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Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Maryfree

  • Barbara Taylor

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

by John Opie, c. 1797

Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Mary (1759–1797), author and advocate of women's rights, was born on 27 April 1759 at Primrose Street, Spitalfields, London, the eldest daughter of Edward Wollstonecraft (1736–1803) and his wife, Elizabeth Dixon (1730–1782).

Early years and education

At the time of her birth, Wollstonecraft's family was modestly prosperous: her paternal grandfather owned a successful Spitalfields silk weaving business; her mother's father was a wine merchant in Ireland. In 1765 her paternal grandfather died, and her father inherited a share of the family business. Unlike his father, however, Edward had little taste for the commercial life, opting instead to become a gentleman farmer. In the early 1760s he took his young family to live on a farm at Epping, Essex: the first of six moves in Wollstonecraft's childhood, each of which saw a marked decline in the family's financial fortunes. Edward Wollstonecraft, it seems, had no talent for farming, nor for much of anything else. According to his daughter, he was a childish bully, given to abusing his wife and children after heavy drinking sessions. Mary, who often intervened to protect her mother from her father's drunken violence, later told her husband, William Godwin, how much she had despised him. '[Mary] was not formed to be the contented and unresisting subject of a despot', Godwin commented in his posthumous Memoirs of his wife (Godwin, 206).

Wollstonecraft's mother, on the other hand, apparently submitted to her husband's behaviour without protest. To her eldest daughter at least, Elizabeth Wollstonecraft seems to have been an uncaring mother. She idolized her eldest son, Edward or Ned (1757–1807) to the point where 'in comparison with her affection for him, she might be said not to love the rest of her children' (The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria, 1798; Works, 1.124). Ned, enjoyed prospects and prestige much greater than the rest of his siblings, including his clever eldest sister whose acuity and forcefulness, so unconventional in a girl, did not improve her standing in the family. 'Such indeed is the force of prejudice', Wollstonecraft later wrote bitterly, 'that what was called spirit and wit in him, was cruelly repressed as forwardness in me'.

Of all the Wollstonecraft children—Ned, Mary, Henry Woodstock (b. 1761), Eliza (b. 1763), Everina (1765–1841), James (1768–1806), and Charles (1770–1818)Ned alone received a gentleman's education, to prepare him for the bar. The other children appear to have snatched what instruction they could in the family's migrations. The only formal schooling Mary herself received—as the Wollstonecrafts moved from London to Epping to Yorkshire, back to London, to Wales, finally returning to London again—was a few years at a day school in Beverley, Yorkshire, where she learned to read and write. All the rest of her impressive stock of learning, including several foreign languages, was self-acquired, often with great difficulty. The passionate indignation with which Wollstonecraft later inveighed against the disparity between men and women's educational opportunities was anger acquired at first hand.

'The first of a new genus': becoming a professional writer

By the end of the 1770s the Wollstonecraft family resources had sunk to a low ebb. As the Wollstonecraft children looked about them, prospects for the future must have seemed very gloomy, particularly for the girls. Poverty seriously undermined a middle-class woman's opportunities in the marriage market, while remaining unwed reduced her status and life chances even further. Throughout the eighteenth century employment opportunities for such women were very thin on the ground. Teaching, governessing, needlework, serving as a lady's companion: these were among the few jobs open to genteel women of small means, and by the late 1780s Mary Wollstonecraft had done—and hated—them all. Literary work, however, was also open to women with the confidence, or the desperation, to attempt it; and in 1786, while running a failing girls' school in London, Wollstonecraft decided to try her hand. Her first book, a sternly didactic tract on female manners titled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, earned her £10. Wollstonecraft was delighted. 'I hope you have not forgot that I am an Author', she boasted grandly to her sister Eliza a year later (Wollstonecraft to Eliza Bishop, 27 June 1787, Letters, 155).

For a woman to take up her pen in this way was much more common in the eighteenth century than is often realized. Indeed at least one sector of the literary market place—the rapidly expanding world of popular fiction—was said to be nearly monopolized by women authors. None the less, as a career move it was sufficiently unusual to require a fair degree of hubris on a woman's part: something in which Wollstonecraft was never deficient. In her case, however, the turn towards professional writing was also facilitated by a new circle of acquaintances. These were the rational dissenters (later known as Unitarians) living around Newington Green in London, where Wollstonecraft and her sisters opened their school for girls in 1784.

