M. Wollstonecraft was born in 1759. Her father was so great awanderer, that the place of her birth is uncertain; she supposed,however, it was London, or Epping Forest: at the latter place shespent the first five years of her life. In early youth sheexhibited traces of exquisite sensibility, soundness ofunderstanding, and decision of character; but her father being adespot in his family, and her mother one of his subjects, Mary,derived little benefit from their parental training. She receivedno literary instructions but such as were to be had in ordinary dayschools. Before her sixteenth year she became acquainted with Mr.Clare a clergyman, and Miss Frances Blood; the latter, two yearsolder than herself; who possessing good taste and some knowledge ofthe fine arts, seems to have given the first impulse to theformation of her character. At the age of nineteen, she left herparents, and resided with a Mrs. Dawson for two years; when shereturned to the parental roof to give attention to her mother,whose ill health made her presence necessary. On the death of hermother, Mary bade a final adieu to her father’s house, and becamethe inmate of F. Blood; thus situated, their intimacy increased,and a strong attachment was reciprocated. In 1783 she commenced aday school at Newington Green, in conjunction with her friend, F.Blood. At this place she became acquainted with Dr. Price, to whomshe became strongly attached; the regard was mutual.
It is said that she became a teacher from motives of benevolence,or rather philanthropy, and during the time she continued in theprofession, she gave proof of superior qualification for theperformance of its arduous and important duties. Her friend andcoadjutor married and removed to Lisbon, in Portugal, where shedied of a pulmonary disease; the symptoms of which were visiblebefore her marriage. So true was Mary’s attachment to her, thatshe entrusted her school to the care of others, for the purpose ofattending Frances in her closing scene. She aided, as did Dr.Young, in “Stealing Narcissa a grave.” Her mind was expanded bythis residence in a foreign country, and though clear of religiousbigotry before, she took some instructive lessons on the evils ofsuperstition, and intolerance.
On her return she found the school had suffered by her absence, andhaving previously decided to apply herself to literature, she nowresolved to commence. In 1787 she made, or received, proposalsfrom Johnson, a publisher in London, who was already acquaintedwith her talents as an author. During the three subsequent years,she was actively engaged, more in translating, condensing, andcompiling, than in the production of original works. At this timeshe laboured under much depression of spirits, for the loss of herfriend; this rather increased, perhaps, by the publication of“Mary, a novel,” which was mostly composed of incidents andreflections connected with their intimacy.
The pecuniary concerns of her father becoming embarrassed, Marypractised a rigid economy in her expenditures, and with her savingswas enabled to procure her sisters and brothers situations, towhich without her aid, they could not have had access; her fatherwas sustained at length from her funds; she even found means totake under her protection an orphan child.
She had acquired a facility in the arrangement and expression ofthoughts, in her avocation of translator, and compiler, which wasno doubt of great use to her afterward. It was not long until shehad occasion for them. The eminent Burke produced his celebrated“Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Mary full of sentimentsof liberty, and indignant at what she thought subversive of it,seized her pen and produced the first attack upon that famous work.It succeeded well, for though intemperate and contemptuous, it wasvehemently and impetuously eloquent; and though Burke was belovedby the enlightened friends of freedom, they were dissatisfied anddisgusted with what they deemed an outrage upon it.
It is said that Mary, had not wanted confidence in her own powersbefore, but the reception this work met from the public, gave heran opportunity of judging what those powers were, in the estimationof others. It was shortly after this, that she commenced the workto which these remarks are prefixed. What are its merits will bedecided in the judgment of each reader; suffice it to say sheappears to have stept forth boldly, and singly, in defence of thathalf of the human race, which by the usages of all society, whethersavage or civilized, have been kept from attaining their properdignity — their equal rank as rational beings. It would appear thatthe disguise used in placing on woman the silken fetters whichbribed her into endurance, and even love of slavery, but increasedthe opposition of our authoress: she would have had more patiencewith rude, brute coercion, than with that imposing gallantry,which, while it affects to consider woman as the pride, andornament of creation, degrades her to a toy — an appendage — acypher. The work was much reprehended, and as might well beexpected, found its greatest enemies in the pretty softcreatures — the spoiled children of her own sex. She accomplishedit in six weeks.
