This long pursuit, p.16
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       This Long Pursuit, p.16

           Richard Holmes

  Other sources proved equally recalcitrant. Gilbert Imlay had disappeared with an actress to Paris, and could not be consulted. He had not seen Mary for over a year, though he had agreed to set up a trust in favour of his little daughter Fanny. When this was not forthcoming, Godwin officially adopted her. Godwin felt that it was impossible to understand Mary’s situation without telling the whole story, and now took the radical decision to publish all her correspondence with Imlay, consisting of seventy-seven love letters written between spring 1793 and winter 1795. He convinced Johnson that these Letters to Imlay should occupy an additional two volumes of the Posthumous Works, bringing them to four in total. His Memoirs would now be published separately, but would also quote from this correspondence, openly naming Imlay.

  The Letters gave only Mary’s side of the correspondence, which Imlay had returned at her request. They thus left his own attitude and behaviour to be inferred. But they dramatically revealed the whole painful sequence of the affair from Mary’s point of view, from her initial infatuation with Imlay in Paris to her suicidal attempts when he abandoned her in London. This was another daring, not to say reckless, publishing decision which sacrificed traditional areas of privacy to biographical truth. Godwin’s own feelings as a husband were also being coolly set aside. In his Preface he described the Letters as ‘the finest examples of the language of sentiment and passion ever presented to the world’, comparable to Goethe’s epistolary novel of Romantic love and suicide The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). They were produced by ‘a glowing imagination and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe’.

  Henry Fuseli briefly and non-committally discussed Mary with Godwin, but having given him a tantalising glimpse of a whole drawer full of her letters, refused to let him see a single one. If he knew of Godwin’s intentions with regard to Mary’s letters to Imlay, this is hardly surprising. But it left the exact nature of their relationship still enigmatic. Years later the Fuseli letters were seen by Godwin’s own biographer, Kegan Paul, who claimed that they showed intellectual admiration, but not sexual passion. Yet when these letters were eventually sold to the Shelley family (for £50), Sir Percy Shelley carefully destroyed them, unpublished, towards the end of the nineteenth century.

  Joseph Johnson was torn between a natural desire to accede to Godwin’s wishes as the grieving widower, and his own long-standing professional role of defending Mary’s literary reputation. He may also have entertained the very understandable hope of achieving a publishing coup. He at least warned Godwin of several undiplomatic references to living persons in the biography, especially the aristocratic Kingsborough children to whom Mary had been a governess in Ireland, and the powerful and well-disposed Wedgwood family. He also questioned the wisdom of describing Mary’s many male friendships in London, Dublin and Paris so unguardedly. He felt the ambiguous account of Fuseli was particularly ill-judged, and challenged Godwin’s characterisation of the painter’s ‘cynical’ attitude towards Mary.

  But Godwin would not give way on any of these issues. On 11 January 1798, shortly before publication, he wrote unrepentantly to Johnson, refusing to make any last-minute changes: ‘With respect to Mr Fuseli, I am sincerely sorry not to have pleased you … As to his cynical cast, his impatience of contradiction, and his propensity to satire, I have carefully observed them …’ He added that, in his view, Mary had actually ‘copied’ these traits while under Fuseli’s influence in 1792, and this was a significant part of her emotional development. He was committed to describing this ‘in the sincerity of my judgement’, even though it might sometimes be unfavourable to her.

  This idea that Mary Wollstonecraft’s intellectual power grew out of a combination of emotional strengths and weaknesses was central to Godwin’s notion of modern biography: ‘Her errors were connected and interwoven with the qualities most characteristic of her genius.’ He was not writing a pious family memorial, or a work of feminist hagiography, or a disembodied ideological tract. He felt he could sometimes be critical of Mary’s behaviour, while always remaining passionately committed to her genius. Godwin stuck unswervingly to his belief in the exemplary value of full exposure. The truth about a human being would bring understanding, and then sympathy: ‘I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’


  Godwin could not have been more mistaken. Most readers were appalled by the Memoirs when they were first published at the end of January 1798. There was no precedent for a biography of this kind, and Godwin’s ‘naïve’ candour and plain speaking about his own wife filled them with horrid fascination.

