Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and
Other Contemporaries of Jane Austen
A Male Voices Web Page

April 21, 1998
Revised: September 1, 2001

The word "feminist" is, I think, a twentieth century invention, but all of the basic ideas and beliefs of that point of view are much older. For example, feminist ideas are found expressed in all the writings of the French revolutionists. Also, the main subject of this first page, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), evolved into a "feminist" in the full, modern meaning of the word. She was also what is today called "liberated", both politically and sexually. You can read an account of those matters in Claire Tomalin's wonderfully detailed biography of Wollstonecraft [Tomalin-MW].

The life and works of Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, Mary Shelley, are also discussed in this first page. Special emphasis is placed on two of Shelley's novels and a short story. The interesting point is that Mary Shelley seemed to rebel, eventually, against her parents' and husband's radical views. That seems most apparent in her writings. I like both of the Marys, but my deepest respect is paid to Shelley and not just because of her good sense - Shelley was a thinker worthy of our consideration regardless of an individual reader's political views.

On subsequent pages, I discuss women writers and other influences in Jane Austen's time, the gathering storm of problems developing during Jane Austen's lifetime, and, for perspective, the raging storm in the aftermath. The life and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft's husband, William Godwin, are also described on these pages, but especially on the third where Godwin's debate with Malthus takes center stage. We discuss his career as a novelist in another place.

Of course, at every turn, I attempt to make comparisons and references to Jane Austen and her art; that is always the motivating factor. I am everywhere subjective.

Here is a link to the

Table of Contents
for this Page


Jane Austen's
Contemporaries


Jane Austen (1775-1817) and the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) were alive and publishing at the same time. That startling observation makes us wonder about Jane Austen's intellectual environment. When you begin to study these things, you will be impressed. I mean, there was a great deal happening then - a great deal. This was a period more fertile than our own. I believe that you gain a fuller appreciation of Jane Austen when you can place her in that context. In particular, it is useful to place her work and attitudes alongside those of the other female celebrities of her own times. All of that is the subject of this posting.

One of the most interesting facts for me is that Jane Austen was producing those elegantly drawn descriptions of mild events amid this period of intellectual storm and stress.

Fanny Austen-Knight

Cassandra's Portrait of
Niece, Fanny Austen-Knight

I mean, face it, what really happens in Pride and Prejudice? Well, Darcy behaves poorly at a dance, Jane Bennet develops a really bad cold, and Lydia Bennet has premarital sex with her future husband, and - that's about it!

Meanwhile, de Sade was publishing his stuff just as Byron and Shelley were experimenting with drugs, innovative domestic arrangements, and radical chic. The propaganda of anarchy and class-revolution was everywhere, the feminists were out in full force, and the great founders of economic theory - including the proto-communists - were just beginning their publication. James Watt (1736-1819) was unwittingly inaugurating the Industrial Revolution. And, all the while, Francisco Goya was capturing some of the images of the period that was being set to music by Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770-1827), and just as Blake's (1757-1827) "tyger" was burning bright. But no tiger blazed as bright as the one seated at her writing desk in the Chawton Cottage night.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
Self-Portrait

 

Goya's Portrait of Curly Hair
above a Pair of Fine Eyes

I don't believe that it takes a remarkably wide range of interests to be an admirer of both Jane Austen and Francisco Goya. In fact, I think much the same things about both of them. Think about those sketches of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Sir Walter Elliot; surely those are paintings that could have been signed by Goya. Many will disagree. Some will point to Goya's greater passion, but only those who understand Jane Austen much differently than I. Also, I find that Francisco Goya's images are as finely drawn and are as subtly composed as those of Jane Austen.

Mary Wollstonecraft
and the English Jacobins

I first became aware of English feminism when I picked up the writings of the Jane-Austen contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine published an important pamphlet in America about a month after Jane Austen's birth. The frequent feminist phrases and sentiments expressed by this man were striking to me. Paine was a polemicist and not an original thinker, so I guessed that his feminism was derivative in some way. I was not surprised, therefore, when I learned that Paine was a native Englishman and, when in England, he was a member of an intellectual and radical coterie. A coterie which included William Blake (1757-1827), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), and others. I have seen them referred to as the "English Jacobins". The English Jacobins was a very interesting group, composed of radical persons of lower class backgrounds and superior minds.

Feminism was not the main interest of the coterie, but it was certainly a subsidiary focus. The main focus was on the abstract and radical political philosophies of the day, such as an "end to tyranny" and expanded "personal freedoms".

Opie's Portrait of
Our Self-Described
"Incendiary"

Wollstonecraft was the junior member of the group; however, in our times, she is the more often quoted feminist because of gender bias and because of the respect earned by her tract

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
That appeared when Jane Austen was about 16 years old. Another junior member of the group was William Godwin (1756-1836), whom you will see described variously as an "anarchist" or as a "free-thinking" socialist. Godwin would become Wollstonecraft's husband and biographer, but was better known, in his day, as an influential radical philosopher. This couple will receive a great deal of attention in this posting.

Early Life - Family
And Fanny Blood

Mary Wollstonecraft was raised in the home of a brutally abusive father, and that turned her attitudes and outlook. Godwin would say that the experience would "substitute the inflexibility of resistance for the confidence of affection". When only a child, Mary Wollstonecraft would sometimes sleep on the floor in front of her mother's bedroom in order to bar that entrance to the drunken father. Mary's grandfather had become very rich - a self-made man - but the father was profligate and the family was sinking back into its humble origins during Mary's lifetime.

Mary was the second in the birth order of her family; there was one older brother, two younger brothers, and there were two younger sisters. She resented her older brother and they eventually became alienated. This was due, in part, to Mary's challenge to his inheritance, a part of which she claimed for herself. There was absolutely no legal basis for this claim, but we can recognize the justice in it. (In this way she gains our respect and, in this way, she began a life-long pattern.) Mary was also terribly jealous of her mother's special love and respect for her first-born son. Mary's younger sisters became very dependent upon Mary, Mary fostered that dependence, and then resented the sisters for it. In due course, they also became alienated from Mary and would fail one of Mary's daughters most sadly.

Can you imagine a family more unlike that of Jane Austen's? Jane Austen came from a solid family and an elegant, civilized, intellectual, supportive environment. Mary Wollstonecraft could only imagine such a thing.

