From: Memoirs of Mary Wolstonecraft, Constable and Co.
Limited. London 1928
1783 - 1785
Mary was 1 now
arrived at the twenty-fourth year of her age. Her project, five years before,
had been personal independence; it was now usefulness. In the solitude of
attend ance on her sister's illness, and during the subsequent convalescence,2 she had had leisure
to ruminate upon plans for this purpose.3
Her expanded mind led her to seek something more arduous than the mere removal
of personal vexations; and the sensibility of her heart would not suffer
her to rest in soli tary gratifications. The derangement of her father's
affairs daily became more and more glaring; and a small independent provision
made for herself and her sisters appears to have been sacrificed in the
wreck. For ten years, from 1782 to 1792, she may be said to have been, in
a great degree, the victim of a desire to promote the benefit of others.
She did not foresee the severe disappointment with which an exclusive purpose
of this sort is pregnant; she was inexperienced enough to lay a stress upon
the consequent gratitude of those she benefited; and she did not sufficiently
consider that, in proportion as we involve ourselves in the 4 interests and society of others, we acquire
a more exquisite sense of their defects, and are tormented with their untractableness
and folly. [Her mistakes in this respect were two: she engaged herself too
minutely and too deeply in the care of their welfare; and she was too much
impressed by any seeming want of ingenuous and honourable feeling on the
part of those she benefited. In the mixed scene of human life, it is necessary
that, while we take some care for others, we should leave scope for the
display of their own prudence and reason; and that, when we have discharged
our duty respecting them, we should be habituated to derive a principal
consolation from the consciousness of having done so.]
The project upon which she now 5
determined, was no other than 6
that of a day school, to be superintended by Fanny Blood, herself, and her
two sisters. They accordingly opened one in the year 1783, at the village
of Islington; but in the course of a few months removed it to Newington
Here Mary formed some acquaintances who 7 influenced the future events of her life. The
first of these in her own estimation, was Dr. Richard Price, well known
for his political and mathematical calculations, and universally esteemed
by those who knew him, for the simplicity of his manners, and the ardour
of his benevolence. The regard conceived by these two persons for each other,
was mutual, and partook of a spirit of the purest attachment. Mary had been
bred in the principles of the church of England, but her esteem for this
venerable preacher led her occasionally to attend upon8 a his public instructions. Her religion was,
in reality, little allied to any system of forms; and, as she has often
told me, was founded rather in taste, than in the niceties of polemical
discussion. Her mind constitutionally attached itself to the sublime and
the amiable. She found an inexpressible delight in the beauties of nature,
and in the splendid reveries of the imagination. But nature itself, she
thought, would be no better than a vast blank, if the mind of the observer
did not supply it with an animating soul. When she walked amidst the wonders
of nature, she was accustomed to converse with her God. To her mind he was
pictured as not less amiable, generous and kind, than great, wise and exalted.
In fact, she had received few lessons of religion in her youth, and her
religion was almost entirely of her own creation. 9 But she was not on that account the less attached
to it, or the less scrupulous in discharging what she considered as its
duties. She could not recollect the time when she had believed the doctrine
of future punishments.10
The tenets of her sys tem were the growth of her own moral taste, and her
religion therefore had always been a gratification, never a terror, to her.
She expected a future state; but she would not allow her ideas of that future
11 state to be modified
by the notions of judgment and retribution. From this sketch, it is sufficiently
12 evident, that
the pleasure she took in an occasional attendance upon the sermons of Dr.
Price, was not accompanied with a superstitious adherence to his doctrines.
The fact is, that, as far down as the year 1787, she regularly frequented
public worship, for the most part according to the forms of the church of
England. After that period her attendance became less constant, and in no
long time was wholly discontinued. I believe it may be admitted as a maxim,
that no person of a well furnished mind, that has shaken off the implicit
subjection of youth, and is not the zealous partizan of a sect, can bring
himself to conform to the public and regular routine of sermons and prayers.