  Mary’s old friend, the radical lawyer and publisher from Liverpool William Roscoe, privately jotted these sad verses in the margin of his copy:

  Hard was thy fate in all the scenes of life

  As daughter, sister, mother, friend and wife;

  But harder still, thy fate in death we own

  Thus mourn’d by Godwin with a heart of stone.

  The Historical Magazine called the Memoirs ‘the most hurtful book’ of 1798. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked’. The European Magazine described the work as ‘the history of a philosophical wanton’, and was sure it would be read ‘with detestation by everyone attached to the interests of religion and morality; and with indignation by any one who might feel any regard for the unhappy woman, whose frailties should have been buried in oblivion’.

  The Monthly Magazine, a largely conservative journal, saw Mary as a female Icarus figure, who had burnt out her talents with pride and ambition: ‘She was a woman of high genius; and, as she felt the whole strength of her powers, she thought herself lifted, in a degree, above the ordinary travels of civil communities …’

  The most even-handed verdict was that of Johnson’s own Analytical Review, which observed that the biography, though remarkable, lacked intellectual depth. It contained ‘no correct history of the formation of Mrs. G’s mind. We are neither informed of her favourite books, her hours of study, nor her attainments in languages and philosophy.’ Even more pointedly, it noted that anyone who also read the Letters would ‘stand astonished at the fervour, strength and duration of her affection for Imlay’.

  These initial criticisms, some written more in sorrow than in anger, and not necessarily bad publicity (at least for Johnson), were soon followed by more formidable attacks. The Monthly Review, previously a supporter of Wollstonecraft’s work, wrote in May 1798 with extreme disapproval of Godwin’s revelations: ‘blushes would suffuse the cheeks of most husbands if they were forced to relate those anecdotes of their wives which Mr Godwin voluntarily proclaims to the world. The extreme eccentricity of Mr Godwin’s sentiments will account for this conduct. Virtue and vice are weighed by him in a balance of his own. He neither looks to marriage with respect, nor to suicide with horror.’

  The Anti-Jacobin Review delivered a general onslaught on the immorality of everything that Wollstonecraft was supposed to stand for: outrageous sexual behaviour, inappropriate education for young women, disrespect for parental authority, non-payment of creditors, suicidal emotionalism, repulsive rationalism, consorting with the enemy in time of war, and disbelief in God. It implied that the case was even worse than Godwin made out, and that Mary was generally promiscuous – ‘the biographer does not mention her many amours’. Finally it provided a helpful index entry to the more offensive subject-matter of the Memoirs:

  Godwin edits the Posthumous Works of his wife – inculcates the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes – reprobates marriage – considers Mary Godwin a model for female imitation – certifies his wife’s constitution to have been amorous – Memoirs of her – account of his wife’s adventures as a kept mistress – celebrates her happiness while the concubine of Imlay – informs the pu
blic that she was concubine to himself before she was his wife – her passions inflamed by celibacy – falls in love with a married man [Fuseli] – on the breaking out of the war betakes herself to our enemies – intimate with the French leaders under Robespierre – with Thomas Paine …

  James Gillray, quick to sense a public mood, produced one of his most savage cartoons in the Anti-Jacobin for August 1798. Mockingly entitled ‘The New Morality’, it showed a giant Cornucopia of Ignorance vomiting a stream of books into the gutter: they include Paine’s Rights of Man, Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Women, and Godwin’s Memoirs. Godwin looks on in the guise of a jackass, standing on his hind legs and braying from a copy of Political justice.

  The Gothic novelist Horace Walpole described Wollstonecraft as ‘a Hyena in petticoats’. The polemicist and antiquarian Richard Polwhele leapt into print with a lengthy poem against her, entitled ‘The Unsexed Females’ (1798):

  See Wollstonecraft, whom no decorum checks,

  Arise, the intrepid champion of her sex;

  O’er humbled man assert the sovereign claim,

  And slight the timid blush of virgin fame …

  The Reverend Polwhele goes on piously to enumerate her love affairs, her illegitimate child, her suicide attempts, and her lack of religion. Furthermore, he accuses Wollstonecraft of leading astray a whole generation of ‘bluestockings’ and female intellectuals. They are ‘unsex’d’ (presumably like Lady Macbeth), in the sense of having abandoned their traditional role as wives and mothers. They are a ‘melting tribe’ of vengeful, voracious and intellectually perverted women authors who have been seduced by Wollstonecraft’s principles.

