The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, told through five great pieces of trivia
1. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book about the ‘rights of men’ before she wrote her more famous book. It’s reasonably well known that, when Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, Thomas Paine responded by writing his celebrated Rights of Man (1791). But in fact Paine’s was the second book to appear in response to Burke’s on the subject of the ‘rights of man’: Mary Wollstonecraft had already beaten him to it, with her A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which appeared in 1790.
2. Indeed, Wollstonecraft knew a number of progressive thinkers and radicals of the day, including Thomas Paine and William Godwin. It would be Godwin with whom Wollstonecraft would settle down after a tempestuous personal life (see below), and the couple would marry and have children, most famously Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797, later to become Mary Shelley. Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin opposed the idea of marriage, but agreed to tie the knot for the sake of their children (illegitimacy still carried a considerable stigma at the time).
3. Before she settled down with Godwin, Wollstonecraft embarked on a passionate affair with a novelist and ‘captain’ called Gilbert Imlay. Imlay had written a novel, The Emigrants, and was a dashing and appealing figure – but also a bit of a rotter. Wollstonecraft lived with Imlay in Revolutionary Paris, and bore him a daughter, Fanny, in 1794. Shortly after this, he ran off, leaving her holding the baby, and Wollstoncraft attempted suicide on at least two occasions. She met Godwin a year later.
4. Wollstonecraft also knew William Blake, who illustrated her work. As well as being a polemicist and writer on political matters, Wollstonecraft was also a novelist, though her fiction has been eclipsed by her other writing (which is undoubtedly her greater achievement). Blake provided the engravings for Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, one of her many other works.
5. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman got her branded a ‘prostitute’. One bishop even called her an ‘advocate of priapism’, because in one of her works she dared to refer to the ‘organs of reproduction’. Readers of the 1790s weren’t ready for that yet (but their kids were going to love it). Wollstonecraft’s Vindication argued for better education of women, something she had already championed in her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). Feminist commentators since have also criticised the Vindication for the way in which Wollstonecraft appears to mock and belittle the women of her day (but isn’t that her point? Lack of education rendered many promising women so), and some have even accused her of being a reluctant woman – one who wished, deep down, that she’d been born a man. Nonetheless, facts are facts and the Vindication remains a central work of ‘feminist’ literature – the word didn’t exist until the nineteenth century, but Wollstonecraft helped pave the way with her work.
Image: Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1790; Wikimedia Commons.