This text was taken from William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, Vol. 1 by C. Kegan Paul. Henry S. King and Co., London, 1876.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. 1791-1796.
IN her lonely lodging near Blackfriars, Mary Wollstonecraft had been writing an original work during the scant time she could give to it from her labours of translation. It was one which has ever been more known by name than by perusal, on a subject which even now excites acrimony rather than calm discussion. The very words, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," which was the title of the book, are held, without examination, to claim emancipation alike from law, from custom, and from morality. Yet it is evident that the writer, as she has shown herself in her letters, must have changed far more suddenly than is wont to be the case, if such were indeed the object she set before her in writing her treatise.
Image of Letter From Mary Wollstonecraft
It is not among the least oddities of this singular work that it is dedicated to M. Talleyrand Perigord, late Bishop of Autun. Mary Wollstonecraft, always confiding and always charitable, still believed in him. She little knew how unstable was the liberalism for which she gave him credit, and though well aware that some of her opinions were opposed to those which Talleyrand had put forward in his pamphlet on National Education, she yet thought him quite sincere and working in the same direction as herself. Mary Wollstonecraft, like so many others, turned to France as the land from which was rising the day-star of a new time, yet, unlike many, she was far from considering that all French manners were worthy of imitation. Even in the Dedication to Talleyrand are some noble words in defence of English cleanliness in life and talk, even of seeming prudery, rather than much which is still tolerated in France.
"The main argument" of the work "is built on this simple principle, that if woman be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous ?-unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good. If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues springs, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman at present shuts her out from such investigations."--P. viii.
In the carrying out of this argument the most noticeable fact is the extraordinary plainness of speech, and this it was which caused all or nearly all the outcry. For Mary Wollstonecraft did not, as has been supposed, attack the institution of marriage, she did not assail orthodox religion, she did not directly claim much which at the present day is claimed for women by those whose arguments obtain respectful hearing. The book was really a plea for equality of education, a protest against being deemed only the plaything of man, an assertion that the intellectual rather than the sexual intercourse was that which should chiefly be desired in marriage, and which made its lasting happiness, In maintaining these theses, in themselves harmless and to us self-evident, she assailed the theories not only of Rousseau in "Emile," which would have been easily borne, but those of Dr Fordyce, whose sermons had long made a part of a young woman's library, of Dr Gregory and others whose words were as a gospel to the average English nation, when she would teach her daughters less from her own experience than in sounding periods whose gravity simulated real authority. She did but carry out what Day had sketched in "Sandford and Merton," and Miss Simmons was a young lady who might have been trained by Mary Wollstonecraft herself.
It may, however, be admitted that her frankness on some subjects is little less than astounding, and that matters are discussed which are rarely named even among members of the same sex, far less printed for both, while side blows are administered to- much which was then unquestioned, at least in the society to which a woman's book would gain admission. The insistance on the reception of the Sacrament in our colleges, the relics of Popery retained in them, the weekly services she had noticed the Eton boys unwillingly attend, which was "only a disgusting skeleton of the former state," in which "all the solemnity that interested the imagination if it did not purify the heart is stripped off "-in fact, the whole system which had come before her in her residence with Mr Prior was rudely criticised. Nor were other sacred institutions. dealt with more gently than our schools and universities. The fallacy by which virtue is confounded with reputation was laid bare, and she by no means shrinks from uncovering the worst sores of society.
Yet for extreme plain speaking, there was much reason and excuse. The times were coarser than ours, the days were not so far distant when the scenes were possible and the dangers real which Richardson's novels pourtray. The very book she assails, " Dr Fordyce's Sermons," contains words spoken from the pulpit to young women which would now be considered an outrage on the congregation. Mary Wollstonecraft shrunk from no directness in dealing with the most dangerous and explosive subjects.
It was not only the plain speaking which alarmed, and not only that a woman spoke, but every page showed that she too was affected by the thoughts which claimed rights for men, and the demand for these had issued in the French Revolution.
The faults of the book are grave over and above those of the time ; it is ill-considered, hasty, and rash, but its merits are great also; there is much that is valuable for these days also-it is fresh, vigorous, and eloquent, and most remarkable as the herald of the demand not even yet wholly conceded by all, that woman should be the equal and friend, riot the slave and the toy of man.
One passage only shall here be quoted. It is one in which Mary Wollstonecraft gives her views on elementary education, and in favour of mixed schools.
