Hays-Memoir of Wollstonecraft

MEMOIRS OF

 

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT1

 

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         The intrepid spirit, daring flights, lofty pretensions, and disdain of sanctioned opinions, which characterize the productions of the vindicator of the Rights of Woman, have combined to excite an extraordinary degree of attention; which some events, of a peculiar nature, in her personal history have had a tendency to increase. By the distinction which the reputation of superior talents confers, their possessors are exalted to a dangerous pre-eminence: attention is roused, curiosity excited, their claims are subjected to a scrutiny, in which all the nobler and all of the safer passions become equally interested. While, on one side, by the partiality of affection and the blind enthusiasm of implicit admiration, their excellencies are made the theme of exaggerated panegyric: on the other, those errors or frailties, to which they are liable, in common wit their species, or those excesses that more peculiarly belong to ardent characters, are invidiously fought after, propagated with malignity, amplified by envy, distorted by prejudice, and received with triumph by the vulgar of every rank, by the interested, the ignorant, and the, malicious. Persons of the finest and most exquisite genius have probably the greatest sensibility, consequently the strongest passions, by the fervor of which they are too often betrayed in error. Vigorous minds are with difficulty restrained within the trammels of authority; a spirit of enterprise, a passion for experiment, a liberal curiosity, urges them to quit beaten paths, to explore untried ways, to ---------- the fetters of prescription, and to acquire wisdom by individual experience. 

         The preceding reflections are not unappropriate to the subject of the present narrative, in whole character strong light and shade appear to have been blended. If, by her quick feelings, prompt judgments, and rapid decisions, she was sometimes [412] betrayed into false conclusions, her errors were expiated by sufferings, that, while they disarm severity, awaken sympathy and seize irresistibly upon the heart. Let it not be forgotten, that if the excesses of certain virtues encroach on the limits of vice, yet faults of this description have a generous source. Those whom a calmer temperament conduct in an even path, deviating neither to the right nor to the left, will find their reward in the safety of their course. But it is to speculative and enterprising spirits, whom stronger powers and more impetuous passions impel forward, regardless of established usages, that all great changes and improvements in society have owed their origin. If, intoxicated by contemplating the grand projects in their imagination, they deviate into extravagance, and lose sight of the nature of man, their theories remain to be corrected by experience, while, in the gratitude of posterity, the contemporary cry of interest will be absorbed and forgotten.

         To advance on the scale of reason half the species, is no ignoble ambition. The efforts of the extraordinary woman whose life we are about to review, were directed to the emancipation of her own sex, whom she considered as sunk in a state of degradation, glorying in their weakness, voluntarily surrendering the privilege of rational agents, and contending, in her own emphatic language, “for the sentiment that brutalized them.”

         Mary, daughter of Edward-John and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft, was born on the 27th of April, 1759. Her mother was of the family of Dixons of Ballyshannon in Ireland, her paternal grandfather a manufacturer of Spitalfeilds, from whom her father is supposed to have inherited property to a considerable amount. Mr. Wollstonecraft’s family consisted of six children (three sons and three daughters), of whom Mary was the second. It does not appear that Mr. W. (who near the period of his daughter’s birth occupied a farm on Epping Forest) was brought up to an profession. Nor is it certain whether the subject of our narration received her existence in [413] London or on the Forest, where the first five years of her life were principally spent. 

         Mary Wollstonecraft gave early indications of those acute feelings and vigorous powers of mind which led to the subsequent incidents and exertions of an eventful life. It is possible that the restraint which she is said to have experienced, and the severity under which she occasionally suffered, from the irascible and capricious temper of her father, might tend to rouse that spirit of resistance, that indignant impatience of injustice and oppression, which formed the relinquishing features of her maturer character.

         Experience teaches us that, in the moral as in the physical world, evil is often connected with good. Suffering and opposition, if they exceed not certain limits, have a stimulating power: still they are evils, and it would be rash to conclude, that, by the adoption of less exceptional means, the same end might not be effected. He, who has studied the human mind, will know how to avail himself of its more delicate springs: terror and force have been proved feeble engines when opposed to emulation and love. 

         As, with increasing years, the understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft matured, it triumphed over the petty vexations of her childhood, and procured her, by its ascendancy, a consequent predominance in her family: while her influence and interpolation served to screen her mother from the consequences of her father’s temper, she was regarded by both with an involuntary portion of affection and respect. To the hardy habits of her childhood she considered herself as indebted for a robust constitution. Sporting in the open air, and joining in the active amusements of her brothers, her health acquired a sound and vigorous tone.

         In 1768 Mr. Wollstonecraft removed from the Forest to a farm near Beverly in Yorkshire, where he resided with his family for six years. During this interval his daughter occasionally frequented a day-school in the neighbourhood. What benefit she derived from the instructions she there received, we have no account. From Beverly Mr. W. repaired to a house in Queen’s Row, Hoxton, [414] near London, with a view of engaging in commerce. Mary Wollstonecraft had now entered her sixteenth year. About this period she became acquainted with a Mr. Clare, a near neighbor, a clergyman, a man of taste, and a humorist, to whom she was indebted for encouragement and assistance in the cultivation of her mind, and at whose house she frequently passed days and weeks. The manners of this gentleman were conciliating, and his habits peculiar.  

         By the wife of Mr. Clare she was introduced to a young person of her own sex, France Blood, who resided in the village of Newington, and for whom, on their first interviewed (in which Frances appeared peculiarly interesting, surrounded by the younger children of her family), she conceived a friendship that partook of all the fervor of her character. Frances Blood, two years older than her friend, is described as an accomplished and exemplary young woman: an affectionate intercourse and correspondence succeeded between them, in which the aspiring temper of the younger was roused to emulation by the superior attainments of the elder, who undertook to be her instructor, and whose lessons were received with grateful delight.

         The removal of Mr. Wollstonecraft, whose temper was relentless and unstable, to a farm in Wales, in the spring of 1776, was a cruel stroke to his daughter, whose affection for Frances had now become the ruling passion of her soul. In this retirement the Wollstonecrafts formed an intimate acquaintance with the family of Mr. Allen, two of whose daughters have been since married to the elder sons of the celebrated Josiah Wedgewood. After remaining in Wales little more than a year, Mr. W. again returned to the neigbourhood of London, and, at the earnest request of his daughter, who panted to be near her friend, fixed his abode a Walworth. 

       The spirit of independence was characteristic of Mary Wollstonecraft; she resolved in her mind projects for quitting the parental roof, and providing for her own support: with this view, she entered into an engagement which promised to be eligible, but was induced to relinquish her plan by the tears and entreaties of her mother: but a design so congenial to the intrepidity of her [415] character, though postponed, was not abandoned. In the years 1778, it was proposed to her, to reside as a companion with a widow lady (Mrs. Dawson) of Bath, to which proposition, not discouraged by intimations which she had received of the peculiar humor of the lady, she immediately acceded. In this situation the she soon acquired an influence over her patroness, extorting from her a degree of consideration which rarely attends the circumstances to which she had submitted.

         After residing two years with Mrs. Dawson, she was recalled to her family, now living at Enfield, by the declining health of her mother, on whom she attended with the most affectionate assiduity, through a lingering disease, which, terminating fatally, she finally quitted her family, her health impaired by fatigue and anxiety, and fixed her residence with her friend, at Walthamgreen, near the village of Fulham. In this situation their mutual attachment became more lively and confirmed. Of the manner in which she now supported herself, we have no information: her spirtit would doubtless have preserved her from becoming burdensome to the industry of her friend. Two years subsequent to her attendance on the closing scenes of a mother’s life, her sympathy was again excited and her attention engrossed by the affecting state of a married sister, who, in consequence of a perilous lying-in, sunk into a melancholy and lingering disorder.

     During the languor and confinement of her sister, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had now entered her twenty-fourth year, had leisure for reflection. In addition to her darling plan of personal independence, her benevolence prompted her to meditate projects more arduous and extensive. The affairs of her father long declining, had at length become hopeless, involving a small independent provision made for his daughters. In conjunction with her friend and sisters, she therefore formed, and at length executed, a plan for the opening of a day-school in the village of Ifington: from Ifington they thought proper, in the course of a few months, to transfer their residence to Newington-Green.

         Every new impression of vicissitude produced on her susceptible mind important consequences: some valuable connexions [416] which she now formed, gave a tincture to her future views and character; among the most distinguished of these the accounted Dr. Richard Price (equally respected for his talents and virtues), for whom she conceived a sincere reverence and friendship, and on whose public instructions she occasionally attended. Possessing in an exalted degree those devotional affections so congenial to ardent and tender natures, her religion, for she laid no stress on creeds and forms, was a sentiment of humility, reverence, and love; a sublime enthusiasm, the aspirations of a fervent imagination, shaping to itself ideal excellence, and panting after good unalloyed. Her active mind, conscious of its powers, exulting in its capabilities, abhorred the thought of extinction, and yearned to perpetuate itself. She believed in a being, higher, more perfect than visible nature, in her own conformity to that superior being, in a future state of exercise and gratification of those powers and sensibilities that, denied a scope for exertion, too often preyed upon herself. Her faith rested not upon critical evidence or laborious investigation; it was the bold conception of a pregnant fancy; the delicious sentiment of a tender heart: she adored the Creator in the temple of the universe, worshipped him amidst the beauties of nature, or, suffering her mind to expiate amidst ideas of spotless purity and boundless goodness, humbled herself before him in the still hour of recollection. 

         About this period she acquired also the friendship of Mrs. Burgh, widow of the author of Political Disquisitions, and of the reverend John Hewlett, a clergyman of the church of England. Being likewise introduced to the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, she was received by him with kindness and distinction: his subsequent illness and death frustrated her intention of cultivating s further intimacy with this extraordinary man. 

