Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft; drawing by David Levine

Biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have usually dwelt, quite properly, on the historical influences that favored her leap from a statement of the rights of man to her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. Her new biographer looks rather to those things in her upbringing and private character that turned a neurasthenic into the pioneer of feminism. The driving force sprang, as in other outstanding founders, from a sense of personal injustice and family torment; her vision was intimately connected with the wrongs of childhood.

If she is a sad figure she grasped the luck that was going in the century of her birth. The rise of Puritan individualism worked for and against women but it did create a new concern for education as the eighteenth century invented its modernizing revolutions. The class conflict between the new middles and the aristocracy put vehemence into controversy. Piety swept into scorn. More important, this was the time when the woman reader and the woman writer appeared, either as the author or reader of trashy novels, religious tracts, and copybook guides or, more preciously, as the blue stocking. What a weapon intellectual snobbery is!

Even if the writers did nothing for female emancipation, they were paid for their work and, in this sense, emancipated themselves. Indeed authors owe it to the eighteenth century that women have been liberated for pretty well 200 years in their profession and are in many respects better placed than family men. Mary Wollstonecraft began her life as many poor, unmarried women did, by governessing and teaching, but she was able to migrate to literature with relative ease. Her school handbooks did well and the famous “bible”—A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—ran to several editions. Godwin, the thinker, whom she eventually married, was forced to become a shady sponge on the aristocratic Shelley.

To later feminists, as Miss Flexner says, Mary’s bible has had a reactionary flavor. Her book aimed “to teach women to think” and “to prepare them to fulfill the duties of a wife and mother…. No employment of the mind is a sufficient excuse for neglecting domestic duties and I cannot conceive that they are incompatible.” If she is remote from us, she certainly put her finger on the central issue of her time. A marked boredom and often a disgust with domesticity is noticeable in the English novelists. Marriage is so often seen as a stagnant and even squalid condition for both sexes. Who, outside the Widow Wadman, would have cared to marry into the Shandy family and share its ill-managed torpor? And although Mary Wollstonecraft would not have agreed, the gallantry and frivolity of the upper classes which she denounced were also in a sense a protest. Better to sin than to suckle until the state of medicine improved.

It was also a time of continual wars and standing armies, and one of the witty passages of the Vindication contains a comparison of married women with soldiers:

Standing armies can never consist of resolute, robust men; they may be well-disciplined machines, but they will seldom contain men under the influence of strong passions, or with very vigorous faculties; and as for any depth of understanding I will venture to affirm that it is as rarely to be found in the army as amongst women. And the cause, I maintain, is the same. It may be further observed that officers are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventure and ridicule…. They are taught to please….

The consequence (says our educator) is that they acquire manners before morals and a knowledge of life before they have reflected on it.

Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority.

Men who are slaves to their mistresses tyrannize over their sisters, wives, and daughters. The famous jeer that women cannot resist a uniform indicates that, lacking education, they are more on a level with soldiers than any other class of men.

The Vindication is a passionate, assertive, headlong, slapdash book, terribly repetitious and exclamatory. The author flings herself whole upon the reader; anger is mixed with a piety that hardly conceals a long, personal pain. It is a book written out of unhappiness and frustration. The merit of Miss Flexner’s study is that she goes patiently and sympathetically into a vigorous if unstable character.

Mary Wollstonecraft came from the rising middle class. The rise was effected by her grandfather, an ambitious weaver who, having established himself as the landlord of useful London properties, devoted the rest of his life to the ruling fantasy of his class: setting up as a country gentleman with a small estate. He wished to be like his betters. His son, Mary’s father, inherited the fantasy but not the acumen; weaving went downhill, and after failing in the townee’s dream of farming he became a careless speculator, a violent, spendthrift drunk who could not keep his hands off his children’s money. Mary was a tall and heavily beautiful girl, but her childhood was wrecked by the scenes of violence between her father and her Irish mother, a woman beaten down who nevertheless obviously had some power of moral survival. The effect of the family horrors was to arrest the emotional development of a girl who was well above the norm in intelligence. She made a stand for independence. She was a second child, not the favorite, but the most capable. She had a defiant self-knowledge, and in a letter written when she was sixteen to a friend she says unpleasingly:


I am a little singular in my thought of love and friendship. I must have first place or none.

This was ominous. She was already, says Miss Flexner:

…possessive and highly sensitive. The slightest affront, often more fancied than real, caused intense feelings of rejection and anger…she wrote bitter letters raking up past grievances.

