Godwin, Mary

, better known by the name of Woollstonecraft, a lady of very extraordinary genius, but whose history and opinions are unhappily calculated to excite a mixture of admiration, pity, and scorn, was born in or near London, April 27, 1759, of poor parents, who then resided at Epping, but afterwards removed to a farm near Beverley in Yorkshire, where this daughter frequented a day-school in the neighbourhood. From this place her father again removed to Hoxton near London, and afterwards to Walworth. During all this time, and until Miss Woollstonecraft arrived at her twenty-fourth year, there appears little that is interesting, or extraordinary in her history, unless it may be considered as such that she early affected an original way of thinking, accompanied with correspondent actions, and entertained a high and romantic sense of friendship, which seems greatly to have prevailed over filial affection. In her twenty-fourth year, she formed the plan of conducting a school at Islington, in | conjunction with her sisters, which in the course of a few months she removed to Newington-green, where she was honoured by the friendship of Dr. Price. Of her opinions on religious subjects at this time, we have the following singular account from her biographer: “Her religion was, in reality, little allied to any system of forms, and was rather founded in taste, than in the niceties of polemical discussion. Her mind constitutionally attached itself to the sublime and amiable. She found an inexpressible delight in the beauties of nature, and in the splendid reveries of the imagination. But nature itself, she thought, would be no better than a vast blank, if the mind of the observer did not supply it with an animating soul. When she walked amidst the wonders of nature, she was accustomed to converse with her God. To her mind he was pictured as not less amiable, generous, and kind, than great, wise, and exalted. In fact she had received few lessons of religion in her youth, and her religion was almost entirely of her own creation. But she was not on that account the less attached to it, or the less scrupulous in discharging what she considered as its duties. She could not recollect the time when she had believed the doctrine of future punishments,” &c.

In 1785, a Mrs. Skeggs, with whom she had contracted an ardent friendship, and who resided at Lisbon, being pregnant, Miss Woollstonecraft, shocked with the idea hat she might die in childbed at a distance from her fri( ds, passed over to Lisbon to attend her, leaving the school under the management of her sisters; an exertion of friendship the more entitled to praise that it proved hurtful to her school, which oon after her return she was compelled to abandon. Perhaps, however, this was not wholly a matter of compulsion, for we are told that “she had a rooted aversion to that sort of cohabitation with her sisters, which the project of the school imposed.” She now appears to have meditated literary employment as a source of profit, and exhibited a specimen of her talents in a l‘2mo pamphlet, entitled “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,” for the copy-right of which she obtained the sum of ten guineas from the late Mr. Johnson, bookseller, of St. Paul’s church-yard, who afterwards proved one of her most liberal patrons. After this she was employed for some months, as a governess, in the family o an Irish nobleman, at the end of which she returned again to literary | pursuits, and from 1787, when she came to reside in London, produced “Mary, a Fiction,” “Original Stories from real life,” made some translations from the French, and compiled “The Female Reader,” on the model of Dr. Enfield’s “Speaker.” She wrote also some articles in the “Analytical Review,” which was established by her publisher, in 1788.