A liberal offshoot of Presbyterianism, rational dissent was an optimistic, humanistic creed with a strongly intellectualist flavour. Its adherents, mostly men and women of middle-class backgrounds, were all keen thinkers and talkers, eager to acquire new ideas and enthusiastic in their support for most of the progressive causes of the day. Its leading spokesmen, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, were both ardent political reformers. Price, who was the minister at Newington Green, became a friend and mentor to Wollstonecraft, and although she never joined the ranks of rational dissent, she was very much influenced by his theological and political views. And since most rational dissenters supported women's equality, in their company Wollstonecraft found an environment conducive to the unfolding of her own intellectual talents.

In 1786 Wollstonecraft was introduced to the official publisher of rational dissent, Joseph Johnson. Johnson, a large-minded man with an appreciation of ability regardless of sex, soon agreed to publish her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and then, after she was sacked from her last teaching post (as governess to the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland), employed her to write on a regular basis for his new literary review, the Analytical Review. He also found her a home, lent her money, helped her sisters, and eventually encouraged her to take up her pen in defence of her radical political ideals. Johnson was a good friend and patron to Wollstonecraft all the rest of her life; she, for her part, bossed and scolded and loved him 'like a father'. She also substantially boosted his publishing profits. As the woman who by the mid-1790s had become the best-known female political writer in Europe, Wollstonecraft proved an excellent literary investment.

Early writings

Surveying Wollstonecraft's intellectual career, historians often represent her as an exceptional figure, a lonely pioneer. Certainly she liked to regard herself in that light. 'You know I am not born to tread in the beaten track', she told her sister Everina on entering Joseph Johnson's employ, 'the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on' (M. Wollstonecraft to Everina Wollstonecraft, 7 Nov 1787, Letters, 165). As a professional woman writer she was, she boasted to Everina, the 'first of a new genus'. In fact she was nothing of the sort. Women writers were common in her world, and although few wrote on political themes, here too Wollstonecraft was not entirely alone. The enlightened literati contained several women well known for their political writings, including the leading radical historian and feminist Catharine Macaulay, to whom Wollstonecraft acknowledged a particular intellectual debt. Yet the exciting sense of avant-gardism that Wollstonecraft conveyed—of moving towards a unique and extraordinary destiny—was more than just a grandiose fantasy.

In one of the best pieces of biographical writing on Wollstonecraft to date, Margaret Walters has pointed to the strength of Wollstonecraft's impulse towards self-creation, her insistent testing out of attitudes and roles suited to her 'peculiar' character. Like the heroine of her first novel, Mary: a Fiction (1788), who rejects both her parents, Wollstonecraft had 'no models, no one to identify with, so she ha[d], literally, to invent herself' (Walters, 323) while at the same time encountering the obstacles faced by all self-made women. It is this incessant, painful struggle to find a subjectivity to inhabit which, Walters suggests, gives such a 'curiously modern' quality to Wollstonecraft's story, and continues to allow women to identify with her centuries later.

This experimental drive was never more evident than in Wollstonecraft's diverse, often highly dramatized self-presentations as a writer. Over the years she ran through an extraordinary range of literary personae, from the prissy moralist of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, to the blunt-spoken philosophic radical of her political works, to the lyrical romantic of her published travel correspondence, with many other postures—satirist, teacher, melancholy solitaire—tried out along the way. Still in her late twenties, with a failed career as a schoolteacher behind her and only the bleak prospect of governessing ahead, she donned the pedant's cap to lecture her readers in tones which 'will, by some, be thought too grave': 'I am sorry to observe', Thoughts on the Education of Daughters begins, 'that reason and duty have not so powerful an influence over human conduct, as instinct has in the brute creation', hence it is her task to instruct her readers in the cultivation of reason and governance of impulses which if left uncontrolled 'will run wild' (Works, 4.5, 7). Severe advice follows on everything from how to treat servants (who 'are, in general, ignorant and cunning' and thus require a very firm hand) to the perils of card-playing and the moral dangers of the theatre. This repressively didactic note persisted throughout the late 1780s, in an anthology for women, The Female Reader (1789), and in a book of stories for children, Original Stories from Real Life (1788). But it was in these years too, as she later told the artist Henry Fuseli, that she was testing out a very different self-image: that of an impoverished bohemian forsaking the temptations of the world for the higher claims of mind and spirit. She denied herself meat and most of the other 'necessaries of life', she told Fuseli, in order that she 'might be able to pursue some romantic schemes of benevolence'. Dressed in a coarse cloth garment and black worsted stockings like those worn by milkmaids, with her hair hanging down around her shoulders instead of being pinned up like a lady's, she looked—one unfriendly observer noted sourly—like a 'philosophical sloven' (Knowles, 1.164). And although her appearance became more conventional in the 1790s, this romantic bohemianism was to remain part of Wollstonecraft's self-identity throughout her life.