Mary thought herself unattractive but her portraits tell us otherwise. She was a fool at times; she was sometimes made a fool by others, and at other times - too many other times - she needed no help. She was also brilliant at times. When she died, some say she was the most famous woman in Europe. No one ever said anything like that about Jane Austen.

I think Wollstonecraft must have been bisexual; however, Claire Tomalin is a biographer I respect and Ms Tomalin is clear in saying that the case is not clear. There is no doubt that Mary Wollstonecraft wore her heart on her sleeve. I will lay a description of lesbian overtones and undertones from that period alongside some of Mary's youthful letters so that you can draw your own conclusions. I will quote from Claire Tomalin's biography for this purpose. In particular, I will quote from that place in the biography beginning in Mary's early teens. These quotes will give you some sense of Mary's relationship to her friend, Fanny Blood. The primary sources are Mary's correspondence with another friend, Jane Arden, and Mary's reminisces reported by her husband, William Godwin, in his biography of his wife.

Here are snippets of young Mary's correspondence with the young Jane Arden before she met Frances Blood - Fanny; obviously, there had been a quarrel with Jane over a rival.

"If I did not love you I should not write so;--I have a heart that scorns disguise, and a countenance which will not dissemble. I have formed romantic notions of friendship. ... I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none. I own your behavior is more according to the opinion of the world, but I would break such narrow bounds. ... Love and Jealousy are twins. ... I spent part of the night in tears; ... I have not time to write fully on the subject, but this I am sure of, if I did not love you, I should not be angry.--I cannot bear a slight from those I love. ... P.S. I keep your letters as a memorial that you once loved me, but it will be of no consequence to keep mine as you have no regard for the writer ... your humble servant, Mary Wollstonecraft."

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Claire Tomalin - Chapter 1

Jane Arden kept all of Mary's letters.

When Mary was sixteen, she met Fanny Blood who was eighteen. Fanny was prettier, the better educated, the better mannered, the more talented, and the more self-assured - at first; but, that order would reverse over the term of the relationship. Mary's husband and confidant, William Godwin, later described the encounter as one that

"bore a resemblance to the first interview of Werther and Charlotte ... The first object that caught [Mary's] sight was a young woman of slender and elegant form ... busily employed in feeding and managing some children ... the impression that Mary received from this spectacle was indelible; and, before the interview was concluded, she had taken, in her heart, the vows of eternal friendship."
("Werther and Charlotte" are the main characters in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

Claire Tomalin would add

"... [Fanny] danced before Mary's eyes with a promise of happiness, exactly as Jane [Arden] had done before. Fanny's love might make up for the injustices of life at home, and she might even teach Mary to become as perfect as she was. Mary's determination to experience the ideal friendship rushed her into immediate commitment, and at first Fanny seemed eager to fill the role Mary assigned to her: there was a long initial period of discovery and enjoyment ... and teasing by their families over their urgent need to spend time together. ... [However,] Fanny was no more able than Jane [Arden] to sustain a passionate sentimental relationship of the kind that Mary wanted; she found her eagerness greeted with an increasingly cool response. ... [Mary] coped with the situation by assuming her natural dominance; if she could not be beloved, at least she could be the lover. ... Mary assumed the position of a chivalrous suitor: she worshiped, but presently she began to condescend too, like a Victorian bridegroom. ... [Mary] cherished her better than anyone in the world; and she began to make plans for living with her--a prospect of 'superlative bliss'. But it was clear that the dream rested on Mary's needs rather than Fanny's real qualities."

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Claire Tomalin - Chapter 2

This is Mary Wollstonecraft we are talking about, and when that woman had a dream, she would take the steps required to fulfill it. First Mary took a job as a paid companion: Tomalin writes, "It was an adventure, a way of earning and saving some money for her future with Fanny, ..." Mary found the position degrading, but she kept her goal in mind: "it was also a brave move for a girl not absolutely obliged to leave home and earn her living. ... And she made a success of it." Mary wrote this to Jane Arden,

"The roses will bloom when there's peace in the breast, and the prospect of living with my Fanny gladdens the heart:--You know not how I love her. ... I have now given up every expectation and dependence that would interfere with my determination of spending my time with her.--I know my resolution may appear a little extraordinary, but in forming it I follow the dictates of reason as well as the bent of my inclination; for tho' I am willing to do what good I can in my generation, yet on many accounts I am averse to any matrimonial tie."

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Claire Tomalin - Chapter 2

Tomalin suggests that Mary had an example in the

"... elopement of Lady Eleanor Butler with Sarah Ponsonby in 1779; their behavior caused a furor of admiration. ... the escaping pair set up a temple of friendship for themselves in a Welsh valley, Llangollen Vale; ... and became the envy of many women with no taste for the ordinary arrangements of society. ... [However,] women of the world knew perfectly well what lesbianism was, but regarded it is as a dirty little vice of servant girls, boarding schools, and actresses, ... (fn: Mrs. Piozzi, for instance, spoke freely in her diary about the lesbianism of actresses, ...)."

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Claire Tomalin - Chapter 2

Well, personally, I would vote for the woman born Emma Lyons (1765?-1815) as the woman with the least "taste for the ordinary arrangements of society" in Jane Austen's time. Miss Lyons was born to poor parents, but became an actress. She was thought by many to be the most beautiful woman in the land. Here is a portrait of her posing as a Persian Sybil (here is a link to some other portraits, and a link to still others.) Her beauty was, indeed, extraordinary. She became the mistress of several important men until she married the ambassador and art collector, Sir William Hamilton, and became Lady Hamilton. Emma was 21 at the time, and her husband 61. Lady Hamilton then gained a great deal of influence with Queen Marie Caroline of Naples. It was rumored that the relationship was sexual. Eventually, Lady Hamilton would become the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson, perhaps one of England's greatest war heroes. She bore him a daughter and was provided a fine house and handsome stipend upon his death at the naval battle of Trafalgar. That combined with an even handsomer stipend from her husband's estate was not enough to support her gambling habits; so, Lady Hamilton spent some time in debtor's prison.

There were men in the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Fanny Blood; Tomalin writes, "It is rather a relief to discover it." But, at this point in her life, Mary Wollstonecraft would read too much into an initial kindness and respect, and then frighten the male suitor away with her overly ardent response.

