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Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin: The End and Beyond

Grounded in Experience - A Life of Thirty-Eight Years


Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie

Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie, about 1797

Wikimedia Commons

William Godwin - an Unconventional Relationship

Having lived with and borne a child to Gilbert Imlay, and having decided to make her living in what was considered a man's profession, Mary Wollstonecraft had learned not to obey convention. So in 1796, she decided, against all social convention, to call upon William Godwin, her fellow Analytical Review writer and dinner-party-antagonist, at his home, on April 14, 1796.

Godwin had read her Letters from Sweden, and from that book had gained a different perspective on Mary's thought. Where he'd formerly found her too rational and distant and critical, he now found her emotionally deep and sensitive. His own natural optimism, which had reacted against her seemingly-natural pessimism, found a different Mary Wollstonecraft in the Letters -- in their appreciation of nature, their keen insights into a different culture, their exposition of the character of the people she'd met.

"If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book," Godwin wrote later. Their friendship deepened quickly into a love affair, and by August they were lovers.


By next March, Godwin and Wollstonecraft faced a dilemma. They'd both written and spoken in principle against the idea of marriage, which was at that time a legal institution in which women lost legal existence, subsumed legally in their husband's identity. Marriage as a legal institution was far from their ideals of loving companionship.

But Mary was pregnant with Godwin's child, and so on March 29, 1797, they married. Their daughter, named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born on August 30 -- and on September 10, Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicimia -- blood poisoning known as "childbed fever."

After Her Death

Mary Wollstonecraft's last year with Godwin had, however, not been spent in domestic activities alone -- they had in fact maintained separate residences so that both could continue their writing. Godwin published in January, 1798, several of Mary's works that she'd been working on before her unexpected death.

He published a volume The Posthumous Works along with his own Memoirs of Mary. Unconventional to the end, Godwin in his Memoirs was brutally honest about the circumstances of Mary's life -- her love affair with and betrayal by Imlay, her daughter Fanny's illegitimate birth, her suicide attempts in her despondency over Imlay's unfaithfulness and failure to live up to her ideals of commitment. These details of Wollstonecraft's life, in the cultural reaction to the French Revolution's failure, resulted in her near-neglect by thinkers and writers for decades, and scathing reviews of her work by others.

Mary Wollstonecraft's death itself was used to "disprove" claims of women's equality. Rev. Polwhele, who attacked Mary Wollstonecraft and other women authors, wrote that "she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable."

And yet, such susceptibility to death in childbirth was not something Mary Wollstonecraft had been unaware of, in writing her novels and political analysis. In fact, her friend Fanny's early death, her mother's and her sister's precarious positions as wives to abusive husbands, and her own troubles with Imlay's treatment of her and their daughter, she was quite aware of such distinction -- and based her arguments for equality in part on the need to transcend and do away with such inequities.

Mary Wollstonecraft's final novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, published by Godwin after her death, is a new attempt to explain her ideas about the unsatisfactory position of women in contemporary society, and therefore justify her ideas for reform. As Mary Wollstonecraft had written in 1783, just after her novel Mary was published, she herself recognized that "it is a tale, to illustrate an opinion of mine, that a genius will educate itself." The two novels, and Mary's life, illustrate that circumstances will limit the opportunities for expression -- but that genius will work to educate itself. The ending is not necessarily going to be happy because the limitations that society and nature places on human development may be too strong to overcome all attempts at self-fulfillment -- yet the self has incredible power to work to overcome those limits. What more could be achieved if such limits were reduced or removed!

Continued: About Mary Wollstonecraft

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