The common thread linking all these writerly personae was Wollstonecraft's deep, at times obsessive, preoccupation with discovering the truth of her self. 'What a long time it requires to know ourselves', she wrote while travelling in Sweden in 1795 (A Short Residence; Works, 6.289), 'and yet almost every one has more of this knowledge than he is willing to own, even to himself'. To possess and express one's authentic subjectivity, as she insistently emphasized, was the foundation of all genuinely creative authorship. 'Those compositions only have power to delight … where the soul of the author is exhibited', the 'Advertisement' to Mary: a Fiction explained, for it is only such writings that 'animate the hidden springs' of those 'who do not measure their steps in a beaten track'. It is texts expressive of the evolving inner life of the writer that offer to their readers the 'subtile spirit' of literary truth. A letter to William Godwin written in 1796 explained that she wished him to 'see my heart and mind just as it appears to myself, without any veil of affected humility over it':

I am compelled to think that there is some thing in my writings more valuable, than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm elogiums—I mean more mind—denominate as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers.

Wollstonecraft to Godwin, 4 Sept 1796, Letters, 345

This emphasis on authentic self-expression may now seem ordinary enough, but in Wollstonecraft's day it could still strike a sharply dissident note, particularly when sounded by a woman. Women, after all, were not meant to have a true self to discover or express; like a pretty dress, a properly feminine self was one designed to suit masculine tastes. So Wollstonecraft's persistent concern that her writings should stem from the 'original source' of her being, rather than 'the prescribed rules of art' (Mary: a Fiction, Advertisement), signalled not only her literary modernism but also her commitment to an ideal of true selfhood dramatically at odds with the masquerades of feminine propriety. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman denounced the 'system of dissimulation' by which women were 'always to seem to be this and that' (Rights of Woman; Works, 5.168), 'levelled, by meekness and docility, into one character of yielding softness and gentle compliance' (ibid., 5.165). Wollstonecraft's refusal to be flattened by conventional womanliness in this fashion was a key factor behind her life choices, and the heart of her feminist radicalism.

None the less, up to 1789 there was little in Wollstonecraft's professional life to distinguish her from the rest of the small army of women working at the lower end of the eighteenth-century literary scene. Ploughing through book after book for the Analytical Review; labouring away at French, Dutch, Italian, and German until she was sufficiently proficient to undertake translations; producing stories and anthologies aimed at the popular market: all were labours typical of female literary hacks, and hardly likely to elicit those 'daring flights' of genius which Godwin later attributed to her. But times were auspicious for would-be intellectual high-flyers. In 1789 the Bastille fell; in 1790 Edmund Burke published his famous attack on the French Revolution (Reflections on the Revolution in France) which outraged all English radicals, including Wollstonecraft. Burke's apologia for the ancien régime, she fumed, revealed his indifference to the 'silent majesty of misery' in France: 'respect for rank [had] swallowed up the common feelings of humanity' (Works, 5.17). She must have expressed such views effectively, since Johnson encouraged her to write a refutation. With some trepidation she did so, and her Vindication of the Rights of Men was an immediate success; its author a new literary lioness. Her name was bracketed with that of Thomas Paine—whose own, much more famous, The Rights of Man appeared in 1791—as a leading revolutionist; she was commended in France and fêted by fellow radicals in England. It was a truly splendid time, and Mary Wollstonecraft was in the middle of it. '[A] new spirit has gone forth, to organise the body politic … Reason has, at last, shown her captivating face … and it will be impossible for the dark hand of despotism again to obscure it's radiance', she wrote (A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, 1794; Works, 6.22). 'I never saw joy comparable in its vivid intensity … to that occasioned by the early promise of the French Revolution', another woman who had moved in English radical circles later recalled (Life of Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, 182).

The Rights of Woman

But while Wollstonecraft's own horizons were rapidly expanding, other women's were not. Even in France, where the New Age had dawned, women were not achieving equal status as citizens. The addition of fraternité to liberté and égalité—the gendering of demands for political democracy—was proving an enormous obstacle to the aspirations of French feminists, male and female alike. Wollstonecraft shared their exasperation, and soon determined to act on it. 'I should have written to you sooner', she dashed off a note to a friend on 3 January 1792:

had I not been very much engrossed by writing and printing my vindication of the Rights of Woman … I shall give the last sheet to the printer today; and, I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject.—Do not suspect me of false modesty—I mean to say, that had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book.

