How a Husband’s Loving Biography Ruined His Wife’s Reputation
On William Godwin's Scrupulously Honest Life of Mary Wollstonecraft
It is often said that William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman of 1798 destroyed Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation for over a hundred years. If that is true, it must count as one of the most dramatic, as well as the most damaging, works of biography ever published.
At the time of her death in London on 10 September 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft was certainly well-known and widely admired as an educational writer and champion of women’s rights. She was renowned not only in Britain, but also in France, Germany and Scandinavia (where her books had been translated), and in newly independent America. Although only 38 years old, she was already one of the literary celebrities of her generation.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, a solid, large-circulation journal of record with a conservative political outlook, printed the following obituary in October 1797, with an admiring—if guarded—summary of her career and an unreservedly favorable estimate of her character:
In childbed, Mrs Godwin, wife of Mr. William Godwin of Somers-town; a woman of uncommon talents and considerable knowledge, and well-known throughout Europe by her literary works, under her original name of Wollstonecraft, and particularly by her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, octavo.
Her first publication was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787 … her second, The Rights of Man, 1791, against Mr. Burke on the French Revolution, of the rise and progress of which she gave an Historical and Moral View, in 1794 … her third, Elements of Morality for the Use of Children, translated from the German, 1791 … her fourth, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792 … her fifth, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 1796.
Her manners were gentle, easy and elegant; her conversation intelligent and amusing, without the least trait of literary pride; or the apparent consciousness of powers above the level of her sex; and for soundness of understanding, and sensibility of heart, she was perhaps, never equalled. Her practical skill in education was even superior to her speculations upon that subject; nor is it possible to express the misfortune sustained, in that respect, by her children. is tribute we readily pay to her character, however adverse we may be to the system she supported in politicks and morals, both by her writing and practice.
Many other favorable articles appeared, such as her friend Mary Hays’s combative obituary in the Monthly Magazine, which lauded her ‘ardent, ingenuous and unconquerable spirits,’ and lamented that she was ‘a victim to the vices and prejudices of mankind.’ The Monthly Mirror praised her as a ‘champion of her sex,’ and promised an imminent biography, though this did not appear. Friends in London, Liverpool, Paris, Hamburg, Christiania and New York expressed their shock at her sudden departure, one of the earliest premature Romantic deaths of her generation. It seemed doubly ironic that the champion of women’s rights should have died in childbirth.
William Godwin, her husband, was devastated. They had been lovers for little over a year, and married for only six months. At 41 he also was a literary celebrity, but of a different kind from Mary. A shy, modest and intensely intellectual man, he was known paradoxically as a firebrand philosopher, the dangerous radical author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the political thriller-novel Caleb Williams (1794). His views were even more revolutionary than hers. He proposed republican, atheist and anarchist ideas, attacking many established institutions, such as private property, the Church, the monarchy and (ironically) marriage itself—‘that most odious of monopolies.’ Indeed he was notorious for his defence of ‘free love,’ and their marriage in March 1797 had been the cause of much mirth in the press. Yet Godwin believed passionately in the rational power of truth, and the value of absolute frankness and sincerity in human dealings.
He was in a state of profound shock. He wrote bleakly to his oldest friend and confidant, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, on 10 September 1797, the very evening of her death: ‘My wife is now dead. She died this morning at eight o’clock … I firmly believe that 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. When you come to town, look at me, talk to me, but do not—if you can help it—exhort me, or console me.’
Another of Godwin’s friends, Elizabeth Fenwick, wrote two days later to Mary’s younger sister, Everina Wollstonecraft, in Dublin: ‘I was with [Mary] at the time of her delivery, and with very little intermission until the moment of her death. Every skilful e ort that medical knowledge of the highest class could make, was exerted to save her. It is not possible to describe the unremitting and devoted attentions of her husband … No woman was ever more happy in marriage than Mrs. Godwin. Whoever endured more anguish than Mr. Godwin endures? Her description of him, in the very last moments of her recollection was, “He is the kindest, best man in the world.”’ Mrs Fenwick added thoughtfully, and perhaps tactfully: ‘I know of no consolation for myself, but in remembering how happy she had lately been, and how much she was admired, and almost idolized, by some of the most eminent and best of human beings.’
To take advantage of this surge of interest and sympathy across the literary world, Wollstonecraft’s lifelong friend and publisher, Joseph Johnson, proposed to Godwin an immediate edition of her most recent writings. is was to include her long, but unfinished, novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, which had a strong autobiographical subtext. It was a shrewd idea to provide a fictional follow-up to Mary’s most famous work of five years previously, The Rights of Woman. The two titles cleverly called attention to each other: ‘The Rights’ reinforced by ‘The Wrongs’.
