|Birth Day:||April 27, 1759|
|Death Date:||10 September 1797(1797-09-10) (aged 38)
Somers Town, London, England
|Birth Place:||Spitalfields, British|
As per our current Database, Mary Wollstonecraft died on 10 September 1797(1797-09-10) (aged 38)
Somers Town, London, England.
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Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was the second of the seven children of Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft's youth. The family's financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft's father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was apparently a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. Wollstonecraft played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. For example, in a defining moment in 1784, she convinced Eliza, who was suffering from what was probably postpartum depression, to leave her husband and infant; Wollstonecraft made all of the arrangements for Eliza to flee, demonstrating her willingness to challenge social norms. The human costs, however, were severe: her sister suffered social condemnation and, because she could not remarry, was doomed to a life of poverty and hard work.
In London, Wollstonecraft lived on Dolben Street, in Southwark; an up-and-coming area following the opening of the first Blackfriars Bridge in 1769.
Unhappy with her home life, Wollstonecraft struck out on her own in 1778 and accepted a job as a lady's companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787). In 1780 she returned home upon being called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson's employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to Fanny and her family throughout her life, frequently giving pecuniary assistance to Blood's brother for example.
Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood; they made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and, after her marriage, moved to Lisbon Portugal with her husband, Hugh Skeys, in hopes that it would improve her health which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings Blood's health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood's death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).
After Blood's death in 1785, Wollstonecraft's friends helped her obtain a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family in Ireland. Although she could not get along with Lady Kingsborough, the children found her an inspiring instructor; Margaret King would later say she 'had freed her mind from all superstitions'. Some of Wollstonecraft's experiences during this year would make their way into her only children's book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).
Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women—an impediment which Wollstonecraft eloquently describes in the chapter of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters entitled 'Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune'—she decided, after only a year as a governess, to embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become 'the first of a new genus'. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts, most notably Of the Importance of Religious Opinions by Jacques Necker and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. She also wrote reviews, primarily of novels, for Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft's intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson's famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject. Johnson himself, however, became much more than a friend; she described him in her letters as a father and a brother.
An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution was a difficult balancing act for Wollstonecraft. She condemned the Jacobin regime and the Reign of Terror, but at same time she argued that the revolution was a great achievement, which led her to stop her history in late 1789 rather than write about the Terror of 1793–94. Edmund Burke had ended his Reflections on the Revolution in France with reference to the events of 5–6 October 1789, when a group of women from Paris forced the French royal family from the Palace of Versailles to Paris. Burke called the women 'furies from hell', while Wollstonecraft defended them as ordinary housewives angry about the lack of bread to feed their families. Against Burke's idealised portrait of Marie Antoinette as a noble victim of a mob, Wollstonecraft portrayed the queen as a femme fatale, a seductive, scheming and dangerous woman. Wollstonecraft argued that the values of the aristocracy corrupted women in a monarchy because women's main purpose in such a society was to bear sons to continue a dynasty, which essentially reduced a woman's value to only her womb. Moreover, Wollstonecraft pointed out that unless a queen was a queen regnant, most queens were queen consorts, which meant a woman had to exercise influence via her husband or son, encouraging her to become more and more manipulative. Wollstonecraft argued that aristocratic values, by emphasising a woman's body and her ability to be charming over her mind and character, had encouraged women like Marie Antoinette to be manipulative and ruthless, making the queen into a corrupted and corrupting product of the ancien régime.
While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was already married. She was, she wrote, enraptured by his genius, 'the grandeur of his soul, that quickness of comprehension, and lovely sympathy'. She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli's wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft. After Fuseli's rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to escape the humiliation of the incident, and to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to the Whig MP Edmund Burke's politically conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and it made her famous overnight. Reflections on the Revolution in France was published on 1 November 1790, and so angered Wollstonecraft that she spent the rest of the month writing her rebuttal. A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke was published on 29 November 1790, initially anonymously; the second edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Men was published on 18 December, and this time the publisher revealed Wollstonecraft as the author.