Wollstonecraft to W. Roscoe, 3 Jan 1792, Letters, 205

In fact she had allowed herself about three months to produce over 300 pages, and whatever her own doubts about them, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was an immediate best-seller. 'I have been reading the Rights of Woman, so you must in future expect me to be very tenacious of my rights and privileges', Lady Palmerston warned her husband facetiously (Tomalin, 143), while from Glasgow Mrs Anne MacVicar Grant wrote that the book was 'so run after here, that there is no keeping it long enough to read it leisurely' (Wardle, 158). 'Have you read that wonderful book, The Rights of Woman?', the poet Anna Seward wrote to a friend (Letters of Anna Seward, 117). According to Godwin, not perhaps the most reliable source, Wollstonecraft was for a time the most famous woman in Europe; certainly she had touched an ideological chord which reverberated across the political spectrum. Had Mrs More read the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft? Horace Walpole asked in a letter to the leading evangelical writer. She most certainly had not, Hannah More assured him. 'There is something fantastic and absurd in the very title', she wrote, adding that in her view 'there is no animal so much indebted to subordination for its good behaviour as woman' (Stenton, 313). Other sexual conservatives fervently agreed, and labelled Wollstonecraft's book an 'indecent Rhapsody' (Wardle, 159).

The Rights of Woman was rapidly translated into French and German, with an American edition appearing in 1793. Its reception in liberal-minded circles—hostile critics like More notwithstanding—was in general favourable, not least because many of its arguments were already familiar to men and women of enlightened views. Much of the book's reputation for libertarian immoralism came later, after Wollstonecraft's death and the publication of Godwin's scandalous Memoirs. But in its own day the Rights of Woman was widely commended for its philosophical gravitas and sober good sense.

Indeed, modern readers of Wollstonecraft's famous manifesto for female equality are often struck less by the radicalism of the Rights of Woman than by its severely moralistic, sometimes even misogynistic, tone. To contemporary ears, the demand for a 'revolution in female manners' that Wollstonecraft puts at the centre of her feminist argument sounds less like a condemnation of the forces oppressing women than an attack on women themselves—and certainly women tend to come off very badly in Wollstonecraft's rhetoric. Her own sex, according to Wollstonecraft, is vain, fickle, indolent, irrational, intolerant, superstitious, cunning, infantile, frivolous. '[B]rimful of sensibility, and teeming with capricious fantasies', women's giddy minds have only one fixed preoccupation:

the desire of establishing themselves … by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act—they dress, they paint, and nickname God's creatures. Surely these weak beings are only fit for a seraglio!Rights of Woman; Works, 5.76

The harshness of the condemnation is startling. But the point of this damning assessment—the point to which the whole book tends—is that women are thus 'rendered weak and wretched' not by nature but through culture, and in particular through the attitudes and actions of 'men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers':

and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilised women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.

Works, 5.73

Women, as later feminists were to put it, are made, not born, and it is this process of enforced feminization which is the principal target of Wollstonecraft's polemic.

This emphasis on the iniquities of womankind serves a further purpose in the Rights of Woman, however, which is to act as a metaphor for the corruption of all human beings—men and women alike—by the 'unnatural distinctions' of rank and privilege. Throughout the book Wollstonecraft equates the degradation of women to the debasement of men caught up in the toils of a hierarchical society. Her favoured analogy, drawing on Adam Smith's critique of the aristocracy, is between the follies of women and the 'unmanly vices' of the fashionable rich. 'Weak, artificial, beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race', she writes of the rich, 'in a premature, unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society!' (Works, 5.75). Like the female sex who must be made free and equal before they can be good, all men must thus be liberated from the shackles of a class-ridden society before achieving true virtue and happiness. 'There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground' (ibid., 5.211), and it was the promise of this greater equality that the French Revolution was now holding out, not only to the people of France but to humankind as a whole. But, as Wollstonecraft warned the architects of the revolution, 'this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one-half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride'. However, '[l]et woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated' (ibid., 5.266). It is for the benefit of all humanity, then, that women's chains should be 'generously snap[ped]' and complete equality between the sexes achieved.

