"I am going to be the first of a new genus. I am not born to tread in the beaten track - the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on"                Mary Wollstonecraft in letter to Everina, 1774


The extraordinary and controversial life of Mary Wollstonecraft could so easily be an 18th century novel. Seldom without melodrama, incident and tragedy, the reputation and personality of the author overshadowed Wollstonecraft's ideas and writing for a long period of time.

As well as being a successful writer Mary was quite well travelled, a teacher, a translator, the provider for an extended family, a mistress and a mother before becoming a wife. Exceptionally well organised and outspoken, Mary was also a defender of the weak, a passionate although partisan, first hand witness to the French Revolution and was well known and admired by some of the leading intellectuals, politicians, polemicists, publishers, poets, painters, novelists and historians of the day (1998 Wollstonecraft, pp.vvi).

It was not the diverse experiences and lively intellectual circle of friends, which made the focused Mary the subject of such keen interest both then and now. Instead, Mary Wollstonecraft's place in history is built upon integrity, the clarity and passion of her writing skills, both as an astute social commentator and philosopher and one of the original advocates to pioneer the Womens Movement.

Although often referred to as the First Feminist and admired as both a radical and inspirational writer, Mary Wollstonecraft was not solely concerned with womens issues. The author asserted the innate rights of all people, who were victims of a society that assigned people their roles, comforts, and satisfactions according to the false distinctions of class, age, religion and gender. Jones 1999-2004)

This project looks at Mary the Woman, the Writings and their Legacy, The French Revolution, Education, Feminism, Relationships and Marriage.

Mary Wollstonecraft - The Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft was born into an Anglo-Irish middle-class family on 27 April 1759 in London, the second of seven children to Elizabeth and Edward. Mary's father was the son a successful handkerchief manufacturer in Spitalfields (an area in the East End of London) whilst Elizabeth nee Dixon was from Ballyshannon in Ireland. Grandfather (also) Edward Wollstonecraft, had done well financially in the silk manufacturing trade and provided Edward with a farm in Essex upon a request to become a gentleman farmer. Later, upon (Grandfather) Edward's death, Mary's father received a substantial inheritance of £10,000 which was spent on several failed farming enterprises (Camber Harrap 2004).

Mary seldom seemed to find life easy whilst growing up and certainly resented the favouritism shown to elder brother Edward, who was to inherit the family wealth. Mary had two younger sisters, Eliza and Everina, plus three younger brothers named, Henry, James and Charles.
Edward Wollstonecraft's chosen profession as a gentleman farmer did not go well, with failures producing little beyond moves to several different farms in Yorkshire, Essex and Wales, each time losing money. The terror and tyrant of the household, Mary's father took increasingly to drinking, resulting in Elizabeth and the children being mistreated and sometimes beaten. Even though still very young, Mary did not hesitate to protect Elizabeth from the drunken rages of Edward and would often sleep on the landing across the doorway where Elizabeth slept (Pattern 2003).

Edward Wollstonecraft stated that regular education was out of the question for Mary, as it was simply a waste of money since girls did not need to be educated. The elder brother Edward meanwhile had become articled to a law firm and Mary learned first-hand of the limits in an 18th Century gendered social society. Mary Wollstonecraft's education began by being taught to read English by an old house-keeper, and French by the maid (Wollstonecraft 1998, pp 5).

From this point on, Mary read voraciously.
'As she had learned to read, she perused with avidity every book that came in her way. Neglected in every respect, and left to the operations of her own mind, she considered everything that came under her inspection and learned to think' (Wollstonecraft 1998, pp 5).

Mary was just 9 years old when in 1768 the family moved to a farm in Beverley, Yorkshire,
and the six years that followed were probably the most stable in the young Wollstonecraft's life.
Whilst in Beverley Mary attended local day school, where girls were educated to become marriageable and ladylike. Mary's lessons included dancing, French language, needlework and writing. It was here that Mary learned to see culture within a society (Todd, 2000, pp.12).
It was also in Yorkshire that Mary became friends with Jane Arden, the daughter of an intellectual, which lead to Mary receiving lessons from Jane's father and attending lectures in experimental science (Wollstonecraft 1998, pp.viii).

In 1774 the family relocated to a farm in Wales, before moving again the following year to Hoxton in London. Mary's next door neighbours in Hoxton were the childless Clares, who were eager to nurture deserving young women. Reverend Clare became Mary's mentor, recommending many classic books the youngster should read, whilst it was through Mrs Clare that Mary was introduced to Fanny (Frances) Blood also of Anglo-Irish descent. To the sixteen year old Mary, the eighteen year old Fanny was sophisticated, elegant and accomplished. Fanny could sing and play the piano both very well, and was an accomplished 'natural' artist, who supplemented the family income by drawing. The girls formed an intense lifelong relationship, which Mary described as:
'a friend, whom I love better than all the world beside, a friend to whom I am bound by every tie of gratitude and inclination: To live with this friend is the height of my ambition' (Patten 2003).