         The health of her friend, Frances Blood, whose character, though amiable, was timid and feeble, now began to decline; disappointment and indulged grief, had impaired her constitution, and symptoms of a consumption appeared, for which she was advised to try the effects of a southern climate. In the beginning of the year 1785 she accordingly set sail for Lisbon, having previously suffered herself to be prevailed upon to accept, on her arrival, the hand of [417] Mr. Hugh Skeys, of Dublin (then resident in Portugal), who had for some time past paid his addresses to her. Mrs. Skeys, whose health had received little benefit from the voyage, becoming pregnate soon after her marriage, the affectionate solicitude of Mary Wollstonecraft induced her to quit for a time her school, and to subject herself to various inconveniences, for the purpose of passing over to Portugal, to administer aid and consolation to her friend. With some pecuniary assistance from Mrs. Burgh, she was enabled to accomplish her design, and arrived and Lisbon but a short period before the lady in question was prematurely delivered; a crisis which proved fatal to both mother and child.

         During her stay in Portugal, the circle of her observation being enlarged, her active mind collected materials for reflection the influence of disposition and the pernicious effects of a blind superstition more particularly impressed her.

         On her passage to England, towards the latter end of December, a new occasion presented itself for the exercise of her humanity; a French ship, in danger of floundering, and destitute of provisions, implored the aid of the matter of the vessel in which she was passenger, who, fearful left his own stores should fall short, was induced solely by her spirited remonstrances to grant the sufferers the necessary relief.

         Having arrived in her native land, she quickly perceived that the expectations she had cherished respecting the successes of her school were likely to prove abortive. For the benefits of education she is said to have been peculiarly fitted, by talent of conciliating the affections of her pupils, buy firm yet gentle discipline, a watchful attention to their individual qualities, a promptitude in availing herself of them, and a careful observation of the successes of her experiments. Hitherto disappointed in her plans, and earnestly delirious of indulging the benevolence of her temperament, in affording pecuniary aid to some relations of her deceased friend, she was now induced to consider and adopt the advice of a gentleman  (Mr. Hewlett), for whom she entertained an esteem, and who, forming a favorable and just opinion of her talents, suggested literary employment as a source of profit. [418] In pursuance of this idea, she wrote a duodecimo pamphlet of one hundred and sixty pages, entitled “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters,” for the copy-right of which she obtained guineas from Mr. Johnson, bookseller in St. Paul’s churchyard: this sum was immediately applied to the purpose for which the manuscript had been written.

         Disgusted with the disappointments that had attended her project of public tuition, she now determined to resign her school, and accept, for the present, a proposal made to her of residing in the family of lord viscount Kingsborough, of the kingdom of Ireland, in the capacity of private governess to his daughters. Her darling plan of independence, which she still cherished a view of realizing by literary occupation, was not given up, but she was previously desirous of acquiring s small sum of money, as a resource in case of failure in her first attempts. Her situation in the family of lord Kingsborough was attained through the medium of the reverend Mr. prior, one of the masters of Elton, under whose roof she passed some time after the resignation of her school.

         She remained in the house of lord Kingsborough, where her excellent understanding and conciliating manners procured her the respect of  the family and the affection of her pupils, but little more than twelve months. Some restrictions which had formerly been imposed on the young ladies, were in a short time rendered unnecessary by the more powerful ascendency of their new preceptress: while she inspired her pupils with a generous confidence, she found her reward in their docility and attachment. A cordial friendship grew up more especially between the eldest daughter of lord Kingsborough (afterwards countess Mount Cashel) and her governess, cemented by corresponding excellencies. The dignity of her talents and the charms of her conversation procured her during her residence in Ireland, many valuable friends. 

         In the summer of 1787, she repaired with lord Kingsborough and his daughters to Bristol, whence they had projected a tour to the continent; this purpose was afterwards relinquished, in [419] consequence of which Mary Wollstonecraft, who was to have been of the party, closed her engagements with the family,* for the execution of a scheme she had long anxious meditated: at Bristol the small volume entitled “Mary a Fiction,” was composed, in which is delineated, under fictitious circumstances, a glowing and interesting picture of the  writer’s sentiments and character, as connected more peculiarly with her affection for Frances Blood. Fervid felling, a vivid imagination, a high-toned and exquisite sensibility, a bold and original craft of thought, are the distinguishing characteristics of this production.

         Having quitted Bristol and arrived at the metropolis, she repaired to her publisher, to whom, on receiving an encouraging reception, she frankly explained her designs, requesting his alliance towards their execution. Availing herself of his friendly invitation, she continued under his roof for some weeks, whence she removed, at Michaelmas 1787, to George-street, on the Surry side of Blackfriars-bridge, where a house was provided for her by the friendship of Mr. Johnson. She now commenced, with avidity, her literary career. Her novel, which had not yet passed the press, she prepared for publication, and made some progress towards an Oriental tale, “The Cave of Fancy,” which was afterward relinquished. At this period she also produced a little work, “Original Stories form Real Life,” for the use of children. From the suggestion of her publisher, she applied herself the acquisition of the French, Italian, and German languages, with a view of qualifying herself for translation. In pursuance of this plan, she translated, in part, “The New Robinson,” from the French, in which, before its conclusion, she was anticipated. She also abridged and altered “Young Grandison,” from the Dutch; and compiled, on the model of Dr. Enfield’s Speaker, “The Female Reader.”

         It does not appear that she experienced, in these occupations, the relief which she had promised herself: her understanding was active, but, cut off from those endearing sympathies which her 

 

*An absurd report has been propagated, that Mrs. Wollstonecraft was governess to a younger daughter of Lord K-------h, whose imprudence, or misfortunes, have lately rendered her a subject of public animadversion. This notion will be utterly confuted by a little attention to chronology.

 

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feelings imperiously demanded, her heart languished: she regretted the connexions of her youth, the friend over whom “the grave had closed.” Her affections, denied their proper objects, turned to bitterness; her labours had no solace, her exertions no reward. With an understanding highly cultivated, an imagination richly stored, a lively taste for nature, and a thirst for social pleasure, she repined in joyless solitude.

         In the Analytical Review, instituted by Mr. Johnson, in the middle of the year 1788, Mary Wollstonecraft was induced to take a considerable share; she also employed herself in translating from the French a work by Mons. Necker, on the importance of religious opinions; she abridged from the same language Lavater’s Physiognomy*; and compressed Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, a German production, into a publication in three volumes duodecimo, which produced a correspondence between herself and the author, who, in a subsequent period, returned the compliment, by translating into German the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. These miscellaneous avocations comprehended a period of three years, from the autumn of 1787 to the autumn of 1790.

         The dejection of spirits which she is said to have labored under during this interval of solitary exertion, is, in some measure, perhaps to be attributed to the mechanical nature of her occupations, which were little calculated to interest an ardent temper. A considerable portion of the profits resulting from her labours was, with a rigorous morality, devoted to purposes of benevolence. She sought to lose the sense of the languor that oppressed her, in interest for the well-being of others; her sisters, her brothers, every individual of her family, were indebted to her generous exertions. She took into her own hands the management of her father’s affairs, which, after several fruitless efforts to arrange, she was compelled to resign: for many years this unfortunate man derived his principal support from the exertions of his daughter. To these charges she likewise added the care of an orphan, seven years of age, the child of a deceased friend. It is impossible not to pause here, and pay a tribute of respect to the powers and virtues of this admirable

 

* This work has not yet been published.

 

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female, manifested under disadvantages too obvious to be enumerated; for the obstacles opposed to the efforts of women, even in procuring an individualsubsistence, are not to be conquered but by an energy and perseverance, which the habits of their education are little calculated to inspire. In the intervals of her engagements, she enjoyed and profited by the literary society in which she occasionally mingled under the hospitable roof of her friend Mr. Johnson. Among whom may be mentioned, as men whose friendship she held in high estimation, the late Mr. George Anderson, accountant to the board of controul; Mr. Bonnycastle, the mathematician; Mr. Fuseli, the painter; and Dr. George Fordyce.

         The literary exertions of Mary Wollstonecraft, though productive of some pecuniary emolument, had not yet been of a nature to obtain public distinction: her progress had been silent and unambitious; the period now arrived, when her daring genius asserted its powers and assumed its prerogatives. The rigid self-denial, economy, and seclusion of her habits, had given to her originally fervent character a tincture of enthusiasm; brooding in solitude over her feelings, they became passions; the select society in which she sometimes indulged, was of a nature to rouse her emulation, to excite her intellect, and to give what is termed a masculine tone to her understanding.

         The French revolution, in its commencement the admiration and astonishment of Europe, formed a distinguished aera in the political world. The prejudices of those placed without the vortex of interest, by whom the principle of free inquiry is admitted, and who are accustomed to speculation, give way without difficulty. The high moral tone of Mary Wollstonecraft’s sentiments induced her to enlist on the side of freedom with the enthusiasm that belonged to her character. The publication of Mr. Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, November 17690, stimulated into action her newly acquired political ardour, while, in a strain of impetuous reasoning and eloquent indignation, she combated the arguments of this great champion of establishments. Accustomed to rapid composition, hers appeared foremost of the numerous answers provoked by this extraordinary production, and was received with applause by the public. 

         [422] A just confidence in her own talents, increased probably by the success of this publication, now induced her to essay her strength on a subject that affected her still more; a subject which she had keenly felt, on which she had deeply meditated, which her sex, her situation, all the circumstances of her life, irresistibly led her to consider, – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. – There are few situations in which a woman of cultivated understanding has not occasion to observe and deplore, the systematic vassalage, the peculiar disadvantages, civil and social, to which she is subjected, even in the most polished societies, on the account of her sex. It might be difficult to convince such a woman, conscious of superiority to the majority of men with whom she converses, that nature has placed between them, in what respects intellectual attainments, an insuperable barrier: she would be tempted to remind such partial reasoners of the reply given to the philosopher who disputed the existence of motion, when his adversary gravely rose up and walked before him. 

         It is little wonderful that the magnanimous advocate of freedom, and the opponent of Burke, should throw down the gauntlet, challenge her arrogant oppressors, and, hurried away by a noble enthusiasm, deny the existence of a sexual character. 

