This long pursuit, p.17
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       This Long Pursuit, p.17

           Richard Holmes

  Next comes her combative experiences as a governess in Ireland, and the discovery of her charismatic talents as a teacher, and gifts as an educational writer. This is followed from 1788 by the excitement of her early freelance work in London, and her professional friendship with the publisher Joseph Johnson, during which an intense period of self-education takes place. At the same time she takes responsibility for the careers and financing of most of her family, including her sisters and her father.

  Then in 1792, at the age of thirty-three, and at a climactic moment in revolutionary history, she achieves the rapid and triumphant writing of The Rights of Woman, in which she brings both her wide reading and her bitter personal experiences to bear, and makes herself, in Godwin’s words, ‘the effectual champion’ of her sex. Yet in the very midst of this long-dreamt-of literary success, she is frustrated and humiliated by her ill-judged affair with the married (but bi-sexual) painter Henry Fuseli, whose exact nature Godwin leaves for once unexpectedly ambiguous and ill-defined.

  It is exactly at this crucial halfway point in his narrative, and significantly just out of chronological sequence, that Godwin ironically places his own first and deeply unsatisfactory meeting with Mary, at the dinner party with Johnson and Tom Paine in November 1791. Far from being love at first sight, they quarrel so fiercely that Paine hardly gets a word in edgeways. It is typical of Godwin that he does not omit this memorable scene, and it remains an exemplary demonstration of both his honesty and his modesty.

  From now on the biography seems to accelerate and intensify. Mary sets out on her own to observe events in revolutionary Paris, and as the Terror begins, falls in love with the handsome American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Godwin’s description of her sexual awakening by Imlay, using the beautiful pre-Freudian imagery of ‘a serpent on a rock’, is another of his triumphs as a biographer, and one wonders how much it must have cost him. Here the comparison with the suicidal young Werther is also repeated.

  Mary is registered as Imlay’s wife, and in 1794 bears his illegitimate child – named Fanny (after Fanny Blood) – in Le Havre-Marat. She embarks on a desperate journey to Scandinavia, transforming a secret business venture for Imlay into a captivating Romantic travelogue, sharpened with brisk passages of social comment (about contemporary attitudes to women, education and domestic work), contrasted with moments of intense loneliness and deep self-questioning. Godwin’s emotional account of his personal reaction to this work prepares the ground for the unexpected love match that will follow:

  If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands our full attention.

  On Mary’s return to London in 1795 she discovers that she has been abandoned and betrayed by Imlay, and twice tries to commit suicide, first with an overdose of opium, and then by jumping into the Thames. Godwin’s vivid and moving account of this second attempt includes another unforgettable image: that of Mary all alone at night in the pouring rain, pacing back and forth on Putney Bridge, hoping that by soaking her clothes she will drown more quickly when she summons the courage to leap from the parapet. Paradoxically, it opened Godwin to the charge of trying to make a moral defence of suicide.

  The remaining two chapters become increasingly confessional. Yet they are written in the same admirably limpid and economic style, in which tight understatement is deliberately used to contain overwhelming emotion. Godwin describes how they fell in love in the spring of 1796, and began sleeping together in August, long before their mutual decision to marry – which was only taken after Mary became pregnant. Such a candid admission opened Godwin to further mockery and abuse, although he refused to alter it in the second edition.

  Finally, at great length and in almost gynaecological detail, without the least reference to the traditional comforts of religion, Godwin painfully and minutely describes Mary’s death, eleven days after bearing her second child. It was the first time a deathbed had been described in this intimate way, including such unsettling details as Mary being given puppies to draw off her breast-milk, and being dosed with too much wine in a vain attempt to dull her pain.


  Some two centuries later it is still possible to find the Memoirs shocking, and to question the picture it draws of Wollstonecraft. Many feminist critics believe that it miscasts her as a Romantic heroine, and fatally undervalues her intellectual powers. Most of her modern biographers freely use Godwin as wonderful source material, but condemn him as a hopelessly biased witness.

  Even an outstandingly perceptive and measured writer like Claire Tomalin is uneasy about the effect of his work. She writes in her early, groundbreaking biography of 1974, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘In their own way, even the Memoirs had diminished and distorted Mary’s real importance: by minimising her claim to be taken seriously for her ideas, and presenting her instead as a female Werther, a romantic and tragic heroine, he may have been giving the truth as he wanted to see it, but was very far from serving the cause she had believed in. He made no attempt to discuss her intellectual development, and he was unwilling to consider the validity of her feminist ideas in any detail.’

