Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft
GODWIN, Mrs. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759–1797), miscellaneous writer, born 27 April 1759, was granddaughter of a rich Spitalfields manufacturer of Irish extraction. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, spent the fortune which he had inherited, tried farming, took to drinking, bullied his wife, and rambled to various places, sinking lower at each move. By his wife, Elizabeth Dixon, an Irishwoman (d. 1780), he had six children. Edward, the eldest, was an attorney in the city of London. There were three daughters, Mary, Everina, and Eliza; and two other sons. Mary and Eliza had much talent, though little education. Mary in 1778 became companion to a Mrs. Dawson. In 1780 her mother died, and the sisters, finding their father's house intolerable, resolved to become teachers. Mary went to live with a friend, Fanny Blood, whose father was as great a scamp as Wollstonecraft, and who helped to support her family by painting. Her mother, Mrs. Blood, took in needlework, in which Mary Wollstonecraft helped her. Everina Wollstonecraft kept house for her brother Edward; and Eliza, although still very young, accepted a Mr. Bishop, in order to escape misery at home. Bishop's brutality made her wretched. Her life is described in her sister's ‘Wrongs of Women.’ Mrs. Bishop went into hiding till a legal separation was arranged, when about 1783 she set up a school at Newington Green with Mary Wollstonecraft. It lingered for two years. During this period she acquired some friends, and was kindly received, shortly before his death, by Dr. Johnson. Fanny Blood, who lived with the sisters for a time, married Hugh Skeys, a merchant, and settled in Lisbon. She died in childbed soon afterwards (29 Nov. 1785). Mary went out to nurse her, but arrived too late. After her return she wrote a pamphlet called ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,’ for which Johnson, the publisher in St. Paul's Churchyard, gave her 10l. 10s. She then became governess (October 1787) in the family of Lord Kingsborough, afterwards Earl of Kingston. She thought him a coarse squire and his wife a mere fine lady. Lady Kingsborough was jealous of the children's affection for their governess, and dismissed her after a year. She then settled in London, showed a story called ‘Mary’ to Johnson, and was employed by him as reader and in translating from the French. She worked for five years, liberally helped her sisters and brothers, sending Everina to France, and saw some literary society. Here, in November 1791, she met William Godwin [q. v.] for the first time, when he disliked her because her fluent talk silenced the taciturn Thomas Paine, who was of the company. She published her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792. It had some success, was translated into French, and scandalised her sisters. She proposed to visit France in company with Johnson and Mr. and Mrs. Fuseli. Knowles (in his ‘Life of Fuseli’) says that Mary Wollstonecraft had fallen in love with Fuseli, who was already married; that she got rid of her previously slovenly habits of dress in order to please him, and that she proposed to stay in his house in order to be near him. Mrs. Fuseli hereupon, he adds, forbade her the house, and she went to Paris to break off the attachment. Mr. Paul (Mary Wollstonecraft, p. xxxi) denies the story, chiefly on the ground that she remained a ‘close friend’ of Mrs. Fuseli. Knowles quotes some phrases from her letters to Fuseli, which are certainly significant, but he does not give them in full. She went to Paris alone in December 1792. Here she met Gilbert Imlay, who had been a captain in the American army during the war of independence, had written letters descriptive of the north-west territory (published in 1792, 2nd edit. 1797), and was now engaged in commercial speculations. She agreed to live with him as his wife—a legal marriage for an Englishwoman being probably difficult at the time, and not a matter of importance according to her views (Letters to Imlay, p. xxxix). She joined him at Havre at the end of 1793, and on 14 May 1794 gave birth to a child, called Fanny. She published an ‘Historical View of the French Revolution’ soon afterwards. Imlay's speculations separated him from her for long periods, and her letters soon show doubts of his affection and suspicions of his fidelity. She followed him to England in 1795, and in June sailed to Norway to make arrangements for some of his commercial speculations. Passages of her letters to him, descriptive of the country, were published in 1796. Returning to England in the autumn she found that he desired a separation, and was carrying on an intrigue with another woman. She tried to drown herself by leaping from Putney Bridge, but was taken out insensible by a passing boat. According to Godwin, she still listened to some proposals from Imlay, and was even willing to return to him upon degrading terms. She finally broke with him in March 1796. She refused to take money from him, but accepted a bond for the benefit of her daughter. Neither principal nor interest was ever paid. She returned to writing, resumed her friendship with Johnson, and went into literary society. She soon became intimate with Godwin, who had been favourably impressed by the ‘Letters from Sweden.’ Though both of them disapproved of marriage, they formed a connection about September 1796. The expectation of a child made a legal union desirable; and they were married 29 March 1797 [see Godwin, William]. Their relation, in spite of some trifling disagreements due to Godwin's peculiarities, was happy. The birth of her child Mary was fatal to her, and she died 10 Sept. 1797. She was buried at Old St. Pancras churchyard, and her remains were moved in 1851 to Bournemouth. She is described as Marguerite in her husband's ‘St. Leon.’
Mrs. Godwin was an impulsive and enthusiastic woman, with great charms of person and manner. A portrait, painted by Opie during her marriage and engraved by Heath in 1798, was in the possession of the late Sir Percy Shelley. Another, also by Opie, was engraved by Ridley for the ‘Monthly Mirror’ in 1796, and is now in the possession of Mr. William Russell. Engravings of both are in Mr. Paul's ‘Mary Wollstonecraft.’ Her books show some genuine eloquence, though occasionally injured by the stilted sentimentalism of the time. The letters are pathetic from the melancholy story which they reveal. Her faults were such as might be expected from a follower of Rousseau, and were consistent with much unselfishness and nobility of sentiment, though one could wish that her love-affairs had been more delicate.
Her works are: 1. ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,’ 1787. 2. ‘Original Stories from Real Life, with considerations calculated to regulate the affections,’ 1788, 1791, and edition illustrated by Blake, 1796. 3. ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men,’ a letter to Edmund Burke, 1790. 4. ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ 1792, vol. i. (all published). 5. ‘Historical and Moral View of … the French Revolution,’ vol. i. 1794 (all published). 6. ‘Letters written in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark,’ 1796. 7. ‘Posthumous Works,’ 1798 (vols. i. and ii. ‘The Wrongs of Women, or Maria’ (fragment of a novel); iii. and iv. ‘Letters and Miscellaneous Pieces’). 8. ‘Letters to Imlay,’ with prefatory memoir by C. K. Paul, 1879. She also translated Salzmann's ‘Moralisches Elementarbuch’ (‘Elements of Morality’) in 1790, illustrated by Blake, who adapted fortynine out of the fifty-one German illustrations (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 493).[Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women, by William Godwin, 1798; A Defence of the Character and Conduct of the late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin … in a series of letters to a lady (author unknown), 1803; William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, by C. Kegan Paul, 1876, i. 163–291; Mary Wollstonecraft, with prefatory memoir by C. Kegan Paul, 1879; Knowles's Life of Fuseli, i. 159–69.]