Though unfinished, The Wrongs of Woman: A Fragment in Two Volumes contained a celebration of true Romantic friendships, and a blistering attack on conventional marriage. The narrator Maria’s husband has had her committed to a lunatic asylum, having first brought her to court on a (false) charge of adultery. The judge’s summary of Maria’s case, which comes where the manuscript breaks off, ironically encapsulates many of the male prejudices that Mary Wollstonecraft had fought against all her life:
The judge, in summing up the evidence, alluded to the fallacy of letting women plead their feelings, as an excuse for the violation of the marriage-vow. For his part, he had always determined to oppose all innovation, and the new-fangled notions that encroached on the good old rules of conduct. We did not want French principles in public or private life—and, if women were allowed to plead their feelings, as an excuse or palliation of infidelity, it was opening a flood-gate for immorality. What virtuous woman thought of her feelings?—it was her duty to love and obey the man chosen by her parents and relations …
Johnson also suggested that Godwin should include some biographical materials. The idea for a short memorial essay by Mary’s husband was mooted, as was the convention in such circumstances; and possibly a small selection from her letters.
Battling against his grief, Godwin determined to do justice to his wife by editing her Posthumous Works. Immediately after the funeral on 15 September he moved into Mary’s own study at number 29 Polygon Square, surrounded himself with all her books and papers, and hung her portrait by John Opie above his desk for inspiration. He hired a housekeeper, Louisa Jones, to look after the two children who were now his responsibility: the little motherless baby Mary (the future Mary Shelley) and four-year-old Fanny, who was Wollstonecraft’s earlier love child by an American, Gilbert Imlay.
Both as a father and as an author, Godwin regarded himself as fulfilling a sacred trust, and wrote: ‘It has always appeared to me, that to give the public some account of a person of eminent merit deceased, is a duty incumbent on survivors … The justice which is thus done to the illustrious dead, converts into the fairest source of animation and encouragement to those who would follow them in the same career.’
Godwin immersed himself in papers and memories for the next three months, and writing at speed, soon found that the short essay was expanding into a full Life. He turned all his cool, scholarly methods on the supremely emotional task in hand. He reread all Mary’s printed works, sorted her unpublished manuscripts, and established a precise chronology of her life from birth. He dated and meticulously numbered the 160 letters they had exchanged. He interviewed her friends in London, like Johnson, and wrote to others abroad, like Hugh Skeys in Ireland. He sent diplomatic messages to her estranged sister Everina in Dublin, requesting family letters and reminiscences. He assembled his own journal notes of their intimate conversations, and lovingly reconstructed others, such as the long September day spent walking round the garden where she had grown up near Barking, in Essex. Here Mary had suddenly begun reminiscing about her childhood.
Godwin recalled the moment tenderly, but with characteristic exactitude:
In September 1796, I accompanied my wife in a visit to this spot. No person reviewed with greater sensibility, the scenes of her childhood. We found the house uninhabited, and the garden in a wild and ruinous state. She renewed her acquaintance with the market-place, the streets, and the wharf, the latter of which we found crowded with activity.
Godwin determined to tell each phase of Mary’s short but turbulent life with astonishing openness. This was a decision that stemmed directly from the philosophy of rational enquiry and sincerity enshrined in Political Justice. He would use a plain narrative style and a frank psychological appraisal of her character and temperament. He would avoid no episode, however controversial.
He would write about the cruelty of her father (still living); the strange passionate friendship with Fanny Blood; the overbearing demands of her siblings; her endless struggles for financial independence; her writer’s blocks and difficulties with authorship; her enigmatic relationship with the painter Henry Fuseli; her painful affair with the American Gilbert Imlay in Paris; her illegitimate child, Fanny; her two suicide attempts; and finally their own love affair in London, and Mary’s agonizing death. This would be a revolutionary kind of intimate biography: it would tell the truth about the human condition, and particularly the truth about women’s lives.
As the biography expanded, Godwin’s contacts and advisers began to grow increasingly uneasy. Everina Wollstonecraft wrote anxiously from Dublin, expressing reservations. She had been delighted at her clever elder sister’s literary success, and been helped financially by it. But it now emerged that she had quarrelled with Mary after her Paris adventures, and disapproved of the marriage to Godwin. She had not been properly consulted by him, and feared personal disclosures and publicity. In a letter of 24 November 1797, she abruptly refused to lend Godwin any of the family correspondence, and informed him that a detailed biographical notice would be premature. She implied that it would damage her (and her younger sister Elizabeth’s) future prospects as governesses:
When Eliza and I first learnt your intention of publishing immediately my sister Mary’s Life, we concluded that you only meant a sketch … We thought your application to us rather premature, and had no intention of satisfying your demands till we found that [Hugh] Skeys had proffered our assistance without our knowledge … At a future date we would willingly have given whatever information was necessary; and even now we would not have shrunk from the task, however anxious we may be to avoid reviving the recollections it would raise, or loath to fall into the pain of thoughts it must lead to, did we suppose it possible to accomplish the work you have undertaken in the time you specify.