Here is a short summary of how this played out; it played out as a tragedy. Mary decided to open up a school because that enterprise required little capital and no qualifications. She set up the establishment for herself, Fanny, and Mary's two younger sisters. Mary was in her early twenties and the dominant member of the group. Then, sadly, Fanny developed tuberculosis and required a change in climate. So, Mary hit upon the scheme of marrying Fanny off to a rich business man who could take Fanny to Portugal. Mary didn't think this through. After Fanny's marriage to a certain Mr. Hugh Skeys and their departure, Mary decided to pull up stakes and join the Skeys' household in Portugal. Some say that she was to go there to enjoy more than Mr. Skeys's hospitality, but I think that Mary cannot have had sex on her mind at all. The situation was this: Fanny was tubercular, living in a Catholic country, under an unfamiliar hot sun, and out of reach of the better medical advice of the times - and she was pregnant - Mary had not thought this through. Only God could have helped Fanny Skeys, but she chose not to.

Think about this, Mary Wollstonecraft traveled alone to Portugal, the trip took thirteen days on a ship (the return took thirty). Mary arrived just as Fanny was taken to bed to deliver her child. It was to be her deathbed and the child's as well. Be impressed with Mary's bravery and daring and also think of this: before this time, Mary and Skeys had disliked one another; but, after the tragedy played out, they became dear friends - lifelong friends. Each had good reason to choke the other, but that was not Mary Wollstonecraft's way. Back in England, the school failed in Mary's absence.

Much later, Mary would be traveling in Scandanavia and among her published reminisces at that time were plenty of lesbian (as well as heterosexual) overtones, the real, heartfelt kind. At one point, Mary expressed another sentiment.

"... I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect ... looks I have felt in every nerve which I shall never more meet. The grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend of my youth; still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath. Fate has separated me from another, the fire of whose eyes, tempered by infantine tenderness still warms my breast; ... Her sweet blushes I may yet hide in my bosom, and she is still too young to ask why starts the tear, so near akin to pleasure and pain?"

A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark
Mary Wollstonecraft - letter six -

She was referring to her travelling companion, her infant daughter that Mary temporarily had to leave in the care of a nurse - that infant daughter that the mother had named "Fanny", Fanny Imlay.

Later, Wollstonecraft had an affair with the painter Henri Fuseli whose bisexuality not even Tomalin tries to explain away. Wollstonecraft went to Fuseli's wife to suggest that the three of them bunk together but the woman was unreasonable - threw Mary out of the house. Wollstonecraft's publisher and benefactor, Joseph Johnson, was an uncomplicated homosexual. I mention all this because I believe that a homosexual relationship was not treated with the same kind of prejudice as it would be later. I suspect that the attitudes in Jane Austen's time on this subject might be a bit like those we see re-evolving in our own era. I would very much be interested in reading a more knowledgeable opinion on this matter.

And then, the young adult, Mary Wollstonecraft, would turn to other things.

Mary Wollstonecraft's
The Rights of Woman

The radicalization of an individual is an interesting thing to study. Every case has its unique features, but there may be some generalizations that can be made. Mary Wollstonecraft was certainly provided a receptive mind by what she experienced in her own family life. However, other preconditions always seem to be required; the fledgling radical also needs the right kind of external political conditions and, most important of all, the right kind of acquaintance. These elements were certainly present in Mary Wollstonecraft's development.

There were many important influences in Mary's life; perhaps the most important were Dr. Price, a Dissenter, and the publisher Joseph Johnson. A "Dissenter" was a religious person who rejected the doctrine of the Anglican Church, and criticized the influence and dominance of that state-sponsored religion. Needless to say, they were discriminated against. Price's kindness to Mary, as well as his considerable intellectual gifts, encouraged Mary and introduced in her a respect for the unconventional.

After publication of her first philosophical work, Johnson eliminated Mary Wollstonecraft's practical needs when he set her up in a house with a servant. Tomalin explains that this arrangement could only have been a purely professional one. Johnson also satisfied Mary's intellectual needs as his home was the common meeting place for intellectual radicals, of lower class backgrounds, and Mary was a frequent and welcome visitor there. You will be deeply impressed when you learn the list of names of the people that Mary met at those evening meetings. Joseph Johnson seems to be one of those shadowy figures of history that can remain hidden, in plain sight, in spite of the tremendous influence he has upon historical or intellectual events.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in part, to reply to Edmund Burke's criticism of the direction of the French Revolution. But, before she wrote The Rights of Woman, Mary wrote a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Man! So, those last four words would appear in one of her titles before they appeared in the more famous title of Thomas Paine. Feminist ideas were in the air (primarily in the French air), and Joseph Johnson convinced a somewhat reluctant Mary to publish her own thoughts on this matter being discussed by so many others. In this way, The Rights of Woman was conceived and produced.

I admire Wollstonecraft's bravery, her energy, her physical beauty, and her purposefulness. She was productive and adventuresome and I admire her for that as well, but I don't always admire her writing style. The Rights of Woman was composed in only six weeks and it certainly gives that impression. She would occasionally write in a forced and self-conscious way, and she was, at times, desperate that we think her lyrical. A number of female commentators of our day claim she succeeds, but that must be a political reaction and not an objective judgment. Here is an example of what I mean, this appears in a travelogue and is part of Mary's reaction to a beautiful seascape.

"... - I pause, again breathless, to trace, with renewed delight, sentiments which entranced me, when, turning my humid eyes from the expanse below to the vault above, my sight pierced the fleecy clouds that softened the azure brightness; and, imperceptibly recalling the reveries of childhood, I bowed before the awful throne of my Creator, whilst I rested on its footstool."

Gads! And did she say "imperceptibly recalling"?

Well, she wrote a number of sentences like that; but we know about her because of the way she lived and because she was also capable of writing other kinds of sentences. Mary Wollstonecraft was a short-story writer at times, but she was at her best when she wrote as a philosopher. Here are some examples of the good sentences, some of my favorites chosen at random.

"Intoxication is the pleasure of savages, and of all those whose employments rather exhaust their animal spirits, than exercise their faculties. Is not this, in fact, the vice, both in England and the northern states of Europe, which appears to be the greatest impediment to general improvement?"

Here is one of my very favorites from Chapter 12 of Rights of Woman.

"Humanity to animals should be particularly inculcated as a part of national education, for it is not at present one of our national virtues. ... This habitual cruelty is first taught at school, where it is one of the rare sports of the boys to torment the miserable brutes that fall in their way. The transition, as they grow up, from brutality to brutes to domestic tyranny over wives, children, and servants, is very easy. Justice, or even benevolence, will not be a powerful spring of action unless it extend to the whole of creation; nay, I believe that it may be delivered as an axiom, that those who can see pain, unmoved, will soon learn to inflict it."

