Hail Mary

Hail Mary

A new biography of one of the Enlightment’s most remarkable thinkers.


Many, if not most, children exhibit an early talent for art or science, even intellection; but we can never accurately predict the one whose youthful giftedness will blossom not into a pastime but into a driving need: the kind of need that determines the course of one’s life. Radicalism, too, is a talent that proves formative rather than casual. In creative work, the driving need occurs when the talent is exercised, the possessor of it finds that she or he is struck to the heart (not a thing that happens simply because one has talent) and a sense of expressive existence flares into bright life. That experience is incomparable: to feel not simply alive, but expressive. It induces a conviction of inner clarity that quickly becomes the very thing one can no longer do without. If it can be done without, it usually is. Those destined for a life of professional radicalism experience themselves in exactly the same way as does the artist or scientist who reaches center through the practice of the gift. No reward of life–neither love nor fame nor wealth–can compete. It is to this clarity of inner being that the radical–like the artist, the scientist, the philosopher–becomes attached, even addicted.

Mary Wollstonecraft, who, as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is known to us as the first modern feminist, is better described as an Enlightenment thinker whose life embodied the spirit of her age, and was exactly the kind of talented radical I’ve been talking about.

She was born in London in 1759, into a large shabby-genteel family that soon began moving from one failed farming venture to another, circling as far out as Yorkshire and Wales, and as close in as the villages that surrounded the city. The father drank, raged and wasted their money; the mother grew cold and remote. Deprived of both stability and affection, Mary was nonetheless left free to roam the open countryside with her brothers, read whatever came her way and discover without interference some of the basic elements of her own personality. At 15, she wrote to a friend who’d disappointed her, “I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none. I own your behavior is more according to the opinion of the world…[but] I have a heart that scorns disguise, and a countenance which will not dissemble.”

It was all in place that early: the impassioned temperament, the remarkable articulateness, the strong intelligence, the defensive hauteur.

She was to pronounce grandly, later in life, that “genius will educate itself” and, indeed, bit by bit, she used whatever came her way to discover that she could think vividly for herself. When at 18–the family was now in desperate straits–she became companion to a rich old woman in upper-register Bath, she wrote home, “In the fine Lady how few traits do we observe of those affections which dignify human nature!” She also wrote, “A young mind looks round for love and friendship, but love and friendship fly from poverty…. The mind must then accommodate itself to its new state, or dare to be unhappy.” Dare to be unhappy. Then, as ever, active unhappiness was preferable to the humiliation of passive accommodation.

At 25–with her mother dead and the family dispersed–Mary founded a school with her two sisters in a village two miles north of London that was home to a community of Dissenters. Here, two important developments occurred. She learned to teach, an experience that would profoundly influence her political philosophy; and she met Richard Price, the Dissenting preacher who clarified in her the passion for equality that came, in time, to dominate the whole of her radical thought. Price was an outspoken champion of the American Revolution, but he criticized the colonists mercilessly for having drawn up a Constitution that condoned slavery and deprived women of suffrage. Out of these ardent objections, there grew in Wollstonecraft a lifelong hatred of ranked power.

When the school fell on hard times, a friend among the Dissenters suggested that she write a book. She came up with a proposal–Thoughts on the Education of Daughters–that was taken to a progressive printer, Joseph Johnson, publisher of Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Johnson accepted Mary’s proposal, and advanced her a munificent ten guineas. She set to work and found herself writing, “Whenever a child asks a question, it should always have a reasonable answer given it.” No sooner had she set pen to paper than she began to think about human beings who happen to be women primarily as creatures who will respond to reason.