         In the spring of half the human race she stood forth, deprecating and exposing, in a tone of impassioned eloquence, the various means and arts by which woman had been forcibly subjugated, flattered into imbecility, and invariably held in bondage. Dissecting the opinions, and commenting upon the precepts of those writers who, having expressly considered the condition of the female sex, had suggested means for its improvement, she endeavours, with force and acuteness, to convict them of narrow views, voluptuous prejudices, contradictory principles, and selfish, though impolitic ends. It is but justice to add, that the principles of this celebrated work are to be found in Catherine Macauley’s Treatise on Education. It may also be here observed, that in the intellectual advancement of women, and their consequent [423] privileges in society, is to be traced the progress of civilization, or knowledge gradually superseding the dominion of brute-force.

         A production thus bold and spirited, excited attention and provoked discussion; prejudices were shocked, vanity wounded, interest alarmed, and indolence roused: yet, amidst the virulence of opposition, the clamours of ignorance, the cavils of superstition, and the misrepresentation of willful perversion, seeds were scattered that p0romised, when the ferment had subsided, a rich and abundant harvest. The high masculine tone, sometimes degenerating into coarseness, that characterizes this performance, is in a variety of parts softened and blended with a tenderness of sentiment, an exquisite delicacy of feeling, that touches the heart, and takes captive the imagination. As a composition it discovers considerable power and energy of thought; but in perspicuity and arrangement it must be confessed to be defective: its style, though frequently rich and glowing, is sometimes inflated, and generally incorrect. It is to be regretted, that the author’s intention of revising and remedying these defects in a future edition, was protracted, and ultimately defeated. Its faults are perhaps to be attributed to the rapidity with which it was composed and committed to the press; being, we are informed, begun and completed within a period of six weeks. It would be unnecessary to comment on the imprudence and impolicy manifested (whatever be the talents of the writer) by such precipitation. A second part was promised to the public, for which but scanty materials were found, after her decease, among the papers of the author.

         In September 1791, Mary Wollstonecraft removed from her residence in the Surry road, to apartments in Store-street, Bedford-square. This period of her life appears to have been saddened by an unfortunate attachment, that for a time impeded the progress of her mind, corroded her peace, and ultimately determined her to break the chain of her ideas by an entire change of situation and objects. It is in seclusion only, and in characters of energy, that strong passions are generated; great struggles have a tendency to increase them; the enthusiastic [424] delusion under which Mary Wollstonecraft now suffered, never operates but upon susceptible minds; its seductions, in tempers of extreme sensibility, are always dangerous, and often fatal.

         The affectionate heart of this admirable woman yearned to experience the tender charities of which it was but too exquisitely capable; to have fulfilled the duties of wife and mother would have calmed those feelings which, forcibly suppressed, preyed upon herself; converting the natural and healthful propensities of an undebauched mind into a fruitful source of anguish. Sentiments of this nature suffer in the delineation; it is on such occasions that human language appears coarse and feeble: to the few who can conceive these feelings no description is necessary; the attempt to paint them to those who understand them not, would be to profane them. “That romantic passion, which is the concomitant of genius, – Who can clip its wing? – Not proportioned to the puny enjoyments of life, it is only true to the sentiment, and feeds on itself. The passions which have been celebrated for their durability have always been unfortunate. They have acquired strength by absence and constitutional melancholy. The fancy has hovered round a form of beauty dimly seen.”*

         In the close of the year 1792 Mrs. Wollstonecraft quitted England on a tour to France, with a view, as she expressed herself to a friend on the eve of her departure, “to lose in public happiness the sense of private misery.” She proposed only an excursion of a few weeks, but protracted her stay in Paris for more than two years. During her residence of twelve months in Store-street, her literary ardour seems to have languished: she produced little beside some articles for the Analytical Review.

         It has seldom happened that a distempered mind has experienced relief from mere local change: the stricken deer carries in its heart the barbed arrow. Monsieur Fillietaz, to whose house in Paris Mary Wollstonecraft had been invited, and whither she repaired on her arrival, was at 

 

* Rights of Woman.


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that period absent. Alone, in a strange country, imperfectly acquainted with its language and manners, far removed from those familiar and interesting objects, associated with the idea of home, and to the sensible heart endearing the recollection; abruptly severed from cherished habits and cordial intimacies, a cruel languor took possession of her spirits, while the melancholy tenor of her mind gave a jaundiced hue to the objects that surrounded her. In this disposition she commenced, in letters, a series of observations on the character of the French nation, which she soon afterwards discontinued. One of these letters has appeared in her posthumous works.

         In Paris she renewed her acquaintance with Thomas Paine, whom she had previously met in London; while in the friendship of Helen Maria Williams, then resident in France, she experienced an agreeable resource. Furnished with letters of recommendation to several respectable families, she became at length personally acquainted with many of the leaders of the French revolution; more particularly of the Brissotine party, for which she always expressed a predilection. Various accidents, which she was accustomed to mention with regret, prevented her from being introduced to madame Roland, the heroine of the Girondists: it is little to be doubted, had these extraordinary women met, that they would have felt the attraction of congenial powers and qualities.

         At the house of Mr. Thomas Christie, author of a volume on the French revolution, four months after her arrival in Paris 1792, she commenced an acquaintance with Mr. Gilbert Imlay, a native of North America, which produced on her subsequent life and character important consequences. With this gentleman she was induced to enter into an intercourse of the most tender and interesting nature. To this attachment reason and duty, as in a former instance, no longer seemed to be opposed. In the indulgence of a sentiment that soothed and flattered her heart, she was led to a connexion, that, without the forms, had with her all the sanctity and devotedness of a matrimonial engagement. Whatever were her opinions on the subject of, marriage, as practiced in European countries, where the wife, 

 

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dry up these springs of pleasure, which gush out to give a freshness to days browned by care!”

         “I have just received your kind and rational letter, and would fain hide my fate, glowing with shame for my folly. I would hide it in your bosom, if you would again open it to me, and nestle closely till you bade my fluttering heart be still, by saying that you forgave me. With eyes overflowing with tears, and in the humblest attitude, I intreat you. – Do not turn from me, for indeed I love you fondly, and have been very wretched, since the night I was so cruelly hurt by thinking that you had no confidence in me –

         “It is time for me to grow more reasonable, a few more of these caprices of sensibility would destroy me. I have, in fact, been very much indisposed for a few days past, and the notion that I was tormenting, or perhaps killing, a poor little animal, about whom I am grown anxious and tender, now I feel it alive, made me worse. My bowels have been dreadfully disordered, and every thing I ate or drank disagreed with my stomach; still I feel intimations of its existence, though they have been fainter.

         “Do you think that the creature goes regularly to sleep? I am ready to ask as many questions as Voltaire’s Man of Forty Crowns. Ah! do not continue to be angry with me! You perceive that I am already smiling through my tears – You have lightened my heart, and my frozen spirits are melting into playfulness.”

         “I am afraid that I have vexed you, my own –. I know the quickness of your feelings – and let me, in the sincerity of my heart, assure you, there is nothing I would not suffer to make you happy. My own happiness wholly depends on you – and, knowing you, when my reason is not clouded, I look forward to a rational prospect of as much felicity as the earth affords – with a little dash of rapture into the bargain, if you will look at me, when we meet again, as you have sometimes greeted, your humbled, yet most affectionate.”

         “What a picture have you sketched of our fire-side! Yes, my love, my fancy was instantly at work, and I found my head [429] on your shoulder, whiulst my eyes were fixed on the little creatures that were clinging about your knees. I did not absolutely determine that there should be six – if you have not set your heart on this round number.”

         “You have, by your tenderness and worth, twisted yourself more artfully round my heart, than I supposed possible. – Let me indulge the thought, that I have thrown out some tendrils to cling to the elm by which I wish to be supported. – This is talking a new language for me! – But, knowing that I am not a parasite plant, I am willing to receive the proofs of affection, that every pulse replies to, when I think of being once more in the same house with you – God bless you!

                                             “ Yours truly.”

 

“Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination – I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions – animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the convulsions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.”

         Those who can coldly regard the exquisite picture which the preceding extracts afford, will but waste their labour in perusing a narrative which they are little likely to comprehend: it is not to the tribunal of their judgments that sentiments like these can appeal.

         A project of visiting Switzerland, which Mrs. Wollstonecraft had meditated, was, in the change of her prospects, relinquished; her residence being fixed for the present in Neuilly, a village three miles from Paris, where she occupied apartments in the house of a gardener, pleasantly situated in the midst of his garden. In this seclusion she planned and partly executed, [430] A moral and historical View of the French Revolution, one volume only of which has been given to the public. From motives of delicacy her intercourse with Mr. Imlay, in whose honour and tenderness she confided, had hitherto been conducted in privacy; till, four months after its commencement, they were induced to divulge it, by the decree of the national convention respecting the imprisonment of the English. That the engagement was held mutually sacred, she seemed to entertain no doubts, having purposed to repair with Mr. Imlay to settle in America. In consequence of the danger which now threatened her as an Englishwoman, it was judged necessary that she should bear the name of Imlay, and pass as the wife of an American, for which purpose a certificate was granted by the ambassador of the United States. Having thus publicly avowed their attachment, they thought it most eligible to repair to Paris, and reside under the same roof.

         Till the present period her life had been a series of difficulties, sorrows, and disappointments, to which her acute sensibility had added keener pangs: the degree of calamity is to be estimated rather by the susceptibility of the sufferer, than by the apparent magnitude of the event. There are persons (to adopt the language of the writer* from whose memoirs the materials for this narrative are principally extracted) “endowed with the most exquisite and delicious sensibility, whose minds seem almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs, to whom pleasure is transport, and disappointment is agony indiscribable.” 

         Such appears to have been the character of this singular woman. To her affections, long forbidden to expand themselves, exalted to enthusiasm by constraint, she now gave a loose. Her ingenuous spirit, a stranger to distrust, had yet a melancholy experience to acquire of the corrupt habits of mankind. Her confidence, her tenderness, was unbounded, lavish, ineffable, combining the force, the devotion, the exquisite delicacy and resentment, which in minds of energy, the chaste 

 

* Mr. Godwin.