This next bit is damn near prescient! Mary was watching some young German soldiers being taught their drills and mused about the matter in this way.

"I view, with a mixture of pity and horror, these beings training to be sold to slaughter, or be slaughtered, and fell into reflections, on an old opinion of mine, that it is the preservations of the species, not of individuals, which appears to be the design of the Deity throughout the whole of nature. Blossoms come forth only to be blighted; fish lay their spawn where it will be devoured; and what a large part of the human race are born merely to be swept prematurely away. Does not this waste of budding life emphatically assert, that it is not men, but man, whose preservation is so necessary to the completion of the grand plan of the universe? ..."

Remember, Mary Wollstonecraft was writing nearly fifty years before Darwin. All this reminds me of an argument currently raging over the nature of altruism. One side argues that altruism cannot be the result of evolution because the individual who sacrifices himself for others cannot survive to produce children; ergo, it must be culture and not biology that produces this quality in men. The opponents argue that no individual survives, only a chromosome can survive, and the survival of the fittest chromosome might well require that some of its manifestations sacrifice for the benefit of the others. Do you agree that Wollstonecraft hit upon the latter argument over two hundred years ago?

In our times, feminist theory is too often about men, who are stereotyped, categorized, and castigated. At the same time, all women are described as the powerless and virtuous victims in this cruel environment. In other words, the current versions of feminist theory are sexist. Mary Wollstonecraft had anticipated all of the modern theories and issues; she understood all the ways that men exclude women and complained bitterly about them. However, Mary's picture is far more realistic, more balanced, and agrees better with that of most male readers. That is to say that Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist theory was mostly about women, and about how they should be educated to fulfill their aspirations and potentials. To her, there was a context in which the male and female roles are complementary rather than synonymous. Also, she believed that the male-female relationship could be improved upon and that was an important goal. Most say that Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first feminists, but I am not so sure - maybe she was the last.

Mary Wollstonecraft understood that some women are, indeed, victims; however, as many other women gain complete control through manipulation, badgering, or with the aid of other "artful" female ways including a rationing of affection. Mary describes even worse attributes of such wives. Jane Austen understood all this as well and illustrated that kind of woman in the characters of the younger Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, Aunt Norris, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele, Mary Crawford, Mary Musgrove, and, most clearly of all, in the character of Lady Susan. Mary Wollstonecraft's tack was to accuse men of creating this monster and to continually ask male readers if this was the kind of companion they intended. She argues, successfully, that the way to eliminate this kind of wife was to include and to respect women more, and to educate them better. This is not an argument that can be set aside easily.

Mary saw women, first and foremost, as mothers and scolded the gentlewomen of her generation for employing wet nurses (a practice followed, for example, in Jane Austen's family). She also took a stand against the boarding schools then becoming popular in England, and remaining popular among the upper classes to this day. Mary argued that children should be educated in day schools so that they could return to their familiar homes and family affection at night. All that is only a small part of Chapter 12 of The Rights of Woman, an excellent chapter and one of the very high points of her tract.

However, this Chapter 12 also illustrates my main complaint about The Rights of Woman, it is not always perfectly coherent. I mean, what class of persons is Mary writing about? It would have been the upper classes that sent their sons to boarding school, but if they were to have kept the boys at home, they would have brought in tutors. It is the lower classes that might make use of day schools, but surely they were not, at that time, employing wet nurses and educating their sons at boarding school. Things might be perfectly coherent if Mary had assumed that some great leveling was imminent; that certainly would have been to that philosopher's liking, but she states no such assumption.

I don't want to paint Mary Wollstonecraft as a "family values" advocate because she was not; her link to the feminists of our day becomes clearer where she discusses the male-female relationship. Those are the places where we can see the complete evaporation to Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist core; there we can see her bitter resentment of - and alienation from - the other sex.

Abandonment and Motherhood

I recommend the thin essay, William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman [MW-memoir]. I have seen this essay referred to as a "biography", but that is an exaggeration; it is merely the recollections of a grieving husband for a recently departed wife. Godwin dutifully recounts Mary's side of every story and, since Mary tended to be egotistical, the accounts may have been very one-sided indeed.

Both Wollstonecraft and Paine went to France during the revolution and both met personal difficulties there. Paine became persona non grata for political reasons (he wouldn't applaud the lopping of so many heads) and Wollstonecraft was impregnated and then abandoned by an American, Gilbert Imlay. The child was to be known as Fanny Imlay (the given name chosen to commemorate Mary's youthful infatuation with Miss Fanny Blood).

Mary published an essay about her travels in Scandinavia [Travels]. This essay takes the form of a series of letters and one has the impression that they are addressed to Gilbert Imlay. At places, the writing seems intended to provoke and to taunt him. People, who study these matters, tell us that they were probably kept in a journal and never actually shown to Imlay; except, of course, when he could read them after publication.

After Mary Wollstonecraft became the wife of William Godwin, she died from complications due to childbirth - that child was to become Mary Shelley. In his own time, Godwin was criticized for the candor shown in his Memoirs of wife Mary. That can still be one's impression to this day; all the love affairs are carefully recounted, and we read all the technical details of Mary's suicide attempts and of her decline and death after the birth of their child. Godwin did not show much delicacy, but the account does show he had a complete intimacy with his wife that many men of today will envy.

Mary Shelley - born
Wollstonecraft-Godwin

When faced with the impending birth of a child, the prudent person will ask to be attended upon by the most experienced and the most competent person available. Mary Wollstonecraft insisted upon the most experienced and the most competent woman available, and, ten days later, Mary was dead of an infection. Perhaps there is a cause and an effect here and, more likely, there is not - there is no way to prove either possibility at this late date. However there is this horrible, ironic event at the end of her life, and we can imagine her second-guessing herself in those last, pain-filled hours. After the midwife admitted that Mary was in trouble, a man was sent for, then another man, and then other men still. It is not clear which attendant was the most to blame; perhaps it was the first man who tried to remove the placenta and who may have introduced the infection.

Near the end, Mary Wollstonecraft asked for last rites, but her philosopher-atheist husband explained to her that she must have meant something else. The child, a daughter, lived and became Mary Shelley, the author of two of my favorite novels, Frankenstein and The Last Man.

