In this episode of the 18th Century Podcast we’ll take a look at the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Though she was not as famous as her daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. This episode will act as a brief bio for her life and struggles, through failed relationships, traveling to France during the Revolution, and the loss of those closest to her. She was not as towering as other figures of the time, but she still was important.
Welcome back to the 18th Century Podcast. I am your host, Cj. In today’s episode, we will be taking a look at the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. You may be wondering who Mary Wollstonecraft was, and I don’t blame you. She wasn’t a towering figure like Frederick the Great, but she was the mother of Mary Shelley, the author of, Frankenstein. If you’d like to read the script for this episode and its citations, go to 18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them.
PART 1 EARLY LIFE
Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759, in London. She would be the second child out of seven total. Her father, Edward John, received a sizable inherence from his father, but he handled the funds poorly. Edward desired to become a Gentleman Farmer, yet as time marched on life would be marked with failure. The family would move to Epping, so he could pursue his goal. Edward had a violent streak about him too and was reportedly abusive. During her youth, Mary was envious of her older brother, Edward or Ned. He was her mother’s favorite, and the only child out of seven to receive a formal education. Ned also received a portion of the inheritance, left to him by their Grandfather. He would go on to become a lawyer. Mary would gain her ability to read from a friendship she made in her youth with a retired clergyman and his wife. She would familiarize herself with The Bible and works from ancient philosophers. She also showed an interest in the works of Milton and Shakespeare. During the 18th Century, there were few occupations for women of Mary’s standing. So, in 1778 she became a Lady’s Companion to a Mrs. Dawson, who resided in Bath. She was only 19 at the time. She would accompany Mrs. Dawson across England and attend to her. Mary wasn’t content working for Mrs. Dawson, but she did have the comfort of her closest friend, Fanny Blood. Her mother fell ill, and Mary returned home during 1781 to nurse her. It would be for not, her mother would perish during the Spring of 1782. After the death of her mother, Mary’s father would remarry and move to Wales. Her sister, Eliza, also married. Mary moved in with the Blood family, though impoverished, they took her in. To help offset the cost of an extra person in their household, Mary did needlework to assist with bringing in an income. Within months of Eliza married, she became pregnant. Eliza’s husband, Meredith Bishop, wrote to Mary in 1783, asking for assistance with the baby and Eliza’s deteriorating condition, which was mostly mentally. Mary would move out of the Blood’s house, and go and attend to her sister in the winter of 1783. Once she moved in, she presumed Eliza’s mental condition was due to the treatment of her husband. Eliza and Mary left the Bishop home in January of 1784. Under the law at the time, Eliza had to leave her newborn with her husband. The baby would die that August. Marry helped her sister get a legal separation. In February of the same year, Mary would meet up with her friend Fanny, and the two of them, along with Eliza and shortly after, Everina, another one of Mary’s sisters, joined them. The four women began to plan on opening a school. They would open their school in, Newington Green. During her stay in Newington Green, Mary befriended Reverend Richard Price, who would introduce her to liberal intellectuals of the time. Fanny soon decided to marry, and shortly after, became pregnant. Fanny and her husband decided to have their baby in Lisbon, Portugal. She invited Mary to accompany her, and the three of them set off in November of 1785. On the voyage to Lisbon, Mary met a man suffering from consumption. She attended to him while they crossed the waters. She would write about this experience in her novel, Mary, a Fiction. While in Portugal, Mary came to detest Portugeges culture, viewing it as superstitious. Fanny ended up giving birth prematurely, and both the baby and herself died shortly after. Mary would return to England, and it’s safe to say that she was devastated by the passing of her friend. The school which she helped establish was in financial ruin. She ended up publishing, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, in 1787. Mary would be publishing through a man named, Joseph Johnson. The advance she received would support her for a time, but she needed new work. She became a governess for an Irish family, the Kingsborough family. She was charged with watching over the children. During her time with the Kingsborough’s, she was very unhappy and was still grieving the loss of Fanny. She would travel across England and Irland with the family. However, Mary did not see eye to eye with Lady Kingsborough. Mary would view Lady Kingsborough as everything wrong with women of the time. Mary thought that Lady Kingsborough was weak, and it contrasted against Mary’s view of a strong woman. She ended up being fired by Lady Kingsborough. Mary returned to London during 1787 and gained employment with her old publisher, Joseph Johnson. She worked translating and advising Johnson in his business. She would also continue her writing during this time. In 1788, Johnson would start his, Analytical Review, which Mary would become a contributor. In 1791, Mary would attend a dinner hosted by Johnson in honor of Thomas Paine, regarding his most recent work, The Rights of Men, which was in defense of the French Revolution. At the dinner, many intellectuals would gather, among them was William Godwin. This would mark the initial meeting between Mary and William, and things did not start on the right foot. It was purported by Johnson that they argued over dinner, which overtook the conversation. In September of 1791, Mary would begin writing arguably her most popular work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She had an interest in the events occurring in France, and in February of 1792, she would meet, Charles Talleyrand, a French diplomat. Wanting to see the Revolution for herself, Mary would set off for Paris in December. Now, I’m aware that I’m pausing at an exciting part of this bio, but a short break needs to be taken. When we return, we’ll take a look at Mary in revolutionary France, and the final years of her life. Don’t go away, I’ll be right back.