"Day schools should be established by Government in which boys and girls might be educated together. The school for the younger children, from five to nine years of age, ought to be absolutely free, and open to all classes, . . , where boys and girls, the rich and the poor, should meet together. To prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline, or leave the school. The school-room ought to be surrounded by a large piece of ground, in which the children might be usefully exercised, for at this age they should not be confined to any sedentary employment for more than an hour at a time. But these relaxations might all be rendered a part of elementary education, for many things improve and amuse the senses when introduced as a kind of show, to the principles of which dryly laid down children would turn a deaf car. For instance, botany, mechanics, and astronomy. Reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, and some simple experiments in natural philosophy might fill up the day, but these pursuits should never encroach on gymnastics in the open air. The elements of religion, history, the history of man, and politics might also be taught by conversations in the Socratic form.
" After the age of nine, girls and boys intended for domestic employments or mechanical trades ought to be removed to other trades, and receive instruction in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual, the two sexes being still together in the morning, but in the afternoon the girls should attend a school where plain work, mantua making, millinery, &c., would be their employment.
" The young people of superior abilities or fortune might now be taught in another school the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and continue the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature.
"Girls and boys still together? I hear some reader ask. Yes. And 1 should not fear any other consequence than that some early attachment might take place, which, whilst it had the best effect on the moral character of young people, might not perfectly agree with the views of the parents, for it will be a long time, I fear, before the world is so enlightened that parents only anxious to render their children virtuous will let them choose companions for life themselves.'--A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, PP. 386-389
That the publication of " The Rights of Woman " should prove startling and even shocking to the author's sisters as it did to many other people, is not surprising, but the exhibition of small spite which is to be found in the following letter is unworthy of one for whom the writer had made, and was again ready to make, such great sacrifices. Charles the worthless had been taken to London, wholly by the kindness of his sister Mary, who, since the issue of her book, which had made her in some degree a public character, took the brevet rank of Mrs Wollstonecraft.
Mrs Bishop to Everina Wollstonecraft.
" UPTON CASTLE, July 3d, 1792.
. . . He " [Charles] " informs me too that Mrs Wollstonecraft is grown quite handsome; he adds likewise that being conscious she is on the wrong side of thirty she now endeavours to set off those charms she once despised to the best advantage. This entre nous, for he is delighted with her kindness and affection to him.
"So the author of ' The Rights of Woman' is going to France! I dare say her chief motive is to promote poor Bess's comfort, or thine, my girl, at least I think she will thus reason. Well, in spite of reason, when Mrs W. reaches the Continent she will be but a woman! I cannot help painting her in the height of all her wishes, at the very summit of happiness, for will not ambition fill every chink of her Great Soul (for such I really think hers) that is not occupied by love? After having drawn this sketch, you can hardly suppose me so sanguine as to expect my pretty face will be thought of when matters of State are in agitation, yet I know you think such a miracle not impossible. I wish I could think it at all probable, but, alas! it has so much the appearance of castlebuilding that I think it will soon disappear like the I baseless fabric of a vision, and leave not a wrack behind.'
" And you actually have the vanity to imagine that in the National Assembly, personages like M. and F[useli] will bestow a thought on two females whom nature meant to I suckle fools and chronicle small beer."'
The scheme of going to France, of which Mrs Bishop speaks above, bad been announced to her sister Everina shortly before. Everina Wollstonecraft bad spent a few weeks in France for the sake of perfecting her French accent; and there was a plan that Mrs Bishop also should go for the same purpose.
Mary Wollstonecraft to Everina Wollstonecraft.
LONDON, June 20th, '92.
I have been considering what you say respecting Eliza's residence in France. For some time past Mr and Mrs Fuseli, Mr Johnson, and myself have talked of a summer excursion to Paris; it is now determined on, and we think of going in about six weeks. I shall be introduced to many people, my book " [11 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman "] " has been translated, and praised in some popular prints, and Mr Fuseli of course is well known; it is then very probable that I shall bear of some situation for Eliza, and I shall be on the watch. We intend to be absent only six weeks; if then I fix on an eligible situation for her she may avoid the Welsh winter. This journey will not lead me into any extraordinary expense, or I should put it off to a more convenient season, for I am not, as you may suppose, very flush of money, and Charles is wearing out the clothes which were provided for his voyage " [to America at her expense], " still I am glad he has acquired a little practical knowledge of farming. . . ."