After the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, the ever-clueless Godwin persisted in railing against the institution of marriage, even after he had married for the second time. He had the responsibility for the infant Mary Wollstonecraft (some say "Mary Godwin") and Fanny Imlay, and that prospect compelled him into a marriage with his neighbor who had some children of her own to raise. It is one thing to eschew the institution of marriage, but quite another to turn down some much-needed assistance.

Godwin's new stepdaughter was Jane Clairmont (she would call herself "Claire" Clairmont). She would prove to be a disaster in herself.

Percy Shelley and Free Love

Daughter Mary was sixteen when disaster struck; Godwin received an admiring letter from another atheist and political radical who wished, very much, to meet the great man. The letter writer had something that Godwin did not - money. In fact, the writer was to become a baronet someday at six thousand a year! Before that though, the writer would become a famous poet - some say the greatest English poet, Percy Shelley. Shelley and his young wife, Harriet, would dine often with the Godwins, and Shelley would bring some money with him. Godwin must have enjoyed those meals, the meals where he would expound his philosophies to an enraptured audience and then there was that gratuity.

A good reference here is another Claire Tomalin biography, Shelley and His World, Scribners, 1980 [Tomalin-S]. It is short and sweet, and Ms. Tomalin selected a large number of interesting illustrations.

Shelley had married Harriet when she was sixteen, but now she had aged three years and so could not compare with the sixteen year old Mary seated at the Godwin table. Shelley was in his early twenties at the time. There was a ridiculous tradition in the Godwin family in which Mary was sent every day to the tomb of the mother she had never known. Shelley would often accompany her there while chaperoned by Claire Clairmont. Chaperoned at sufficient distance to allow Shelley to seduce the daughter near the mother's grave. Meanwhile Fanny Imlay had also fallen in love with Shelley - he had a beautiful countenance, he was a wonderful poet, and he was to be very rich someday.

Even a Godwin can figure things out eventually, so Shelley absconded to the Continent with Mary and Claire. He was a generous man, so he wrote to both Fanny and wife Harriet with permission for each to join his party if she so chose. Why do you not love him? Neither woman accepted his invitation; in fact, both Fanny and Harriet were a bit inconvenient - inconvenient in everything except their suicides which occurred soon and only a couple of months apart.

Perhaps the experiences of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Harriet Shelley are excellent examples of why "free love" arrangements can never work. Mary was all for it when she was the outsider and Shelley was married to Harriet. But, after she became the alpha female and mother, and after Shelley began to sleep with her stepsister, Claire, Mary became proprietary. Shelley became depressed at Mary's newfound unreasonableness and then at Harriet's suicide (Harriet killed herself in an advanced stage of pregnancy with another man's child.) At that point it might be said that Mary Shelley was also disillusioned with her own parents' advocacy of free love. That supports my view that Mary Shelley evolved to reject a number of the radical prescriptions that were her birthright. (More on that later.)

Shelley's good friend, the married but lordly Byron impregnated Claire, and he was gracious enough about that: "I suppose the brat is mine".

It all ended horribly [Tomalin-MS]. Everyone who knew Percy Shelley tells us that he had a sweet nature and, of course, his superb poetic vision is there for all of us to discover. In his biography, however, we can discover that he was also an angel of death. Following the suicides of his wife and Mary's half sister, there would be the deaths of Mary's children from illness and Mary would hold him responsible because of his carelessness. Mary withdrew from Percy sexually and emotionally in the months just prior to his own death from accidental drowning. There is a strong possibility that he had a child by Claire, a child that was abandoned and who would also die in infancy. Byron wouldn't send his child by Claire to her for a visit because of the "poor record" of the Shelley household in the matter of children's health. That child died soon after as well.

Don't bother posting to me to explain the high mortality rates "of those times" - I have heard all that - things didn't have to be like that. For example, eight children were born to the Austen family and all survived well into adulthood. I don't recall that Jane Austen ever suffered the loss of a single niece or nephew. Jane and her sister were once sent away to a school where they both almost died; Jane's parents responded by putting an end to their daughters' schooling outside the home. (I admit that one child did die in the Austen home, Mr. Austen's first pupil, the seven-year old George Hastings, of diphtheria in 1764.)

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was twenty years old when Jane Austen died in 1817. A year later, Austen's last two novels were published as was Shelley's first, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley was one of those persons who could produce great works while not being an especially great artist - certainly nothing like the same rank of artist as Jane Austen. (Charles Dickens was like Mary Shelley in that respect I think.) Mary Shelley shows none of the polish or art of a Jane Austen, but her first novel is excellent. She is, by far, my favorite Jane Austen contemporary. You can skip the fictional works of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and not miss much, unless you want a context for Jane Austen or unless you crave some good, old-fashioned male-bashing. But, you may not want to skip Mary Shelley's vision. (Actually, her dad, William Godwin, had proved himself a fair-to-middlin' novelist as we have explained in another place.)

It is interesting to me to observe that Jane Austen was eighteen when she wrote Lady Susan, the same age as Mary Shelley when she wrote her classic, Frankenstein. It appears that each of those late-adolescent girls had a monster on her mind. The novels make for a fascinating comparison for that reason. Lady Susan is unlike any other Austen character except, perhaps, Mary Crawford. (I always thought that and Claire Tomalin expressed the same view in her recent biography.) But Lady Susan is far more controlling than Mary Crawford, and uses sex as a weapon and as a tool.

You may know the story about the genesis of Frankenstein. The Shelley party was sitting about Lord Byron's place in Switzerland with their host and his personal physician (and opiate supplier), Dr. John Polidori. The group fell into reading German ghost stories, when Byron suggested that they all try to compose some stories of their own. Byron himself wrote a short outline of what Polidori would fill in and then publish as his Dracula. The very young Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of what would become Frankenstein.

Modern science fiction writers easily explain spacecraft moving faster than the speed of light - an impossibility - they simply have the spacecraft just do it. That is how Mary Shelley explains Frankenstein's success at re-animation - he just did it. I actually find that more satisfactory than the obligatory electrical explanation always portrayed in films these days. I suppose that the film makers can point to the mention of "galvanism" in a preface Mary added in a later edition. (Incidentally, Mary Shelley didn't write the preface for the first edition; for some reason, her husband wrote that; Percy should have butted out, the preface is the poorest part of the novel.) Anyway, Mary's monster is more frightening than recent filmed versions because he is intelligent, articulate, and is physically superhuman. Also, an innocent woman is executed for one of his crimes and that part of the novel is extremely affecting.

