Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft; drawing by David Levine


When the final word is said on Mary Wollstonecraft she will appear to us, I suspect, as one of the most powerful and distinctive prose writers in the language. The one work by which she is generally known today, her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, establishes Wollstonecraft as the greatest of polemical feminists. But she wrote a great deal more, and wider acquaintance with the complete oeuvre, now slowly coming back into print, may well inspire a reassessment of the history of English Romanticism to include the turn-of-the-century woman writer, who, like Wollstonecraft (and Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth, Burney), wrote prose fiction, treatises, letters, essays, and diaries, rather than poetry. “I am compelled to think that there is some thing in my writings more valuable,” she wrote Godwin in 1796, “than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm elogiums—I mean more mind—denominate it as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers.”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s career as a writer began in 1787 when she was twenty-eight and ended with her death in childbirth ten years later. Thus the great event of her day was the French Revolution, and as a radical thinker on women, politics, and religion she belongs among the English Jacobins. As a writer she was a contemporary of Burns and Blake, who, like her, are difficult to label. “Pre-romantic” is too pale a term for their vigorous originality; yet we normally date the start of English Romanticism with the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Wordsworth and Coleridge were more than ten years younger than Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Posthumous Works also appeared in 1798.

The philosopher William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s husband during the last five months of her life, included in these four posthumous volumes Wollstonecraft’s most powerful novel, the unfinished Maria; and many of her love letters, which are extraordinary; and her essay “On Artificial Taste,” which had appeared in the April 1797 Monthly Magazine. Eleanor Flexner has suggested that this essay, retitled by Godwin (more accurately) “On Poetry, and our relish for the beauties of nature,” may have influenced the romantic poets. It is at least worth noting that the year before Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” Mary Wollstonecraft defined the poet as “the man of strong feelings” who “gives us only an image of his mind, when he was actually alone, conversing with himself, and marking the impression which nature had made on his own heart.”

As a prose stylist, Wollstonecraft was of course (being a woman) largely self-taught. The haste, the padding, the disorganization of the hack writer are her worst faults, from which none of her volumes is free. She published too much: eight books of fiction and nonfiction as well as translations and reviews during her single writing decade, for writing was her only support. And, being a woman writer, she took seriously her responsibility to support not only herself but her relations, her needy friends, her illegitimate child, and at last her husband. The improvident Godwin rushed her posthumous works into print as soon as she was dead because he was, as always, desperately short of money, and Wollstonecraft left two children as well as her works in his care. Her support of others through her own writings thus continued even after her death.

At its best, Wollstonecraft’s prose style has a strength, a dignity, a passionate urgency, a formal simplicity, and a music that belong to no one else. But visual equivalents for her style are provided by her two artist contemporaries, Henry Fuseli, on whom she had an unwise early crush, and William Blake, who illustrated one of her books. I would guess that when all her work, including her letters, is made available, a short but dazzling volume of her prose will be found worthy of selection and preservation, and Mary Wollstonecraft will come into her own as a writer as well as a feminist. There is already something more to say about her than the bare mention I find in the most widely used anthology of English literature: “Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical author, the wife of William Godwin and mother of Shelley’s second wife.”

Gina Luria has selected and provided useful introductions for a remarkable reprint series called “The Feminist Controversy in England 1788-1810” (Garland Publishing): forty-four works in eighty-nine facsimile volumes by Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries, who were engaged throughout the turn of the century in debating the nature, education, destiny, and rights of woman, in novels and treatises. The seven Wollstonecraft volumes in the series (eight if Godwin’s 1798 memoir of his wife is included) make it possible to meet Mary Wollstonecraft head on, in her own words, as she was before and after her famous Vindication of 1792; brief as was her writing life, she changed and developed.


Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), is full of surprises: astonishingly confident for a beginner, and written with a crisp decisiveness that Wollstonecraft herself would soon abandon for more complex effects of style. There was nothing new about the pedagogical treatise concerned solely with female education, but it was new to have a woman write it, and Mary Wollstonecraft did so entirely in the first person, asserting her sex as she asserted herself; for her, there was never to be a separation between the two. “I wish them to be taught to think”—that is the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft, spinster pedagogue, at twenty-eight. Until she became a writer, she had been supporting herself as a governess and teacher.