  This has weight, and is curiously close to the criticism originally made by the Analytical Review in 1798. But it has to be set against Godwin’s extended analysis and celebration of the significance of The Rights of Woman in his Chapter 6: ‘Never did any author enter into a cause, with more ardent desire to be found, not a flourishing and empty declaimer, but an effectual champion … When we consider the importance of its doctrines, and the eminence of genius it displays, it seems not very improbable that [her book] will be read as long as the English language endures …’

  Much criticism has also been directed against Godwin’s attempt, at the very end of his biography, to summarise Mary’s ‘intellectual character’, and apparently to draw a ‘gendered’ distinction between masculine and feminine intelligence. He contrasts his own cool, rational delight in ‘logic and metaphysical distinction’ with her strong, warm emotional instincts and ‘taste for the picturesque’. This is easily ridiculed. But it is overlooked that Godwin, the faithful biographer, was actually paraphrasing one of Wollstonecraft’s own letters to him of August 1796. This is what Mary herself wrote on the subject:

  Our imaginations have been rather differently employed – I am more a painter than you – I like to tell the truth, my taste for the picturesque has been more cultivated … My affections have been more exercised than yours, I believe, and my senses are quick, without the aid of fancy – yet tenderness always prevails, which inclines me to be angry with myself when I do not animate and please those I love.

  The problem of the intimate biography which seems to violate certain codes of family loyalty and trust is still with us, though the boundaries shift continually. Over forty years ago, it was Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage (1973), revealing his mother Vita Sackville-West’s lesbian relationships, and his father’s homosexual ones, which raised such questions, though it might not do so now. Some twenty-five years later, John Bayley’s account of his wife Iris Murdoch’s relentless destruction by Alzheimer’s disease, in Iris (1998), left many readers and reviewers deeply troubled. Yet both of these are fine books, and it seems likely that biography as a form is destined continually to challenge conventions of silence and ignorance. Moreover, recent developments in the intimate family memoir, such as Rachel’s Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), or the growing number of confessional blogs on the internet (including the experience of terminal illness or gender transfer), suggest that the very notion of what is biographically private, or ultimately confidential, has profoundly altered, and will continue to do so.

  One also has to consider the historical effect of such a powerful biography in a more oblique way. The fact, for example, that Mary Wollstonecraft’s li
fe inspired so many Romantic novels suggests Godwin had also made her something of a legendary figure. The emotional intensity of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, the novel which Jane Austen originally drafted at just this time (1797–98), might owe more than has been suspected to Mary’s flamboyant example.

  The outrageous or confrontational element implicit in her personality still contained heroic or exemplary possibilities. Harriet Freke might yet be reincarnated as J.S. Mill’s feminist companion Harriet Taylor, who was largely responsible for Mill’s great work The Subjection of Women (1869). Wollstonecraft was championed by the reformer Robert Owen, and written about admiringly in a little-known essay by George Eliot, comparing her with the American Margaret Fuller, published in 1855 in the pages of the Leader magazine. In 1885 Wollstonecraft was one of the first figures to be included in the ‘Famous Women’ series, published in London and Boston by the Walter Scott Publishing Company, alongside lives of Elizabeth Fry and Mary Lamb. So there is an alternative tradition in which Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation runs underground through the nineteenth century. It has been traced in a classic of feminist scholarship by Clarissa Campbell, Wollstonecraft’s Daughters (1996).

  The underground tradition eventually resurfaces in the superb essay on Wollstonecraft by Virginia Woolf of 1932. Inspired by the tone of the Memoirs, she describes Gilbert Imlay not as a villain but as a callous fool: ‘tickling for minnows he hooked a dolphin’. She celebrates Mary’s relationship with Godwin as the ‘most fruitful experiment’ of her life. Their marriage was ‘an experiment, as Mary’s life had been an experiment from the start, an attempt to make human conventions conform more closely to human needs’. In a striking and prophetic conclusion, Woolf sees the story and example of Mary’s tempestuous life blossoming again among her own contemporaries: ‘She is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.’


  Perhaps it was there from the beginning. A year after the publication of the Memoirs, the poet and novelist Mary Robinson released her Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799). Originally a Shakespearean actress (known as ‘Perdita’ Robinson for her renowned performance in The Winter’s Tale, which famously seduced the teenage Prince of Wales), Robinson later produced literary work in the 1790s that brought her the friendship of both Godwin and Coleridge. Her Letter initially appeared under the pseudonym ‘Anne Randall’, but it was published by Longman, the biggest bookseller in London, and received wide circulation.

  Robinson refers openly and admiringly to The Rights of Woman, and salutes Wollstonecraft as ‘an illustrious British female … to whose genius Posterity will render justice’. In a militant footnote she describes herself proudly as ‘avowedly of the same school’ as Mary Wollstonecraft, and prophetically foresees her embattled life as having initiated a long campaign for women’s rights which would stretch far into the nineteenth century: ‘For it requires a legion of Wollstonecrafts to undermine the poisons of prejudice and malevolence.’

  One of Mary Robinson’s most striking conclusions at the end of her hundred-page Letter is that Wollstonecraft’s commitment to female education (emphasised by Godwin) led logically to the idea of women going to university: ‘Had fortune enabled me, I would build a UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN.’ Only then would women truly be equal.