There is this preposterous section of the novel where the monster learns to speak, read, etc. by spying on a family through a peephole over many months. It makes for a slightly comical image and reminds us of the extreme youth of the author. That said though, I have to admit that it works somehow - I can't explain why.

I do believe Mary Shelley did write something of great social significance for our own times. This very young person wrote a plausible description of a scientific genius gone wrong. - the scientist, Frankenstein, pursued in private what must impact the rest of us in public. I think the novel should be required reading. Mary Shelley did us all a favor when she described such a person in compelling detail. I must say though, I doubt that was her intent; it is the unintended significance of the novel.

I mean that mankind is growing ever more powerful through its understanding and manipulation of biology and of DNA in particular. We can now transplant organs and "repair" and manipulate genes. It seems that all this embryo-stem-cell research points to still other, previously unanticipated advances in tissue re-growth. With great power comes opportunity for great corruption and turmoil. Shelley's Frankenstein helps us understand that it is not, necessarily, bad people we have to fear in this regard. - The greatest danger might come from all those basically good people with good motives, those basically good people who become capable of creating monsters. Are we destined to lose control over the monsters? (Perhaps we should think of all of the advances in computer technology in the same way.) I suspect that there are a lot of Frankensteins around in our time.

Here is my favorite line: Frankenstein is bemoaning his experiments and says
"Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay."
That was written more than 180 years ago. I can conceive of those horrors. - We all can, living as we do in a time of biological horrors.

Mary Shelley's Matilda

Mary Shelley was raised to be a feminist and a political radical; but, as we shall see, her writings show little inclination in either of those directions. On the other hand, she was deeply involved in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll - excuse me - sex, drugs, and romantic poetry. Mary Shelley was a proto-hippy. In that way, she must have been as perplexing and as disappointing to her father as are some of our Gen-Xers to their parents who were political radicals in the sixties.

My copy of Frankenstein contains a chronology with this entry for Mary's twenty-second year:
"... At this time Mary writes the semi-autobiographical Matilda, a novella on the theme of father-daughter incestuous love which is not, however, destined to be published in her lifetime..."
"Semi-autobiographical"? - Poor Mary Shelley - poor Mary Wollstonecraft!

Matilda is a short story written about two years after the death of Jane Austen in 1817. Mary Shelley submitted it to her dad the next year for publication, but he came unglued, for reasons that will become obvious, and so it would not be published until 1959 - yes, that was 1959. By the bye, Lady Susan was published many decades after Jane Austen's death, and only after a good deal of controversy within the Austen family. (Some believe a relative in a neighborhood family, the Lloyds, had been the model for the fictional Lady Susan.)

Here is a short synopsis of Matilda - brace yourself. It is written in diary form, the diary of Matilda. Matilda was raised by a cold, unfeeling aunt after the death of the mother and abandonment by the father. This was a father who had so deeply loved the mother, he could not bring himself to countenance the child. Matilda had never known her father but compensated for her sterile environment by romanticizing about him, cherishing and embellishing his letters.

Ultimately, the father returned from his exotic, foreign travels when Matilda reached the age of sixteen. Everything was wonderful at first, absolutely wonderful and everything that Matilda had dreamed. The father then took her away to live in London where things were even more wonderful until Matilda began to be courted by young men to whom, by the way, she was indifferent. The father then grew increasingly depressed and even dismissed Matilda's most ardent lover. The father-daughter relationship also decayed much to the dismay and grief of Matilda, who then skillfully devised a scene in which she might compel the father to explain himself. He did - he was in love with her. Father and daughter were both repelled, and the depressed condition of the father deepened and ended only with his suicide.

Matilda felt disgraced and ashamed and divested most of her wealth and retired to a lonely Scottish heath to live in solitude and to await her own death, which she prayed would come soon. She would have no other human contact except for a Byron-like poet who moved into the neighborhood after suffering a lost love. (He was a physically beautiful, published poet who had gained a national reputation at an early age.) There was a love, but a strange one because Matilda was too wounded to give herself up in any normal way. She eventually decided that a suicide pact was just the ticket and made a compelling argument to him to join her in the plan. He then made a more compelling argument for her to stay alive. These are very interesting passages and I hope that I have not trivialized them for you. Anyway, he was called away, and while away, Matilda developed the illness that ended her life and closed the tragedy.

Not exactly Jane Austen, is it? But, this was written in Jane Austen's time. At first, Matilda seems silly melodrama. Then, after you think about it, it suddenly hits you, it is all there in the subtle text, Matilda withdrew and prayed for her own death for one simple reason. Matilda suffered a guilt similar to her father's.

I have only a thumbnail sketch of the context for Matilda and here it is. Mary Shelley had just suffered the deaths of her two children in Rome. They had gone there for her "husband's health" and lost two children instead. Mary would never forgive her husband for that. Mary was reaching out to someone with this manuscript I think; she would say that the writing was the only thing that could console her at the time. Recently opened archives make it quite explicit that Byron was, indeed, cohabiting with his half-sister - that had been suspected for some time. Was Matilda a twisted way for Mary Shelley to reach out to Byron? Certainly, the Byron-like character in the story is treated with great sympathy. I don't know the answer to this question and never will because I am not a scholar, but I have my suspicions.

This is a shocking story but perhaps Claire Tomalin [Tomalin-S] softens things a bit by pointing to the poetry of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron in which brother/sister incest is an occasional theme. I would add that others had explored the theme long before Mary Shelley; I am thinking of Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Fielding's Tom Jones (1749).

Mary Shelley's The Last Man

I want to explore with you my idea that Mary evolved away from her radical upbringing. Certainly, Mary's rebellion at the sexual arrangements of her marriage is one such indication. I think that her novel, The Last Man, provides further evidence. I am not going to recommend this novel to you even though I like it very much. I am not going to recommend it because, as my wife recently demonstrated to me, it is not for everyone.

It is important to what I want to say to mention a few biographical facts. As I have indicated, Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, was the kind of political radical who seemed to advocate the immediate and violent overthrow of aristocratic rule - provided, of course, that no one actually got hurt. He was a kinder, gentler sort of violent revolutionary. He was also the political philosopher who invented the expression, "to each according to his needs, and from each according to his ability." (Perhaps you thought the communists invented that.)

