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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT might be regarded as the embodiment of the finer and saner forces of the French Revolution; or rather of that spirit through which the eighteenth century was merged into the nineteenth, and which expressed itself as much in the lives of individuals as in revolutions. The author of the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ was perhaps the most prophetic character of her time; since she alone, in a generation rabid for the rights of man, understood the subtle truth that the emancipation of men is largely dependent upon the emancipation of women,—seeing that the unity of the sexes transcends their diversity.  1
  Her troubled life was in many ways a preparation for her pioneership in the vindication of womanliness. She was literally badgered into the office of apostle. Her experiences forced her into extreme opinions, especially on the subject of marriage; but extreme opinions were necessary in the eighteenth century. She was born in the pivotal period of the age of Light, in the year 1759. Family troubles had begun long before her birth; and she found herself hampered in infancy with a good-for-nothing father, and a mother who submitted to be beaten by him. She was the second of six children, all of whom in later years were to depend upon her to aid them in their struggles with the world. The passion of pity—for it was less a sentiment than a passion with her—was early developed; her motherhood, begun in the care of her wretched parents and their helpless offspring, was later to include the race.  2
  Her childhood was spent in a vagrancy which might well have demoralized a less earnest spirit. The irresponsible father was always moving his family from one town to another in the hope of better luck. They went from Hoxton to Edmonton; thence to Essex; from Essex to Beverley in Yorkshire; then to London. Mary had snatches of education in these places: books however were kept strictly subordinate to life, through the vagaries of her father. Her first stimulus to cultivation was received through a young girl, Fanny Blood, for whom she conceived a romantic affection. Her friend’s accomplishments awakened her spirit of emulation. With her, love was synonymous with growth and expression. In whatever form it expressed itself, it was the mainspring of her character; which is indeed most clearly intelligible through the medium of her affections.  3
  In 1780 her mother died, worn out by the brutalities of her husband. Mary went for a time to the home of Fanny Blood, where she supported herself by needlework. Her friend’s father, like her own father, made his household wretched through his dissipations. From childhood Mary Wollstonecraft had had before her the spectacle of unhappy marriages, made so by the tyranny of the husbands. The long and dreary courtship of her friend Fanny, by a man who played with her love; the miserable union of her sister Eliza with a man whose caprice and selfishness finally drove his wife into insanity,—were further to increase her sense of outrage against a social system under which such evils could exist, and to prepare her for her championship of her sex. She first threw down the gauntlet to conventional opinion when she helped her sister Eliza to escape from her husband’s roof. In so doing she displayed those forces of character which were afterwards to inspire the ‘Vindication’: the love of justice, the hatred of oppression, indomitable courage, and above all, a fund of common-sense which amounted to genius.  4
  The two sisters and Fanny Blood opened a school at Newington Green, which at first was successful. About this time Mary was introduced to Dr. Johnson, who seems to have had some appreciation of her extraordinary powers. In 1785 Fanny Blood married her uncertain lover, and went with him to Lisbon. A few months later, Mary followed her there to nurse her in what proved to be her last illness. After the death of her beloved friend she commemorated their friendship in her first novel,—‘Mary: a Fiction.’ On her return to England she gave up her school, and accepted the position of governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough in Ireland. After holding this a year, she became a “reader” for the publisher Johnson, in London: it was owing to his encouragement that she resolved to give herself up entirely to literary work. She translated Salzmann’s ‘Elements of Morality’ from the German, and Lavater’s ‘Physiognomy’ from the French; besides writing some tales for children, published as ‘Original Stories from Real Life,’ with illustrations by Blake.  5
  In 1789 Burke’s ‘Reflections on the French Revolution,’ written from the standpoint of a Tory and a Conservative, aroused great indignation among the Liberals of England. Its scorn of the “common people” and their rights, its support of tradition merely as tradition, outraged the spirit of justice and mercy which dwelt continually with Mary Wollstonecraft. She published a pamphlet entitled ‘Vindication of the Rights of Man,’ in which she challenged the assumptions of Burke with more zeal perhaps than discretion, but with a wonderful passion for truth and charity, liberty and advancement. Amid the emotional confusions of the pamphlet, the clear outlines of logic can here and there be traced. Referring to Burke’s reliance on mediæval precedent for authority, she asks: “Does Burke recommend night as the fittest time to analyze a ray of light?”  6
  The ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,’ on which Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation as an author rests, was published in 1792. Although now little read,—its assertions, so startling in the eighteenth century, having become truisms in this,—it must be ranked among the epoch-making books. It is the prophecy of the nineteenth century by a woman who endured the tyranny of the eighteenth over her sex. In her dedication of the work to Talleyrand, she sets forth its argument:—“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle,—that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on the general practice.”  7
  The book as a whole is an elaborate demonstration of this principle. The author contends that no great improvement of society can be expected, unless women are regarded by men not as dolls made for their pleasure, but as rational beings on whose nobility of character the welfare of the family—and through the family, of the State—depends. She uncovers the falsity of Rousseau’s ideal of women, as mere ministrants to the sentimentality of men; and proceeds to show that this ideal, governing the education of girls, has made them the inferior irrational beings which men find them. She urges as remedies, the freer mingling of the sexes in childhood, more out-of-door life for girls, and the training them to look upon marriage not as a means of support, or as a coveted dignity, but as the highest expression of love and friendship. She emphasizes the necessity of this friendship, which depends upon the intellectual congeniality of husband and wife. She affirms that intellectual companionship, indeed, is the chief as it is the lasting happiness of marriage.  8
  It is difficult to believe that this reasonable and noble idea of woman’s place in the family should have aroused the resentment of Hannah More, and of the majority of the English reading public. But like all books which mark a step in advance of prevailing custom and sentiment, it had to undergo stoning by the mob. Mary Wollstonecraft had uncovered the source of the frivolity of the eighteenth century, the source also of its soullessness, its deadening rationality: this was its contemptible view of women. It is small wonder that she incurred the resentment of her generation.  9
  In 1792 she went to Paris to study the phenomena of the French Revolution, then in progress. She afterwards published the first volume of a work entitled ‘An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution.’ During her stay in Paris she entered upon the tragedy of her life, which came to her through her love for Gilbert Imlay, an American. His desertion of her,—“my best friend and wife,” as he calls her in a business document,—whatever it proved to the world, proved to those who knew the integrity of Mary’s character, that he was not able to appreciate the honorableness of her love, nor the sublimed purity of her nature,—a purity dangerous perhaps to society, through its rare and exquisite quality.  10
  In 1797 she became the wife of William Godwin, the author of ‘Political Equality,’—in his way also an idealist, who placed the individual before society. The other-worldliness of the pair was primeval. In this union Mary knew the first serenity of her short, troubled life; but it was not to be of long duration. She died in the year of her marriage, ten days after the birth of the daughter who was to become the wife of Shelley.  11
  She was more guided by reasonableness in her books than in her life, which was ruled by her affections,—being, as she was, a woman wholly womanly. Both her books and her life were necessary to her generation, to reveal to it the unsuspected forces of which its ignorance took little account in its estimate of the social order.  12
 
 
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