Another of the friends she acquired at this period, was Mrs. Burgh, widow
of the author of the Political Disquisitions, a woman uni versally well
spoken of for the warmth and purity of her benevolence. Mary, whenever she
had occasion to allude to her, to the last period of her life, paid the
tribute due to her virtues.13
The only remaining friend necessaty to be enumerated in this place, is the
rev. John Hewlet, now master of a boarding-school at Shacklewel near Hackney,14 whom I shall have
[further] occasion to mention hereafter.
It was [also] during her residence at Newing ton Green, that she was
introduced to the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, who was at that time considered
as in some sort the father of English literature. The doctor treated her
with particular kindness and attention, had a long conversation with her,
and desired her to repeat her visit often. This she firmly purposed to do;
but the news of his last illness, and then of his death, intervened to prevent
her making a second visit.15
I have already said that Fanny's health had been materially injured by
her incessant labours for the maintenance of her family. She had also suffered
a disappointment, which preyed upon her mind. To these different sources
16 of ill health
she became gradually a victim; and at length discovered all the symptoms
of a pulmonary consumption. By the medical men that attended her, she was
advised to try the effects of a southern climate; and, about the beginning
of the year T785, sailed for Lisbon.
The first feeling with which Mary had contemplated her friend, was a
sentiment of inferiority and reverence; but that, from the operation of
a ten years' acquaintance was considerably changed. Fanny had originally
been far before her in literary attainments; this disparity no longer existed.
In whatever degree Mary might endeavour to free herself from the delusions
of self-esteem, this period of observation upon her own mind and that of
her friend, could not pass, without her perceiving that there were some
essential characteristics of genius, which she possessed, and in which her
friend was deficient. The principal of these was a firmness of mind, an
unconquerable greatness of soul, by which, after a short internal struggle,
she was [for the most part] accustomed to rise above difficulties and suffering.
Whatever Mary undertook, she perhaps in all instances accom plished; and,
to her lofty spirit, scarcely any thing she desired, appeared hard to perform.
Fanny, on the contrary, was a woman of a timid and irresolute nature, accustomed
to yield to difficulties, and probably priding herself in this morbid softness
of her temper. One instance that I have heard Mary relate of this sort,
was, that, at a certain time, Fanny, dissatisfied with her domestic situation,
expressed an earnest desire to have a home of her own. Mary, who felt nothing
more pressing than to relieve the inconveniences of her friend, determined
to accomplish this object for her. It cost her infinite exertions; but at
length she was able to announce to Fanny that a house was prepared, and
that she was on the spot to receive her. The answer which Fanny returned
to the letter of her friend, consisted almost wholly of an enumeration of
objections to the quitting her family, which she had not thought of before,
but which now appeared to her of considerable weight.
The judgment which experience had taught Mary to form of the mind of
her friend, deter mined her in the advice she gave, at the period to which
I have brought down the story. Fanny was recommended to seek a softer climate,
but she had no funds to defray the expence of such an undertaking. At this
time Mr. Hugh Skeys of Dublin, but then resident in the kingdom of Portugal,
paid his addresses to her. The state of her health Mary con sidered as such
as scarcely to afford the shadow of a hope; it was not therefore a time
at which it was most obvious to think of mar riage. She conceived however
that nothing should be omitted, which might alleviate, if it could not cure;
and accordingly urged her speedy acceptance of the proposal. Fanny accordingly
made the voyage to Lisbon; and the marriage took place on the twenty-fourth
of February 1785. [The advice of Mary in this instance, though dictated
by the sincerest anxiety for her friend's welfare, is scarcely entitled
to our approbation.]
From 17 change
of climate and situation Fanny found but 18 1ittle benefit; and her life 19 was only prolonged by a period of pregnancy,
which soon declared itself. Mary, in the mean time, was impressed with the
idea that her friend would die in this distant country; and, shocked with
the recollection of her separation from the circle of her friends, determined
to pass over to Lisbon to attend her. This resolution was treated by her
acquaintance as in the utmost degree 20
visionary; but she was not to be diverted from her point. She had not money
to defray her expenses: she must quit for a long time the school, the very
existence of which probably depended upon her exertions.