Godwin was also a futurist and it is that aspect of his writing that is most relevant to this discussion of The Last Man. Basically, Godwin was a supreme optimist who believed in the perfectibility of mankind, that all future problems would be overwhelmed by the creative and cooperative capabilities of man. He imagined a waning in the sexual drive as mankind improved, and that would be the mechanism for limiting human population growth. That strikes me as odd, but maybe your idea of perfection allows you to be more comfortable with Godwin's theory.

A clergyman, by the name of Thomas Malthus, took issue with Godwin and published some essays in which he took the opposite view and suggested that the limits to growth would manifest in some rather grim ways, the ways of poverty and disease. Personally, I admire Malthus's calm logic and clear common sense and I wonder at Godwin's pie-in-the-sky optimism - perfectibility of mankind? However, it has been two hundred years since that debate and it now looks as if Godwin may have made the better guess. (I hasten to add that my fellow Malthusians and I are convinced that the world will soon go into the toilet, and when that happens, don't say we didn't warn tell you.) Finally, I mention that Godwin also was a proud atheist who proclaimed his religion in print and tried very hard to convert others.

Now consider Mary Shelley's novel, The Last Man (1826). Mary was close to her dad, she never knew her mother but shared her mother's attitudes of sexual freedom. My point will be that the daughter's thinking seemed to run counter to that of either parent. It wasn't an open rebellion rife with rancor, not at all; rather, it just seems that when Mary Shelley came to express herself in writing, she simply expressed a vision contrary to that of either parent. Incidentally - I can't resist this - I have to point out that Mary Shelley ran away and eloped with an aristocrat. C'mon, admit it, that's ironic - the Godwin kid ran off with a Baronet's son and heir.

The sentence structure in The Last Man is pretty much a comma or two and a period. I'm not saying there are no semicolons in the novel because there are, but no more than one or two per page. That gives the novel a modern feel. Also, Mary Shelley had learned "to write with her ears", so the novel reads well from beginning to end. But, when reading Mary Shelley, you have to suspend disbelief - so, do it! Read Jane Austen for nature and probability, but don't sell Mary Shelley short on the matter of vision.

The Last Man is set in the last third of the twenty-first century and is about the death of mankind. I mean, it is literally about the person who will become the last man on earth - an English man - of course. The cause of the death is a plague, a great pandemic. What is the nature of disease? How is it vectored? Well - who cares? Mary Shelley didn't care, the author was only interested in the feelings of a man becoming and then being the last man alive. I guess there is only one point to be made here; in 1826, it had already been several decades since Mary's countrymen had first invented the medical vaccination (against smallpox), but not one of Mary's twenty-first century characters even wonders about such a possibility.

Mary Shelley was no H. G. Wells; her guess of the technology of the year 2100 is well off the mark - don't expect to read the novel with that in mind. So, in one hundred years beyond our own time, Shelley imagined that the principle mode of transportation would be - the horse! She mentions steam-powered ships and steam/sailing ships but not the railroad. OK, the steam-driven riverboat had been invented in Jane Austen's time and, even as late as 1826, was driven by a paddle wheel. Now, this was fine for river traffic because the boat could stop periodically to take on coal, but an ocean voyage was infeasible because the boat would have to have been loaded with coal for the voyage - sorry, no room for cargo. Also, the paddle wheel doesn't work well in rough seas. (Some use was made of a combination of sails with paddle wheel for sailing on coastal routes.) It would be nearly 70 years, after 1826, before the screw propeller and other inventions made the steam-powered ocean voyage a common occurrence. On the other hand, a steam-powered locomotive was fully operational in Liverpool in 1830! So, the locomotive became popular and dominant in Shelley's lifetime but is not even suggested in her novel.

There is one other technical detail worth mentioning: the hero of the novel must get to Scotland from London in 48 hours, so he hires a "sailing balloon". That is the total sum of Mary's speculation about the technical advances of the future. Actually, there was one other thing: someone blows up all of Constantinople in a matters of seconds. That is a speculation for an author who died before even the invention of nitroglycerine or dynamite.

You have to read the novel for the humanity of the hero's experience - in that you will be rewarded. For example, if you are to become the last man, you must, at some point, be one of the last five and then watch those precious companions disappear. What would that be like? After you become the last man, how will you act? Suicide? Will you search for other possible survivors? Read the novel.

Now to my main point, it is very difficult to understand how it is that the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (and the wife of Percy Shelley) wrote this novel. First of all, it is Malthusian! Also, Mary Shelley imagined a society headed by men, completely dominated by men. Now, I am all for that, but why did Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter paint such a future and then seem quite comfortable with her invention? It is true that the fictional English monarchy had abdicated (willingly, without any external violence or pressure) in favor of a "republic", but the greater power was still in the hands of the would-have-been Prince of Wales and his aristocrats. That is made to seem a good thing because the one political figure who is backed by the "popular" faction is a villain. - Very curious, this Godwin daughter.

If Mary Shelley's father had not been the most famous atheist in the England of her time, then that honor would surely have fallen to her husband. OK, given that, then what do you say about this passage from the novel? The hero is about to bury his last surviving child, a very young boy:

"I have heard that the sight of the dead has confirmed the materialists in their belief. I ever felt otherwise. Was that my child--that moveless decaying inanimation? My child was enraptured by my caresses; his dear voice cloathed with meaning articulations his thoughts, otherwise inaccessible; his smile was a ray of the soul, and the same soul sat upon its throne in his eyes. I turn from this mockery of what he was. Take, O earth, thy debt! freely and forever I consign to thee the garb thou didst afford. But thou, sweet child, amiable and beloved boy, either thy spirit has sought a fitter dwelling, or, enshrined in my heart, thou livest while it lives."

Mary Shelley knew what it was to bury a child. - and she knew what it was to live in a radically new way.

"... Like Everyone Else"

After Percy's death, Mary expected the support and affections of Byron for whom she had an attraction and with whom she may have had a previous liaison. He was too busy helping the Greeks win their independence and, subsequently, dying of malaria. Mary's only surviving child was also named Percy. When he was being sent away to school, Mary was asked how the boy was to be educated so that "he might learn to think for himself." Mary's famous reply was "Oh no, for God's sake, teach him to think like everybody else!"

What is it to be?
The Ivory or the Drums?