“Few are the modes of earning a subsistence, and those very humiliating,” she writes in the most striking chapter of Education of Daughters, entitled “Unfortunate Situation of Females, fashionably educated, and left without a Fortune.” “Above the servants, yet considered by them as a spy, and ever reminded of her inferiority when in conversation with the superiors….” Wollstonecraft’s pungent sentences on the exploitation of governess and teacher might serve as mottoes to whole chapters written half a century later by Charlotte and Anne Brontë, who shared her fierce independence and, not unrelatedly, her Yorkshire upbringing. But Wollstonecraft was different from the Victorians in her about nurturing mothers and dutiful daughters. “I…am of the opinion,” she writes, “that maternal tenderness arises quite as much from habit as instinct.” She demands intellectual as well as domestic employments for women: “I cannot conceive that they are incompatible.” And she is severe on the sentimentalities of the virgin heart: “I am very far from thinking love irresistible.”

The virgin heart is also the theme of her first novel, Mary, a Fiction (another Garland reprint), published the following year, in 1788. In a style alternately waspish and lyrical, Wollstonecraft traces the development from birth to death of a lonely young heiress, the victim of a fashionable upbringing, who is forced into a marriage that disgusts her and appears never to have been consummated: “when her husband would take her hand, or mention any thing like love, she would instantly feel a sickness, a faintness at her heart….” A few pages later the girl wastes away, rejoicing in the virgin’s dream of heaven, “that world, where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage.”

Mary, a Fiction is a fumbling, inchoate work, more a sketch than a novel; but it contains some startling and original passages—for example, a description of the religious ardors of female adolescence which prefigures George Eliot. The preface alone is a document of importance to literary history, for there Wollstonecraft announces her intention to speak for the “chosen few” and create a new species of novel in which “the mind of a woman who has thinking powers is displayed.” But this ambition did not come near fulfillment until Maria, Wollstonecraft’s last novel.

The decade between Mary and Maria transformed Mary Wollstonecraft dramatically, in her views on love and religion as well as in her skill as a writer. She was ceaselessly productive, turning out hundreds of reviews between 1788 and 1797, as well as a pedagogical novel, three books translated from French and German (her French was largely, her German entirely self-taught); and she launched boldly into public controversy with an answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.1

Then came A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which brought her worldwide and lasting fame, and which has been the central text of feminism from her time to our own. By 1792 Wollstonecraft had mastered the subject of woman, especially women’s failings, toward which she was severe as well as perceptive. She also drew up a rigorous indictment of society—its restrictions, instructions, exploitations—for making woman what she was instead of what she might be. She demanded education and employment, and political, sexual, and marital rights for her sex, with an unsurpassed breadth of concern for every female age and class.

Late in 1792 Wollstonecraft went to France to see the revolution for herself. Her Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect it has produced in Europe went into two editions in 1794 and 1795. The second edition has recently been reissued in a Scholars’ Facsimiles reprint which contains a learned introduction by Janet M. Todd. Professor Todd offers explanations for the generally disappointing quality of the volume: on the one hand, Wollstonecraft’s distance from the events of 1789—she had to rely on secondhand accounts—and on the other, her closeness to the events of the Terror, which brought on a severe case of Francophobia. Wollstonecraft blamed the French—their hysteria, ignorance, and theatrical shallowness—for the violence she refused to blame on revolutionary ideology. “The national character is, perhaps, more formed by their theatrical amusements, than is generally imagined;…is it surprising, that almost every thing is said and done for stage effect?”


Wollstonecraft’s style comes to life only rarely in her French Revolution, and in passages where, instead of soberly narrating events, she lets fly with her own rather theatrical outbursts of rhetoric. “We must get entirely clear of all the notions drawn from the wild traditions of original sin: the eating of the apple, the theft of Prometheus, the opening of Pandora’s box, and the other fables…on which priests have erected their tremendous structures of imposition….” Her long digressions on the development of mankind are painfully naïve when she turns to the past, but sometimes remarkable on the future. She denounces not only kings and noblemen but the rising “aristocracy of wealth,” and attributes to the “destructive influence of commerce” the dehumanization of labor in the dawning industrial age: “thus are whole knots of men turned into machines, to enable a keen speculator to become wealthy; and every noble principle of nature is eradicated by making a man pass his life in stretching wire, pointing a pin, heading a nail, or spreading a sheet of paper on a plain surface.”2

While in France, Mary Wollstonecraft fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer3 ; or, to put the matter exactly, she fell in love with love. What Kate Chopin called an Awakening and Emily Dickinson a Glory came to Wollstonecraft in her thirties, canceled her virgin heart, and transformed her prose. In the letters she wrote in the mid-1790s, Wollstonecraft developed and sustained a style which combines austerity with passion—a slow, formal deliberation with a silvery musicality. “Love is a want of my heart,” she wrote in 1795. “I have examined myself lately with more care than formerly, and find, that to deaden is not to calm the mind—Aiming at tranquility, I have almost destroyed all the energy of my soul—almost rooted out what renders it estimable…. The desire of regaining peace (do you understand me?) has made me forget the respect due to my own emotions—sacred emotions, that are the sure harbingers of the delights I was formed to enjoy.”