Let’s stop here for a moment to appreciate the originality of Wollstonecraft’s approach to education for women. The 1780s–with the American Revolution under way and the French about to break out–was a time of great reform excitement in England. Inevitably, in such an atmosphere the talk of change extended itself to improvement in the lot of women–revision of the property laws, or the grounds for separation or divorce, or more learning in the schools that simply prepared girls for marriage. No one challenged the prevailing notion that separate spheres of life were dictated by nature for women and for men. The typical reformer argued that more education for women would convert into a greater social good because knowledge would make women exert a civilizing influence on the men who were to become the responsible citizens. Wollstonecraft’s writing–from the get-go–urged education for women not for its instrumental value but because it spoke to a basic human need. It was, she argued, in the nature of things that, in order to experience oneself, each and every human being must be taught to think. The development of reason, she would ultimately assert, allows us to control our passions, and it is this control that makes a human being human. For Wollstonecraft, it was not so much a matter of claiming rights for women as of identifying the irreducible characteristics of every creature capable of coming to consciousness.

This argument is the beginning of modern radical feminism. It requires a philosophical view to observe, All that men need in order to feel human women need too. In 1792 the argument set Wollstonecraft apart from all others writing about women; as it did Elizabeth Cady Stanton fifty years later in America; Simone de Beauvoir a hundred years after that in France; and countless, nameless others in the 1970s when, during the second great wave of feminism, conservative feminists said, “Equal pay for equal work” and radical feminists said, “No, it goes deeper than that.”

When the school finally failed, Mary did the other thing that women in her position did: She became a governess. The job took her to an ultra-rich family of the Protestant Ascendancy living in a castle in Ireland. Here, she discovered how far her inner experience had already taken her. Her employer, Lady Kingsborough, amazed by the intellectually minded governess living under her roof, showed her off to guests as an exotic. Mary–lonely, moody, humorless–was mortally offended, and withdrew as far as she dared into proud isolation.

“It’s at this moment,” writes her latest biographer, Lyndall Gordon, in Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, “that we catch [her] in the act of greatness.” Sunk in the misery of demoralizing circumstances, she yet had the character to go on reading Rousseau late at night in her room, taking notes on a multitude of ideas she could not bring under control, making plans for future writing and giving herself the courage of youthful aggrandizement. In her journal she wrote, “To make any great advance in morality genius is necessary…a peculiar kind of genius which is not to be described and cannot be conceived by those who do not possess it.” She was 27 years old.

The Kingsboroughs dismissed her, and instead of returning to her sisters, she now decided that she would try to live by her pen. Straight to London then, to Joseph Johnson, who took her in, found her a place to live, gave her work on his magazine, The Analytical Review, and introduced her to the set of English radical thinkers–among them William Godwin and Tom Paine–who gathered almost nightly at his table to talk politics, literature and philosophy. She was the only woman to join them. If it had been up to the men, she wouldn’t have been there. It is to Johnson and Johnson alone that we owe the worldly advancement of Mary Wollstonecraft. Quite simply: he cherished her.

“What did Wollstonecraft do when dinner was over?” Gordon writes. “Johnson’s dinners were at five in the afternoon. Did she linger after dark? Did any of the company see her home in a coach? It’s unlikely: Mary did not invite gallantry…. [She] may best be seen as she saw herself, a ‘solitary walker’, unafraid of footpads in the shadows…[an] independent young woman wrapped in her cloak slips into the darkness, taking her way” across Blackfriars Bridge back to the street where she roomed. This was, in fact, the very best time of her life: orderly years of good hard work, with time enough, money enough, friendship enough–enough!–to begin to occupy her own mind fully.

When the French Revolution erupted in July 1789, English radicals were beside themselves with joy and hope, and all wrote openly in support of the rebellion. Then, in 1790, came Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, deploring the chaos into which the revolution had plunged the civilized world. Wollstonecraft responded instantly with an impassioned rebuttal she called A Vindication of the Rights of Man. The book would quickly be eclipsed by Tom Paine’s more famous reply, but for Wollstonecraft it proved a catalytic exercise. Within the year, it had occurred to her to make a separate case for the inclusion of her own sex in the universal egalitarianism now being sought by so many on both sides of the English Channel.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written at white heat in six weeks. The book did not sell more than 3,000 copies (as opposed to Paine’s Rights of Man, which by 1793 had sold 200,000), but overnight it made Wollstonecraft famous, and infamous, throughout Europe and America. Radical to the core, it is one long, uninterrupted argument that the inequality of women, at every level of moral and spiritual life, is attributable to the meanness and stupidity of encouraging passion instead of reason in young girls, as an identity and a way of life.

