I didn’t plan on commemorating Valentine’s Day, but then I thought it would be a good excuse to write about my favourite historical couple: the rather amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who were political philosophers, novelists and key figures in a British discourse on the French Revolution, known as the Revolution Controversy, which took place in the 1790s.
Wollstonecraft is mostly known for A Vindication on the Rights of Women (1792) in which she attacks the sexual double standard, argues the necessity of “a revolution in female manners” and emphasises the need for women to receive proper education. She envisioned a society founded on republican principles, in which the cornerstones were educated women who were the intellectual equals of their husbands.
Godwin was an early utilitarianist who is remembered for his novels, one of which is Caleb Williams, Or Things as They Are (1794), in which he criticises the abuse of aristocratic and institutional power. He met Wollstonecraft for the first time in 1791 at a dinner hosted by the radical publisher and bookseller Joseph Johnson, a dinner to which Godwin had invited himself because he wanted to meet Thomas Paine who were among the guests. Paine was not a particularly talkative man however and to Godwin’s dismay it was Wollstonecraft who dominated the conversation that evening. In his biography on Wollstonecraft, published after her death, he writes:
We touched on a considerable variety of topics, and particularly on the characters and habits of certain eminent men. Mary, as has already been observed, had acquired, in a very blameable degree, the practice of seeing every thing on the gloomy side, and bestowing censure with a plentiful hand, where circumstances were in any respect doubtful. I, on the contrary, had a strong propensity, to favourable construction, and particularly, where I found unequivocal marks of genius, strongly to incline to the supposition of generous and manly virtue. We ventilated in this way the characters of Voltaire and others, who have obtained from some individuals an ardent admiration, while the greater number have treated them with extreme moral severity. Mary was at last provoked to tell me, that praise, lavished in the way that I lavished it, could do no credit either to the commended or the commender. We discussed some questions on the subject of religion, in which her opinions approached much nearer to the received ones, than mine. As the conversation proceeded, I became dissatisfied with the tone of my own share in it.
He thought she was too critical and talkative and he was annoyed that he did not get to lead the conversation or talk as much as he wanted to. When he made a note of the evening in his diary he misspelled her name. “The interview was not fortunate.” he states “Mary and myself parted, mutually displeased with each other.”
They met a few times after this, but then Wollstonecraft went away to France to write. She met the radical author Helen Maria Williams, experienced the tumult of the revolution and fell in love with Gilbert Imlay. They had a daughter, Imlay left them both and Wollstonecraft tried to win him back by travelling to Scandinavia in 1794 to do business on his behalf. Imlay attempted to profit from the political situation by transporting goods through the British blockade of France, but his ship and its valuable cargo went missing. Wollstonecraft didn’t manage to locate the ship or reconnect with Imlay, but the trip resulted in her autobiographical memoir and travel narrative Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796.) It was very well received and it made a deep impression on Godwin. Wollstonecraft visited him in January shortly after the publication of her Letters and they fell in love, slowly but passionately. Godwin writes:
The partiality we conceived for each other, was in that mode, which I have always regarded as the purest and most refined style of love. It grew with equal advances in the mind of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before, and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long-established custom has awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either party can assume to have been the agent or the patient, the toil-spreader or the prey, in the affair. When, in the course of things, the disclosure came, there was nothing, in a manner, for either party to disclose to the other. […] It was friendship melting into love. Previously to our mutual declaration, each felt half-assured, yet each felt a certain trembling anxiety to have assurance complete.
The couple lived together for seven months in two adjoining houses, making it possible for them to both enjoy domestic happiness and be able to work independently. When Wollstonecraft became pregnant they decided to marry in order for their child to be legitimate, despite neither of them initially wishing to be wed. Wollstonecraft were (according to Godwin) reluctant to legally commit to another man after her ill fated relationship with Imlay and Godwin abhorred the institution of marriage which he considered: “so contrary to the genuine march of sentiment, as to require the overflowing of the soul to wait upon a ceremony, and that which, wherever delicacy and imagination exist, is of all things most sacredly private, to blow a trumpet before it, and to record the moment when it has arrived at its climax.”
Tragically Wollstonecraft died from an infection shortly after giving birth to her second daughter Mary (who later married the poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.) Godwin despaired and wrote in a letter to a friend: “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” After her death Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which he recalled her unconventional life and defended her actions, both of which were frequently criticised by her contemporaries. “There are no circumstances of her life, that, in the judgment of honour and reason, could brand her with disgrace.” he writes. “Never did there exist a human being, that needed, with less fear, expose all their actions, and call upon the universe to judge them.” Godwin described not only her intellectual talent but also included accounts of her love affairs, suicide attempts and illegitimate child. He undoubtedly wrote the memoirs to pay his last respects to a woman he loved and admired, but it was badly received and he was accused of stripping his dead wife naked for all to see. Rather than celebrating Wollstonecraft, the biography gave her an undeservedly bad reputation and she was barely read for the next hundred years. Talk about killing someone with kindness. At least their reputation.
In a rather sentimental, but undeniably evocative passage in his book Shelley, Godwin and Their Circle (1913), Brailsford writes: “Had Mary Wollstonecraft lived they must have moulded each other into something finer than nature had made of either. The year of married life was ideally happy, and the strange experiment in reconciling individualism with love apparently succeeded.”
So there you have them, my very favourite couple: the-very-nearly-but-not-quite-proto-feminist and the-very-nearly-but-not-quite-proto-anarchist, and their unconventional marriage of minds.
All quotes are taken from Godwin’s ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ except for the first which is from Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’
This post presents their relationship only from Godwin’s point of view, as I did this a quick write up for Valentine’s Day. I will probably revisit this post later to add some of Wollstonecraft’s thoughts as soon as I can locate an edition of her letters.