with whom she wanted passionately to live and work. When they were their 20s they did so. Was this a romantic friendship? A so-called Boston marriage? Lesbian love? We can read into it what we wish.

Mary had left her unsupportive home at 18, and supported herself as a lady’s companion: grim servitude. A fairy godmother discovered her when she was 25, still impoverished and unpublished, and whisked her away to Newington Green.  With her sponsor’s contacts and capital, Mary set up a boarding school, thus providing a home to share with beloved Frances. The village was not a random choice: it was a haven for non-Conformists who respected hard work, sobriety, education, and women. A far cry from Mary’s childhood. Village life centred around the Dissenters’ chapel, and its minister, Richard Price, a gentle radical who supported the American Revolution. He spotted Mary's potential.

Meanwhile, Frances had fallen ill; she and Mary made the agonising decision that she should marry a family friend working in earthquake-ravaged Lisbon, believing the climate would help. Newly wed Frances was soon pregnant, and getting more ill; Mary crossed a stormy sea to nurse her dearest friend, arriving just in the nick of time: Frances was already in labour, delivered her baby into Mary’s arms, and then died. (This is called dramatic foreshadowing, and you couldn’t make it up.)  

By the time Mary got back to London, her school had gone bankrupt, so she had to go governessing to Ireland: grim, grim. Mary decided to write a book on the education of daughters.  In fact, she decided to leave employment altogether, and earn her living by writing. (“I will be the first of a new genus”, she says proudly.) She moved to London, seeking the help of a well-connected publisher named Joseph Johnson. He sets her up, and invites her into his illustrious circle. In these busy five years in London, Mary wrote the two works for which she remains best known. Her first Vindication was in direct response to Burke, who had turned conservative between the American and French Revolutions, and had attacked Mary’s mentor Richard Price. This book made her a star.  The second was built on the egalitarianism preached in Dissenting circles. It too was well received.

Then we come to the episode with the painter Fuseli. Mary became romantically involved, and tried to tell herself it was platonic. Yeah, right. She proposed a menage a trois. Fuseli was interested, his wife appalled. Mary decided to leave the country. Everyone was fleeing the revolution in France, so she went to it, as a freelance war correspondent, arriving in Paris just in time to see the king guillotined.

She fell in love and lust and bed with a tall dark handsome American called Gilbert Imlay. Soon she is pregnant, and walks around Paris with her belly out, because all rules were to be broken and the world to be made anew. Or as Wordsworth wrote later: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” And guess what, Imlay turns out to be a cad, and abandons her, which she takes a long time to realise. He left her and their child alone in France in the midst of the Terror. Could life be more frightening or violent? She follows him back to London, where she discovers him shacked up with a woman of the stage. Mary can take no more. She takes laudanum. Imlay rescues her. She offers to do anything to prove her devotion. He sends her off to Scandinavia in search of a missing ship full of silver (this is a genuine historical mystery). Alone with her babe and maid, Mary braved the risks of storms and shipwreck, not to mention pirates.

Anyway, while on this extended business trip for the man who’d jilted her, Mary found time to compose  essays, pre-dating the Romantics, about how her spirit responded to the sublime with awe, delight, and melancholy. Treasureless, she returned to London, to find Imlay gone. She tried to drown herself from Putney Bridge, but again was rescued. Now she reconciled herself to life with the help of William Godwin, anarchist philosopher, who says their friendship melted into love. She moved in with him. She got pregnant. She could not stand to bear another bastard, so asked him to marry her. They both had reasons not to, but they did the necessary at St Pancras Church. A few months later Mary was brought to bed of another daughter. A few days later she died, aged 38.  But her work lives forever more.

She truly was, as one infatuated man said, both "woman of reason, playful and passionate child of love". What the world needs now is Mary the Movie. I thank you.

[Addendum: finally, the video.]


  1. Fantastic! Wish I could have seen the presentation as well (have just found a video of it online on the ignite site - wish the internet connection here was fast enough to view it).

  2. Roberta: This is so, so delightfully worded, and in the spirit of rebel Mary. Wish I could see the completed video. I have just discovered a 19th-century autobiography of Mary by one Elizabeth Robins Pennell. She uses Godwin's Memoir and Kegan Paul's bio as reference, and works hard to prove that Mary was not the bad girl the stuffy Londoners said she was. (I wish one could post a comment here by using Name/URL. I keep forgetting my Google password, and it thinks my name is nancyden rather than Nancy Means Wright.)

  3. praisegod barebonesMarch 16, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    'What the world needs now is Mary the Movie'

    How about a musical?

  4. A musical? Or an opera?! I will be coming back to this idea a little later. Thanks for pointing me to Sandrine's inventiveness.

  5. I was left breathless at the end! Mary The Movie indeed! What a fearless life she led.

  6. @harryrud: I've finally put the video on this blog --

    @nancyden: Yes, that Victorian biography caught my attention too. I haven't given it the full going -over yet, but I mention it here --

    @vertigo: Mary the Movie proceeds apace ( a snail's pace, but still) on Saturdays, mostly.