  Polwhele cites them by name, in what is intended as a litany of shame and subversion: among them Mary Hays, Mrs Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams. This was also, perhaps more sinisterly, intended as a kind of blacklist of politically suspect authors, whose books no respectable woman should purchase. Many of these were of course friends of Godwin’s, and they do indeed represent an entire generation of ‘English Jacobin’ writers, for whom the American and French Revolutions had been an inspiration, and against whom the tide of history was now ineluctably turning. For many of them the paths of their professional careers would henceforth curve downwards towards poverty, exile, obscurity and premature death.

  It was now open season on Godwin. Yet paradoxically the Memoirs were selling briskly, for a second edition was called for by the summer of 1798. There were also printings in France and America. After anxious discussion with Joseph Johnson, Godwin made a series of alterations in the text, most notably rewriting (or rather, expanding) passages connected with Henry Fuseli, Mary’s suicide attempt in the Thames, and the summary of her character with which the biography concludes.

  He also suppressed the references to the Wedgwood family, and rephrased sentences that had been gleefully taken by reviewers as sexually ambiguous. But the overall character of the Memoirs was unchanged, and it remained an intense provocation. Other events also served fortuitously to keep up the sense of a continuing outrage against public morals. One of Mary’s ex-pupils from the Kingsborough family was involved in an elopement (and murder) scandal, while Johnson himself was imprisoned for six months for publishing a seditious libel, though one quite unconnected with the Memoirs. The sentence broke the elderly Johnson’s health, and effectively ended his career as the greatest radical publisher of the day.

  The Anti-Jacobin and other conservative magazines felt free to keep up their attacks for months, and indeed years, descending to increasing scurrility and causing Godwin endless private anguish. Three years later, in August 1801, the subject was still topical enough for the young Tory George Canning to publish a long set of jeering satirical verses, entitled ‘The Vision of Liberty’. It was not even necessary for Canning to give Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s surnames. One stanza will suffice:

  William hath penn’d a wagon-load of stuff

  And Mary’s Life at last he needs must write,

  Thinking her whoredoms were not known enough

  Till fairly printed off in black and white.

  With wond’rous glee and pride, this simple wight

  Her brothel feats of wantonness sets down;

  Being her spouse, he tells, with huge delight

  How oft she cuckolded the silly clown,

  And lent, o lovely piece! herself to half the town.

  Wollstonecraft’s name was now too controversial, or even ridiculous, to mention in serious publications. Her erstwhile supporter Mary Hays omitted her from the five-volume Dictionary of Female Biography that she compiled in 1803. The same astonishing omission occurs in Mathilda Bentham’s Dictionary of Celebrated Women of 1804. Satirical attacks on Godwin and Wollstonecraft continued throughout the next decade, though many were now in the form of fiction.

  Maria Edgeworth wrote a satirical version of the Wollstonecraft type in the person of the headstrong Harriet Freke, who appears in her novel Belinda (1801): she promulgates casual adultery, smart intellectual repartee and female duelling. The beautiful and once-flirtatious Amelia Alderson, now safely married to the painter John Opie (who had executed the tender portrait of Wollstonecraft that hung in Godwin’s study), reverted to the most traditional values of secure and happy domesticity. Using Wollstonecraft’s story, she produced a fictional account of a disastrous saga of infidelity and unmarried love in Adeline Mowbray (1804). Much later Fanny Burney explored the emotional contradictions of Wollstonecraft’s life in the long debates on matrimony and love which are played out like elegant tennis rallies (more raquette) between the sensible Juliet and the passionate Elinor in The Wanderer; or Female Difficulties (1814).