But as the family went to pieces it was she who energetically took command of her sisters and emerged as strong and overmastering. The effort of will, as with many domineering people, had its price in sudden losses of confidence and in lonely pathos. Her passionate friendships with one or two girls of her own age were part of a search for an alternative family, but they were dangerously demanding. The pattern remained in her relations with men later on in her life: she asked too much, either out of blinding innocence or the ineptitude that sometimes affects the brilliant. Miss Flexner says:

Modern psychiatry has identified some of the symptoms of which Mary constantly complained—lassitude, depression, acute headaches and digestive difficulties—as symptoms of deeply repressed anger. She had ample reasons for it in a society that thwarted women; in a father who had thrown away a comfortable endowment and mistreated both wife and children; in a mother with inadequate understanding.

Another symptom of this formless anger was anxiety, “the sense of I know not what.” It was to explode at a crisis in her thirties in a thorough attempt at suicide after she had been abandoned by one of the father figures—this time only too like her father—to which such a temperament would be drawn.

The fatality of such a temperament in a woman of intelligence and charm is sad. Her high-mindedness was apt to be ruthless and her naïveté hard to credit. When she saw her sister miserable after a forced marriage and the birth of a child, she obliged the not very bright girl to leave her husband, leaving the baby behind! It is not surprising that the “rescued” sister was embittered for the rest of her life. One must admire the vitality of the bossy girl who took over her family, but one is struck by her lack of knowledge of the heart. When in a gush of juvenile feeling she herself adopted a little girl she quickly grew tired of the responsibility. And, of course, having made her sisters dependent on her help in their school teaching, she aroused their sneers and jealousies when at last she gave up her schooling and governessing and courageously turned to her ambitions as a writer. They thought she had grown too big for her boots.

Her story, of course, makes clear the exasperating burden of petty domestic trials upon an independent intelligence. It is the old tale—brothers could get away, for better or worse, and were not much help. Mary Wollstonecraft’s salvation and her belated growth into adulthood began when her publisher Joseph Johnson took paternal charge of her. A man of extraordinary benevolence, he took her in for a time, and gave her literary work—a good deal of it translation. He saw the born journalist who needed the education of his clever, radical circle. Blake, Fuseli, Tom Paine, and eventually Godwin belonged to it. She threw over the governessing and, intoxicated by good talk, her mind came to life.

True she was reckless in judgment, not to say unscrupulous—she accused Burke of being bought by a government pension—but she succeeded to the point of notoriety. At thirty she was emotionally a schoolgirl: liable to crushes, she developed a passion for Fuseli, and when one considers her Puritan hatred of sex and of her father’s rage, it is strange that she seems not to have been put out by Fuseli’s temper and the blatant sexual imagery in his work. He was, of course, expert in disengaging the unconscious. His brillant talk carried her away. She seems to have been unaware of her repressed sexuality. She pestered Fuseli as George Eliot—if she was indeed innocent—pestered Chapman, with a swamping superego. Still, it may not have been quite like that: Fuseli was happily married and Mary was showing a girlish hunger to belong to a family. She had the simplicity to propose to Mrs. Fuseli that she should come and live with them. Mrs. Fuseli discerned the egotist and showed her the door.


As Miss Flexner says, the friendship with Fuseli seems not only to have aroused her intellect but to have woken her up to the emotions that lay behind her earnest daydreaming. What followed was an emotional disaster. The French revolution was in its idealistic phase and many English radicals rushed to Paris. Her reputation as an educationalist was well-known and she had the nerve to offer to advise the French authorities on the education of French women. But the Terror began. She was horrified and frightened. As an Englishwoman, she was in danger of arrest. She turned to an American speculator and plotting political agent, Gilbert Imlay, a liaison began, and he saved her by saying she was his wife.

Imlay was in fact a charming rascal. He was a fugitive from justice in Kentucky and one can see that an inexperienced, intellectual woman of her kind was likely to fall for the dubious gallantry she had always attacked. Imlay was not one to stay long with any woman; he was always disappearing. Mary was soon pregnant and his absences grew longer. He tricked her into going on a mission for him in Scandinavia—Copenhagen had been half destroyed when she got there—and on her return she found him living with another woman in London.

It was now that the basic rage of her nature (the inheritance no doubt of her father’s rage) burst out in a very determined attempt at suicide by drowning. She planned it thoroughly, even going to the length of loading herself with clothes so that she would sink at once. Fortunately she was rescued. It was Godwin’s friendship that saved her mind. When she was thirty-seven she married him and then, once more, she was a victim. Her death in childbirth is the final injustice. Her daughter grew up to be Mary Shelley, who, tormented in her turn, revered her mother’s work but refused to have anything to do with female emancipation. The idea faded until Mill’s essay on the Subjection of Women—a far better book than the Vindication—vigorously revived it for the mid-Victorians.