 

[431]

 

habits of female youth are calculated to inspire. Absorbed in a delicious tranquility, she fondly anticipated a period, now approaching, when to the affections of a wife would be added the sympathies of a mother: her heart was satisfied, past sorrows faded from her memory, or were recalled only to heighten by contrast present felicity.

         From this vision of happiness she was awakened by the temporary absence of Mr. I. who, having engaged in commerce, was called from Paris, in the following September, to superintend the shipping of goods from Havre-de-Grace. Once more left in solitude, a prey to her own sensations, various inquietudes racked her soul, as she vainly expected, week after week, month after month, the return of him whose apprehended “tenderness and worth had twisted him closely round her heart.” The ferocious and sanguinary temper which the French government at this period assumed, added to her anxiety and deepened the anguish which, in despite of her efforts, again fastened upon her spirits. Her feelings, on the execution of Brissot, Vergniaud, and the twenty deputies, were heightened to indignant agony. In January 1794, finding the return of Mr. Imlay still uncertain, she took the resolution of quitting Paris (become, under the domination of Robespierre, a theatre of blood), and joining him at Havre. From January to September another interval of domestic tranquility ensued, during which she gave birth to a daughter, on whom she bestowed the name of Frances, in remembrance of the friend of her truth. 

         In September Mr. I. departed from Havre and repaired to London, while by his desire she returned to Paris, the death of Robespierre having put a period to the proscriptions that had stained the revolution with the blood of its most meritorious citizens. Mr. Imlay had promised to rejoin her, in Paris, within two months. This expectation, non which she fondly dwelt, to soften the pain of absence, was frustrated; new inquietudes, conjectures, and apprehensions, protracted the misery of disappointment; anxiety was continually kept alive by the alternations of hope and fear, by suspense so intolerable to an [432] ardent temper; her mind became weakened, her health enfeebled, her fortitude broken, her time and talents wasted, till despair at length seized upon her heart. She struggled for a while to impose upon herself, to repress the convictions that forced themselves upon her, to resist that humiliating retraction of the judgment, respecting him on whose faith she had rested her future hopes, which the sensible heart admits not without agony. The fabric of rare felicity, which her fancy had busied itself in erecting, tottered to its foundation, threatening to overwhelm in its fall her darling plans. The following extracts from the letters published in her Posthumous Works, afford an affecting and lively representation of the present state of her mind:

         “I have been, my love, for some days tormented by fears, that I would not allow to assume a form – I had been expecting you daily – and I heard that many vessels had been driven on shore during the late gale. – Well, I now see your letter – and find that you are safe; I will not regret then that your exertions have hitherto been so unavailing. . . .

         “Be that as it may, return to me when you have arranged the other matters, which – has been crowding on you. I want to be sure that you are safe – and not separated from me by a sea that must be passed. For, feeling that I am happier than I ever was, do you wonder at my sometimes dreading that fate has not done persecuting me? Come to me, my dearest friend, husband, father of my child! – All these fond ties glow at my heart at this moment, and dim my eyes. – With you an independence is desirable; and it is always within our reach, if affluence escapes us – without you the world again appears empty to me. But I am recurring to some of the melancholy thoughts that have flitted across my mind for some days past, and haunted my dreams.”

         “Stay, my friend, whilst it is absolutely necessary. – I will give you no tenderer name, though it glows at my heart, unless [433] you come the moment the settling the present objects permit. – I do not consent to your taking any other journey – or the little woman and I will be off, the Lord knows where. But, as I had rather owe every thing to your affection, and, I may add, to your reason, (for this immoderate desire of wealth, which makes ---------- so eager to have you remain, is contrary to your principles of action), I will not importune you. – I will only tell you, that I long to see you – and, being at peace with you, I shall be hurt, rather than made angry, by delays. – Having suffered so much in life, do not be surprised if I sometimes, when left to myself, grow gloomy, and suppose that it was all a dream, and that my happiness is not to last. I say happiness, because remembrance retrenches all the dark shades of the picture.”

         “I will own to you that, feeling extreme tenderness for my little girl, I grow sad very often when I am playing with her, that you are not here, to observe with me how her mind unfolds, and her little heart becomes attached! – These appear to me to be true pleasures – and still you suffer them to escape you, in search of what we may never enjoy. – It is your own maxim to “live in the present moment.” – If you do – stay, for God’s sake; but tell me the truth – if not, tell me when I may expect to see you, and let me not be always vainly looking for you, till I grow sick at heart.

         “Adieu! I am a little hurt. – I must take my darling to my bosom to comfort me.”

         “I do not like this life of continual inquietude – and, entre nous, I am determined to try to earn some money here myself, in order to convince you that, if you chuse to run about the world to get a fortune, it is for yourself – for the little girl and I will live without your assistance, unless you are with us. I may be termed proud – Be it so – but I will never abandon certain principles of action.”

         “I consider fidelity and constancy as two distinct things; yet the former is necessary, to give life to the other – and such a degree of respect do I think due to myself, that, if only probity, which is a good thing in its place, brings you back, never return! [434] – for, if a wandering of the heart, or even a caprice of the imagination, detains you – there is an end of all my hopes of happiness – I could not forgive it, if I would.

         “ I have gotten into a melancholy mood, you perceive. You know my opinion of men in general; you know that I think them systematic tyrants, and that it is the rarest thing in the world, to meet with a man with sufficient delicacy of feeling to govern desire. When I am thus sad, I lament that my little darling, fondly as I doat on her, is a girl. – I am sorry to have a tie to a world that for me is ever sown with thorns.”

         “You left me indisposed, though you have taken no notice of it; and the most fatiguing journey I ever had, contributed to continue it. However, I recovered my health; but a neglected cold, and continual inquietude during the last two months, have reduced me to a state of weakness I never before experienced. Those who did not know that the canker-worm was at work at the core, cautioned me about suckling my child too long. – God preserve this poor child, and render her happier than; her mother!

         “But I am wandering from my subject: indeed my head turns giddy, when I think that all the confidence I have had in the affection of others is come to this. – I did not expect this blow from you. I have done my duty to you and my child, and if I am not to have any return of affection to reward me, I have the sad consolation of knowing that I deserved a better fate. My soul is weary – I am sick at heart; and, but for this little darling, I would cease to care about a life, which is now stripped of every charm.”

         “When I determined to live with you, I was only governed by affection. – I would share poverty with you, but I turn with affright from the sea of trouble on which you are entering. – I have certain principles of action: I know what I look for to found my happiness on. – It is not money. – With you I wished for sufficient to procure the comforts of life – as it is, less will do. – I can still exert myself to obtain the necessaries of life for my child, and she does not want more at present. – I have two [435] or three plans in my head to earn our subsistence; for do not suppose that, neglected by you, I will lie under obligations of a pecuniary kind to you! – No; I would sooner submit to menial service. – I wanted the support of your affection – that gone, all is over! – I did not think, when I complained of ----’s contemptible avidity to accumulate money, that he would have dragged you into his schemes.”

         “When you first entered into these plans, you bounded your views to the gaming of a thousand pounds. It was sufficient to have procured a farm in America, which would have been an independence. You find now that you did not know yourself, and that a certain situation in life is more necessary to you than you imagined – more necessary than an uncorrupted heart – For a year or two, you may procure yourself what you call pleasure; eating, drinking, and women; but, in the solitude of declining life, I shall be remembered with regret – I was going to say with remorse, but checked my pen.

         “As I have never concealed the nature of my connexion with you, your reputation will not suffer. I shall never have a confident: I am content with the approbation of my own mind; and, if there be a searcher of hearts, mine will not be despised. Reading what you have written relative to the desertion of women, I have often wondered how theory and practice could be so different, till I recollected, that the sentiments of passion, and the resolves of reason, are very distinct.”

         “Society fatigues me inexpressibly – So much so, that finding fault with every one, I have only reason enough, to discover that the fault is in myself. My child alone interest me, and, but for her, I should not take any pains to recover my health.

      “As it is, I shall wean her, and try if by that step (to which I feel a repugnance, for it is my only solace) I can get rid of my cough. Physicians talk much of the danger attending any complaint on the lungs, after a woman has suckled for some months. They lay a stress also on the necessity of keeping the mind tranquil – and, my God! How has mine been harassed! [436] But whilst the caprices of other women are gratified, “the wind of heaven not suffered to visit them too rudely,” I have not found a guardian angel, in heaven or on earth, to ward off sorrow or care from my bosom.”

    In the beginning of April 1795, Mr. I. still alleging business as an excuse for his stay, requested her to meet him in London. 

    “Here I am (says she, at Havre), on the wing towards you, and I write now, only to tell you, that you may expect me in the course of three or four days; for I shall not attempt to give vent to the different emotions which agitate my heart – You may term a feeling, which appears to me to be a degree of delicacy that naturally arises from sensibility, pride – Still I cannot indulge the very affectionate tenderness which glows in my bosom, without trembling, till I see, by your eyes, that it is mutual.

     “I sit, lost in thought, looking at the sea – and tears rush into my eyes, when I find that I am cherishing any fond expectations. – I have indeed been so unhappy this winter, I find it as difficult to acquire fresh hopes, as to regain tranquillity. – Enough of this – lie still, foolish heart! – But for the little girl, I could almost wish that it should cease to beat, to be no more alive to the anguish of disappointment.”

    From Havre she proceeded to London, with a foreboding heart, struggling to repress hope so often proved delusive, yet so congenial to her sanguine spirit: she returned to her native country only to find her cruelest apprehension verified, in the infidelity and subsequent desertion of a man to whom she had lavishly confided her happiness.

    “I have labored (says she, in a letter bearing the date of London) to calm my mind since you left me – Still I find that tranquility is not to be obtained by exertion; it is a feeling so different from the resignation of despair! – I am however no longer angry with you – nor will I ever utter another complain – there are arguments which convince the reason, whilst they carry death to the heart. – We have had too many cruel [437] explanations, that not only cloud every future prospect; but embitter the remembrances which alone give life to affection. – Let the subject never be revived!

