Archive for Thursday, March 26, 1998


March 26, 1998


The work of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has deeply penetrated our consciousness, even though their names are known by few people.

Associated Press Writer

New York -- They were reviled, exiled, brilliant and blessed.

Their lives, this mother and daughter, spanned the Age of Revolution and the Romantic era. Their associates ranged from the American patriot Thomas Paine to the English poet Lord Byron.

And for more than two centuries, the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has deeply penetrated our consciousness, even though their names are known by few people.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the grandmother of feminism, wrote ``A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'' in 1792. Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote ``Frankenstein'' 26 years later.

They shared more than a name. They shared a passionate regard for the power of the mind at a time when women were expected to do no more than look lovely and procreate. Their distinct disregard for convention brought them pain and disdain throughout their lives.

``One changed the way we think about men and women, and the other changed our imagination,'' says Doucet Devin Fischer, co-curator of a recent exhibit at the New York Public Library marking the bicentennial of Wollstonecraft's death and her daughter's birth. ```Frankenstein' captured the popular imagination forever.''

Interest in both women has risen of late.

A recent exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery celebrated Wollstonecraft and Shelley as ``two of the most outstanding and original women in English history.''

A third show, at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., examines people's fear of science. Called ``Frankenstein,'' it runs through Aug. 15.

And there's a disparity in how the two women were viewed. Wollstonecraft was ``that hyena in petticoats'' to essayist Horace Walpole, one of her contemporaries. Two centuries later, author Virginia Woolf encapsulated the power of Wollstonecraft's works: ``Their originality has become our commonplace.''

``She reasoned because she must, because a passionately intellectual attitude toward living was her essential tool,'' anthropologist Ruth Benedict said of Wollstonecraft. ``It is her life story that makes her our contemporary.''

Outspoken writer

Wollstonecraft's was a time of social restriction and intellectual ferment, when the virtues expected of women included obedience, piety, modesty, delicacy and humility.

``If you happen to have any learning,'' wrote John Gregory in ``A Father's Legacy to his Daughters,'' an extremely popular book reprinted into the 19th century, ``keep it a profound secret, especially from the men.''

Wollstonecraft lived her principles in a way that few women ever had. She struggled for economic and emotional freedom, dared to travel and live alone and worse, live with a man and bear his child, and she made her living as a writer, turning out everything from children's stories to novels and travel books.

``What she did was positively heroic,'' says Stephen Wagner, a curator at the New York Public Library, one of the world's leading repositories for the study of English Romanticism.

The ``Vindication,'' published in 1792, was a sensation, reprinted within the year and sold as far away as Boston and Paris. Irish and German editions followed a year later.

``The mind has no sex,'' Wollstonecraft wrote, arguing as a good child of the Enlightenment that women, like men, were perfectible and their weaknesses stemmed from nurture, not nature.

In a time when women were taught reading, writing, music, drawing, embroidery and little else, Wollstonecraft called for intellectual parity along with economic independence. She maintained that women would make infinitely better wives and mothers with an education.

It was a breathtakingly audacious argument for its time, and she was the first to tie economic and social issues to ``the woman question,'' curator Fischer says.

After publication, Wollstonecraft was off to Paris, just in time for the Reign of Terror. She lost friends to the guillotine, and she fell in love with an American adventurer who'd fought with George Washington. His name was Gilbert Imlay. They lived together, and their child, Fanny, was born in 1794.

Wollstonecraft followed

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Imlay back to London. He turned his affections elsewhere, and she twice tried to drown herself.

``I fear neither poverty nor infamy,'' she wrote him in her characteristically firm, spiky hand. Infamy she had aplenty.

Her name was cross-referenced under ``prostitute'' in the Anti-Jacobin Review. Novels were written about innocent girls ruined after reading the ``Vindication.''

``There is something fantastic and absurd in the very title,'' author Hannah Moore sneered.

She was classed with actresses, adventurers, gypsies, dwarves and vagrants, just as a generation later her daughter's flouting of convention meant that her only women friends were outcasts too: divorcees, unmarried mothers, adulteresses, lesbians and political activists.

Wollstonecraft met William Godwin, political philosopher and social anarchist, in 1791. As literary lions, they met again, for tea, in 1796. A year later, she was pregnant.

Godwin's definition of marriage as ``the most odious of all monopolies'' lacks the lightness of Wollstonecraft's delightfully modern views.

``I wish you from my soul, to be riveted in my heart, but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow,'' she wrote Godwin. ``A husband is a convenient part of the furniture of a house, unless he be a clumsy fixture,'' she said on another occasion.

They wed anyway. Wollstonecraft died from an infection related to childbirth five months later, 10 days after Mary was born, Aug. 30, 1797.

Storytelling bonanza

Mary, who grew up in a chaotic household with little money, a stepmother and a number of step- and half-siblings, had a lot to live up to.

``Raised on her late mother's principles and her father's theories, (she) put them into effect at the age of 16 by running away with an unknown poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley,'' Fischer and Wagner wrote in the library exhibit.

Shelley was 21, an aristocrat estranged from the tavern-keeper's daughter he had eloped with before he was ejected from Oxford. He and Mary fled to Europe in 1814 but did not wed until 1816, after Shelley's wife had drowned herself.

Their first child, born prematurely, died at two weeks old. Only one of Mary's four children lived to adulthood.

She would always ask herself if her peripatetic life with Shelley, always moving from here to there in Europe and in England, led to those losses. That guilt, combined with feelings of responsibility for her mother's death, fed directly into ``Frankenstein,'' the story of creation gone horribly wrong.

Shelley, Lord Byron -- that dashing figure who comes down to us as ``mad, bad and dangerous to know'' -- the 18-year-old Mary and the other guests at Byron's Villa Deodati played a game. They were each to write a ghost story.

Mary's, which she began writing after a nightmare, was published as ``Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,'' in 1818.

The author's attention is on the scientist, that cursed creator, that impious and utterly Romantic challenger of the gods who dares make his own man, and then dares to reject his creation. She also delves into the monster's mind, his pitiful desire for companionship and his bitter, tragic violence as he sours at repeated human rebuff.

It was the monster who seized the popular imagination, taking center stage as a symbol for any manmade disaster.

Mary, whose soft brown hair glinted with gold and whose pursed lips so little resembled her mother's more generous mouth, continued her writing, but no other work ever equaled the impact of her dream-born fantasy.

When Shelley drowned in a sailing accident off the Italian coast in 1822, his friends burned his corpse in a pagan ritual on the beach. Mary had had just eight years with him.

She assembled his manuscripts and continued her own writing, including novels, biographies, encyclopedia entries and short stories. Years later, after Godwin's death, she devoted herself to his papers also.

Her mother's daughter still, she supported herself by her pen: ``In exerting my intellect, I find an opiate which at least adds nothing to the pain of regret that must necessarily be mine forever,'' Mary wrote.

The 30 years of her life after Shelley were hard, living as she did on the margin of English society, raising a child by herself and with little money.

A brain tumor ended her life. She was 53, and had chosen to be buried with her parents rather than with Shelley's ashes in Rome.

``I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,'' she wrote of ``Frankenstein.''

``I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.''

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