“The first object of laudable ambition,” Wollstonecraft insists, “is to obtain a character as a human being”–a thing made possible only by the independence that comes with thinking for oneself. Raising women to inspire love rather than cultivate intelligence is, in fact, a losing game for all concerned because “when the freshness of youth is worn off, [their] artless graces become studied airs, and disgust every person of taste…. We then wish to converse not to fondle.” In the book’s most exciting chapter, she writes of the influence on reasoning power exerted by an early exposure to ideas. Here we have Mary herself reasoning, and it is a pleasure to feel her great love of the very thing she preaches, and to see how fine an example she herself sets of the very skill she wants to see every woman possess. As it is angry, repetitious and immoderate, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a magnificent obsession; but as it is a work of large and compelling intelligence, it is moving and masterful.

High on her own celebrity, and at the same time feeling mentally and physically depleted, Wollstonecraft now decided to go to France to form, as she said, “a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded”–and walked straight into the beginning of the Terror. She arrived in Paris in December 1792. On January 21 of the new year the king was guillotined before a crowd of 80,000. In no time at all thirty people a day were being guillotined; as Wordsworth put it, there were “never heads enough for those that bade them fall.”

Terrified, heartsick, disoriented, she huddled with other expat English radicals who, each day anew, asked themselves, “Should I stay, should I go?” Because she stayed, in the spring of 1793 she met Gilbert Imlay, an opportunist extraordinaire who claimed to have been a captain in the American Revolutionary army. No one will ever know exactly what Imlay was up to in Paris in those years except that he was looking to make his fortune, but it seems to have been a little of everything: hatching lucrative political schemes, running guns or supplies (Austria and Prussia were now at war with France), selling the confiscated goods of those who’d gone to the guillotine.

Imlay was handsome, sexy, amoral; and he talked revolution, equality, free love with as much excitement as did Mary herself. It didn’t take much. She was a 34-year-old idealistic virgin of untapped sensuality and untested principles. Like every other high-minded woman with no real experience, once she had fallen into the first overwhelming attraction of her life she needed to believe not only in her lover’s integrity (in this case nonexistent) but in the lasting purity of their free union. This need–especially after she had borne Imlay a child–undid her. Within months of the baby’s birth (during her pregnancy, by the way, she wrote and sent back to London her Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution), Imlay began to drift, his mind already on the next sexual adventure.

Mary was stunned–she could not believe that he no longer loved her–and, confused and humiliated, hung on like a bulldog. In the end, she stormed, begged, berated and groveled; made scenes in public and tried to kill herself. For these severe breaches of both social propriety and principled consistency–a “creature of reason” indeed–both she and her work were vilified for 200 years to come. Feminists of every generation read her books in secret but, until the twentieth century, could not make open use of her incomparable contribution to their cause.

To some degree the radicalism for which she had so great a talent lay more in what she lived than in what she wrote. She had in all innocence walked into the uncharted territory where ideology encounters experience, and plunged headlong into the valley of discrepancy between theory and practice; but she lived long enough to demonstrate that she had the courage and imagination to take the full measure of her fall, and struggle to gain the high ground once again.

She returned to London a famously failed revolutionary–scorned by many as an abandoned woman with a child–but one faithful old friend thought it a good thing to bring her together with William Godwin, whom she had met years before at Joseph Johnson’s dinners, where neither had shown an interest in the other. Now, an odd sympathy emerged between them, one that blossomed quickly into wary attraction and soon gave way to sexual romance. It is here that the true radicalism of Wollstonecraft’s life–and Godwin’s too, for that matter–begins to play itself out.