No person was ever better formed for the business of education; if it
be not a sort of absurdity to speak of a person as formed for an inferior
object, who is in possession of talents, in the fullest degree adequate
to something on a more important and comprehensive scale. Mary had a quickness
of temper, not apt to take offence with inadvertencies, but which led her
to look into the minds of her acquaintance, and to approve or be displeased,
in proportion as they manifested those sentiments, which the persons and
the treatment they met with, ought, as she conceived, to excite.21 She was occasion ally
severe and imperious in her resentments; and, when she strongly disapproved,
was apt to express her censure in terms that gave a very humiliating sensation
to the person against whom it was directed. Her displeasure however never
assumed its severest form, but when it was barbed by disappointment. Where
she expected little, she was not very rigid in her censure of error.
But, to whatever the defects of her temper might amount, they were never
exercised upon 22
her inferiors in station or age. She scorned to make use of an ungenerous
advantage, or to wound the defenceless. To her servants there never was
a mistress more considerate or more kind. With children she was the mirror
of patience. Perhaps, in all her extensive experience upon the subject of
education, she never betrayed one symptom of irascibility. Her heart was
the seat of every benevolent feeling; and accordingly, in all her intercourse
with children, it was kindness and sympathy alone that prompted her conduct.
Sympathy, when it mounts to a certain height, inevitably begets affection
in the person towards whom it is exercised; and I have heard her say, that
she never was concerned in the education of one child, who was not personally
attached to her, and earnestly concerned not to incur her dis pleasure.
Another eminent advantage she possessed in the business of education, was
that she was little troubled with scepticism and uncertainty. She saw, as
it were by intuition, the path which her mind determined to pursue, and
had a firm confidence in her own power to effect what she desired. Yet,
with all this, she had scarcely a tincture of obstinacy. She carefully watched
symptoms as they rose, and the success of her experi ments; and governed
herself accordingly. While I thus enumerate her more than maternal qualities,
it is impossible not to feel a pang at the recollection of her orphan children!
Though her friends earnestly dissuaded her from the journey to Lisbon,
she found among them a willingness to facilitate the execution of her project,
when it was once fixed. Mrs. Burgh in particular, supplied her with money,
which however she always conceived came from Dr. Price. This loan, I have
reason to believe, was faithfully repaid.
Her residence in Lisbon was not long. She arrived but a short time before
her friend was prematurely delivered, and the event was fatal to both mother
and child. Frances Blood, hitherto the chosen object of Mary's attachment,
died on the twenty-ninth of November 1785.
It is thus that she speaks of her in her Letters from Norway, written
ten years after her decease. "When a warm heart has received strong
impressions, they are not to be effaced. Emotions become sentiments; and
the imagination renders even transient sensations permanent, by fondly retracing
them. I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen,
which are not to be forgotten, --nor looks I have felt in every nerve, which
I shall never more meet. The grave has closed over a dear friend, the friend
of my youth; still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling
as I stray over the heath."
1 was] had.
2 and during the subsequent convalescence del.
3 plans for this purpose] purposes of this sort Ist ed.
4 the del.
5 now del.
6 no other than del.
7 who] that.
8 upon del.
9 creation] creating.
10 or the less . . . future punishments del.
11 future del.
12 sufficiently del.
13 Mary . . . virtues del.
14 The only remaining . . . near Hackney] In the catalogue of friends acquired
at this period, I may likewise include the rev. John Hewlet, a popular preacher
in the established church.
15 making a second visit] seeing him a second time.
16 sources] causes.
17 From] The Ist ed.
18 Fanny found but] was productive of Ist ed.
19 her life] the life of Fanny Ist ed.
20 in the utmost degree del.
21 look into the minds . . . to excite.] imagine that she saw the mind of
the person with whom she had any transaction, and to refer the principle
of her approbation or displeasure to the cordiality or injustice of their
sentiments. Ist ed.
22 were never exercised upon] entered not into her intercourse with.
Return to Table of Contents