The last of Wollstonecraft’s books to be published in her lifetime was her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796). Some of these letters are superb and worth reprinting, for they make miniature essays of a full-blown romanticism about the wild scenery and the rude women and men of Scandinavia.4 But it was not until after her death that her most heartrending and most beautiful love letters were published. The Letters to Imlay (as they were called by the Victorians) are the third volume of Wollstonecraft’s 1798 Posthumous Works. In his preface, Godwin compared them to Goethe’s Werter as “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe.”

The Letters to Imlay testify to Wollstonecraft’s reckless liaison, forward passions, proud independence, and betrayal; to her difficulties (and delights) in caring for her illegitimate daughter, her poverty, her attempt at suicide. But they are not complaining letters, or even intimate letters, so much as they are literature in the tradition of the medieval Héloïse (who inspired Rousseau): courageous, joyful celebrations of a woman’s right to passion and its consequences, the best with the worst. “Ah! my friend,” Mary Wollstonecraft writes,

you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination…. These emotions…appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begetters certainly have no idea.

In the context of Posthumous Works (all four volumes of which Gina Luria has included in the Garland reprint series) it is possible to calculate the effect of Wollstonecraft’s doctrine of love free from the trammels of law, religion, convention, or property on the young Percy Shelley, who seems to have read everything she wrote, and was attracted to Mary Godwin partly because she was the daughter of a legendary mother. That doctrine pervades Wollstonecraft’s love letters and, inextricably mixed with a feminism more radical than that of her Vindication, forms the central theme of The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, the novel on which she was working when she died.

In the inexpensive Norton paper edition (intelligently presented and introduced by Moira Ferguson), Maria has now become accessible to the general reader, as well as to students of feminism and the romantic novel. They will encounter a long but rough fragment, sketchy in characterization and imbalanced in design, but a work touched with originality and passion. Not only the ideas but the episodes are original, for Wollstonecraft included an abortion and an adultery trial in the novel (though not the miscarriage she planned but did not live to write). In form, also, Maria is an original work, for Wollstonecraft diverted aspects of the Radcliffean Gothic to feminist ends. The heroine, as the novel opens, is imprisoned in a madhouse which looks very like the castle of Udolpho. During most of the rest, Maria flees from persecution by her bestial, mercenary husband, a realistic embodiment of the principle of masculine villainy that Mrs. Radcliffe fantasized as Montoni and Schedoni.

Through her heroine, who enters openly and proudly on an adulterous affair near the start of Maria, Wollstonecraft attacks the institution of marriage. She proclaims a woman’s right to satisfy her own sexual desires, and claims a woman’s privilege to educate her daughters in these matters, as Maria does in the novel. “To you, my child, I may add, with a heart tremblingly alive to your future conduct,” Maria writes her daughter, from whom she has been forcibly separated:

when novelists or moralists praise as a virtue, a woman’s coldness of constitution, and want of passion; and make her yield to the ardour of her lover out of sheer compassion, or to promote a frigid plan of future comfort, I am disgusted. They may be good women, in the ordinary acceptation of the phrase, and do no harm;…but they want that fire of the imagination, which produces active sensibility, and positive virtue.

Even after Posthumous Works there still remained unpublished Wollstonecraft writings, principally letters, which descended through the Shelley family to the present Lord Abinger. On the basis of these papers and other documents, Ralph M. Wardle produced in 1951 the first and still the most important scholarly life of Mary Wollstonecraft. And in 1966 he added to the canon what is in effect another posthumous Wollstonecraft publication. This is Godwin & Mary, Professor Wardle’s edition of the correspondence between Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin during the single year (July 1796 to August 1797) when their friendship turned to romance, their romance to passion, their passion to consummation, their affair to a highly unconventional marriage during which they lived far enough apart to permit the continuing exchange of letters. Wardle, a superb editor, provides just enough annotation to allow the relationship to unfold by itself through the correspondence of these two doctrinaire rationalists, who both came late to love. And he does not presume to gloss its poignant close—the note in which Mary Wollstonecraft reassured Godwin about the “safe delivery” of their child that she awaited with patience.