Miss Flexner has gone carefully into Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings and, as she says, her distinction is that her opinions came from her experience of the ordinary people she knew. But when she turned to novel writing she could not draw living people. Earnest, bold, a teacher to the backbone, she was really self-absorbed, too little resilient to allow other people to exist except as generalities or projections of her opinions. Her tale is painful but she made a great deal of an injured spirit. The tragedy is that under Godwin’s influence her powers might have grown; he certainly conquered her touchiness after a patient struggle.

For all Mary Wollstonecraft’s tutorials on the levity and mindlessness of women who took their tone from the aristocracy in the eighteenth century, that century showed more wit, common sense, and practicality in its double view of married love than the Victorian middles who invented the angel in the house and the fallen woman. When one reads the little that is known of the story of the first Mrs. George Meredith (Peacock’s vivacious daughter), it is obvious that her troubles owed something to having carried into the nineteenth century an eighteenth-century mind. Mary Wollstonecraft would have disapproved of her. All we know about her is that Peacock had turned her into an independent and thinking young woman; that she was left a widow, with a child coming, after three months of marriage; that at thirty, a wit and a gourmet, she rashly married the handsome Meredith who was dyspeptic and too young for her. She ran off with another man, Wallis, the successful young painter who had used Meredith as a model for his famous picture The Death of Chatterton. She had two sons, one by Meredith, the other by Wallis, and Meredith was embittered by her adultery.

Still, obsession is good for artists: Meredith got The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and the Modern Love sonnets out of it, and passages of The Egoist. In her forties, young Mrs. Meredith died not of shame, desertion, or ostracism, but of a disease of the kidneys. Neither lover nor husband, friends or relations were at her funeral; Meredith behaved badly in not letting her son see her when she died and said there was madness in the family (her mother was certainly one of those disordered women who were mysteriously confined to their rooms most of their lives).

In a rather arch if sympathetic book, Diane Johnson does her best to fill out an exiguous story fairly and touch it up with a feminist moral. It is well known that Peacock, his daughter, and Meredith himself were irritable, proud, and amorous: there was a tussle of vanities and a good deal of petulance all round. The character of young Wallis is elusive. Mrs. Johnson thinks he was simply bewildered and decent. One guesses that as an older and restless person Mrs. Meredith dominated husband and lover. Mrs. Johnson’s one interesting contribution to the subject is her study of Mrs. Meredith’s Commonplace Book and there, indeed, one does see she leaned toward the “fast” or the advanced and had something like George Sand’s views on a woman’s right to dispose of herself. She was struck by some words of Dumas to the effect that the word “adultery” had never been used until the nineteenth century. Molière had been contented and amused by “cuckoldry.”

From the first moment [Mrs. Meredith is copying out Dumas] that the husband saw that children had a legal right to inheritance, he wanted this to be a natural right, and from that moment the word “adultery” became a real word, that is to say synonymous with “crime” for the wife, with “flight” for the child. That is how the nineteenth century came to value seriously the word the eighteenth century took as comical.

Certainly Meredith took it melodramatically, but Mrs. Johnson thinks—and what one knows of the morality that survived from the Regency would support her—that Mrs. Meredith was not disturbed by her “sin” or the prospects of the demimonde. She did not lose real friends. The Peacocks were discreet and tolerant. Though short of money, Mrs. Meredith could earn a bit by writing, and Wallis seems to have been affectionate, if not always there. The uncertain quantity was Nature and Mortality: the misfortune was the inadequacy of medicine. Victorian men, women, and children, as Mrs. Johnson rightly says, accepted more calmly than ourselves the familiarity with sickness and death; they crept upon the just and injust, indifferent to sin or virtue. If pregnancies weakened Mrs. Meredith, one conjectures also that the Peacocks’ “great wines” and “senatorial ports” played a likelier part than male sensuality did in exposing her to kidney disease.

Incidentally, Mrs. Johnson has the strange, even vulgar feminist notion that Victorian women could not be sexually impulsive because of the load of clothes they wore. One has only to look at the seduction scene in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (in which Mrs. Johnson suspects a portrait of Mrs. Meredith) to see that elaborate costume played its sensational part. And what about the speed with which Madame Bovary could unlace a corset? It is always a mistake to imagine our great great grandmothers were fools.

This Issue

November 2, 1972