  In the year after Wollstonecraft’s death, a new biographical series entitled ‘Public Characters’ (dedicated to the King) was launched, and would continue for the next decade. It carried some thirty ‘living biographies’ per annual issue, and featured such figures as Nelson, Wilberforce, Humphry Davy, Sheridan and Castlereagh. Its second volume (1799) included a twenty-page contemporary biography of William Godwin. It was warmly favourable, and gave a sympathetic four-page account of his marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft (‘that most celebrated and most injured woman’), and unstinting praise for both editions of the Memoirs. It concluded with a remarkable passage that has never been reprinted since:

  It was in January 1798 that Mr. Godwin published his Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Godwin. In May of the same year a second edition of that work appeared. A painful choice seems to present itself to every ingenuous person who composes Memoirs of himself or of any one so nearly connected with himself as in the present instance. He must either express himself with disadvantage to the illiberal and malicious temper that exists in the world, or violate the honour and integrity of his feelings.

  Yet that the heart should be known in all its windings, is an object of infinite importance to him who would benefit the human race. Mr. Godwin did not prefer a cowardly silence, nor treachery to the public, having chosen to write. Perhaps such works as the Memoirs of Mrs. Godwin’s Life, and Rousseau’s Confessions, will ever disgrace their writers with the meaner spirits of the world. But then it is to be remembered, that this herd neither confers, nor can take away, fame.

  Most moving of all, the revolutionary influence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life continued through the next generation of her own family, the family she never knew. It was a powerful and unsettling example. Her love child, Fanny Imlay, eventually committed suicide. But when her daughter Mary Godwin and Shelley eloped to France in 1814, they carried the Posthumous Works and the Memoirs with them in their tiny travelling trunk, and read them during their first nights in Paris. Shelley’s poem The Revolt of Islam (1818) contained a heroic portrait of Wollstonecraft. The triumphant chorus from his late verse drama Hellas (1821), written about the Greek War of Independence, drew on Godwin’s memorable snake imagery of hope and revival:

  The world’s great age begins anew,

  The golden years return,

  The earth does like a snake renew

  Her winter weeds outworn …

  Mary Shelley’s entire literary career was inspired by her mother’s example, and especially perhaps her desire to write novels of ideas. Both Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and The Last Man (1826) can be seen as part of the complex Wollstonecraft inheritance. After her father William Godwin’s death, she always intended to write a combined biography of both her daring literary parents. A few scattered manuscript notes alone have survived, probably dating from the early 1840s. Here is what the subdued, widowed, middle-aged Victorian Mary Shelley wrote about her outrageous mother Mary Wollstonecraft:

  Her genius was undeniable. She had been bred in the hard school of adversity, and having experienced the sorrows entailed on the poor and oppressed, an earnest desire was kindled within her to diminish these sorrows. Her sound understanding, her intrepidity, her sensibility and eager sympathy, stamped all her writings with force and truth, and endorsed them with a tender charm that enchants while it enlightens. She was one whom all loved, who had ever seen her.

  But of course Mary had never seen her mother. She only knew and loved her through her own writings and her father’s intrepid and controversial Memoirs. Such is the dangerous, enduring power of biography.


  Mary Somerville


  We are now living in a brilliant age of popular science writing. So it is strange to think that less than two hundred years ago the genre barely existed. The very idea that science could actually be explained, in meaningful terms, to a general public was gleefully parodied by Charles Dickens in his comic serial The Mudfog Papers (1837–38) as an instructive delusion of ‘The Society for the Explanation of Everything’.

  Yet in 1830 the leading astronomer John Herschel was writing to the physicist and future Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell, about the urgent need for just such accessible, explanatory and contextualising books. These should be ‘digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science … to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished in every branch’.

  The remarkable writer who first achieved this ‘connected view’ of ongoing science, and arguably launched the whole popular genre, was a
self-taught mathematician and mother of three from Scotland, Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780–1872). Her book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was published by John Murray in 1834, in his ‘Family Library’ series alongside works by Walter Scott, Jane Austen and Lord Byron. It contained no equations, few diagrams, and little mathematics. But it was a masterpiece of descriptive explanation and familiar analogy, which unfolded a complete scientific worldview, from the most distant stars to the humblest insects on earth. It was Murray’s bestselling scientific publication up to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), and would eventually run to ten editions in Britain, also appearing – translated or pirated – in France, Italy, Germany and America.

  The five-hundred-page book was presented in thirty-seven short chapters, which reduced the traditional vague panorama of ‘natural philosophy’ to a much tighter field of hard sciences – astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, geography, meteorology and electromagnetism. It pioneered a particular style of clear, logical explanation, in a plain, low-key prose which occasionally opened out into passages of sublime perspective.

  For example, Somerville vividly introduced the notion of universal gravity, as a force which is equally present ‘in the descent of a rain drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon’. But more than this, she observed that gravitation not only bound up the planets and the sun in the ordered system made familiar by Newton, but was also, more surprisingly, the cause of continual ‘disturbances’ in nature. In this it gave new meaning to the old Pythagorean idea of the music of the spheres: ‘Every tremour it excites in any one planet is immediately transmitted to the farthest limits of the system, in oscillations … like sympathetic notes in music, or vibrations from the deep tones of an organ.’

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