  Alexander Chalmers summed up the case against Wollstonecraft in his entry for The General Biographical Dictionary, which appeared in 1814, at the very end of the Napoleonic Wars. This was a time when patriotic feeling was at its height, and distrust of subversive or vaguely French ideologies at its most extreme. Mary Wollstonecraft was accordingly dismissed as ‘a voluptuary and a sensualist’. Her views on women’s rights and education were stigmatised as irrelevant fantasies: ‘she unfolded many a wild theory on the duties and character of her sex’. Her whole life, as described by Godwin, was a disgusting tale, and best forgotten: ‘She rioted in sentiments alike repugnant to religion, sense and decency.’ It is perhaps no coincidence that less than two years later Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) was published to great acclaim. A new kind of heroine was being prepared for the Victorian age.


  From this time on Mary Wollstonecraft’s name remained eclipsed in Great Britain for the rest of the nineteenth century. There was only one further Victorian reprinting of The Rights of Woman until its centenary in 1892; and no further editions of the Memoirs until 1927. Respectable opinion was summed up by the formidable Harriet Martineau in her Autobiography, written in 1855 and published in 1870: ‘Women of the Wollstonecraft order … do infinite mischief, and for my part, I do not wish to have anything to do with them.’ She concluded that the story of Mary’s life proved that Wollstonecraft was neither ‘a safe example, nor a successful champion of Woman and her Rights’.

  The force and endurance of these attacks, and the sense of shock and outrage that they express, suggest that the Memoirs had touched a deep nerve in British society. The book had arrived at a critical moment at the end of the 1790s, when both political ideology and social fashion had turned decisively against the revolutionary hopes and freedoms that Wollstonecraft’s life represented. It was a time of political reaction and social retrenchment. It was also wartime.

  As William Hazlitt later wrote of Godwin: ‘The Spirit of the Age was never more fully shown than in the treatment of this writer – its love of paradox and change, its dastard submission to prejudice and the fashion of the day … Fatal reverse! Is truth then so variable? Is it one thing at twenty and another at forty? Is it at a burning heat in 1793, and below zero in 1814?’

  It is now possibl
e to see a little more clearly what made the Memoirs so provocative and so remarkable. No one had written about a woman like this before, except perhaps Daniel Defoe in the fictional Lives of his incorrigible eighteenth-century heroines, like Moll Flanders or Roxana. But Godwin was writing strict and indeed meticulous non-fiction, using a plain narrative style and a fearless psychological acuity. He signally ignored, or even deliberately aimed to provoke, proprieties of every kind, especially political and sexual ones.

  Beginning with her uncertain birth in 1759 (Mary was unsure whether she was born in Spitalfields or Epping Forest), Godwin unflinchingly describes her restless and unhappy childhood, dominated by a drunken, bullying and abusive father and a spoilt elder brother. His account gives the famous and iconic picture of Mary sleeping all night on the floor outside the parental bedroom, hoping to protect her mother from her father’s assaults. This upbringing left her the victim of lifelong depressive episodes, alternating with periods of reckless energy and anger: ‘Mary was a very good hater.’ But she was determined on a lifelong project of ‘personal independence’, and revealed an instinctive desire to control and manage those around her.

  He next recounts her overwhelming and ‘fervent’ friendship for the beautiful Fanny Blood, ‘which for years constituted the ruling passion of her mind’. Godwin has no reservations in proclaiming how deeply those feelings shaped Mary’s emotional life in her twenties, and it is here that he first makes the notorious comparison between her and Goethe’s lovelorn young Werther. The friendship took Mary on her first remarkable voyage, to Portugal in 1785, where Fanny died in childbirth. This passionate attachment was never subsequently forgotten.

  The atheist Godwin also sympathetically describes and analyses Mary’s religious beliefs. He treats them in a strikingly modern and psychological way, less as the product of Christian dogma or ‘polemical discussion’, and more as an imaginative expression of her temperament and character: ‘She found inexpressible delight in the beauties of nature, and in the splendid reveries of the imagination … When she walked amidst the wonders of nature, she was accustomed to converse with her God.’

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