Wollstonecraft was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) would prove to be the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work. Wollstonecraft's fame extended across the English channel, for when the French statesmen Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord visited London in 1792, he visited her, during which she asked that French girls be given the same right to an education that French boys were being offered by the new regime in France.
Wollstonecraft left for Paris in December 1792 and arrived about a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. Britain and France were on the brink of war when she left for Paris, and many advised her not to go. France was in turmoil. She sought out other British visitors such as Helen Maria Williams and joined the circle of expatriates then in the city. During her time in Paris, Wollstonecraft associated mostly with the moderate Girondins rather than the more radical Jacobins. It was indicative that when Archibald Hamilton Rowan, the United Irishman, encountered her in the city in 1794 it was at a post-Terror festival in honour of the moderate revolutionary leader Mirabeau, who had been a great hero for Irish and English radicals before his death (from natural causes) in April 1791.
On 26 December 1792, Wollstonecraft saw the former king, Louis XVI, being taken to be tried before the National Assembly, and much to her own surprise, found 'the tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed'.
France declared war on Britain in February 1793. Wollstonecraft tried to leave France for Switzerland but was denied permission. In March, the Jacobin-dominated Committee of Public Safety came to power, instituting a totalitarian regime meant to mobilise France for the first 'total war'.
Life became very difficult for foreigners in France. At first, they were put under police surveillance and, to get a residency permit, had to produce six written statements from Frenchmen testifying to their loyalty to the republic. Then, on 12 April 1793, all foreigners were forbidden to leave France. Despite her sympathy for the revolution, life for Wollstonecraft become very uncomfortable, all the more so as the Girondins had lost out to the Jacobins. Some of Wollstonecraft's French friends lost their heads to the guillotine as the Jacobins set out to annihilate their enemies.
Wollstonecraft was offended by the Jacobins' treatment of women. They refused to grant women equal rights, denounced 'Amazons', and made it clear that women were supposed to conform to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideal of helpers to men. On 16 October 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined; among her charges and convictions, she was found guilty of committing incest with her son. Though Wollstonecraft disliked the former queen, she was troubled that the Jacobins would make Marie Antoinette's alleged perverse sexual acts one of the central reasons for the French people to hate her.
As the daily arrests and executions of the Reign of Terror began, Wollstonecraft came under suspicion. She was, after all, a British citizen known to be a friend of leading Girondins. On 31 October 1793, most of the Girondin leaders were guillotined; when Imlay broke the news to Wollstonecraft, she fainted. By this time, Imlay was taking advantage of the British blockade of France, which had caused shortages and worsened ever-growing inflation, by chartering ships to bring food and soap from America and dodge the British Royal Navy, goods that he could sell at a premium to Frenchmen who still had money. Imlay's blockade-running gained the respect and support of some Jacobins, ensuring, as he had hoped, his freedom during the Terror. To protect Wollstonecraft from arrest, Imlay made a false statement to the U.S. embassy in Paris that he had married her, automatically making her an American citizen. Some of her friends were not so lucky; many, like Thomas Paine, were arrested, and some were even guillotined. Her sisters believed she had been imprisoned.
Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay, and on 14 May 1794 she gave birth to her first child, Fanny, naming her after perhaps her closest friend. Wollstonecraft was overjoyed; she wrote to a friend, 'My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R[igh]ts of Woman' (emphasis hers). She continued to write avidly, despite not only her pregnancy and the burdens of being a new mother alone in a foreign country, but also the growing tumult of the French Revolution. While at Le Havre in northern France, she wrote a history of the early revolution, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which was published in London in December 1794. Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. He promised that he would return to her and Fanny at Le Havre, but his delays in writing to her and his long absences convinced Wollstonecraft that he had found another woman. Her letters to him are full of needy expostulations, which most critics explain as the expressions of a deeply depressed woman, while others say they resulted from her circumstances—a foreign woman alone with an infant in the middle of a revolution that had seen good friends imprisoned or executed.