Godwin & Mary is still in print—happily, because it is the easiest, certainly the most delightful introduction to the life and the prose of Mary Wollstonecraft. It contains some of her most radiant love letters, and offers the reader the pleasure of watching some placid joys come to this gallant woman in the last months of her life. In his introduction, Wardle pinpoints the single superiority of the Godwin & Mary correspondence to the Letters to Imlay: “we hear not one voice crying in a void, but two people conversing intimately—…both individualists, but gradually developing a love that was…a combination of tender consideration and mutual respect, heightened by moments of fiery passion….” I would add that as love letters they must be unique in their pulse to the rhythms of a woman’s pregnancy—that “inelegant complaint,” as Wollstonecraft wrote dryly to Godwin, “which no novelist has yet mentioned as one of the consequences of sentimental distress.”


The most important event of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was her journey to London in 1787, the manuscript of her first novel in hand, to present herself to the radical publisher Joseph Johnson and demand full-time work as a writer. “I am then going to be the first of a new genus,” she wrote her sister. Professor Wardle is right to remind us that she was not the first self-supporting woman writer in history, but she may well have been the first to fight for a place on Grub Street in this solitary fashion, to set up her own home in London without family support or companionship, without husband or lover, without any defense against inevitable sexual insult but her own pride, without any patron but the publisher for whom she wrote industriously for ten years. “Have you heard of any habitation for me?” she wrote Johnson in a letter Godwin included in the fourth volume of Posthumous Works.

I often think of my new plan of life…. I am determined!—Your sex generally laugh at female determinations, but let me tell you, I never yet resolved to do, any thing of consequence, that I did not adhere resolutely to it…. I long for a little peace and independence! Every obligation we receive from our fellow-creatures is a new shackle, takes from our native freedom, and debases the mind, makes us mere earthworms—I am not fond of grovelling!

She wished to teach her whole sex not to grovel. From observation of her own life, and that of her sisters, friends, pupils, and employers; from wide reading in the works of the philosophes, to whose company she aspired, Wollstonecraft came to understand the social conditions governing the lives of all women and to denounce their institutionalized repression—a social fact that she was the first to grasp in its entirety, and that her writings did most to change.

Biographers and editors can do no worse disservice to Mary Wollstonecraft and to the history of feminism than to reduce her published writings to a private whimper—to present her Vindication, her pedagogy, and her fiction as mere evidence that she had a lifelong personal grievance. Grievances she had, of course: her father was a foolish, brutal man with the standard vices of the day; her stepmother was disagreeable; her childhood was unsettled by money worries and frequent moves; her schooling was brief and inferior; the university and the professions were closed to her, because she was a woman; she had to earn her way, and help support her family, from the age of nineteen, and, because she was a woman, no respectable, independent, decently paid positions were open to her. But had Mary Wollstonecraft merely complained all her life about her personal troubles, which were those of the generality of middle-class English spinsters in her day, she would hardly be worth a biography. Yet the most recent Wollstonecraft biographers, for reasons I cannot fathom, make her out to be a neurotic, spiteful whiner rather than the champion philosopher of her sex; and these biographies, for reasons I think I can grasp, have been greeted with praise in certain quarters.

Ralph Wardle’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (1951) is now available in paper; it is gracefully written, lively, and wise, as well as thoroughly reliable. Because Wardle provides the best guide to Wollstonecraft’s published writings (notably her prolific work for the Analytical Review, which Wardle first examined in a 1947 PMLA article), I prefer his biography to all its successors. But an important and serious addition to Wollstonecraft studies was Eleanor Flexner’s 1972 biography, now available in a Penguin edition (as is Wollstonecraft craft’s Vindication).

Flexner, the distinguished historian of American feminism, was one of the editors of the Wollstonecraft-related papers made available in the Pforzheimer Library Shelley and His Circle volumes, and she supplements Wardle’s biography with a few new details worth having, and some reinterpretations.

Thanks to Wardle and Flexner, Mary Wollstonecraft’s life has been well, and one would have thought amply, told. Yet a critical storm, virile and enthusiastic, greeted Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974), which is slanted, carping, and unreliable. Tomalin prefers paraphrase and innuendo to direct quotation; she distorts Wollstonecraft’s writings for evidence against her; her back-of-the-book notes are mock scholarship, for she ordinarily gives titles only, without editions, volumes, or pages. She writes with a steady sneer—for example, denigrating the single important contemporary account of Wollstonecraft, Godwin’s moving Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” which he wrote immediately after his wife’s death: “it was only in Godwin’s violently emotional retrospect,” writes Tomalin, “that their wooing and marriage took on the colouring of high romance.”

The most insidious of Tomalin’s procedures, because concealed from the unknowing reader, is her partial quoting of the generalized protests Wollstonecraft made on behalf of all women in her published books as if they were merely private complaints, drawn from letters or journals. The same procedure also invades Emily Sunstein’s new biography of Wollstonecraft, called A Different Face, though in intention it is a more serious and responsible study.