Wollstonecraft has been described as a liberal thinker, but this is to understate the scope of her political ambitions. Like Godwin, Paine, Thomas Holcroft, William Blake, and others of her circle, she should be seen rather as belonging to the utopian wing of eighteenth-century progressivism: that visionary, world-regenerating style of radicalism, heavily indebted to left-wing protestantism, that reached a high point in the revolutionary upheavals of the 1790s. The aspirations of this grouping, in comparison to the mainstream of eighteenth-century liberal opinion, were uncompromising and extreme. In Wollstonecraft's case, this extremism derived from several sources: an abiding sense of personal grievance transmuted into a powerful protest against social and political injustice; her religious faith, which was idiosyncratic but very strong; and the intellectual influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Like the rest of her family, Wollstonecraft was originally an Anglican, but by the late 1780s she had abandoned the established church for a self-devised theology blending enlightened rational religion with a romanticized Platonism. The former was derived largely from rational dissent; for the latter she was particularly indebted to Milton and, above all, to 'the divine Rousseau', whose passionate championing of the claims of inner truth over the demands of outward conformity so strongly resonated with her own convictions. Rousseau's notoriously retrograde views on women enraged Wollstonecraft, and became a chief target of the Rights of Woman, but his vision of an authentic moral existence lived in spiritual attunement to the 'God within' deeply influenced her psycho-ethical beliefs, while his egalitarianism reinforced her own conviction as to the natural equality of all God's children, whatever their culturally prescribed status.

Few thinkers in the 1790s were as committed to the egalitarian principle as Wollstonecraft, or as fiercely critical of contemporary society for its failure to nourish equality. All of the other key precepts of her political creed—natural rights, civic virtue, the triumph of enlightened understanding over custom and prejudice—flowed from this egalitarian premiss. Over the years this took her radicalism well beyond anything which could plausibly be described (as some commentators have) as a 'bourgeois liberal' perspective. Wollstonecraft lived in France from 1793 to 1795, and the direct experience of revolution convinced her that, to be truly liberatory, political reform needed to be more gradual, but also more far-reaching, than anything so far achieved by the sanguinary struggles of French factionalism. Unlike many English supporters of the revolution in its early stages, she never repudiated the revolutionary process in toto, arguing rather (in her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, 1794, and other commentaries on the revolution) for a higher level of moral preparedness for reform, and worrying about the 'destructive influence of commerce' on the revolutionary process:

[I]f the aristocracy of birth is levelled with the ground, only to make room for that of riches, I am afraid that the morals of the people will not be much improved by the change, or the government rendered less venal.Letter Introductory to a Series of Letters on the Present Character of the French Nation, 1793; Works, 6.444

Writing from Scandinavia in 1795, where she was travelling on a business venture, she developed these themes, particularly her opposition to commerce, further. 'England and America', she wrote in A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), 'owe their liberty to commerce, which created a new species of power to undermine the feudal system. But let them beware of the consequence: the tyranny of wealth is still more galling and debasing than that of rank' (ibid., 6.309).

'Unnatural distinctions' based on commercial power were no more welcome to Wollstonecraft than inequalities of any other kind; the emergent class divisions of a capitalist society merely perpetuated in another guise the corrosive disunities of the past. This exceptionally radical viewpoint, edging towards socialism, never fully interlocked with her feminism. But at the time of her death she was writing a novel, The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria (1798), which, among other things, explored how class differences inflected women's experience of subalternity. The novel contrasts the trials of Maria, a wealthy heiress imprisoned in an insane asylum by a husband determined to appropriate her fortune, to those of the working-class asylum attendant, Jemima, whose hard life involves stints as a slopworker, washerwoman, prostitute, and thief. The friendship that evolves between the two women, as they reach across the class divide to proffer female solidarity and understanding, is a touching exemplification of Wollstonecraft's mature political hope for a society undeformed by oppression of any kind.


Wollstonecraft's political optimism was for many years unmatched by any real personal confidence. A pretty woman, with 'a good figure' and a sweet, cautious smile, Wollstonecraft was attractive to men, and liked by many women; but, in her early years at least, she found it hard to share in others' good opinion of her. As a young girl she unfavourably compared herself with her dearest friend, Fanny Blood (1757–1785), whose feminine graces left her feeling both inferior and reverential. Fanny, whom Wollstonecraft met in 1775 and for whom she quickly 'contracted a friendship so fervent', according to Godwin, 'as for years to have constituted the ruling passion of her mind', seems to have been a rather ordinary girl (Wollstonecraft later implied as much in a portrait of her drawn in Mary: a Fiction). But her affectionate response to Wollstonecraft's ardour nourished the relationship for a decade. The two friends lived and worked together, and Wollstonecraft virtually adopted the Blood family as her own. In 1785 Fanny travelled to Lisbon to marry Hugh Skeys, an Irishman resident there; she died in childbirth the same year. Wollstonecraft, who had travelled to Lisbon to be with her friend at the birth, was dumbfounded by grief, and later named her first daughter after Fanny in 'remembrance of the dear friend of her youth, whose image could never be erased from her memory' (Godwin, 244).