    “It seems to me that I have not only lost the hope, but the power of being happy. – Every emotion is now sharpened by anguish. – My soul has been shook, and my tone of feelings destroyed. – I have gone out – and sought for dissipation, if not amusement, merely to fatigue still more, I find, my irritable nerves –

    ”My friend – my dear friend – examine yourself well – I am out of the question; for, alas! I am nothing – and discover what you wish to do – what will render you most comfortable – or, to be more explicit – whether you desire to live with me, or part of ever? When you can once ascertain it, tell me frankly, I conjure you! – for believe me, I have very involuntarily interrupted your peace.”

    “I will not distress you by talking of the depression of my spirits, or the struggle I had to keep alive my dying heart. – It is even now too full to allow me to write with composure. – *****, – dear *****, – am I always to be tossed about thus? – shall I never find an asylum to rest contented in? How can you love to fly about continually – dropping down, as it were, in a new world – cold and strange! – every other day? Why do you not attach those tender emotions round the idea of home, which even now dim my eyes? – This alone is affection – every thing else is only humanity, electrified by sympathy.”

    “Why did she thus obstinately cling to an ill-starred, unhappy passion? Because it is of the very essence of affection, to seek to perpetuate itself. He does not love, who can resign this cherished sentiment, without suffering some of the sharpest struggles that our nature is capable of enduring.”*

 

*Godwin's Memoirs of the Vindicator of the Rights of Woman. [Hays's note.]

 

    Near seven weeks she passed under the same roof with Mr. I. (in a furnished house which he had prepared for her reception), in vain efforts to awaken this sensibility and revive his tenderness. In proportion as had been her trust, was now her disappointment;  [438] she had yet to learn that sensuality hardens the heart, blasts its best affections, absorbs it in selfish gratification, rendering it callous to every sentiment of justice and humanity. The man on whose principles her mind had rested, with whom her imagination had associated every virtue, forgot in the blandishments of a young actress, from a company of strolling comedians, the sacred duties of a father, the tender endearments of a chaste ineffable affection, that during its influence, by giving a temporary dignity to his character, and concealed its grossness, and imposed on the discernment of a mind, with which his own had otherwise claimed no kindred.

         The strength of a passion depends principally on the imagination of the person upon whom it operates, that sketching a grand, ideal, picture, fondly attaches itself to fancied excellence, frequently associated by flight accidents to the real qualities of its object: yet the sentiments thus produced are not the less genuine, nor the less in nature; however erroneous, they are perhaps among the sweetest and the sublimest that dignify the human character: he whom they have never subdued may boast his firmness and demand our respect; but it is to the being accessible to these delightful sensibilities that all the interesting affections spontaneously cling. That enthusiasm which constitutes the grander passions, is founded on illusion: stripped of the glowing colours in which fancy decks them, what are the objects for which ambition wades through seas of blood, for which martyrs, in all causes, for all opinions, braving destruction, press forward to the scaffold or the stake?

         Exhausted by contending passions, disgusted by disappointment, loathing life, this unfortunate woman determined to die; but her purpose, for the present, was prevented by him who, absorbed in selfish indulgence, had sported with her feelings, trifled with her existence, and consigned her to anguish and despair. The woman who loved him, to whom he had voluntarily given the most sacred claims, the mother of his child, the friend who sought to ennoble his character, by reviving in his heart the sentiment that had purified it, was forgotten in the caprices of sensuality.

         [439] Snatched from the desperation of her own purposes, this interesting woman once more roused the energies of her character in the service of the man who had transfixed her heart with an envenomed arrow; the man for whom she had dared to die! A commercial business in Norway, in which Mr. I---- was materially concerned, required the presence of an active agent: Mary Wollstonecraft generously determined on this occasion to risqué the voyage, accompanied only by a female servant, and the little Frances, from whom she could not resolve on separating herself. This tour, for the purpose of promoting the interest of one who contemned the zeal and worth he was incapable of appreciating, gave rise to a subsequent publication, entitled Letters from Scandinavia, a work that addresses itself to the heart, and seizes on its affections.

         “I am harassed by your embarrassments (said she, in a private letter addressed to the same person), and shall certainly use all my efforts to make the business terminate to your satisfaction in which I am engaged.

         “My friend – my dearest friend – I feel my fate united to yours by the most sacred principles of my soul, and the yearnings of – yes, I will say it – a true, unsophisticated heart.”

         “Do write by every occasion! I am anxious to hear how your affairs go on; and, still more, to be convinced that you are not separating yourself from us. For my little darling is calling papa, and adding her parrot word – Come, Come! And will you not come, and let us exert ourselves? – I shall recover all my energy, when I am convinced that my exertions will draw us more closely together.”

         “Often do I sigh, when I think of your entanglements in business, and your extreme restlessness of mind. Even now I am almost afraid to ask you, whether the pleasure of being free, does not over-balance the pain you felt at parting with me? Sometimes I indulge the hope that you will feel me necessary to you – or why should we meet again? – but, the moment after, despair damps my rising spirits, aggravated by the emotions of tenderness, which ought to soften the cares of life. – God bless you!”

         Further extracts from letters which (though they have appeared [440] since her death, were not meant for the public eye) cannot fail, in this place, of interesting the reader. 

         “The last time we were separated, was a separation indeed on your part – Now you have acted more ingenuously, let the most affectionate interchange of sentiments fill up the aching void of disappointment. I almost dread that your plans will prove abortive – yet should the most unlucky turn send you home to us, convinced that a true friend is a treasure, I should not much mind having to struggle with the world again. Accuse me not of pride – yet sometimes, when nature has opened my heart to its author, I have wondered that you did not set a higher value on my heart.”

         “What are you about? How are your affairs going on? It may be a long time before you answer these questions. My dear friend, my heart sinks within me! – Why am I forced thus to struggle continually with my affections and feelings? – Ah! why are those affections and feelings the source of so much misery, when they seem to have been given to vivify my heart, and extend my usefulness! But I must not dwell on this subject. Will you not endeavor to cherish all the affections you can for me? What am I saying? Rather forget me, if you can – if other gratifications are dearer to you. How is every remembrance of mine embittered by disappointment? What a world is this! They only seem happy, who never look beyond sensual or artificial enjoyments. – Adieu!”

         “This is the fifth dreary day I have been imprisoned by the wind, with every outward object to disgust the senses, and unable to banish the remembrances that sadden my heart.

         “How am I altered by disappointment! When going to ------, ten years ago, the elasticity of my mind was sufficient to ward off weariness – and the imagination still could dip her brush in the rainbow of fancy, and sketch futurity in smiling colours. Now I am going towards the North in search of sunbeams! Will any ever warm this desolated heart? All nature seemsli to frown – or rather mourn with me. Every thing is cold – cold as my expectations!”

         “My friend – my friend, I am not well – a deadly weight of [441] sorrow lies heavily on my heart. I am again tossed on the trubled billows of life; and obiged to cope with difficulties, without being buoyed uip by the hopes that alone render them bearable. “How flat, dul, and unprofitable, “ appears to me all the bustle int which I see people here so eagerly enter! I long every night to go to bed, to hide my melancholy face in my pillow; but there is a canker-worm in my bosom that never sleeps.”

         “Believe me (and my eyes fill with tears of tenderness as I assure you) there is nothing I would not endure in the way of privation, rather than disturb your tranquillity. If I am fated to be unhappy, I will labour to hide my sorrows in my own bosom; and you shall always find me a faithful, affectionate friend. 

“I grow more and more attached to my little girl – and I cherish this affection without fear, because it just be a long time before it can become bitterness of soul. She is an interesting creature. On ship-board, how often, as I gazed at the sea, have I longed to bury my troubled bosom in the less troubled deep; asserting with Brutus, “that the virtue I had followed too far, was merely an empty name!” and nothing but the sight of her  -- her playful smiles, which seemed to cling and twine round my heart – could have stopped me.

“What peculiar misery has fallen to my share! To act up to my principles, I have laid the strictest restraint on my very thoughts – yes; not to sully the delicacy of my feelings, I have reined in my imagination; and started with affright from every sensation (I allude to ------), that, stealing with balmy sweetness into my soul, led me to scent from afar the fragrance of reviving nature.

“My friend, I have dearly paid for one conviction. Love, in some minds, is an affair of sentiment, arising from the same delicacy of perception (or taste) as renders them alive to the beauties of nature, poetry, &c. alive to the charms of those evanescent graces that are, as it were, impalpable – they must be felt, they cannot be described. 

“Love is a want of my heart. I have examined myself lately [442] with more care than formerly, and find, that to deaden is not to calm the mind – Aiming at tranquillity, I have almost destroyed all the energy of my soul – almost rooted out what renders it estimable. Yes, I have damped that enthusiasm of character, which converts the grossest materials into a fuel, that imperceptibly feeds hopes, which aspire above common enjoyment. Despair, since the birth of my child, has rendered me stupid – soul and body seemed to be fading away before the withering touch of disappointment.”

“I shall not, however, complain. There are misfortunes so great, as to silence the usual expressions of sorrow. Believe me, there is such a thing as a broken heart! There are characters whose very energy preys upon them; and who, ever inclined to cherish by reflection some passion, cannot rest satisfied with the common comforts of life. I have endeavoured to fly from myself, and launched into all the dissipation possible here, only to feel keener anguish, when alone with my child.

“Still, could any thing please me – had not disappointment cut me off from life, this romantic country, these fine evenings, would interest me. My God! Can any thing? And am I ever to feel alive only to painful sensations? But it cannot – it shall not last long.”

“I am now on my journey to ----------. I felt more at leaving my child, than I thought I should – and, whilst at night I imagined every instant that I heard the half-formed sounds of her voice, -- I asked myself how I could think of parting with her for ever, of leaving her thus helpless?