In the French revolution which took place in the following year, and which let loose all kinds of principles and opinions except what had stood the test of experience, Miss Woollstonecraft found much that was congenial with her own ways of thinking, and much which it will appear soon she determined to introduce in her conduct. She was therefore among the first who attempted to answer Mr. Burke’s celebrated “Reflections on the French Revolution,” and displayed a share of ability which made her reputation more general than it had yet been. This was followed by her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in which she unfolded many a wild theory on the duties and character of her sex. How well she was qualified to guide them appeared now in the practical use of her own precepts, of which the first specimen was the formation of a violent attachment for a very eminent artist, which is thus embellished by her biographer “She saw Mr. Fuseli frequently; he amused, delighted, and instructed her. As a painter, it was impossible she should not wish to see his works, and consequently to frequent his house. She visited him; her visits were returned. Notwithstanding the inequality of their years, Mary was not of a temper to live upon terms of so much intimacy with a man of merit and genius, without loving him. The delight she enjoyed in his society, she transferred by association to his person. What she experienced in this respect, was no doubt heightened, by the state of celibacy and restraint in which she had hitherto lived, and to which the rules of polished society condemn an unmarried woman. She conceived a personal and ardent affection for him. Mr. Fuseli was a married man, and his wife the acquaintance of Mary. She readily perceived the restrictions which this circumstance seemed to impose upon her, but she made light of any difficulty that might arise out of them.” Notwithstanding this contempt for difficulties, Mr. Fuseli was not to be won, and in order to get rid of a passion which he would not indulge, she went ever to France in 1792. Here within a few months she | found a cure in that “species of connection,” says her biographer, “for which her heart secretly panted, and which had the effect of diffusing an immediate tranquillity and cheerfulness over her manners.” This was an illicit connection with a Mr. Imlay, an American, and we are gravely told, that “she was now arrived at the situation, which, for two or three preceding years, her reason had pointed out to her as affording the most substantial prospect of happiness.” Her reason, however, unfortunately pointed wrong in this instance, as she was afterwards most basely and cruelly abandoned by the object of her affections, whose conduct cannot be mentioned in terms of indignation too strong. She now made two attempts at suicide, on which we shall only remark that they were totally inconsistent with the character given of her by her biographer, as possessing “a firmness of mind, an unconquerable greatness of soul, by which, after a short internal struggle-, she was accustomed to rise above difficulties and suffering.” Having overcome two ardent passions, she formed a third, of which her biographer, Mr. William Godwin, was the object. A period only of six months intervened in this case; but, says Mr. Godwin, with a curious felicity of calculation, although “it was only six months since she had resolutely banished every thought of Mr. Imlay (the former lover), it was at least eighteen that he ought to have been banished, and would have been banished, had it not been for her scrupulous pertinacity in determining to leave no measure untried to regain him.” This connection, likewise, was begun without the nuptial ceremonies; but, after some months, the marriage took place; the principal reason was that she was pregnant, and “unwilling to incur that seclusion from the society of many valuable and excellent individuals, which custom awards in cases of this sort.” But it did not produce the desired effect. Some who visited her, or were visited by her, and who regarded her as the injured object of Mr. Imlay’ s indifference, were not pleased to bestow their countenance on one who was so eager to run into the arms of another man, and alike informally. Mr. Godwin takes this opportunity of censuring the prudery of these nice people in terms of severity with what justice our readers may determine. The happiness of this connection, however, was transient. In August 1797, she was delivered of a daughter, and died Sept. 10, of the same year. From the account given of her, by | her biographer, in which we must condemn the laboured vindication of principles inconsistent with the delicacy of the female sex, and the welfare of society, Mrs. Godwin appears to have been a woman of strong intellect, which might have elevated her to the highest rank of English female writers, had not her genius run wild for want of cultivation. Her passions were consequently ungovernable, and she accustomed herself to yield to them without scruple, treating female honour and delicacy as vulgar prejudices. She was therefore a voluptuary and sensualist, without that refinement for which she seemed to contend on other subjects. Her history indeed forms entirely a warning, and in no part an example. Singular she was, it must be allowed, for it is not easily to be conceived that such another heroine will ever appear, unless in a novel, where a latitude is given to that extravagance of character which she attempted to bring into real life.

Besides the works already noticed, she published “A moral and historical view of the French Revolution,” of which one volume only was published, and “Letters from Norway.” The latter contains much elegant description and just remark. The former could be noticed only at the time of its publication. The gay illusions of the French revolution soon disappeared. After her death some miscellanies, letters, and an unfinished novel, were published by her husband, in 4 vols. 12mo, with a Life of the authoress. Much of both had better been suppressed, as ill calculated to excite sympathy for one who seems to have rioted in sentiments alike repugnant to religion, sense, and decency. 1


Life as above. Monthly and Critical Reviews. British Critic for 1798.