Happy Friday. As you know I’ve been revisiting some of my posts about classic authors (I promise I’ll try to find time to do some new ones soon, but I was surprised when I realised it had been three years already since I posted this one, and I’m keen on making sure they are in my new blog too) and people seem to enjoy discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) them. As I’ve been talking a lot about mothers recently, with anthologies and events, it seemed of justice that I should share again the post about Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. Two fascinating women who did much to change the way women were seen. And both lives, unfortunately, marked by personal tragedy. Here they are.
As you well know I like to bring you classic authors on Fridays. This time I thought I’d bring you a mother and daughter. Although unfortunately Mary Wollstonecraft died when her daughter (also Mary) was only a few days old (I’ve read 10 or 11) the two make a very interesting combination. Both are interesting women, both broke conventions (in the case of the mother, in particular, that haunted her reputation for years, even centuries, to come) and both are examples of the will to be yourself and to discover your own gifts and create yourself.
There are many detailed biographies and I won’t attempt to give you all the details of her fascinating (although short, she died of puerperal fever at 38) life. I’ve left you some links but feel free to investigate by yourself.
She was born in London, in April 27th 1759. Her father has been described as violent (there are mentions of Mary sleeping across the door of her mother’s bedroom to prevent her father from beating her up) and very poor at managing his financial affairs and that resulted in the family having to move often. Her mother died in 1780 and she decided to earn a livelihood, not easy for a woman of a certain class and education at the time (as we’ve noted before, working class women have always worked. Women in rural areas have always worked in the fields apart from keeping a home and family). With her sister Eliza (who had left her husband and child encouraged by Mary) and fried Fanny, they established s school in Newington Green (1784). Based on her experiences there she wrote a pamphlet called Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787).
When her close friend Fanny died (in 1785), Wollstonecraft went to work as a governess in Ireland. Although the children of the family really loved her she did not enjoy the job and never got on well with lady Kingsborough, taking her as a model of the worst of aristocratic women, only interested in their appearances, vanity and status. She went back to London three years later and started working with Joseph Johnson, helping him set the Analytical Review, and becoming a regular contributor. She wrote one of her best-known works A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She denounced the position of women in society advocating for them to have access to the same educational opportunities as men (she also advocated for women’s vote).
In the same year whilst visiting a friend in France (it was the time of the French Revolution and many English intellectuals visited) she met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant. They started living together although they never got married and she had a daughter to him, Fanny. The relationship was fraught with problems and she visited Scandinavia in an attempt at keeping the relationship going, although he left her. She wrote: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark that became her most popular book of the time. She tried to commit suicide twice (once by drowning jumping into the Thames, the other one possibly by Laudanum poisoning).
Back in London she met again William Godwin, founder of philosophical anarchism. Although both were against marriage, they did get married when she got pregnant. She had a baby girl, Mary, but had a difficult labour (18 hours) and the manual removal of the placenta resulted in infection and she died a few days later (10th of September 1797).
Godwin published her unfinished work Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, where she gave voice to a prostitute and also acknowledged female sexual desire, a scandal at the time. He also wrote a biography giving a detailed account of her life, including her suicide attempts and having had a child whilst unmarried and that gave prominence to the scandal rather than to a serious view of her work. In more recent times her work has been greatly vindicated by the interest of feminist historians and also philosophers and educationalists.
Links to Mary Wollstonecraft:
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
OregonState page and link to read A Vindication of the Rights of Women on line.
Another link to A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Free Links to her books and writings (See also above for internet links):
Vindication of the Rights of Women:
Letters on Sweden, Norway and Denmark:
Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman
Born in London on 30th August 1797 (we know all about that). Her father William Godwin looked after her and Fanny (Mary’s first child by Imlay). Although it wasn’t a very formal education, her father had plenty of connections and she had access to interesting ideas and met some of the most brilliant thinkers and writers of the time when she was still very young (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth), including her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. She liked to read and daydream and also started writing at an early age.
Her father re-married Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801 but Mary never got on well with her step-mother. She had two children from a previous marriage and had a son with Godwin. Mary got on well with one of her stepsisters, Jane.
In the summer of 1812 she went to Scotland to stay with friends of her father, William Baxter and his family.
In 1814 (still very young) she started a relationship with Percy B. Shelley who had been a student of her father and was still married at that time. They ran away together accompanied by her stepsister (Jane Clairmont) and that alienated her from her father. They got married on 1816 when Shelley’s wife died (committed suicide).
They travelled through Europe and Mary lost two children. In 1816 during a summer when they were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori, on a rainy day and after reading ghost stories, famously Lord Byron suggested that each one of them should try and write their own horror story. Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. (I understand that Polidori wrote a vampire story…) The finished version was published in 1818. This was published anonymously. The book was a big success and as Percy Shelley had written the introduction many thought it was his.
Her relationship with Shelley was difficult, they lost two other children but she had a son, Percy Florence (1819) who lived to be an adult. Her husband drowned whilst sailing in 1822.
She had to support herself and did it by writing (that wasn’t very easy for a woman at the time). She wrote several novels, including a science-fiction book (The Last Man, a dystopian novel). She also dedicated herself to promote her husband’s work.
She died of a brain cancer on 1st February 1851. She is buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth alongside her father, mother and the ashes of her husband’s heart.
Frankenstein is and will remain her most famous work; it has an enduring hold on people’s imagination, and it has seen many adaptations, to theatre, TV, film…
Links to Mary Shelley:
New World Encyclopaedia:
Links to movies based on her writings:
Free Links to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s books:
Proserpine and Midas:
The Last Man:
Thanks for reading. And don’t forget if you’ve enjoyed it to comment, share and CLICK!
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects download (usxoliwu.wordpress.com)
- Enlightened monsters (3quarksdaily.com)
- Science fiction’s invisible women (theguardian.com)