Saturday, 27 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part III

An author, the author in this case, is Mary Wollstonecraft (ranked well near the top at number 6).  I was thinking in the back of my mind that this was Mary Shelley (wife of my namesake, Percy Bysshe), but no, this is Mary Shelley's mother.  

1.  Mary Wollstonecraft lived from 1759 to 1797, a short but unconventional life as a writer, philosopher and a proponent of women's rights.  

2.  Wollstonecraft was one of six children born to a 'genteel' family headed by a violent, drunk father whose profligacy led them into financial difficulties.  At 19 she left home and took a position as a lady's companion, but didn't get on with her employer.  She was later a governess in another household which didn't suit her either, though the children she instructed thought she was inspiring. 

3.  She was unconventional in having had two love affairs before marriage to William Godwin (Mary's father).  The first was with a married man, the second with an American, Gilbert Imlay, whom she followed to France during wartime.  She had an illegitimate daughter with him and though he registered her as Mrs. Imlay after Britain declared war with France to give her some protection, he eventually abandoned her and the baby in the midst of the French revolution.  Amazingly, she attempted suicide twice over this Imlay character.  She continued to call herself Mrs. Imlay after returning to Britain.   She later married William Godwin after finding herself pregnant by him.  They then set up households in two adjoining houses so they could still each enjoy their independence.  She died within a couple of weeks of giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) from septicaemia, at the age of 38. 

3.  Her writing spanned several genre:  

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (1787)  was a 'conduct' book; an early version of today's self-help book.  She argued that women only appeared silly because they had not had the benefit of an education.

Original Stories from Real Life (1788) was a children's book, teaching moral ideas such as honesty and frugality.  This book used some of her experiences as a governess.

A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) was a political argument in response to Edmund Burke's defence of the aristocracy following the French Revolution.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was a feminist argument in favour of educating women according to their position in society, pointing out the value to society that women could add as educators of children and companions to their husbands.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796) was a travel narrative, commenting on the social and philosophical ideas of those countries.  Wollstonecraft went to Scandinavia on the behalf of Gilbert Imlay.  He didn't apparently appreciate her efforts as it did nothing to rescue the relationship.

Wrongs of Women, or Maria (1787), was an unfinished novel, published after her death.

4.  Following her death, William Godwin published a book about her life, revealing her illegitimate child, her affairs, her suicide attempts.  People were shocked.  Wollstonecraft was remembered more for Godwin's Memoir than for her own writing.

5.  Some 50-60 years later, Quaker abolitionist and feminist, Lucretia Mott, began  quoting from Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Since that time other well known feminists such as George Eliot and Virginia Woolf picked up Wollstonecraft's ideas and embraced her life as an 'experiment in living'.  Wollstonecraft is credited as being the first feminist writer.

6.  Just as with European history, what I've learned about Mary Wollstonecraft has given me another puzzle piece.  Her daughter, Mary Shelley, became an accomplished writer herself and you will all recognize her most famous work.  When she was only 19, Mary Shelley's book was published:  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).  She also lived a very unconventional life...but that would be another post.

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