“Poor lamb!” It may run very well in a tale, that “God will temper the winds to the shorn lamb!” but how can I expect that she will be shielded, when my naked bosom has had to brave continually the pitiless storm? Yes; I could add, with poor Lear – What is the war of elements to the pangs of disappointed affections, and the horror arising from a discovery of a breach of confidence, that snaps every social tie!

“All is not right somewhere! – When you first knew me, I was not thus lost. I could still confide – for I opened my heart [443] to you – of this only comfort you have deprived me, whilst my happiness, you tell me, was your first object. Strange want of judgment!

“I will not complain; but, from the soundness of your understanding, I am convinced, if you give yourself leave to reflect, you will also feel, that your conduct to me, so far from being generous, has not been just. I mean not to allude to factitious principles of morality; but to the simple basis of all rectitude. However I did not intend to argue – Your not writing is cruel – and my reason is perhaps disturbed by constant wretchedness.”

“Write to me then, my friend, and write explicitly. I have suffered, God knows, since I left you. Ah! you have never felt this kind of sickness of heart! My mind, however, is at present painfully active, and the sympathy I feel almost rises to agony. But this is not a subject of complaint, it has afforded me pleasure, – and reflected pleasure is all I have to hope for – if a spark of hope be yet alive in my forlorn bosom. 

“I will try to write with a degree of composure. I wish for us to live together, because I want you to acquire an habitual tenderness for my poor girl. I cannot bear to think of leaving her alone in the world, or that she should only be protected by your sense of duty. Next to preserving her, my most earnest wish is not to disturb your peace. I have nothing to expect, and little to fear, in life – There are wounds that can never be healed – but they may be allowed to fester in silence without wincing.

“Yes; I shall be happy – This heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate – and I cannot even persuade myself, wretched as they have made me, that my principles and sentiments are not founded in nature and truth.”

“You tell me that my letters torture you; I will not describe the effect yours have on me. I received three this morning, the last dated the 7thof this month. I mean not to give vent to the emotions they produced. Certainly you are right; our minds are not congenial. I have lived in an ideal world, and fostered sentiments that you do not comprehend – or you would not treat me thus, I am not, I will not be, merely an object of compassion [444] – a clog, however light, to tease you. Forget that I exist: I will never remind you. Something emphatical whispers me to put an end to these struggles. Be free – I will not torment, when I cannot please. I can take care of my child; you need not continually tell me that our fortune is inseparable, that you will try to cherish tenderness for me. Do no violence to yourself! When we are separated, our interest, since you give so much weight to pecuniary considerations, will be entirely divided. I want not protection without affection; and support I need not, whilst my faculties are undisturbed.”

“I am weary of travelling – yet seem to have no home – no resting-place to look to. – I amn strangely cast off. – How often, passing through the rocks, I have thought, “But for this child, I would lay my head on one of them, and never open my eyes again!” With a heart feelingly alive to all the affections of my nature – I have never met with one, softer than the stone that I would fain take for my last pillow. I once thought I had, but it was all a delusion. I meet with families continually, who are bound together by affection or principle – and, when I am conscious that I have fulfilled the duties of my station, almost to a forgetfulness of myself, I am ready to demand, in a murmuring tone of Heaven, “Why am I thus abandoned?”

“By what criterion of principle or affection, you term my questions extraordinary and unnecessary, I cannot determine. – You desire me to decide – I had decided. You must have had long ago two letters of mine, from ---------, to the same purport, to consider. – In these, God knows! There was but too much affection, and the agonies of a distracted mind were but too faithfully pourtrayed! – What more then had I to say? – The negative was to come from you. – You had perpetually recurred to your promise of meeting me in the autumn – Was it extraordinary that I should demand a yes, or no? – Your letter is written with extreme harshness, coldness I am accustomed to; in it I find not a trace of the tenderness of humanity, much less of friendship.”

“The tremendous power who formed this heart, must have foreseen that, in a world in which self-interest, in various shapes, [445] is the principal mobile, I had little chance of escaping misery. – To the fiat of fate I submit. – I am content to be wretched; but I will not be contemptible. – Of me you have no cause to complain, but for having had too much regard for you – for having expected a degree of permanent happiness, when you only sought for a momentary gratification.

I am strangely deficient in sagacity. – Uniting myself to you, your tenderness seemed to make amends for all my former misfortunes. – On this tenderness and affection with what confidence did I rest! – but I leaned on a spear, that has pierced je to the heart. – You have thrown off a faithful friend, to pursue the caprices of the moment.”

“Do not keep me in suspense. – I expect nothing from you, or any human being: my die is cast! – I have fortitude enough to determine to do my duty; yet I cannot raise my depressed spirits, or calm my trembling heart. – That being who moulded it thus, knows that I am unable to tear up by the roots the propensity to affection which has been the torment of my life – but life will have an end!”

I must tell you, that I am very much mortified by your continually offering me pecuniary assistance – and, considering your going to the new house, as an open avowal that you abandon me, let me tell you that I will sooner perish than receive any thing from you – and I say this at the moment when I am disappointed in my first attempt to obtain a temporary supply. But this even pleases me; an accumulation of disappointments and misfortunes seems to suit the habit of my mind.”

“The grief I cannot conquer (for some cruel recollections never quit me, banishing almost every other) I labour to conceal in total solitude. – My life, therefore, is but an exercise of fortitude, continually on the stretch – and hope never gleams in this tomb, where I am buried alive.”

“My affection for you is rooted in my heart. – I know you are not what you now seem – nor will you always act, or feel, as you now do, though I may never be comforted by the change. – Even at Paris, my image will haunt you. – You will see my pale [446] face – and sometimes the tears of anguish will drop on your heart, which you have forced from mine.

“I cannot write. I thought I could quickly have refuted all your ingeniousarguments; but my head is confused. – Right or wrong, I am miserable!

“It seems to me, that my conduct has always been governed by the strictest principles of justice and truth. Yet, how wretched have my social feelings and delicacy of sentiment rendered me! – I have loved with my whole soul, only to discover that I had no chance of a return – and that existence is a burthen without it.

“I do not perfectly understand you. – If, by the offer of your friendship, you still only mean pecuniary support – I must again reject it. – Trifling are the ills of poverty in the scale of my misfortunes. – God bless you!”

“Resentment, and even anger, are momentary emotions with me – and I wished to tell you so, that if you ever think of me, it may not be in the light of an enemy.

“That I have not been used well I must ever feel; perhaps, not always with the keen anguish I do at present – for I began even now to write calmly, and I cannot restrain my tears.

“I am stunned! – Your late conduct still appears to me a frightful dream. – Ah! ask yourself if you have not condescended to employ a little address, I could almost say cunning, unworthy of you? – Principles are sacred things – and we never play with truth, with impunity.

“The expectation (I have too fondly nourished it) of regaining your affection, every day grows fainter and fainter. – Indeed, it seems to me, when I am more sad than usual, that I shall never see you more. – Yet you will not always forget me. – You will feel something like remorse, for having lived only for yourself – and sacrificed my peace to inferior gratifications. In a comfortless old age, you will remember that you had one disinterested friend, whose heart you wounded to the quick. The hour of recollection will come – and you will not be satisfied to act the part of a boy, till you fall into that of a dotard. I known that your mind, your heart, and your principles of actions, are all [447] superior to your present conduct. You do, you must, respect me – and you will be sorry to forfeit my esteem.”

Callous must have been the heart which letters like these failed to move!

The person for whom, with a sick mind and a wasted constitution, she was thus exerting herself, had engaged to met her on her return from Norway, perhaps at Hamburgh, and to pass with her some time in Switzerland: his promises were faithless, and her disappointments bitter and accumulated. The ambiguity of his conduct urged her to repair to England; her very soul sickened from these protracted anxieties [sic]; she conjured him to be explicit on the subject of their future intercourse, but her solicitude was still evaded. 

In the beginning of October, while residing in lodgings in London, provided for her by Mr. I-----, she at length obtained, through the medium of a servant, the certainty she sought. In the first tumult of her feelings on this discovery, she repaired to the house of the woman by whom she had been supplanted, where, meeting Mr. I------, some cruel explanations ensued: she returned to her apartments in a state of mind that mocks description, a state of mind which it requires a portion of her own sensibility even to conceive. In the agony of a broken spirit, she once more meditated projects of desperation; her native courage and lofty spirit mingled a species of heroism with the anguish that had seized her: she abhorred existence; she perceived that the fervent character of her soul had in the pursuit of happiness led her from illusion to illusion, through error into calamity; she had chaced a phantom, and grasping it, found it dissolve in her embrace. She felt, with all its pangs, the misery which the generous, ardent, trusting spirit, treasures up for itself when it “rests on human love.” From the retrospect of the past, her thoughts recoiled – over the future a dark cloud lowered! – Hope, a thousand times frustrated, at length seemed extinguished; fortitude was exhausted by suffering; the tone of her mind destroyed (as she believed) for ever. Once more she resolved to die. She addressed on her knees the man to whose libertine habits she had become a victim.

[448] “I write to you now on my knees; imploring you to send my child and the maid with --------, to Paris, to be consigned to the care of Madame -------, rue ----------, fection de --------------. Should they be removed, --------------- can give their direction.

“Let the maid have all my clothes, without distinction.

“Pray pay the cook her wages, and do not mention the confession which I forced from her – a little sooner or later is of no consequence. Nothing but my extreme stupidity could have rendered me blind so long. Yet, whilst you assured me that you had not attachment, I thought we might still have lived together. 

“I shall make no comments on your conduct; or any appeal to the world. Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold.

“I would encounter a thousand deaths, rather than a night like the last. Your treatment has thrown my mind into a state of chaos; yet I am serene. I go to find comfort, and my only fear is, that my poor body will be insulted by an endeavor to recal [sic] my hated existence. But I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek.

“God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.”