A candid friend who published anonymously in 1803, A Defence of the Character and Conduct of the late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin," but whose " Defence " is mingled with a good deal of venom, says that "though we are not expressly informed," there seems a probability that she had experienced a disappointment in her earlier years, and that such disappointment " tended to increase her irritability." The writer goes on to say,
" The first sexual attachment that is plainly avowed was towards Mr Fuseli. . . . She had reason to esteem him as a particular friend, but on finding that her regard for him had gradually assumed a more interesting form, mark her prudence and resolution. No sooner had she analysed her feelings, traced them to their real source, discovered their tendency, and weighed them in the balance of moral obligation, than, with a just respect for herself as well as for the other parties interested, she determined to make a sacrifice of her private desires upon the altar of Virtue; and in order to snap the tic that seemed likely to occasion uneasiness either to herself or her friends, she prudently resolved to retire into another country, far remote from the object who had unintentionally excited the tender passion in her breast."-(Pp. 58-60.)
The same story, told with much greater circumstance, appears in Knowles's "Life of Fuseli," and is supposed to be confirmed by extracts from her letters which are given. But one of them, the last written after her return from France, most certainly does not refer to any attachment to Fuseli, and Mr Knowles is so extremely inaccurate in regard to all else that he says of her, that his testimony may be wholly set aside, finding, as it does, no confirmation whatever from her correspondence, and very little from a few ill-natured remarks of Mrs Bishop, which do not justify the malignant gossip.
Godwin himself, in his Memoir of his wife speaks also of her intimacy with Fuseli, saying that had he been unmarried, he would probably have been the man of her choice. He goes on to declare that the friends were only friends, but his mention of the matter at all is only one of those strange instances of his somewhat morbid habit of dwelling on matters of which it would have been well to take no notice. It is probable that he bad only heard of the more unfavourable version of the story at secondhand, and, even after careful attention to her husband's words, the correspondence and the uninterrupted friendship with Mrs Fuseli would seem wholly to clear Mary Wollstonecraft's memory from the imputation of any feeling for Fuseli in which there is reason for blame even by the most censorious.
The Fuselis and Mr Johnson having given up the tour, Mary went to France alone in December, and certainly no object whatever finds place in her letters but the one of rendering herself as good a French speaker as she was already a reader, and incidentally of finding a situation for her sister, Mrs Bishop, among the many leading Frenchmen who were then so eager for all that was English. She found a home at first in the house of Madame Filiettaz, nee Bregantz, the daughter of Madame Bregantz, in whose school at Putney Mrs Bishop and Everina Wollstonecraft had both been teachers. The following extract gives her first impressions of Paris at a critical time, though none then knew how critical.
Mary Wollstonecraft to Everina Wollsonecraft.
"PARIS, Dec. 24th, '92.
To-morrow I expect to see Aline" [Mine. Filiettaz] ; "during her absence the servants endeavoured to render the house--a most excellent one-comfortable to me, but as I wish to acquire the language as fast as I can, I was sorry to be obliged to remain so much alone. I apply so closely to the language, and labour so continually to understand what I hear that I never go to bed without a headache, and my spirits are fatigued with endeavouring to form a just opinion of public affairs. The day after to-morrow I expect to see the King at the bar, and the consequences that will follow I am almost afraid to anticipate.
"I have seen very little of Paris-the streets are so dirty, and I wait till I can make myself understood before I call upon Madame Laurent, &c. Miss Williams has behaved very civilly to me, and 1 shall visit her frequently, because I rather like her, and I meet French company at her house. Her manners are affected, yet the simple goodness of her heart continually breaks through the varnish, so that one would be more inclined, at least I should, to love than admire her. Authorship is a heavy weight for female shoulders, especially in the, sunshine of prosperity. Of the French I will not speak till I know more of them. They seem the people of all others for a stranger to come amongst, -yet sometimes when I have given a commission which was eagerly asked for, it has not been executed, and when I ask for an explanation, I allude to the servant-maid, a quick girl, who, an't please you, has been a teacher in an English boarding-school, dust is thrown up with a self-sufficient air, and I am obliged to appear to see her meaning clearly, though she puzzles herself, that I may not make her feel her ignorance; but you must have experienced the same thing. I will write to you soon again, meantime let me hear from you, and believe me yours sincerely and affectionately, cc M. W."
Two days afterwards she addressed a let ter to Mr Johnson. It has already been printed in the "Posthumous Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin: London, 1798." These volumes were edited by Godwin, but are so very unlikely to be known to many readers at the present day, that the letter deserves quotation here.
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