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Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollsteoncraft was born on 27 April 1759 in London. Her father Edward drifted in and out of jobs and locations, never succeeding in establishing himself or his family on a stable basis. A failure on a professional level, he was also abusive as a person, particularly to his wife Elizabeth. Mary's youthful experiences of trying to shield and console her mother strongly colored her later writings against what she thought of as the bondage of marriage.

As an adolescent Mary Wollstonecraft befriended Fanny Blood with whom she formed an enduring bond. After the death of her mother in 1780, Mary abandoned her own home and went to live with the Blood family, a female enclave that subsisted on the small earnings to be made by needlework and painting. Her sister Eliza escaped the home by marriage, but, when after the birth of a child she appeared to her husband to have suffered a nervous collapse, he summoned Mary to help in her recovery. The sister, instead, became convinced that the problem lay in her marriage, and she essentially kidnapped Eliza, afterward arranging for a legal separation of husband and wife.

At this point (1784), facing the universal lack of professional opportunity for women, Wollstonecraft decided to set up a school, with Eliza and Fanny Blood, in Islington. They determined, however, that their prospects would be improved if they transferred it outside the city and thus moved to the northern suburb of Newington Green, where they were joined by the third of the Wollstonecraft sisters Everina. In this idyllic location Mary made the acquaintance of Samuel Johnson, also of the radical Dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price.

In 1785 Fanny Blood left the school to accept an offer of marriage in Lisbon, Portugal. She was soon pregnant, and, in her isolation, she wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, pleading with her to join her and see her through the birth of her child. Although it meant jeopardizing the success of the school, Mary left for Lisbon, where she encountered her friend already in premature labor. Fanny died in Mary's arms, and the baby survived for only a short time after her. The despondency into which this episode drove Mary is rehearsed in the central chaopters of her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, published in 1788.

Returning to England, Mary Wollstonecraft found her school in untenable financial condition and was forced to close it. She attempted to realize some income by writing a conduct book based on her experiences as a teacher, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which would be brought to the press in 1787 by the foremost liberal publisher of the time, Joseph Johnson. Robbed of her independent livelihood, however, she had no resources to support herself, and in 1786 she entered the household of Viscount Kingsborough of Mitchelstown, Country Cork, Ireland, where she served as governess to the two daughters. This position lasted a year and drove her to a detestation of the demeaning position of governess that can be seen in many of her later writings. It also led to her second educational publication, a work that, with surprisingly dark colors, drew on her Irish experiences, following the reclamation of two spoiled sisters by a determinedly sober governess named Mrs. Mason, which was published by Johnson in 1788 as Original Stories from Real Life: with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness. William Blake furnished illustrations for its second edition. Many years later, after she moved to Italy, Mary Shelley found herself befriended by one of those once wayward sisters, who, having escaped an arranged marriage to an Irish peer, in veneration of her former governess had adopted the name of Mrs. Mason and thrived amid the intellectual life of the university town of Pisa.

With her career as an educator frustrated, Mary Wollstonecraft determined to earn her living by her pen, translating from the French and reviewing for Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. At Joseph Johnson's weekly Tuesday dinners Mary Wollstonecraft met a number of radical thinkers: Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and most importantly, though at the time he found her somewhat irritating, William Godwin, whom she first met in 1791. With Johnson's liberal circle of intellectuals Mary at last found her rightful place, and soon she found the opportunity to enlist her pen in controversy far beyond the range usually assumed by a female author. Her target was Edmund Burke's conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France, written ostensibly as an admonishing letter to Richard Price. Although there were some thirty responses to Burke's rambling diatribe against French democracy, including Thomas Paine's best-selling polemic, Rights of Man, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) had the honor of being the first off the press. It is clear, however, that as Wollstonecraft honed her attack on Burke's defence of landed property over human rights she saw a larger issue on which Burke's entire argument depended: patriarchy. Two years later saw the publication of the work that made her famous and that survives the centuries for the depth and cogency of its analysis, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published by Johnson in 1792.

Late that year, in typically daring fashion, Mary Wollstonecraft traveled to France to witness the French Revolution firsthand and to collect material for her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which Johnson published in 1794. While in Paris she met an American ship captain and businessman, Gilbert Imlay, and soon became his lover. Indeed, they lived a romantic existence, for all English, however sympathetic to the regime, were under threat by the Terror, and Imlay first hid Mary in the American embassy during its height, then moved to the port of Le Havre where she managed to pass safely as his wife. In 1794 she had a daughter by Imlay, Fanny Imlay, to whom she was deeply attached. Never one to stick at proper female conventions, Mary with her infant daughter undertook an expedition to further Imlay's business interests, the account of which she published as one of her enduring contributions to English literature, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (1796). These letters end with a sense of impending disaster, which was, indeed, the case. Upon her return to London, Wollstonecraft discovered that, while she was working on his behalf, Imlay had deserted her. Distraught, she attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames.

Recovering from this near disaster, Mary Wollstonecraft renewed her acquaintance with William Godwin, and, though they kept their separate apartments and circle of friends, they soon became romantically involved. Although both had written against the prevailing notions of matrimony, when it became clear that Mary was pregnant they determined to marry: the wedding was performed in St. Pancras Church on 29 March 1797. On 31 August Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter, who was given both their names as an intellectual inheritance, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The child was robust, but there were complications with the afterbirth, and Mary Wollstonecraft quickly sickened from placental infection and died just eleven days after her daughter's birth, on 10 September.

Deeply attached as the lovers had been, this event left Godwin distraught. His means of recovery was to write a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, to which he added an edition of the remarkable fragments of her last novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. Their publication in 1798 had the ironic effect of furnishing critics of Mary Wollstonecraft's lifestyle with the means by which to attack not just her but all attempts to liberate women from a conventional patriarchal control. In the end justice prevails. In a later time her attackers have receded to historical footnotes, and Mary Wollstonecraft stands in honor for her significant contributions to English letters and human progress.