In 1792 she removed to Paris, where she became acquainted withGilbert Imlay, of the United States. And from this acquaintancegrew an attachment, which brought the parties together, withoutlegal formalities, to which she objected on account of some familyembarrassments, in which he would thereby become involved. Theengagement was however considered by her of the most sacred nature,and they formed the plan of emigrating to America, where theyshould be enabled to accomplish it. These were the days ofRobespierrean cruelty, and Imlay left Paris for Havre, whitherafter a time Mary followed him. They continued to reside there,until he left Havre for London, under pretence of business, andwith a promise of rejoining her soon at Paris, which however he didnot, but in 1795 sent for her to London. In the mean time she hadbecome the mother of a female child, whom she called Frances incommemoration of her early friendship.
Before she went to England, she had some gloomy forebodings thatthe affections of Imlay, had waned, if they were not estranged fromher; on her arrival, those forebodings were sorrowfully confirmed.His attentions were too formal and constrained to pass unobservedby her penetration, and though he ascribed his manner, and hisabsence, to business duties, she saw his affection for her was onlysomething to be remembered. To use her own expression, “Love, deardelusion! Rigorous reason has forced me to resign; and now myrational prospects are blasted, just as I have learned to becontented with rational enjoyments.” To pretend to depict hermisery at this time would be futile; the best idea can be formed ofit from the fact that she had planned her own destruction, fromwhich Imlay prevented her. She conceived the idea of suicide asecond time, and threw herself into the Thames; she remained in thewater, until consciousness forsook her, but she was taken up andresuscitated. After divers attempts to revive the affections ofImlay, with sundry explanations and professions on his part,through the lapse of two years, she resolved finally to forgo allhope of reclaiming him, and endeavour to think of him no more inconnexion with her future prospects. In this she succeeded sowell, that she afterwards had a private interview with him, whichdid not produce any painful emotions.
In 1796 she revived or improved an acquaintance which commencedyears before with Wm. Godwin, author of “Political Justice,” andother works of great notoriety. Though they had not beenfavourably impressed with each other on their former acquaintance,they now met under circumstances which permitted a mutual and justappreciation of character. Their intimacy increased by regular andalmost imperceptible degrees. The partiality they conceived foreach other was, according to her biographer, “In the most refinedstyle of love. It grew with equal advances in the mind of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to havesaid who was before, or who after. One sex did not take thepriority which long established custom has awarded it, nor theother overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. Neitherparty could assume to have been the agent or the patient, thetoil-spreader or the prey in the affair. When in the course ofthings the disclosure came, there was nothing in a manner foreither to disclose to the other.”
Mary lived but a few months after her marriage, and died inchild-bed; having given birth to a daughter who is now known to theliterary world as Mrs. Shelly, the widow of Percy Bysche Shelly.
We can scarcely avoid regret that one of such splendid talents, andhigh toned feelings, should, after the former seemed to have beenfully developed, and the latter had found an object in whom theymight repose, after their eccentric and painful efforts to find aresting place — that such an one should at such a time, be cut offfrom life is something which we cannot contemplate without feelingregret; we can scarcely repress the murmur that she had not beenremoved ere clouds darkened her horizon, or that she had remainedto witness the brightness and serenity which might have succeeded.But thus it is; we may trace the cause to anti-social arrangements;it is not individuals but society which must change it, and thatnot by enactments, but by a change in public opinion.
The authoress of the “Rights of Woman,” was born April 1759, diedSeptember 1797.
That there may be no doubt regarding the facts in this sketch, theyare taken from a memoir written by her afflicted husband. Inaddition to many kind things he has said of her, (he was notblinded to imperfections in her character) is, that she was “Lovelyin her person, and in the best and most engaging sense feminine inher manners.”
M. Talleyrand Perigord,
Late Bishop of Autun.