The Life and Afterlife of Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft is a big name in the business of feminism. A women’s rights advocate before her time, she argued for equal access to education more than a century before it was fashionable. Today, she is a watchword for everything that is pioneering, radical and progressive. Wollstonecraft’s reputation has undergone a fascinating evolution, however. From her husband’s Memoirs of the Author of The Rights of Woman, published in the year following her death, to the countless celebratory biographies of recent years- Wollstonecraft’s depression, love affairs, pleasures and pains have long been public information. Her changing image has a lot to teach us about how attitudes towards women have changed and with them, ideas about feelings, about relationships, about the life of the mind, the passions, and the numerous interplays between all these. The original Wollstonecraft memoir, made her a pariah for over a century, subsequent biographers have not challenged any of its content, but they have received it sympathetically. Rather than demonising Wollstonecraft for her ‘ungovernable passions’, 20th century feminists rescued her by relating to her. By the 1930s, her ‘ungovernable passions’ by the 1930s were celebrated as stemming from her admirable ‘capacity for pain’. Her suicide attempts, which had once made her a pariah, became the locus of her relatability.
However, Wollstonecraft’s story is a complex one – not least because she never lived to tell it. Dying at the age of 38, as she gave birth to Mary Shelley, marked the end of what might have been a very promising literary career. Wollstonecraft was never able to complete her sequel to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; all we have are a few ‘Hints’. Her letters give the confused picture of a woman who was out of step with her time and uncomfortable with herself. Frequently relied upon to serve and provide for others, Wollstonecraft’s life was not a happy one. Born of an abusive marriage, she spent her life cultivating self-reliance in a world that didn’t recognise her right to it. Love affairs, suicide attempts, an illegitimate daughter – all of these are part of her fascinating biography. Yet they also detract from it, because it is nearly impossible to read Wollstonecraft objectively, without considering the personal circumstances that informed her ideas. Perhaps this is true of most writers, but it is especially the case with Wollstonecraft. Up until very recently, her life has almost seemed to precede her work.
Rather than demonising Wollstonecraft for her ‘ungovernable passions’, 20th century feminists rescued her by relating to her.
There are complex reasons for this. Yes, she lived a very rich and, at times, traumatic life, replete with depression, romance, friendship, motherhood and loneliness. Indeed it raises the question of how a relatively ordinary, middle-class woman could develop such progressive views. However, the afterlife of Mary Wollstonecraft is a lesson in the power of biography.
Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797 was followed by a memoir one year later: Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. William Godwin is the author, a utilitarian and anarchist, and the late Mary’s husband. In a style now familiar to many of readers, the work is certainly a ‘tell-all’. It seems that Godwin’s intention was to encourage readers to empathise with Wollstonecraft. He wanted them to feel ‘sympathy’ with her and to feel ‘attached to [her] fate’, just as he was. He could not have been more misguided.
Far from enhancing the reputation of Wollstonecraft, Godwin destroyed it for over a century. His impact on Wollstonecraft’s reputation is testament to the astounding power of the posthumous memoir, as the last word on a human life. His wife came to embody the ‘unsex’d females’, those whose ‘ungovernable passions’ had led them astray. She was regarded, throughout the 19th century, as untouchable, and few would acknowledge her influence.
George Eliot, who was a rare admirer of Wollstonecraft in 1855, compared her to American feminist Margaret Fuller – another unwed mother. Whilst their personal circumstances had rendered them enemies of religion and morality, both women served as figureheads for the burgeoning feminist movement. Just as Godwin had hoped, Wollstonecraft’s life, at the turn of the twentieth century, began to evoke widespread sympathy, if only within feminist circles. But this was only the beginning. Feminists as different from one another as Margery Fry is from Virginia Woolf or Emma Goldman, took inspiration from the life of Wollstonecraft. They did not try to recover her legacy, but celebrated it as symptomatic of all the challenges and prejudices that women had faced throughout history. Rather than condemn Wollstonecraft’s irrationality, Woolf proclaimed her as a pioneer of ‘experimental’ living. For Fry and for Millicent Garret Fawcett, she forecast achievements to come. Goldman celebrated the complex issues raised by Wollstonecraft, which went far beyond ‘economic and social rights’ and into what was then the unacceptable realm of emotion.
Today, Wollstonecraft is a hero to many. Not just because of what she believed or wrote – remarkable though much of it is – but because of what she felt and more than that, perhaps, what she suffered. The challenges of Wollstonecraft’s life up to and including her all-too-female death; have made her a symbol of women’s plight. Wollstonecraft’s ‘failure’ to apologise for her passions meant demonisation in the 19th century; but gradually, very gradually, however incrementally, these very failings have become, and continued to be recognised as, her merits.
For those looking to find out more about Wollstonecraft, I would certainly recommend Janet Todd’s excellent Mary Wollstonecraft; A Revolutionary Life. It is highly readable. Of course, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is the place to start in terms of primary sources. I also recommend her Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, which provide a great insight into the emotional life of Wollstonecraft. In terms of the 20th century, I recommend looking up the sources I mention, in particular, the Virginia Woolf essay. I am happy to send in articles. In terms of more recent portrayals of Wollstonecraft, I would also point readers to the Mary on the Green Campaign www.maryonthegreen.org