Quitting her lodging and walking to the river side, she engaged a boat, with the deliberate purpose of plunging from it into the Thames. On her way, she put several questions to the person who rowed her, and from his replies, was induced to make some change in her plan, lest its execution should be prevented. Having proceeded to Putney, she there landed. Night drew on, a heavy rain began to fall, which suggested to her the idea of walking till her clothes had imbibed the moisture, with a view of accelerating her design. For half an hour she continued to pace backward and forward, alone and unobserved, and at length [449] leaped from the top of the bridge. Her courage buoyed her up; folding her wet garments round her, she made efforts to sink, which having effected, she described herself as twice rising again as from a fainting fit, to the full sense of her situation. In these terrible momenbts, while her purpose remained unshaken, the idea of her child forcibly obtruded itself, awakening all the mother in her heart. To the struggles of expiring nature were added the stronger pangs of maternal tenderness.  At length, resolutely imbibing the water in large quantities, she suffered a sense of suffocation, and again sunk to a temporary oblivion of her woes. A considerable period had elapsed before she was observed from the shore, floating down with the tide, and, by the usual methods usually adopted on such occasions, rescued from the arms of death. Whatever may be the conclusions of those who, with their passions at rest, calmly speculate on the propriety of suicide, or putting an end to sensation when become an inlet only to misery,* it is impossible not to admire the courage with which this unfortunate woman effected her purpose, or not to sympathise in the anguish of a mind wounded “there, where the heart most exquisitely feels.”

 

* To the philosopher, the vicissitudes of life, perhaps, afford the only satisfactory argument on tis subject.

 

Awakened into transient remorse by the consequences of the misery he had inflicted, even Mr. I------ betrayed, on this affecting event, some symptoms of humanity: procuring a physician to attend her, he prevailed upon her to remove from her lodgings to the house of a common friend; assuring her, “that the present wandering of his affections was of a casual nature; suggesting the idea of his return to her to whom he had given more sacred claims; and of whose faithful and disinterested tenderness he had experienced, alas! but too fatal proofs.” These insinuations roused once more her languid faculties: incapable of supporting the idea of a renewal of those uncertainties which had racked her mind, she was induced to propose an expedient not less romantic than extraordinary.

“If we are ever to live together again, it must be now. We meet now, or we part for ever. You say, You cannot abruptly break off the connexion you have formed. It is unworthy of [450] my courage and character, to wait the uncertain issue of that connexion. I am determined to come to a decision. I consent then, for the present, to live with you, and the woman to whom you have associated yourself. I think it important that you should learn habitually to feel for your child the affection of a father. But, if you reject this proposal, here we end. You are now free. We will correspond no more. We will have no intercourse of any kind. I will be to you as a person that is dead.”

The impracticability of such a plan does not appear immediately to have occurred to Mr. I--------; but a little consideration induced him to retract a consent which, with a view, perhaps, of soothing her feelings, he had hastily given. In the following month he repaired with the new object of his attentions to Paris, where he continued to reside during three months, Mary Wollstonecraft having previously fixed herself in apartments in Finsbury-place, adjoining to the residence of the lady whose friendly roof she had quitted. Secluding herself from society, her thoughts incessantly dwelling on the circumstances of her desolate situation, nourishing in her heart an affection yet unextinguished by her sufferings, indulging in melancholy retrospection, her soul’s disease rapidly undermining the strength of her frame, her health seemed daily to decline.

On the return of Mr. I------- to England, for whose conduct she was incessantly meditating excuse, she determined on making one more effort for an interview, flattering herself, that his present infatuation, every way (as she conceived) unworthy of him, could not be of a permanent nature. The interview she requested was denied to her with harshness. Accidentally calling a few days after at the house of a common friend, she learned that Mr. I-------- was at that time in an adjoining apartment, engaged with a party of gentlemen: conscious of the rectitude of her cause, and emboldened by the sense of underserved injuries, she resisted the well-meant expostulation of her friend, who would have dissuaded her from her purpose, and, suddenly entering the dining room, in which the company were assembled, led her infant, now near two years of age, to the knees of its [451] father.  Confounded by her presence and her courage, Mr. I------ retired with her to another room, and, at her request, promised to meet her at her lodgings on the ensuing day. He fulfilled his appointment, and by conciliating language calmed the anguish of her spirits; a cheering ray of hope seemed to pierce the gloom that surrounded her, but, like a transient meteor, after dazzling her aching eye for a moment, it quickly disappeared. In this interview he still affected to speak of returning, after the wanderings of libertinism (with a debauched mind, and, probably, a shattered constitution) to repose on the tried faith of the only woman whom he had ever loved with distinction, entreating her to continue to bear his name, to which no other, he vehemently protested, should ever have a claim. “It was not for the world (said she in a letter to a friend) that I complied with this request, but I was unwilling to cut the Gordian knot, or tear myself away in appearance, when I could not in reality.” The succeeding day she left town, passing some weeks in the country, in the house of a female friend. 

On her return from this excursion, new circumstances occurred, bringing with them a further conviction of the duplicity and unworthiness of the object for whom she had so perseveringly cherished tenderness; she resolved therefore to rouse her powers, and finally to rend from her heart an attachment which her reason and her principles equally contemned – an attachment now become humiliating to her character, and that had but too long been productive of an immense overbalance of pain. Making a last effort for freedom and tranquillity, she resolutely sought to repel those fatal recollections and associations that had borne down her spirit, clouded her faculties, and blasted her peace. She exerted her talents, forced herself into employment, changed the place of her residence, and addressed, for the last time, the man from whose instability she had so severely suffered.

“It is now finished. – Convinced that you have neither regard nor friendship, I disdain to utter a reproach, though I have had reason to think, that the “forbearance” talked of has not been very delicate. – It is, however, of no consequence, – I am glad you are satisfied with your own conduct.

[452] “I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell. – Yet I flinch not from the duties which tie me to life.

“That there is ‘sophistry’ on one side or other, is certain; but now it matters not on which. On my part it has not been a question of words. Yet your understanding or mine must be strangely warped.

“The sentiment in me is still sacred. If there be any part of me that will survive the sense of my misfortunes, it is the purity of my affections. The impetuosity of your senses my have led you to term mere animal desire the source of principle; and it may give zest for some years to come. – Whether you will always think so, I shall never know.

“It is strange that, in spite of all you do, something like conviction forces me to believe, that you are not what you appear to be.

“I part with you in peace.”

This letter, which put a period to the most afflictive incident in her life, was written in March 1796. However weakened by her sorrows, her active spirit had not suffered itself, as in ordinary cases, to be engrossed by them: this capacity of exertion, in seasons of distress and difficulty, affords perhaps the strongest characteristic of a superior mind. Her letters from Norway had been written and prepared for the press, and a comedy sketched, the serious incidents of which turn upon her own sotry, within the last ten months, during which she had been twice prompted to suicide.

  Hitherto, in recording the life of this admirable woman, melancholy has marked every page; her history, with but little variation, has exhibited a train of  cares, struggles, disappointments, and sorrows; the review of it inclines us to adopt the language of an eloquent writer:* “Of what use are talents and sentiments in the corrupt wilderness of human society? It is a rank and rotten soil, from which every finer shrub draws poison as it grows. All that, in a happier field and a purer air, might expand into beauty and germinate into usefulness, is thus converted into henbane and deadly nightshade.” – The cloud that 

 

* Godwin’s Caleb Williams. 

 

had overshadowed her destiny at length began to disperse, the prospect brightened, and the sun of hope, diffusing his rays through the gloom, shed over the latter periods of her life (of which we shall take a brief view) a mild and benign lustre.

         In the beginning of April 1796, Mrs. Wollstonecraft removed to lodgings at Pentonville, in the neighbourhood of Somer’s-town, in which resided Mr. W. Godwin, a writer of distinguished talents, the boldness and singularity of whose speculations had excited attention, and provoked opposition, in the philosophic and literary world. Mr. Godwin had casually met Mrs. Wollstonecraft in a mixt company, previously to her excursion to the continent, when, from some difference in their principles, they parted with impressions mutually unfavourable. Their acquaintance was now renewed, in consequence of a meeting at the apartments of a common friend,* who had forwarded the interview, with a view of removing their prejudices, and of diverting the melancholy of a woman whose talents and misfortunes had excited in her heart the most affectionate interest. This meeting led to a greater degree of intimacy between the parties, to which a friendly and confidential intercourse gradually succeeded preparing the way for sentiments still more cordial and tender: sorrow softens the mind and irresistibly disposes it to the claims of sympathy. 

 

* The writer of the present narrative.

 

Embittered by undeserved injuries, yearning after social and domestic affections, so dear to the sensible heart, suffering under the cruellest species of widowhood, every previous tie abruptly dissolved, darling association, not gradually dissevered, but rudely torn away without a single pleasing, recollection on which to rest, impressed by the intellectual eminence, affected by the worth and kindness of Mr. Godwin, the susceptible mind of Mary Wollstonecraft admitted, almost unconsciously, while struggling to obliterate the traces of the past, new impressions, that appeared to be more worthy of her, while they promised greater stability. Six months had elapsed, since she had resolutely banished from her soul the lingering remains of an attachment that had at length become incompatible with the respect due to [454] herself. The speculative opinions of Mr. Godwin rendered him adverse to marriage; the pecuniary embarrassments of Mrs. Wollstonecraft, it can scarcely be supposed, were lessened; neither can it be believed, that, on such a subject, a mind like hers could be capable of reserve. Mr. Godwin, in consideration of the inconveniences which had been already sustained, and to which, from the habits of society, the woman he loved might still be exposed, with a liberality which did him honour, waved his own scruples, and gave to the union which took place between them a legal sanction. Their marriage was not immediately declared, Mr. Godwin indulging the delicacy of his wife, who shrunk from becoming again a subject of public discussion.

It was now that her exhausted heart began to find repose, that at peace with herself, she diffused around her the tranquillity she enjoyed: her ideas of rational happiness had ever been concentered in the circle of domestic affections; in seeking to realize her plans, she had till this period been involved in underserved calumny and distress; to the calm satisfactions of nature and social affection the best constituted minds are the most exquisitely sensible. Had the sensibility of this extraordinary woman early found its proper objects, softened by the sympathies, and occupied by the duties of a wife and mother, she had serenely pursued her course. The placid stream, that gliding through the meadows, fertilizes their banks, checked in its course, becomes a destructive torrent: those strong passions, that, ravaging the mind, afflict and deform society, have their origin in opposition and constraint; if in this way talent is sometimes generated, it seems to be purchased too dear.

