This week I’m writing about the author Mary Wollstonecraft, born 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, and who died of septicaemia aged only 38 on 10th September 1797, 10 days after giving birth to her second child, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later became famous as the author Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein.
Not only was Mary an author, she was also an advocate of women’s rights, writing ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ and ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’, as well as ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men’, a travel book, a children’s book and a history of the French Revolution and many articles. On her death she left several unfinished manuscripts.
She was born the second of 7 children to John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon. The family had a comfortable income, but John was a speculator and squandered much of the fortune. John eventually forced Mary to turn over income to him that she would have inherited at maturity. John was also a violent man, and Mary often tried to protect her mother against his rages.
She was an unconventional woman for her time. After becoming a lady’s companion and afterwards a governess, she learned French and German and translated texts to support herself. She wrote reviews of novels, primarily for publisher Joseph Johnson’s periodical the ‘Analytical Review’. She attended Johnson’s famous dinners, where she first met author and husband-to-be William Godwin. However, before her marriage she embarked on an affair with the married artist Henry Fuseli, enraptured by his genius and eventually wanting to live with Fuseli and his wife. However, his wife was appalled and the affair came to an end.
Leaving for France in 1792, Mary then fell in love with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, giving birth to his child Fanny on 14th May 1794. Imlay soon tired of Mary, and she returned to London in 1795 to look for him, but was rejected. There then followed two suicide attempts; one with laudanum where Imlay saved her life, and another attempt by trying to drown herself in the river Thames, but was saved by a passer-by.
Gradually Mary returned to her literary life through Joseph Johnson, eventually marrying William Godwin on 29th March 1797. To keep their independence they moved into two adjoining houses known as ‘The Polygon’. She gave birth to her second daughter Mary on 30th August 1797, but died of childbed fever 10 days afterwards. She is buried in Old St. Pancras Churchyard, London. Such a shame that Mary died of something that is very treatable today, but good that the creative gene was passed down to her daughter.