In July 1794, Wollstonecraft welcomed the fall of the Jacobins, predicting it would be followed with a restoration of freedom of the press in France, which led her to return to Paris. In August 1794, Imlay departed for London and promised to return soon. In 1793, the British government had begun a crackdown on radicals, suspending civil liberties, imposing drastic censorship, and trying for treason anyone suspected of sympathy with the revolution, which led Wollstonecraft to fear she would be imprisoned if she returned.
The British historian Tom Furniss called An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution the most neglected of Wollstonecraft's books. It was first published in London in 1794, but a second edition did not appear until 1989. Later generations were more interested in her feminist writings than in her account of the French Revolution, which Furniss has called her 'best work'. Wollstonecraft was not trained as a historian, but she used all sorts of journals, letters and documents recounting how ordinary people in France reacted to the revolution. She was trying to counteract what Furniss called the 'hysterical' anti-revolutionary mood in Britain, which depicted the revolution as due to the entire French nation's going mad. Wollstonecraft argued instead that the revolution arose from a set of social, economic and political conditions that left no other way out of the crisis that gripped France in 1789.
The winter of 1794–95 was the coldest winter in Europe for over a century, which reduced Wollstonecraft and her daughter Fanny to desperate circumstances. The river Seine froze that winter, which made it impossible for ships to bring food and coal to Paris, leading to widespread starvation and deaths from the cold in the city. Wollstonecraft continued to write to Imlay, asking him to return to France at once, declaring she still had faith in the revolution and did not wish to return to Britain. After she left France on 7 April 1795, she continued to refer to herself as 'Mrs Imlay', even to her sisters, in order to bestow legitimacy upon her child.
Seeking Imlay, Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795, but he rejected her. In May 1795 she attempted to commit suicide, probably with laudanum, but Imlay saved her life (although it is unclear how). In a last attempt to win back Imlay, she embarked upon some business negotiations for him in Scandinavia, trying to recoup some of his losses. Wollstonecraft undertook this hazardous trip with only her young daughter and a maid. She recounted her travels and thoughts in letters to Imlay, many of which were eventually published as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796. When she returned to England and came to the full realization that her relationship with Imlay was over, she attempted suicide for the second time, leaving a note for Imlay:
Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson's circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft's unique courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Godwin had read her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and later wrote that "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration." Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and as a result she and Godwin lost many friends. Godwin was further criticised because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. After their marriage on 29 March 1797, Godwin and Wollstonecraft moved to 29 The Polygon, Somers Town. Godwin rented an apartment 20 doors away at 17 Evesham Buildings in Chalton Street as a study, so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by letter. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.
On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; childbed fever was a common and often fatal occurrence in the eighteenth century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797."
In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Wollstonecraft's illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. The Romantic poet Robert Southey accused him of "the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked" and vicious satires such as The Unsex'd Females were published. Godwin's Memoirs portrays Wollstonecraft as a woman deeply invested in feeling who was balanced by his reason and as more of a religious sceptic than her own writings suggest. Godwin's views of Wollstonecraft were perpetuated throughout the nineteenth century and resulted in poems such as "Wollstonecraft and Fuseli" by British poet Robert Browning and that by William Roscoe which includes the lines:
Scholar Virginia Sapiro states that few read Wollstonecraft's works during the nineteenth century as "her attackers implied or stated that no self-respecting woman would read her work". (Still, as Craciun points out, new editions of Rights of Woman appeared in the UK in the 1840s and in the US in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.) If readers were few, then many were inspired; one such reader was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who read Rights of Woman at age 12 and whose poem Aurora Leigh reflected Wollstonecraft's unwavering focus on education. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Americans who met in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, discovered they both had read Wollstonecraft, and they agreed upon the need for (what became) the Seneca Falls Convention, an influential women's rights meeting held in 1848. Another woman who read Wollstonecraft was George Eliot, a prolific writer of reviews, articles, novels, and translations. In 1855, she devoted an essay to the roles and rights of women, comparing Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller. Fuller was an American journalist, critic, and women's rights activist who, like Wollstonecraft, had travelled to the Continent and had been involved in the struggle for reform (in this case the Roman Republic)—and she had a child by a man without marrying him. Wollstonecraft's children's tales were adapted by Charlotte Mary Yonge in 1870.
