April 27

1759



The birthdate of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin...

and what a shame that it wasn't four days earlier, or the event that I would like it to synchronise with four days later - on April 23rd 2018 I happened to be walking from Westminster Undergound towards the Tate, and wondering what major political event it must have been, because Parliament Square was cordoned off in its entirety, no entry, police everywhere - it turned out they were unveiling a statue to Millicent Fawcett (that's her on the left), pioneering feminist even before Emily Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, and this the first statue of a woman in the locality of Parliament (though I can't help pointing out how much smaller it is, how much closer to the ground it is, than any of the great men)...

But that was on the 23rd, and the birthdate of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the 27th... and when you see that name, do you think: Godwin? Shouldn't that be Shelley? Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - wife of Percy Bysshe, authoress of "Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus" - why would you use her maiden name? 

And then you look at the date - 1759 - way too early for Mary Shelley. Her mother, perhaps... and yes, one more, and always yet one more, of the anonymities of great, and glorious, and brilliant women, whose names would be household if they had been men, but, as Voltaire once said sarcastically of his beloved Gabrielle (Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil, the Marquise du Ch√Ętelet), she was "a great man whose only fault lay in being a woman".

Her father was a farmer with aspirations, who made sure his daughter got enough education to teach school; but she wanted more than that, intellectually as well as socially. She became a governess, and used the spare time to write her first novel, detailing that experience: "Mary: A Fiction", published just before her 30th birthday by James Johnson, who was also paying for her services as a translator. The following year she went to Paris to see what interesting events might be taking place there, what enlightened politics might be observable, and did what social convention would have prohibited back home, which was to "live in sin" with an American captain, Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had her first child, Fanny, five years and a great deal of Terror later. When her relationship with Imlay went the same way as hopes for a better life for all in France, Mary attempted suicide, then went back to London to recuperate.

If French Enlightenment had turned out to be Napoleon, and Imlay a disappointment, there was still James Johnson's circle of radical thinkers, which included Thomas Paine, later one of the key thinkers behind America's attempt at Enlightenment Politics, the two great William-poets, Blake and Wordsworth, and many a literary and intellectual passer-through as well, William Hazlitt, Thomas Holcroft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles and Mary Lamb, William Godwin. The latter was the brain behind English Romanticism, an advocate for social reform, an atheist or at the very least a religious dissenter, an anarchist, but in the strict sense of that word, the apotheosis of human individuality, personal freedom, rather than the "state of chaos" by which we tend to misunderstand the term today.

Much as Gabrielle Emilie had done with Voltaire, Mary had one intimate encounter with Godwin's mind, and that was it, love at first listen. He responded much the same to her. There was physical attraction too, of course. They began a liaison almost immediately, and married, because Mary was six months pregnant and it was showing, and the alternative in those days was to go abroad, and stay abroad, until the social world had forgotten about you. Marriage was on March 29th 1797. Mary junior was born on August 30th, but labour was difficult, and mother was not naturally strong. She died eleven days later, leaving behind the founding work of modern feminism, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman", published in 1792, and a daughter who would carry her mother's name forward with her own into immortality.


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