During their long friendship Fanny became Mary's emotional centre. It was encouragement from Fanny which prompted Mary to consider leaving the unhappy Wollstonecraft family home and take employment. Mary's mother was unhappy about this and in return for staying, Mary was found lodgings with an unusual couple, Mr and Mrs Thomas Taylor the platoist. They all became friends and at Thomas's suggestion Mary began to read Plato, later to be an influence on Wollstonecraft's Anglican religious views (Franklin 2004 pp, 8-10).

In 1783 than aged 24, Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters and Fanny Blood, founded a day school in Islington, London. The school was moved the following year to nearby Newington Green, which at the time was the intellectual centre of rational dissent. Although Mary never wholeheartedly embraced dissent, this intellectual community certainly helped to shape Wollstonecraft's emerging radical views (Patten 2003).
It was during this period at Newington Green that Wollstonecraft met Richard Price; became friendly with Sarah, the widow of Dr James Burgh; and was introduced by John Hewlett to both
Dr Samuel Johnson and the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson (who would later become Mary's employer). The school foundered when Wollstonecraft left for Lisbon, Portugal in 1785, to nurse the recently married and pregnant Fanny. Mary's beloved friend had never enjoyed good health and had suffered increasingly from consumption for the previous few years. Mary arrived shortly before the gravely ill Fanny gave birth prematurely, which proved fatal for both mother and baby. Returning to England Wollstonecraft published a small volume of 162 pages named 'Thoughts on the Education of Daughters' (1787), and gave the ten guinea fee earned from the book to Fanny's poverty-stricken parents so they could return to Ireland (Patten 2003).

Once again in need of an income, Mary became governess to the two daughters of Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Ireland, which allowed her to observe wealthy aristocratic society at first hand. Although she was a successful teacher, Mary resented her dependent position, whilst in turn Lady Kingsborough disliked the governess's liberal views and close friendship with Elizabeth, the eldest daughter. Wollstonecraft was dismissed 12 months later (Franklin 1999).

Later, Joseph Johnson, by this time Wollstonecraft's publisher and personal friend, introduced Mary to a circle of political and artistic liberals and nonconformists, which included William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, William Burke, William Wordsworth and Anna Barbauld.
The Enlightenment had seen the development of political radicalism in liberal and avant-garde intellectual circles throughout Europe, and Mary's interaction with the Newington Green group at the start of the French Revolution, certainly helped to shape and define the central views expressed in all of her 'reforming' works.

Mary Wollstonecraft's usually reliable intelligence and common sense seemed to desert her completely in the subject of romance. Mary first became infatuated with the brilliant Romantic painter Henry Fuseli, who was charismatic, clever and talented. Mary was enthralled by the Swiss born artist, but he was soon to be married. When Mary naively suggested that she live with him and his new wife, Wollstonecraft was firmly rejected and humiliated (Pattern 2003).
Wollstonecraft now moved to Paris, to support the aims of the revolution by writing a book of its history. Whilst in Paris and still vulnerable after the rejection by Fuseli, Mary fell in love and began a passionate but disastrous affair with the handsome American businessman Gilbert Imlay. This union produced Mary's first child, a daughter she named Fanny (Frances) in memory of her best friend Fanny Blood.
Imlay was uncomfortable with monogamy and had already moved on to his next lover, when a heartbroken Mary attempted suicide. In 1795 Mary returned from a trip to Scandinavia and still in hope of a reunion, followed Imlay to London. However upon learning that Imlay was now living with an actress, Wollstonecraft finally realised that her hopes would never be realised and plunged into rejection once again. Not long afterwards, Mary was pulled from the River Thames below Putney Bridge, after a second attempt at suicide (Pattern 2003).

Shortly after this traumatic period, Mary's tortuous love life finally took a turn for the better.
The author and fellow womens rights campaigner Mary Hays, reacquainted Wollstonecraft with the radical theorist William Godwin. They had previously met several years earlier at various dinners and meetings, but this had produced little beyond antagonism. Godwin's first impression had been that Mary talked too much; reducing Thomas Paine to silence at a gathering they had all attended. However, a mutual attraction developed, although Mary was slow to realise that in Godwin she had found a partner who would be supportive. In 1796 they began a relationship and decided to marry when Mary became pregnant; the ceremony was on the 29th March 1797.
They continued to maintain separate houses in order to concentrate on their respective writing careers, but jointly entertained guests in the evening at 29 The Polygon.
Their daughter Mary was born on the 30th August the same year, a child whose fame 20 years later would eclipse even that of her renown parents by becoming the celebrated novelist Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft died 10 days after the birth of her daughter, following complications (Todd 2000, pp.24).


Back to Top