Mary Wollstonecraft was born on this date in 1759 in London, the second of seven children and a daughter of the heir to a modest manufacturing fortune who squandered it in a vain search for leisured gentility. Her childhood was marked by repeated residential moves, downward social and economic mobility, her father’s occasionally abusive treatment of her mother, and parental investment in the education of only her oldest brother, Edward (Ned).
Wollstonecraft’s 250th anniversary has been far less noted this year than the bicentennials of the births of Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin. The Unitarian Church at Newington Green, in London, where she met British political and social reformers, held a symposium last Friday on “Mary Wollstonecraft and Newington Green Radicalism.“ The University of Exeter sponsored a workshop the same day on “Wollstonecraft is 250: Lives, Works, Influences, Legacies.” The University of Oslo, in Norway (where Wollstonecraft traveled in 1795 to pursue the business interests of her lover, Gilbert Imlay), is today observing “Mary Wollstonecraft, 250 years.” The Council for Parity Democracy in London buries her deeply in a list of “Anniversaries of Distinguished Women: 2009.” The Center for Eighteenth Century Studies at Queen’s University Belfast has just sponsored “1759: An Interdisciplinary Conference” to assess “a year that should be as well known in British history as 1066.” Its call for papers last summer noted the death of General Wolfe, the publication of Voltaire’s Candide, the suppression of the Encyclopedie, the death of Handel, and even “the founding in Dublin of the St. James’ Brewery, by Arthur Guinness.” Wollstonecraft languishes in a long list of suggested “possible topics.” No American institutions have taken even that much notice. Governments have issued no stamps or coins and no flurry of special publications or conferences looms on the horizon.
Wollstonecraft is difficult to teach in a general education environment. Her signal production, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), is a dense text to modern undergraduate eyes. I used it in a university-required course for underclassmen, who call all books “novels” and 90- page Bedford Readers “long.” They unsurprisingly hated it, but when asked to write fictive dialogues between Mary and Benjamin Franklin, they turned in fairly spirited performances. Most of the young women cast Mary as modern and assertive, while their male classmates imagined “Bens” who were more contrite than defensive. This partially convinced me that the rumored generational campus gender “backlash” might be more illusory than real. But it would be helpful if a wider range of Wollstonecraft’s short works, of fiction, children’s literature, didactic theory, political criticism, and book reviews, was more available for classroom use.
I am not a Wollstonecraft scholar, but rather a historian of sibling relations who came to her in that context. The sibling cohort has been relatively ignored in modern works on family history and in social scientists’ consideration of familism itself. But some scholars have suggested that this sphere may have served as either a resistive or a buffering mechanism, deflecting if not diluting the dynamics of patriarchal power. Mary’s experience in her family of origin is muted in most biographies, except for the colorful dysfunctions of her parental household noted above. She left home to work before her twentieth birthday. After returning briefly to nurse her dying mother she went to London to begin reinventing herself as the “first of a new genus” and a writer or cultural critic. But during the 1780s, she intervened continually and with meaningful effect in the lives of her sisters, Elizabeth and Everina, and those of her brothers, James and Charles, in ways that recall what the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo calls the “work of kinship,” or “kinwork.” William Godwin, only briefly and belatedly her husband, perhaps exaggerated in posthumously describing her as “ever a worshiper of domestic life,” but he has the implicit witness of her longtime friend, patron, and publisher Joseph Johnson, in claiming that Mary brought a “parental sort of care” to her relations with most members of her sibling cohort.
I am reconstructing Mary’s youngest and “favourite” brother Charles’s picaresque course into and across America between 1792 and his death in 1817, years in which her American reputation went from cautious acceptance even among conservatives (women, at least) to one of reviled posthumous infamy. Charles arrived in Philadelphia with his sister’s financial assistance to become a “farmer,” but he was swept up in a virulent fever of postrevolutionary land, currency, and stock speculation. He associated with French Revolution exiles, with members of the radical emigrant circle around the English scientist Joseph Priestley, and with Mary’s revolutionary Irish friend, Archibald Hamilton Rowan. In 1798 he joined the American army raised for service in the “Quasi-War” with France, then spent the rest of his life as an artillery officer. In that male and often almost monastic organization-with its major function as a mobile frontier garrison constabulary-his relations with women were complex, contradictory, and substantial. He was married twice, divorced once, and was the seemingly attentive father of at least one daughter. He invoked patriarchal prerogatives that his dissolute father would have admired-had he been able to afford them-by sending his first wife home to her father after accusing her of adultery. He died in New Orleans as a slaveholder in an almost entirely female household, and divided his estate between his second wife and his daughter. The young girl was later abducted by her birth mother, and a protracted legal struggle ensued. My research to date has traced Charles’s second wife and widow, Nancy (who a Boston antiquarian publisher mistakenly gave the name “Mary” and described as having assumed the vocation of writing about women’s rights) to her death in a Cuban community of mostly female American convalescent or “invalid” artistic expatriates; his daughter, Jane, to independent widowhood in 1870s New Orleans; and his first wife, Sarah, back into her childhood hearth in the Hudson Valley and after that to no one quite knows where.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to either charge or credit Mary Wollstonecraft with any of these life courses or their consequences on the basis of some imputed “parental sort of care.” Most of these trajectories played out long after her own death, and after she had any chance to influence her brother, much less his family of procreation. But Mary’s relationship with Charles was arguably the most sustained didactic one she ever had with anyone. Fanny Imlay, the “little twitcher” born to her and Gilbert Imlay–for whose future she touchingly planned throughout her pregnancy–spent only three years in her care. Mary Shelley, her daughter with Godwin, never knew her mother. Rather than seeing Wollstonecraft’s lateral kin as merely so many obstacles or constraints to her self-realization, we might ask if they comprised an experimental community (however imperfect) for the implementation of some of her basic philosophical ideas and values.
NB: This post is dedicated to Rona Zevin, who I don’t actually know, but who as a non-historian M.A. student in my first seminar in graduate school memorably closed a withering critique of one book on our syllabus by conceding about its author that “at least he’s heard of Mary Wollstonecraft!” I had not at that point–a circumstance I took care not to mention in that context–but it has been very instructive to try to repair that delinquency in the years since.