Romantic friendships between women, with no implication of sexual attachment, were common enough in Wollstonecraft's day for her passion for Fanny Blood to occasion no particular comment. It is only in recent biographical writings that the friendship has been seen to place question marks around Wollstonecraft's sexual orientation. Whether Wollstonecraft's feelings for Fanny Blood had a sexual component is now of course impossible to judge. Certainly no subsequent relationship with a woman engaged her feelings to the same extent, and her other love affairs were all with men. These affairs, however, were far from unproblematic, and if conventional in sexual orientation were hardly so in any other respect.

Wollstonecraft met Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) at Joseph Johnson's home in St Paul's Churchyard, London, in 1788. Fuseli, a well-known painter and literary figure, was forty-seven at the time: a small, self-important dandy known for his volatile temper and Rousseauite attitudinizing. He was a bisexual, which Wollstonecraft may not have known; and a married man, which she did. She became infatuated with him, and remained so for three years. Fuseli encouraged her adoration, but whether he actually reciprocated it is less clear; nor is there definitive evidence as to whether or not they became lovers (Godwin implied they did not). At any rate, Fuseli had no intention of leaving his wife, Sophia, and when he and Wollstonecraft decided to travel to Paris in the summer of 1792, it was to be in the company of Sophia and Joseph Johnson. The plan was aborted at the last minute. Wollstonecraft, who had been feeling increasingly desperate in her love for Fuseli, now approached Sophia and proposed an arrangement in which all three would cohabit and she would be recognized as Fuseli's spiritual spouse. Sophia Fuseli, astonished and furious, threw her out, and the affair ended.

The episode left Wollstonecraft humiliated and miserable, but the planned French expedition still attracted her, and in December 1792 she travelled alone to Paris. There she was welcomed into a band of expatriate fellow travellers of the revolution: a lively, bohemian circle of British and American radicals, loosely associated with the Girondin party. Wollstonecraft, also a Girondist supporter, felt at home here, and it was in this setting, in the early months of 1793, that she met Captain Gilbert Imlay (1754–1828). Imlay, an American revolutionary soldier turned commercial adventurer, was a handsome, debonair man, well used to sexual exploits. Wollstonecraft fell passionately in love with him, and by the end of the summer of 1793 she was pregnant. 'I have felt some gentle twitches', she wrote to him in November, 'which make me begin to think, that I am nourishing a creature who will soon be sensible of my care.—This thought has … produced an overflowing of tenderness toward you' (Wollstonecraft to Imlay, c.Nov 1793; Letters, 237).

Meanwhile, the situation in Paris had become so dangerous that Wollstonecraft moved out of the city for a time. Imlay, protected by his American nationality while English visitors were being imprisoned, registered Wollstonecraft as his wife at the American embassy and then, to Wollstonecraft's dismay, left on commercial travels. Alone, pregnant, anxious, she berated him for the abandonment and then followed him, first to Le Havre. Here her daughter Fanny [see Godwin] was born on 14 May 1794. From Le Havre, Wollstonecraft followed Imlay to London, where she hoped they might establish a family home. But Imlay was not a family man. Money-making preoccupied him, and he was beginning to see other women. Wollstonecraft could feel him drifting away. She became frantic and, after some terrible scenes, swallowed what was intended to be a suicidal dose of opium. A maidservant revived her, and the unhappy relationship dragged on.

Imlay had suffered a business misadventure in Norway, and he now suggested to Wollstonecraft that she travel there to sort the matter out for him. The proposal, to the mother of a new baby, seems extraordinary, but Imlay knew his lover. Wollstonecraft immediately agreed; and left, accompanied by Fanny and a maid, within a week. The task she had undertaken—to get compensation for a valuable cargo, stolen by the Norwegian captain of Imlay's ship—was demanding, and she spent nearly four months at it: travelling to remote and unfamiliar destinations to meet and bargain with officials, studying local customs, enjoying strange landscapes and risky sea journeys. The adventure, despite a stream of melancholy letters to Imlay, revived her; but the return to London was devastating. Imlay had another new mistress, an actress. On getting this news (from her cook), Wollstonecraft walked to Putney Bridge, soaked her clothing, and threw herself into the Thames. Only the arrival of two passing watermen saved her. 'Mistaken in the object of her attachment, imputing to him qualities which, in the trial, proved to be imaginary', Godwin wrote in his Memoirs, '[Mary] proceeded to stake her life upon the consequences of her error' (Godwin, 250–51). Even after reluctantly surviving this second bid for death, she continued to persecute Imlay with pleas for reconciliation, until finally illusion dissipated and hope died. 'I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell', she wrote in her last letter to him, 'I part with you in peace' (Wollstonecraft to Imlay, c.March 1796; Letters, 329–30).