To me, Mary Wollstonecraft is a tragic, sweet, and heroic person and I truly admire her - what man did not? could not? Mary knew what it was like to come from a dysfunctional family; what it was to struggle to survive in spirit and sanity. It's a life that usually breaks a person, but for some, like Mary Wollstonecraft, the experience first strengthens and then makes one fiercely independent - too independent. The distrust you learn for your family elders then extends to the community elders and then beyond. The feeling is made mutual, in part by the reputation of your family and, in part, by your own extravagant behavior. There is no opportunity to learn the basic social graces and you become cynical and uncooperative - and you want to have it your own way. There is no escape and you become locked in a struggle with society. There must have been many times when Mary tried to surrender her struggle, but it would only have taken a single remark or even a certain kind of glance and she would have been ready to resume the fight.

Mary Wollstonecraft thought hard and well, but she did not think consistently because her mind was too conflicted and constrained. The cost of not thinking consistently is always the same - a life lived in contradictions. Wollstonecraft was flirtatious and confrontational; idealistic and morally obtuse; and she was lustful and philosophical - she was all over the map. In the Rights of Woman, she tells us that an attenuation of the passion between the sexes is desirable and a sign of a perfecting society; yet, her own husband would refer to her as "a female Werther" because she so often imposed upon marriages or upon committed relationships. She advocated free love, but attempted suicide when her lover demonstrated that he knew how to live that way as well. She insisted on the dignity and independence of women but degraded herself when she begged Imlay to allow her to live with him and his new girl friend. She eschewed marriage as a "selfish" anachronism, and extolled the "independent" life of the unwed mother, but when faced with the prospect of a second daughter born out of wedlock, she convinced Godwin to marry her. Mary Wollstonecraft could go on and on about the terrible way that the upper classes treated the lower, but when she mingled with the common folks she could become their severest critic. She traveled throughout Sweden and Denmark, dependent upon the good will and hospitality of commoners, and her gratuity would be a sneer. She committed these elitist and condescending views to paper, which she sold as an essay in order to bring herself profit and distinction [Travels].

Godwin's contradictions were greater in number and were more profound, but were born of the same lack of intellectual rigor. And contradiction begets irony. This brave and brilliant woman was in Scandinavia on a wild-goose chase; sent there by Fanny's father while he bedded some actress in London. And then Godwin would say that Mary's essay was the thing that made him love her!

I find that, if you read between the lines of Godwin's Memoirs of his wife, the account can often be amusing in an unintended way. For example, Godwin goes to great lengths to inform us about how loving and close his relationship with Mary was, but then we learn that they never actually lived together after the marriage - oh sure, they were "close neighbors". Godwin assures us that Mary also wanted things that way, a surprise given the extraordinary effort Mary made in order to be allowed to live with Fanny Imlay's father. There are a number of things like that; but, if you do chuckle, be careful of where you admit it. Don't get me wrong, the Memoir is also sad, poignant and sweet, and very interesting.

Living in contradiction is not exactly the same thing as hypocrisy - there is a boundary between the two - you will judge for yourself on which side of the line Wollstonecraft and Godwin set themselves.

There are those among us who know that one cannot attempt to completely re-invent society and then expect a good result - or even a passable result. They know that innovations must be made carefully and incrementally, and that the "proprieties" are the encoding of vast experience and painfully won knowledge, and must ever be referenced. Honor and grace come from a life well lived and can never be acquired by the mere arm-chair invention of a whole new set of philosophical rules for society. But then, the individual who can remember using his body to shield his mother is not the same person who can compose such a calm, wise philosophy. Individuals in Mary Wollstoncraft's situation become convinced that they can - must - re-invent the world and that they will be absolved in this way; however, they are doomed to become the sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, but always charismatic figures of history.

Mary Wollstonecraft may have expressed these things best when she was writing about one of her personal tragic heroines, Princess Matilda.

"Disgusted with many customs which pass for virtues, though they are nothing more than observances of forms, often at the expense of truth, she probably ran into an error common to innovators, in wishing to do immediately what can only be done by time."

Jane Austen once described her own writing as "... the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush...". Mary Wollstonecraft beat the war drum. Jane Austen almost defined what we mean with the phrase "a strong sense of irony". Mary Wollstonecraft was humorless. Jane Austen was shy and silent in the presence of strangers and was no more regarded by them than was a poker or candlestick or any other thin, mute object. Mary Wollstonecraft's presence was so strong that it was said "her mood preceded her into a room"; and when Mary herself arrived, she was the center of attention. Jane Austen published anonymously and died largely unknown in this world. At the moment of her death, Mary Wollstonecraft was a celebrity from North America to Western Europe. When members of the Austen family received news of Jane's death, they wept and grieved, and resolved to declare her honor and to secure her fame. I imagine that when members of the Wollstonecraft family learned of Mary's death, they grew sad and contemplative and resolved to remember only the good things. I ask you now - which woman is the better known today?

Jane Austen ranged from Portsmouth to London to Kent and everywhere she went, she moved under the protection of a brother or a nephew. Mary Wollstonecraft ranged from Britain to Sweden to Portugal and everywhere she went, she traveled alone. Jane Austen may have visited the lake country in the north of England, but Mary Wollstonecraft certainly stood before the falls and cataracts at Frederikstad. And yet, within the sphere of the human mind, heart, and soul, Jane was the far traveler and Mary the blinded prisoner - blinded by her father and imprisoned by her American lover. If you think that Mary achieved the greater freedom, then you must acknowledge that she gained the "freedom" to walk that half-hour in the rain upon Putney Bridge. She walked in this way to soak her clothing through in order to weigh herself down. But when she jumped into the Thames, she did not sink and she would remember struggling to pull her clothes more closely about her, to make herself more compact so that she would sink. Mary failed in this suicide attempt and so she failed in a way her daughter Fanny - her first born - her beloved "babe" - would succeed. (Fanny would choose the more certain method, an overdose of opiates.)

I think you should let Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin supply your warnings and let America's current culture and recent experience provide you with updated examples; I suspect that if you want personal fulfillment, then you should pick up the pieces of ivory and ignore the excitement and spectacle of the drums.

This is the point to turn to a more general discussion of women in Jane Austen's times.


Links

Second Page: Women Writers &
Influences in Jane Austen's Time


Third Page: The Gathering Storm:
Godwin, Malthus & Revolutions


Fourth Page: The Raging Storm
After Jane Austen's Time


Contents of This Page

Male Voices Pages


More from the Marys,
Wollstonecraft & Shelley


Other Local Links:
Regency/Georgian Period


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