Defending the Character and Conduct of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1803

For International Women’s Day 2018, Shane Greentree explores how the the late-eighteenth-century press commemorated the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft.

John Opie, Mary Wollstonecraft (c. 1797). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The 1797 death of Mary Wollstonecraft and the furious response to her widower William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) is one of the most famous cultural narratives of the late eighteenth century. The tale is most often told as Godwin’s well-intentioned memoir revealing Wollstonecraft’s personal scandals and suicide attempts to a shocked public, his candid disclosures fueling crude and misogynistic attacks. Against this reactionary wave, even Wollstonecraft’s former allies fail to resist and ultimately fall silent, burying not only Wollstonecraft’s memory but sealing the fate of 1790s feminism itself.

Although this narrative is powerful, it risks distorting the complex history of Mary Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation. It overlooks numerous other attempts to defend her reputation and legacy in order to read the period as solely that of William Godwin and his many critics. This blog examines several texts from the first years after Wollstonecraft’s death. These texts defend their subject as a woman of great intellect and moral virtue. Although far less famous than Godwin’s Memoirs, these other texts are important not only for revealing other facets of Wollstonecraft’s life, but reminding us that she was simply too great a writer and too influential a figure to have her legacy reduced to a single story.

Reviews of the Memoirs reveal a range of opinion. Most famously, the Anti-Jacobin and its ilk seized upon Godwin’s work to destroy Wollstonecraft’s character, denigrating the Memoirs while championing its apparent objectivity and focus on her morals. Other sources question Godwin’s representation for largely overlooking the vital issue of Wollstonecraft’s intellectual development.

The radical Analytical Review (for which Wollstonecraft wrote many reviews, as well as the 1797 essay “On Poetry“) is perhaps the strongest example. Its anonymous review of Godwin’s Memoirs begins with a four-page biography, consistently discussing its subject’s personal virtue and good character. It even recounts her marching up and down a Putney bridge on a rainy night in order to thoroughly soak her clothes before throwing herself into the Thames, serving as an example of her great resolution. Its author sharply focuses upon the Memoir’s limitations: while serving well as a “bald narrative of the life of a woman”, it does a great disservice by giving “no correct history of the formation of Mrs. G’s mind” as it offers little insight into her intellectual achievements or even her favourite books. Ultimately, the review focuses on Wollstonecraft’s powerful feelings and original thought to protect her good name.

John Chapman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1798). © National Portrait Gallery, London. After Unknown Artist, “Memoirs of Mrs. Godwin”, Monthly Visitor, February 1798.

Other sources demonstrate a distanced attitude towards the Memoirs and its defence of Mary Wollstonecraft. The Monthly Visitor’s “Memoirs of Mrs. Godwin”, a two-part account published in February and March 1798, uses the Memoirs for biographical information, though arranged in a widely different mode from the original – including an altogether different frontispiece. These “Memoirs” cite the Posthumous Works of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) at length – which collected Maria, or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), “On Poetry”, and many of Wollstonecraft’s letters – and conclude with original reflections upon her character and reputation, presenting her as a woman of “high genius”. Their author separates Wollstonecraft from her biographer husband, arguing that “in most things – – – in soul, in information, in understanding, and in manner, they are eminently distinct.” Although some of Wollstonecraft’s feminist doctrines are critiqued for only being realisable by women as gifted as herself, she is also strongly defended against moralistic critics: the author, like that of the Analytical Review, suggests that they misjudge her actions through their own narrow comprehension or prejudice, and misread her unrepresentative “deviations from propriety” as “principles of action”.

These interpretative strategies are not unique to the Monthly Visitor, but can also be read in Mary Hays’s writing on Wollstonecraft. A friend and disciple best known for her novel Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and her later innovations in collective biographies of women, Hays also penned a passionate obituary in the Monthly Magazine soon after Wollstonecraft’s September 1797 death. Hays lovingly described her as “mother, wife, beloved companion, the ornament of her sex, the enlightened advocate for freedom, and the benevolent friend of human kind.” To a later generation of scholars, however, such warm praise stood only to highlight her later retreat from radicalism, seen most clearly in her exclusion of Wollstonecraft from her six-volume Female Biography (1803).

More recently however, historian Gina Luria Walker and others have given a fuller account of Hays’s activities in this period, focusing on her 1800 “Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft” (published in Hays’ The Annual Necrology for 1797/98), reading this sixty-page account as a development of her feminist thought and a prelude to the collective biographies which followed. These reflections are also usefully read in the context of other attempts to defend their subject. Hays’s “Memoirs” partially use Godwin’s, citing him as the source of many facts while presenting her own method and interpretations. She gives greater emphasis to Wollstonecraft’s rationalist religion, excluding Godwin’s controversial description of Wollstonecraft uttering no religious sentiment on her deathbed in favour of noting the “images of visionary perfection” which gave her comfort. In this depiction, Hays follows earlier criticism of Godwin for dishonestly misrepresenting his own lack of religious sentiment as Wollstonecraft’s, with an April 1798 letter by Anna Seward criticising “the needless display of his own infidelity to revealed religion” while otherwise being sympathetic to both Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s memory.