In the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft had criticized women's enslavement by love; now she had experienced such subjugation at first hand. Yet even at the peak of love's torments, the professional writer remained at the ready, poised to record her observations of herself and the world about her. High sentiments, even her own amorous miseries, were good copy, Wollstonecraft knew; and so travelling around Scandinavia she poured her lamentations over Imlay into a volume of imaginary correspondence which Johnson published on her return. This book, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, is from a literary standpoint probably Wollstonecraft's best; certainly many readers have found it her most captivating. 'If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author', Godwin wrote, 'this appears to me to be the book' (Godwin, 249)—and he was the man to know.

William Godwin (1756–1836), author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was the foremost radical philosopher of his day. A man of strong principle, addicted to personal sincerity, Godwin was also naïve and awkward, particularly in relation to women. He first met Wollstonecraft in November 1791, at a dinner party at Joseph Johnson's. The dinner was for Tom Paine, whom Godwin had not previously encountered and was particularly keen to meet. But Paine was a quiet man, while Godwin and Wollstonecraft were both loquacious. They quarrelled (mostly over religion) while Paine sat silent. Godwin left the party disappointed and irritated. Subsequent meetings did not improve his feelings towards Wollstonecraft, but then, in 1796—within months of the final rupture with Imlay—she came calling on him, ostensibly to lend him a copy of Rousseau's romantic novel La nouvelle Héloïse. It was bold for a woman to take the initiative in this way, but boldness was never a problem for Wollstonecraft. Very soon they were lovers. Here was a man, a 'tender affectionate creature', a sweet and 'sapient Philosophership', in whose love she finally found that emotional reciprocity for which she yearned. 'I am never so well pleased with myself, as when I please you', she told Godwin, and please each other they certainly did. Their correspondence in the fourteen months between July 1796 and her death in September 1797 pulses with erotic delight. 'If the felicity of last night has had the same effect on your health as on my countenance, you have no cause to lament your failure of resolution:', she writes in November 1796, 'for I have seldom seen so much live fire running about my features as this morning when recollections—very dear, called forth the blush of pleasure, as I adjusted my hair' (Wollstonecraft to Godwin, 13 Nov 1796; Letters, 360). She loved 'acting the part of a wife', she told him as she sorted his household linen, and it was the very homeliness of their romance—the domestic busyness cosily mingling with their mutual affection for little 'Fannikins', arguments over literary matters, shared friendships with other radical intellectuals, and of course the sexy nights—plenty of sexy nights—which began to give her the security she craved. Crises of confidence still occurred. 'I am not well—I am hurt—But I mean not to hurt you', she wrote after one miserable episode. 'Consider what has passed as a fever of your imagination; one of the slight mortal shakes to which you are liable—and I—will become again a Solitary Walker' (Wollstonecraft to Godwin, 17 Aug 1796; ibid., 337). But Godwin knew how to reassure her. 'Well! well—it is almost gone—I mean all my unreasonable fears … which you have routed', she wrote cheerily later the same day. 'Now will you not be a good boy, and smile upon me'.


Wollstonecraft and Godwin had no intention of marrying. Wollstonecraft, who still went by the name of Imlay, was widely assumed to be already wed, while Godwin's principled opposition to marriage (as expounded in Political Justice) was notorious. But in the early months of 1797 Wollstonecraft discovered that she was pregnant, and in March they married. Close friends were surprised and delighted—'I think you the most extraordinary married pair in existence', Thomas Holcroft teased (Tomalin, 266)—but many other acquaintances were hostile, some even dropping Wollstonecraft when they realized she had never been married to Imlay. Husband and wife, however, 'disdained to sink under the injustice … of the supercilious and the foolish' (Godwin, 262), turning instead with their usual optimistic energy towards their new life together. Wollstonecraft moved into Godwin's house in the Polygon in Somers Town, London, while he—respecting their mutual desire to combine conjugal intimacy with continued independence—rented a study nearby for use during the day. They wrote and visited friends (usually separately), and cheerfully awaited the arrival of 'little William', which Wollstonecraft was sure would give her little trouble. A midwife, Mrs Blekensop, was engaged to assist at the birth.

