Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mary's story, for those new to her

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is best remembered for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and as such is honoured as a foremother of feminism. Her thoughts and writing tackled a wider range than that would suggest: she made contributions to the fields of political philosophy and education, and to the Romantic appreciation of nature. She led a radical and exciting life, mainly in London, but with significant time in France during the Revolution, and with life-changing visits to Ireland, Lisbon, Yorkshire, and Scandinavia.

Early life
Mary had a hard time growing up. She was born in London into a family sliding down the social scale, and received only scanty schooling as they moved around the country. Her father was violent towards his wife and children, so even as a child Mary was acutely aware of the injustice caused by the abuse of power. It set her on her life’s course, to pursue education, to stand up for the underdog, to earn her own living, and to settle for nothing less than love with an equal.

She was fortunate enough to attract people who wanted to help her, including more than one family who gave her opportunities of learning. In Yorkshire she fell in love with a library, which happened to have a girl attached. She was ardently fond of Jane Arden! Later she transferred her affections to the graceful and gentle Frances Blood, whom she loved unto death. Marrying was out of the question, so from the age of 19 she left home in quest of work, and earned her living as a seamstress, companion, and governess.

A turning point
When she was 25, Mary set up a boarding school in Newington Green, then a village a couple of miles north of the City, now part of London itself. This enterprise allowed her to rent a house and make a home with her best friend and with two sisters, one of whom she rescued from an abusive marriage. It also allowed her to mix with a group of Rational Dissenters, high-minded non-conformists who stretched her spiritual and mental frontiers. The Green itself remains, as does Newington Green Unitarian Church, still radical, the focus point of the village that changed her life. The people who gathered around its minister, Dr Richard Price, contributed to the intellectual milieu that shaped Mary: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and the second president of the United States, John Adams, and his wife Abigail.

The experiences during Mary’s years at Newington Green led her to write her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.  She was an inspiring teacher and an innovative educationalist, arguing for equal education for girls and boys, drawing out children’s spirit and curiosity without stifling them. Later, building on the contacts she had made through the Dissenters, she created a career for herself as a writer, one of the first women to do so, starting off with reviews and translations. The publisher Joseph Johnson proved an excellent support and mentor to her; he was not alone in seeing her potential, and nurturing it.

When Edmund Burke attacked her mentor Dr Price, she responded quickly with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in support of what we would now call human rights, in the context of the French Revolution. This work made her an intellectual celebrity, and a year later she followed this up with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of the earliest works arguing the essential equality of the sexes. She became enamoured of the painter Fuseli and eventually proposed a menage a trois; he was intrigued but his wife was not amused. Mary decided to go to Paris to document the unfolding revolution, where she met Gilbert Imlay, an American by whom she bore a daughter without benefit of church. Later she journeyed to Scandinavia on his behalf, searching for a missing ship. Each of these adventures led to another book. Imlay's betrayal of her, and her subsequent suicide attempts, were at that time not known to the wider public.

Back home
All her journeys led her home, back to London, where she eventually married the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. She died giving birth to the girl the world knows as Mary Shelley, who grew up to elope with a married poet and write Frankenstein.


  1. I think there is a very appealing symmetry in the interwoven relationships between Wollstonecraft, Lady Mount Cashell ('Mrs Mason'), Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont (Mary Godwin's stepsister). Mary Wollstonecraft's influence as governess to the young Margaret King shaped the course of that young woman's life. Later, separated from her husband Stephen Moore, Earl Mount Cashell, and and deprived thereby of all contact with her children, she settled in Pisa as 'Mrs Mason', with her lover George Tighe. There she took up the study and practice of medicine. In 1819, she became a supporter, friend and mother figure to Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, and encouraged the Shelleys to settle in Pisa so she could provide medical care to Mary during her pregnancy. Later, in the early 1830s, Claire Clairmont returned to Pisa, resumed the relationship and lived with 'Mr and Mrs Mason' until the latter's death.

    It is as though Mary Wollstonecraft's teachings and moral example provided both an indirect legacy of love and care to the daughter she did not live to raise, and a counterbalance to some of the less endearing qualities of Claire's mother (Mary's depised stepmother) Mary Jane Vial.

  2. You do well to identify that "appealing symmetry": another term for that is "paying it forward". MW, a young woman not yet a mother, took more than professional care of her King/Kingsborough charges in the Irish castle: Margaret King and her sisters flourished under her radical love and intelligent attention. MK married, and as Lady Mount Cashell travelled and bore many children, but gave all that up for love.