In 1851, Wollstonecraft's remains were moved by her grandson Percy Florence Shelley to his family tomb in St Peter's Church, Bournemouth. Her monument in the churchyard lies to the north-east of the church just north of Sir John Soane's grave. Her husband was buried with her on his death in 1836, as was his second wife, Mary Jane Godwin (1766–1841).
Wollstonecraft's work was exhumed with the rise of the movement to give women a political voice. First was an attempt at rehabilitation in 1879 with the publication of Wollstonecraft's Letters to Imlay, with prefatory memoir by Charles Kegan Paul. Then followed the first full-length biography, which was by Elizabeth Robins Pennell; it appeared in 1884 as part of a series by the Roberts Brothers on famous women. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a suffragist and later president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, wrote the introduction to the centenary edition (i.e. 1892) of the Rights of Woman; it cleansed the memory of Wollstonecraft and claimed her as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By 1898, Wollstonecraft was the subject of a first doctoral thesis and its resulting book.
With the advent of the modern feminist movement, women as politically dissimilar from each other as Virginia Woolf and Emma Goldman embraced Wollstonecraft's life story. By 1929 Woolf described Wollstonecraft—her writing, arguments, and "experiments in living"—as immortal: "she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living". Others, however, continued to decry Wollstonecraft's lifestyle. A biography published in 1932 refers to recent reprints of her works, incorporating new research, and to a "study" in 1911, a play in 1922, and another biography in 1924. Interest in her never completely died, with full-length biographies in 1937 and 1951.
With the emergence of feminist criticism in academia in the 1960s and 1970s, Wollstonecraft's works returned to prominence. Their fortunes reflected that of the second wave of the North American feminist movement itself; for example, in the early 1970s, six major biographies of Wollstonecraft were published that presented her "passionate life in apposition to [her] radical and rationalist agenda". The feminist artwork The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, features a place setting for Wollstonecraft. In the 1980s and 1990s, yet another image of Wollstonecraft emerged, one which described her as much more a creature of her time; scholars such as Claudia Johnson, Gary Kelly, and Virginia Sapiro demonstrated the continuity between Wollstonecraft's thought and other important eighteenth-century ideas regarding topics such as sensibility, economics, and political theory.
Wollstonecraft has what scholar Cora Kaplan labelled in 2002 a "curious" legacy that has evolved over time: "for an author-activist adept in many genres ... up until the last quarter-century Wollstonecraft's life has been read much more closely than her writing". After the devastating effect of Godwin's Memoirs, Wollstonecraft's reputation lay in tatters for nearly a century; she was pilloried by such writers as Maria Edgeworth, who patterned the "freakish" Harriet Freke in Belinda (1801) after her. Other novelists such as Mary Hays, Charlotte Turner Smith, Fanny Burney, and Jane West created similar figures, all to teach a "moral lesson" to their readers. (Hays had been a close friend, and helped nurse her in her dying days.)
Several plaques have been erected to honour Wollstonecraft. A commemorative sculpture, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft by Maggi Hambling, was unveiled on 10 November 2020; it was criticised for its symbolic depiction rather than a lifelike representation of Wollstonecraft, which commentators felt represented stereotypical notions of beauty and the diminishing of women.
Currently, Mary Wollstonecraft is 263 years, 3 months and 19 days old. Mary Wollstonecraft will celebrate 264th birthday on a Thursday 27th of April 2023.
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