Wollstonecraft went into labour in the early hours of 30 August, and gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) about eighteen hours later. The birth itself was straightforward, but the placenta failed to deliver spontaneously and was then extracted manually, which led to haemorrhaging and infection. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever eleven days later at the Polygon. 'I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again', Godwin wrote to a friend (Wardle, 307). Out of respect for her piety, and despite his own aversion to religious ceremonies, he gave her a Christian funeral. She was buried in St Pancras churchyard on 15 September; in 1851 her remains, along with Godwin's, were moved to St Peter's churchyard in Bournemouth.


At the time of Wollstonecraft's death, anti-reform sentiment was running high in England, fuelled by fear of French Jacobinism and by wartime jingoism. The publication of Godwin's Memoirs of his wife in 1798, with its startlingly candid account of her sexual history, thrust Wollstonecraft's unconventionalism under the nose of conservative propagandists, who immediately launched a barrage of scurrilous insults against her memory. The image that emerged—of Wollstonecraft as an irreligious, immoral fanatic—dominated public perceptions of her for many decades. In the 1890s her reputation was still being used as a stick with which to beat women's suffragists, and defamatory accounts of her life and character continued to appear well into the twentieth century.

Feminist successors were divided in their attitudes, with the most radical continuing to applaud Wollstonecraft's ideas while many others turned away in fear or disgust. Socialist and Chartist feminists hailed her as a courageous pioneer, but the majority of Victorian women's rights activists were nervously repelled by what the English Woman's Journal described as her 'wildness'. Some women, like the formidable Harriet Martineau, were bluntly hostile. 'Women who would improve the condition … of the sex must, I am certain, be not only affectionate and devoted, but rational and dispassionate', Martineau wrote in 1855. 'But Mary Wollstonecraft was, with all her powers, a poor victim of passion, with no control over her own peace, and no calmness or content except when the needs of her individual nature were satisfied' (Martineau, 1.400).

In the same year that Martineau censured her, however, George Eliot offered a much friendlier account of Wollstonecraft, describing her as a woman of 'brave bearing', 'strong and truthful nature', and 'a loving … heart' (the last, however, in the best Victorian fashion, having taught her 'not to undervalue the smallest offices of domestic care'; Eliot, 201). Influential feminists, like the educational campaigner Barbara Bodichon, began openly championing her, and in 1891 she received the imprimatur of the suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who wrote the introduction to the hundredth anniversary edition of the Rights of Woman. Liberalization of sexual attitudes within post-First World War feminism further assisted her rehabilitation, with Virginia Woolf among others lauding her erotic openness and vitality. Thus, from having been an embarrassment to the feminist cause, Wollstonecraft was gradually transformed into one of its leading heroines, celebrated for the very qualities of personal and political audacity for which she had previously been condemned. Late twentieth-century feminism, with its strong scholarly wing, further enhanced her reputation by giving detailed attention to her life and ideas. New editions of her works, some long out of print, began to appear in the 1970s, culminating in the publication of the complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft by Marilyn Butler and Janet Todd in 1989. By the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Rights of Woman—internationally commemorated in public gatherings and in print—Wollstonecraft had arguably become the most discussed, admired, criticized, and mythologized feminist intellectual in history: a position she is likely to retain as long as the cause she held most dear, complete equality between the sexes, continues to inspire active adherence in new political generations.


  • The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. M. Butler and J. Todd, 7 vols. (1989)
  • Collected letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. R. M. Wardle (1979)
  • J. Knowles, Life and writings of Henry Fuseli, 2 vols. (1831)
  • R. Wardle, Mary Wollstonecraft (1951)
  • C. Tomalin, The life and death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)
  • C. Kegan Paul, William Godwin: his friends and contemporaries, 2 vols. (1876)
  • M. Walters, ‘The rights and wrongs of women’, The rights and wrongs of women, ed. J. Mitchell and A. Oakley (1976)
  • J. Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: a revolutionary life (2000)
  • M. Poovey, The proper lady and the woman writer: ideology as style in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (1984)
  • B. Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the feminist imagination (2003)
  • D. M. Stenton, The Englishwoman in history (1957)
  • Letters of Anna Seward: written between the years 1784 and 1807, ed. A. Constable, 3 (1811)
  • The life of Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck (1860)
  • G. Eliot, ‘Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft’, Essays of George Eliot, ed. T. Pinney (1963)
  • D. Johnson, On the trail of the Wollstonecraft family history (2002)
  • private information (2006) [D. Johnson]


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • NRA, corresp.
  • NYPL, Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, corresp.; corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., Abinger collection, corresp.


  • oils, 1791–2, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • J. Opie, oils, 1792, Tate collection
  • J. Opie, oils, 1797, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Chapman, stipple (after unknown portrait), priv. coll.