The laws of nature are paramount to the customs of society; its dictates will not be silenced by factitious precepts. Those who, without guilt or imprudence, find themselves excluded from the common solace of their species, will be led to consider the reasonableness of this privation, of which its injustice tends to aggravate its importance. From the expensive habits of society, and its consequent profligacy, a large proportion of women are destined to celibacy, while their importance, their establishment, their pleasures, and their respectability, are (with few exceptions) [455] connected with marriage. Woe be to these victims of vice or superstition, if, too ingenuous for habitual hypocrisy, they cannot stifle in the bottom of their hearts those feelings which should constitute their happiness and their glory: that sensibility, which is the charm of their sex, in such situations becomes its bitterest curse; in submitting to their destiny they rarely escape insult; in overstepping the bounds prescribed to them, by a single error, they become involved in a labyrinth of perplexity and distress. In vain may reflection enable them to contemn distinctions, that, confounding truth and morals, poison virtue at its source: overwhelmed by a torrent of contumely and reproach, a host of foes encompass their path, exaggerate their weakness, distort their principles, misrepresent their actions, and, with deadly malice, or merciless zeal, seek to drive them from the haunts of civil life.

Of the truth of these remarks the vindicator of female rights had not been without an experience. 

“Those who are bold enough (said she in a letter to a friend) to advance before the age they live in, and to throw off, by the force of their own minds, the prejudices which the maturing reason of the world will in time disavow, must learn to brave censure. We ought not to be too anxious respecting the opinion of others. – I am not fond of vindications. – Those who know me will suppose that I acted from principle. – Nay, as we in general give others credit for worth, in proportion as we possess it – I am easy with regard to the opinions of the best part of mankind – I rest on my own.”

Her union with Mr. Godwin, though sanctioned by formswhich the prudent will not lightly be induced to violate, did not wholly exempt her from reproach: some nice distinctions in the circle of her acquaintance which had at first excited her surprise, not unmingled with regret, were nevertheless quickly forgotten – a mind like hers justly rested on itself. More interesting hopes and sentiments now occupied her thoughts: surrounded by respectable and intelligent friends, who knew how to appreciate her fine qualities, happy in the bosom of domestic peace, her heart once more expanded itself, her genius resumed its tone and vigour. Literary avocations, domestic pleasures, and social engagements, [456] occupied and diversified her time; while she anticipated with pleasure an approaching period, that, by adding to her maternal cares, would afford a new exercise to her affections.

“She was a worshipper,” says her biographer and husband,* “of domestic life. She loved to observe the growth of affection between me and her daughter, then three years of age, as well as my anxiety respecting the child not yet born. Pregnancy itself, unequal as the decree of nature seems to be in this respect, is the source of a thousand endearments. No one knew better than Mary how to extract sentiments of exquisite delight, from trifles, which a suspicious and formal wisdom would scarcely deign to remark. A little ride into the country with myself and the child, has sometimes produced a sort of opening of the heart, a general expression of confidence and affectionate soul, a sort of infantine, yet dignified endearment, which those who have felt may understand, but which I should in vain attempt to pourtray.”

“Resting not in selfish and indolent enjoyment, her active talents still prompted her to various projects of usefulness. A production in which she had for some time been engaged, was announced to the public under the title of The Wrongs of Woman, being designed to exemplify those evils, arising out of the laws and customs of civil institutions, more peculiarly appropriate to her sex – evils of which she was but too well qualified to speak. She had likewise planned a series of letters on the management of infants, to be subjected to the revision of a medical friend, the introductory letter of which has appeared in her posthumous works: also a series of books for the instruction of children, a fragment of which, found among her papers, has been since published. In the execution of her novel, there is reason to believe, from the sketch which has appeared, that she had proposed to employ considerable attention; aware of the difficulties which attend this species of composition, despised by pedants, but in which to ensure success, powers of no common order must combine. Impressed with this conviction, she proceeded slowly, with frequent alterations and careful revisions. In the former and most finished part of the work, the Story of Jemima, an abandoned female 

 

* Godwin’s Memoirs, &c.

 

[457]  

 

infant, trained up through oppression and calamity, to vice and infamy, is conceived and executed with originality and spirit: the remaining volumes, which appear under great disadvantages, in a mutilated state, seem to allude to circumstances in the life of the author: the favourable change in her situation, it is not improbably had she lived to conclude the work, might have deducted in some degree from its pathos.

         In the midst of these flattering prospects, she felt the period of child-birth approach (Wednesday, August 30, 1797), which she met with her usual fortitude, and which her native courage, and the most favourable circumstances attending her former experience, had enabled her to anticipate without apprehension: she had always entertained an opinion, that on such occasions there was more propriety in receiving the aid of a female practitioner, and that notwithstanding the defects* in their professional education, their skill was adequate to common cases. Her’s unfortunately proved not to be a common case; to a protracted delivery succeeded symptoms of a perilous nature, alarming for her safety the fears and tenderness of her friends. For the few following days more promising appearances revived their drooping spirits; on the ensuing Sunday these flattering expectations gave place to the most cruel solicitude. Every assistance that medical skill, or the tenderness of friendship could suggest or afford, was administered in vain: supporting her sufferings, while sensible of her situation, with exemplary patience and cheerfulness, she lingered till the following Sunday, September the 10th, on which she expired, twenty minutes before eight in the morning. It did not appear that she entertained apprehensions of death till within two days preceding the event, when she occasionally adverted to it, without seeming to dwell on the idea, her faculties at that time being considerably impaired. The religious sentiments she had imbibed in her youth, had in them no terrours that could discompose a dying hour; her imagination had embodied images of visionary perfection, giving rise to affections in which her sensibility delighted to indulge. Her remains were 

 

* These defects which are to be regretted, it is hoped, will be remedied by the wisdom and delicacy of future generations.

 

[458] interred in the church-yard of St. Pancras, Middlesex, where a plain monument has since been erected to her memory, bearing the following inscription:

 

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin,

Author of 

A Vindication

Of the Rights of Woman.

Born XXVII April MDCCLIX.

Died X September, MDCCXCVII.

 

It would be difficult to review the life of this singular woman without being impressed by mingled sentiments of tenderness and respect. The sense of her errors (and who, with feelings as acute and passions as ardent, has not committed many mistakes?) is absorbed in stronger sympathy with her sorrows and reverence for her virtues. The qualities of her heart and the attainments of her understanding appear to have been eminently her own, her errors and her sufferings arose out of the vices and prejudices of others. The powers and resources of her mind, amidst the disadvantages of her sex and station, bespeak talents of the highest order; her conceptions were bold and original, her freedom of thinking, and courage in stemming popular opinions, worthy of admiration. An obscure individual, unknown and unsupported, she raised herself by her own exertions to an eminence that excited, in an extraordinary degree, public attention, and afforded her a celebrity extending beyond the limits of the country which gave her birth. More than feminine sensibility and tenderness, united with masculine strength and fortitude, a combination as admirable as rare, were the peculiar characteristics of her mind. With an unconquerable propensity to individual attachment, which, concentrating its feelings, has a tendency to narrow the heart, her’s cherished the most expanded philanthropy, and glowed with the warmest benevolence. She thought and felt on a comprehensive scale.

Should it be alleged, that she was unstable in attachment, let the nature, the virtue, and the reasonableness of constancy be [459] defined, and let the circumstances in which her affections changed their object, be brought to the test. What “sweet remembrance” had she, to sooth, “with virtue’s kindest thoughts, her aching breast, and turn her tears to rapture?”*

Doubtless her conduct was in many instances imprudent, in some faulty; from the caprices of sensibility and the inequalities of genius, she was not exempt: a concession humiliating to the pride of talent, but from which ignorance and dullness may extract consolation.

 

* Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination.

 

To expect any being merely human should, in its present state, mingle with society untainted by its corruptions, is to be ignorant of the sympathetic nature of mind: he, who demands perfection, betrays little knowledge either of himself or his species: he, who looks for it in ardent tempers, has the book of nature yet to learn. Those who display eagerness in detecting the weaknesses of superior characters, would do well to weigh in the same balance their own proportion of goodness and greatness. A great character, to excite emulation and rouse the nobler passions, should be placed in a just light and a certain point of view. A habit of searching for defects will insensibly beget imitation: he, who never warmed his heart by the contemplation of excellence, will scarcely rise to arduous heights.

Her own sex have lost, in the premature fate of this extraordinary woman, an able champion; yet she has not labored in vain: the spirit of reform is silently pursuing its course. Who can mark its limits?

That something could be added respecting the earlier progress of a mind thus gifted, is to be wished rather than expected; the growth of intellect and the rise of ideas are rarely to be traced. On this subject we have no authority; but are inclined to suspect, that, like the majority of her sex, her studies were desultory and her attainments causal, pursued with little method, under the direction of her taste, or as her feelings took the lead. It does not appear that she was acquainted with any science, or pretended to learning in its appropriate sense: her knowledge of the French language had been incidentally acquired for colloquial purposes, and the business of translation; with the latter view, she had also applied herself to the German. Confiding in the strength of her faculties, and the richness of her imagination, she had paid but little attention, even in her nature language, to grammatical propriety; an error of which, in the latter periods of her life, she became fully sensible. Her mind probably owed its activity to the difficult circumstances in which she had been placed, to the force of her passions, and to the early necessity for the exertion of her powers. 

Her person was above the middle height, and well proportioned; her form full; her hair and eyes brown; her features pleasing; her countenance changing and impressive; her voice soft, and, though without great compass, capable of modulation. When unbending in familiar and confidential conversation, her manners had a charm that subdued the heart. 

 

1 Copy-text from the collections of the New York Public Library; pages 426-27 and 436-37 are missing from that volume.