For example, Sunstein offers the following interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s childhood: “Home was a dead end that brought out the worst in her. ‘The tender,’ she said of herself in her family situation, ‘give way for the sake of peace—yet still this giving way undermines their domestic comfort….’ ” Sunstein at least fully documents her sources at the back of the book; the wary reader who turns there can learn that this particular quotation, one of many used in this fashion, is not at all something Wollstonecraft “said of herself in her family situation,” but is snipped from the opening of her chapter on “The Temper” in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, where it actually reads, to quite different effect, “The tender, who are so by nature, or those whom religion has moulded with so heavenly a disposition, give way for the sake of peace….”

And Claire Tomalin, to give only one example from an early chapter in her biography, writes as follows about Wollstonecraft’s brother: “Ned was better off; he was articled to a lawyer and came home at weekends only, to rule the roost; ‘taking particular pleasure in tormenting and humbling me’ wrote Mary.” The note to this apparent complaint reads in its entirety: “Maria.” Readers ignorant of Wollstonecraft’s writings—such readers as those who reviewed Tomalin’s biography5—would be unlikely to turn to the back of the book for that cryptic reference; they would be hard put to discover, from Tomalin’s scrambled bibliography, that it is the title of a novel; and without volume or page numbers they could not begin to locate the proper context of the quotation in the two volumes of Maria.

The most important direction Wollstonecraft scholarship can take today is not biographical second-guessing, not pouring over scanty evidence of her family quarrels and schoolgirl friendships, but ordering her mature writings and placing them in the context of the extraordinary period of women’s history which they ornamented. Janet Todd is assembling a Wollstonecraft bibliography6 which includes contemporary and nineteenth-century reactions to her writings; and in her introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution Professor Todd draws important comparisons with the first-hand reporting of revolutionary events by Helen Maria Williams, whose volumes of Letters from France were widely read in England throughout the 1790s.

Gina Luria includes Helen Maria Williams’s Julia, a novel (1790) in her Feminist Controversy reprint series. She also makes available novels and treatises by such contemporaries of Wollstonecraft as Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Elizabeth Hamilton, Hannah More, Mary Brunton, Jane West, and many more. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft herself hailed as her most important predecessor Catherine Macaulay, the historian and pedagogue, about whom Abigail Adams wrote in far-off Brain-tree, Massachusetts, in 1771: “One of my own sex so eminent in a tract so uncommon…. I have a curiosity to know her Education, and what first prompted her to engage in a Study never before Exhibited to the publick by one of her own Sex and Country, tho now to the honour of both so admirably performed by her.”7 Thanks to Gina Luria, it is now possible for us to satisfy our own curiosity about Mrs. Macaulay’s Letters on Education, also included in the Garland series.

Wollstonecraft’s period, the romantic, revolutionary end of the eighteenth century, was an extraordinary time for women around the world, women such as Mme de Staël, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Abigail Adams, Maria Edgeworth, Mme de Genlis, as well as Jane Austen, a practicing if not a publishing author in her twenties when Wollstonecraft died. The rise of women to professional literary status was a phenomenon of the age, with wide repercussions in social, intellectual, and literary history. This subject has recently attracted particular attention from French scholars. Philippe Séjourné has done a minute and thorough re-examination of “The Female Novel in England from 1740 to 1800”; his chronological bibliography includes nearly one hundred women from the post-Richardson period, when women novelists began to outnumber male novelists in England. When Séjourné assesses the groundbreaking frankness and virulent social critique in Maria, his standard of comparison is other philosophical novels of the day by Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Helen Maria Williams.

The feminist was only one species of the new woman of Wollstonecraft’s day, and a vindication of her rights only one of her consequences. “Feminine Destiny in the Eighteenth-Century Novel” is the title of Pierre Fauchery’s immensely long and equally suggestive study, which he calls “an essay in novelistic gynecomythology.” Fauchery tracks the rising consciousness of Woman in the terrain of the novel, and its mythologizing pressure for change on ideas of virtue, love, family, education, knowledge, art, happiness, and heroism. He appears to have absorbed everything of interest written in the form of fiction by both men and women, in French, German, and English, including Tencin, Riccoboni, Krüdener, the posthumous Wollstonecraft, and the apprentice Jane Austen. Readers who wish to comprehend the real originality of a work like Maria will learn less from unsubstantiated biographical interpretations of Wollstonecraft’s childhood and adolescence than from Fauchery’s chapter on “Le Problème de la jouissance féminine.” There the assertion of female sexual passion appears as a tenet of radical feminism in Germany and France, as well as in Wollstonecraft’s England during the turn-of-the-century years.

This Issue

February 19, 1976