    When she decided to make a new life with the agricultural theorist "Tatty" Tighe (nicknamed after his interest in potatoes, not a comment on any shabbiness of dress), she was committing an act of sexual rebellion. This ties her again to our key characters: MW, who dared the opinion of the world first with Gilbert Imlay and then with William Godwin; 16 year old Mary, eloping with the tousle-hair'd poet (married, but professing "free love"); Claire Clairmont, throwing herself at the handsomest celebrity of her day till their gametes clashed and melded; and possibly with Mary Jane Vial. One can only speculate, till your precious letters give up their paleographic clues, on how exactly MJV formed that connection with the gentleman who agreed to pay for the upkeep of her second child. (Leaving aside the question of how she came by her first baby. Free love? A thwarted expectation of marriage? Deception? An element of coercion? Rape?)

    I remember reading in Janet Todd's Rebel Daughters that when Mrs Mason extended a warm maternal embrace to the young women in Italy in 1820, she had been deliberately discounting the negative comments conveyed in the letters of MJV. (She was in touch with the Godwins, having chosen them as her publisher, and having visited them in London in 1807.) Did you know Mrs Mason cross-dressed in order to attend medical school? What a fascinating "lost daughter" of Mary Wollstonecraft she was!

  3. Unfortunately, the Lethbridge letters give few clues to indicate how the relationship between MJV and John Lethbridge started. It is probable that MJV was lodging in London at the time (some time between 1795 and 1797), in the house of "A C", a woman whose identity is not revealed. From there, presumably already pregnant with Claire, she went to Bristol and, for a time, Newport and Barry Island in Wales: she used the alias Mrs St Julian during this period. There is a clear implication in the surviving letters that Lethbridge attempted to shift the burden of paternity onto some male MJV encountered there.

    Judging from the mannered way in which she expresses herself in her letters when seeking to persuade (in sharp contrast to her straightfoward and businesslike address on money matters), as well as contemporary descriptions, MJV was conventional, socially sophisticated and "Continental". She was also, obviously, a woman determined to survive and to provide for her children by whatever means necessary: to this end she brought considerable intelligence and acumen to bear. For her, survival and making her way depended on contracting a suitable marriage/arrangement and a respectable situation, which she achieved admirably.

    Contemporary reports show Lethbridge as a roue, something of a sycophant, and certainly something of a bully -- a not untypical country gentleman, in other words. In contrast, MJV seems to have been genuinely enamoured of him, although mercenary interest was a powerful motive for her as well.

    I think it is a significant indicator of the unexplored complexity of MJV's character that Lady Mount Cashell/Mrs Mason was a correspondent. I doubt that the latter would have exchanged more than purely business correspondence with her had there not been some depth and reciprocity to the relationship (whatever Mary Godwin may have thought of her stepmother, spoiled little Miss that she was!)

  4. Fascinating stuff, Vicki! I'd love to know more of the background of MJV. Why was her English so good? Where did she really come from? And why, having acquired one babe without benefit of church, did she allow herself another one, without securing the man first? (That's assuming that Lethbridge didn't rape her -- not an impossibility, but unlikely.)

    She was intelligent, certainly: she comes down to us in history as the wicked stepmother, but it was in all probability her acumen that kept the Godwin household afloat as long as it did.

    It seems that she did not treat the children equally, though. She made sure that her own daughter spoke French, although young Mary did not, as I understand it: thus Clair Clairmont had an additional reason to tag along with the eloping couple, serving as a useful interpreter.

    The letters you've found would make an excellent epistolatory novel. Can you imagine the humiliation of having to write to one's acquaintances for attestations of sexual morality? "Dear Sir, I resided in your parish two years ago. Please could you write to lawyers Bluff & Hearty and tell them I didn't shag everything going. Yours honourably, etc."

  5. MJV was born in England, according to her own account. Confirmed English birth records exist for her sister Charlotte and at least two other siblings: their mother was an English woman. However, given probable birth years for MJV and her sister Sophia, it is unlikely that they had the same mother as the younger siblings. Their father was one Pierre de Vial/Vialle, a French merchant based in Exeter. Pierre de Vial declared bankruptcy in 1777, the year Charlotte was born. This may have been the year MJV took herself off to Europe to find her relatives (according to her version): it is not improbable that she actually went with her father, who seems to be connected to a mercantile family in St. Etienne.

    Claire may well have grown up bilingual. It seems likely that her mother would have spoken to her in French as well as English, as she herself was comfortable in both languages. Her Lethbridge letters demonstrate an enviable flair for the dramatic!