PART 2 FRANCE AND FINAL YEARS
Welcome back. We’ll continue the second half of this episode by going over Mary’s time spent in France and the final years of her life. When Mary got to France, she met and ended up residing with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay. They lived in a suburb of Paris. Unfortunately for Mary, at the time she reached Paris, it was the beginning of what would be known as the Jacobin Terror. French sentiments began to grow more and more antagonistic towards the British. You could say this was shocking because it’s not like the British and the French have a Century’s long history of hating each other. After a few months away from the main conflict in Paris, Imlay and Mary headed back to the city. They grew closer together, during their time away. When they did return, they went to the American Embassy, and Mary claimed to be Imlay’s wife. Though the two of them never married, there was more security in France being an American rather than a Brit. Mary became pregnant with his child. Yet the happy couple wasn’t as happy as we’d like to think. Imlay grew disloyal towards Mary. She would give birth in Le Havre, during 1794, and name their daughter after her deceased friend, Fanny. After birth, Imlay went to Paris, and Mary followed with their child. Imlay would abandon Mary and Fanny, heading for London. During her time in France, she watched as her allies were sent to the guillotine. Thomas Paine was imprisoned. Everything was getting worse. Mary and her baby would soon return to London. She would find Imlay and attempt suicide. He stopped her. It’s safe to say their relationship was rocky. Though after a few months, Imlay would send Mary on a business trip to Scandinavia. She was granted what was essentially power of attorney and representation for Imlay’s interests. She would take her daughter and her daughter’s nurse with her on this trip. After her business was concluded in Scandinavia, they returned to London. Mary would find Imlay living with an actress, further proving his disloyalty to her. Again, Mary would attempt suicide, but it was prevented. She would break off her relationship with Imlay. Then in April of 1796, she did something unexpected for the period. She called upon her old dinner acquaintance, William Godwin. He had read her most recent work, Letters from Sweden, and gained a new perspective, more positive perspective of her. They soon began talking and discovered their common interests in nature, other cultures, etc.. Over the next few months, their friendship grew into something stronger, and by August, they had become lovers. By March of 1797, Mary had become pregnant. They talked of marriage, which was a problem because the two of them both publically spoke out against marriage as a legal institution which neglected love. But they indulged in hypocrisy and married on March 29th, 1797. A few months later, Mary would give birth of August 30th to their new daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would become, Mary Shelley. This was a short-lived happy occasion, as Mary soon would meet her end. Mary Wollstonecraft left of the world on September 10th, 1797 due to blood poisoning from childbirth. Mary Wollstonecraft was only 38 years old when she died.
Mary Wollstonecraft had a difficult life. Yet she would usher in a child who would become one of the most important fiction writers in history. Mary’s accomplishments should not be overlooked. She was a woman who deserves to be remembered. The script and citations for this episode and all other episodes can be found at https://18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. If you’d like to support the show, please share it and leave a review. I’ve been your host Cj, and thank you for listening to this episode of the 18th Century Podcast.
Tomaselli, Sylvana, “Mary Wollstonecraft”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/wollstonecraft/.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 Apr. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Wollstonecraft.
Biography.com Editors. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 26 June 2019, http://www.biography.com/scholar/mary-wollstonecraft.
Todd, Professor Janet. “History – British History in Depth: Mary Wollstonecraft: A ‘Speculative and Dissenting Spirit’.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/wollstonecraft_01.shtml.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Where Did Mary Wollstonecraft Get Her Ideas?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 2 June 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/mary-wollstonecraft-early-years-3530791.