William Godwin was a 40-year-old bachelor when he and Mary crossed paths again, cautious and thin-skinned, but genuinely high-minded; and, apparently, a man “with a reserve of feeling that women sensed and were drawn to.” A lifelong republican, appalled by the outbreak of violence in France, he was still devoted to the romance of Enlightenment values. Now, in 1796, he was even more famous than Mary, his influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice having been published three years earlier. Known as the founder of philosophical anarchism, Godwin had a theory of moral behavior often described as utilitarian. He is best known for the notorious “fire cause,” in which he posits that if a fire breaks out and you can save either an important thinker or a chambermaid who happens to be your mother, you must save the thinker, as his survival will do the most good for the most people. In short, Godwin was as innocent of the complications of emotional attachments as was Mary when she knew Gilbert Imlay.

They met in April and by July they were slipping notes under each other’s doors (they lived around the corner from each other) three times a day. It is to this unusual correspondence that we owe the detailed account of how one man and one woman at the end of the eighteenth century set out to engage seriously with each other for the sake of self-understanding.

She makes the first move: comes to his house, and offers to spend the night. He panics, and sends her away. She sends a note, apologizing. He replies that he is “mortified.” Why? she asks. Because when fantasy became reality, he froze. They try again, and this time it really goes badly. She sends a note referring to herself as a tree that had thought it was spring, only to have an unexpected “hoar frost” shrivel its efforts to bud. He answers stiffly that her note has put an end to all his hopes: “I needed soothing, & you threaten me. Oppressed with a diffidence & uncertainty which I hate, you…annihilate me.” OK, OK, she says, let’s try again. Success! “I am never so well pleased with myself,” she writes, “as when I please you–I am not sure please is the exact word to explain my sentiments–May I trust you to search in your own heart for the proper one?” Yes, he replies, she can trust him to search for the proper word. Which they both go on doing for the next six months.

Remarkable as they are for the fullness with which they reveal an almost hourly change in the emotional barometer, what the notes do not record is that it is for the sake of their intellectual companionateness that they are undergoing this trial by sexual fire, in search of an inner independence that each intends to offer the other in the goodness of time. It was a thrilling project they were embarked on, and they both knew it. After Mary’s death Godwin wrote to a friend, “Mere tenderness would not have been adequate to produce the happiness we experienced.”

Each of them was famously on record against marriage, but she became pregnant, and it embarrassed her to have two illegitimate children. In March 1797 they married at Old St. Pancras Church. Six months later Mary was buried there. After she gave birth, the placenta failed to emerge. The midwife panicked and sent for the doctor, who rolled up his sleeves and reached in with unwashed hands, yanking out pieces of afterbirth and almost certainly infecting Mary with the septicemia of which she died twelve days later. She was 38 years old. The child she died giving birth to became Mary Shelley, wife of the poet and author of Frankenstein.

I wish I could say that this newest biography of Mary Wollstonecraft is the best, but I can’t. Lyndall Gordon has produced a sprawling work that treats fully, and for no reason at all, every single person, episode or circumstance that even remotely touched Wollstonecraft’s life. As a result, the drama of Mary herself often gets lost in the tedium of the digressive. For me, Claire Tomalin’s 1978 biography–short, shapely, stirring–is still the best, the one that makes me feel most keenly the haunting suggestiveness of this life of lives.

What hurts most about Wollstonecraft’s untimely end is the death of promise. She was, at the end, really just at the beginning. It is painful to contemplate what more she would have made of world-and-self had she lived to grow old. She had come to see that her own experience, properly understood and considered, could reveal a level of human need that might become the basis of a politics that would reflect the reality of that need rather than seek to suppress it. Two hundred years later, we are still struggling to bring to fruition the kind of insight that infused the spirit of this most remarkable of Enlightenment radicals.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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