Such differences reflect a basic difference in perspective. Understandably, Godwin’s Memoirs mourn his wife, and in closing focus on his personal loss: a light lent for a short time, “and now extinguished forever!” Hays’s account instead mourns Wollstonecraft while presenting her as crucial for ongoing reform. Unlike Godwin, she constructs a feminist lineage, noting Wollstonecraft’s intellectual debt in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to Catharine Macaulay’s Letters on Education (1790), and argues for her ongoing significance to feminism. Hays writes about Wollstonecraft’s legacy in a “comprehensive scale”, arguing that despite harsh and unjust criticism, “she has not laboured in vain”, for the noble causes she championed silently continue. This conclusion echoes both the Analytical Review and Mary Robinson’s Thoughts on the Condition of Women (1799), boldly arguing for Wollstonecraft as a writer “whose genius posterity will render justice”. Although such remarks attest to the strength of contemporary reaction in situating Wollstonecraft’s vindication in the future, they also highlight her continuing significance as writer and feminist philosopher for those who championed her memory.

Eccentric Biography (London: 1803), 138.

The sources addressed so far make important use of Godwin’s Memoirs even in criticising some of its assumptions. Other sympathetic voices ignored Godwin’s work altogether, as in early-nineteenth-century collective biography. Although Wollstonecraft does not appear in the Female Biography, she features in Matilda Betham’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country (1804) and the anonymous Eccentric Biography (1803). The latter is an especially intriguing example. Despite appearing at a point when Wollstonecraft’s reputation is usually read to have been extinguished, Eccentric Biography lauds her as a champion of her sex. The text reads familiarly and heavily plagiarises a combination of earlier sources, borrowing entire paragraphs without altering their wording. This is typical of many collective biographies, which were often hastily compiled from existing materials.

But Eccentric Biography also uses distinctive sources. After re-using the frontispiece from “Memoirs of Mrs. Godwin”, the account is largely derived from the Analytical Review. It celebrates the life of an “extraordinary woman” and her great resolution. Its final page has an even earlier source in Hays’s Monthly Magazine obituary, recognising Wollstonecraft’s genius as a woman who sought to awaken “the minds of her oppressed sex” and mourning her death as one over which humanity sheds its softest tear. The volume’s brief preface gives no indication that Wollstonecraft’s life is included as anything other than moral and inspirational. Reviews treat it as an original collection, and are divided: the conservative British Critic states that Wollstonecraft is “celebrated with too much partiality” for a life lacking virtue, while the Annual Review and Monthly Visitor praise the author for their delicacy, including no indecent anecdote in an improving work. Such texts suggest the real possibility for alternate readings of Wollstonecraft’s reputation and legacy.

These possibilities also emerge in the anonymous A Defence of the Character and Conduct of the Late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1803). Its author makes two primary arguments. The first, better-known argument suggests her few failings are insignificant and her greatness transcends conventional morality, for “extraordinary Geniuses are not to be estimated by common rules: – – they are Planets, and must be reviewed upon their own principles.” Wollstonecraft is lauded throughout for her great powers of intellect and sensibility. This is heightened by curious passages, including an imagined dialogue with Wollstonecraft arguing her own case with an unnamed “Censor”, and the author’s fond wish he had been the one to save her from drowning.

The Eccentric Biography borrowings from the Monthly Magazine.

Although Wollstonecraft was a genius, this argument was poorly received. The reviews of A Defence nonetheless reveal an ongoing ambiguity surrounding Wollstonecraft’s reputation. The Annual Review, for instance, criticises Wollstonecraft’s example as immoral while attacking A Defence as an inadequate attempt to readdress her legacy. Its conclusion urges a more successful defence of her memory, one centred on Wollstonecraft’s originality, steadfast principles, and virtuous friendships, imploring readers that even “in enumerating her faults, let us forget not to contemplate her transcendent virtues!” That such virtues could continue to be remembered suggests the complexities of Wollstonecraft’s memory.

A Defence itself makes a more suggestive and nuanced argument. Like Hays and the Analytical Review, its author reads Godwin’s Memoirs as an own goal, undermining “the influence she had been labouring to acquire” and lacking information on Wollstonecraft’s intellect. The author does not depict himself as a solitary voice in the wilderness, even while decrying Wollstonecraft’s critics. He justifies his sentiments as supported by frequent conferences with unnamed respectable and sympathetic friends, and cites other writing on Wollstonecraft. A passage on her letters, which offers proof of her noble sentiments, cites not only the Posthumous Works, but also Robinson’s Thoughts on the Condition of Women, a text which had itself defended Wollstonecraft. The author also refers to Hays’s Monthly Magazine obituary, “a very brief, but justly and expressively drawn character of Mrs. Godwin” recommended as an accurate representation to counteract other sources. These sources themselves receive sustained critique, their exaggerations, misrepresentations and distortions contriving “to throw a general odium over her name and character”. This distortion is labelled the product of a few “self-created dogmatists, who assume to themselves the right of directing the public voice and taste”.

Despite the self-interested claims of reactionary journals such as the Anti-Jacobin to have rendered Wollstonecraft’s legacy “fixed as long as her memory lasts”, such arguments remind us that her reputation was actively debated. Wollstonecraft was undoubtedly criticised after her death, and often harshly, but focusing only on her critics diminishes her continued significance to those who defended her good name. That these defenders sought different paths to achieve their common goal reminds us of the greater complexity of how so important a writer as Mary Wollstonecraft was considered in the years after her death.


The Mary on the Green campaign celebrates Mary Wollstonecraft, one of history’s most neglected icons, and aims to establish a commemorative memorial statue to Wollstonecraft in London.


SGShane Greentree is a Casual Research Assistant at the University of Sydney and an Honorary Associate at Macquarie University. His research focuses upon eighteenth-century radical women writers such as Catharine Macaulay and Mary Hays, including both close textual reading and broader examination of authorial reputation over the long nineteenth century. He is currently working on a study of early posthumous writing on Mary Wollstonecraft.

Follow Shane on Twitter @shanemgreentree.

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