Everina concluded that a detailed Life was highly undesirable, and that it was impossible for Godwin to be ‘even tolerably accurate’ without her help. On reflection, Godwin decided to ignore these family objections. He judged them to be inspired partly by sibling jealousy, partly by the sisters’ desire to control the biography for themselves, but mostly by unreasonable fear of the simple truth.
Other sources proved equally recalcitrant. Gilbert Imlay had disappeared with an actress to Paris, and could not be consulted. He had not seen Mary for over a year, though he had agreed to set up a trust in favor of his little daughter, Fanny. When this was not forthcoming, Godwin officially adopted her. Godwin felt that it was impossible to understand Mary’s situation without telling the whole story, and now took the radical decision to publish all her correspondence with Imlay, consisting of 77 love letters written between spring 1793 and winter 1795. He convinced Johnson that these Letters to Imlay should occupy an additional two volumes of the Posthumous Works, bringing them to four in total. His Memoirs would now be published separately, but would also quote from this correspondence, openly naming Imlay.
The Letters gave only Mary’s side of the correspondence, which Imlay had returned at her request. They thus left his own attitude and behavior to be inferred. But they dramatically revealed the whole painful sequence of the affair from Mary’s point of view, from her initial infatuation with Imlay in Paris to her suicidal attempts when he abandoned her in London. This was another daring, not to say reckless, publishing decision which sacrificed traditional areas of privacy to biographical truth. Godwin’s own feelings as a husband were also being coolly set aside. In his Preface he described the Letters as ‘the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world,’ comparable to Goethe’s epistolary novel of Romantic love and suicide, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). They were produced by ‘a glowing imagination and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe.’
Henry Fuseli briefly and non-committally discussed Mary with Godwin, but having given him a tantalizing glimpse of a whole drawer full of her letters, refused to let him see a single one. If he knew of Godwin’s intentions with regard to Mary’s letters to Imlay, this is hardly surprising. But it left the exact nature of their relationship still enigmatic. Years later the Fuseli letters were seen by Godwin’s own biographer, Kegan Paul, who claimed that they showed intellectual admiration, but not sexual passion. Yet when these letters were eventually sold to the Shelley family (for £50), Sir Percy Shelley carefully destroyed them, unpublished, towards the end of the 19th century.
Joseph Johnson was torn between a natural desire to accede to Godwin’s wishes as the grieving widower, and his own long-standing professional role of defending Mary’s literary reputation. He may also have entertained the very understandable hope of achieving a publishing coup. He at least warned Godwin of several undiplomatic references to living persons in the biography, especially the aristocratic Kingsborough children to whom Mary had been a governess in Ireland, and the powerful and well-disposed Wedgwood family. He also questioned the wisdom of describing Mary’s many male friendships in London, Dublin and Paris so unguardedly. He felt the ambiguous account of Fuseli was particularly ill-judged, and challenged Godwin’s characterization of the painter’s ‘cynical’ attitude towards Mary.
But Godwin would not give way on any of these issues. On 11 January 1798, shortly before publication, he wrote unrepentantly to Johnson, refusing to make any last-minute changes: ‘With respect to Mr Fuseli, I am sincerely sorry not to have pleased you … As to his cynical cast, his impatience of contradiction, and his propensity to satire, I have carefully observed them …’ He added that, in his view, Mary had actually ‘copied’ these traits while under Fuseli’s influence in 1792, and this was a significant part of her emotional development. He was committed to describing this ‘in the sincerity of my judgement,’ even though it might sometimes be unfavorable to her.
This idea that Mary Wollstonecraft’s intellectual power grew out of a combination of emotional strengths and weaknesses was central to Godwin’s notion of modern biography: ‘Her errors were connected and interwoven with the qualities most characteristic of her genius.’ He was not writing a pious family memorial, or a work of feminist hagiography, or a disembodied ideological tract. He felt he could sometimes be critical of Mary’s behavior, while always remaining passionately committed to her genius. Godwin stuck unswervingly to his belief in the exemplary value of full exposure. The truth about a human being would bring understanding, and then sympathy: ‘I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’
Excerpted from This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes. Copyright © 2017 by Richard Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.