On Mary Wollstonecraft



Detail from John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1790–1. Public domain.

Around the time I realized I didn’t want to be married anymore, I started visiting Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. I’d known it was there, behind King’s Cross railway station, for at least a decade. I had read her protofeminist tract from 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, at university, and I knew Saint Pancras Churchyard was where Wollstonecraft’s daughter, also Mary, had taken the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when they were falling in love. When I thought about the place, I thought of death and sex and possibility. I first visited at thirty-four, newly separated, on a cold gray day with a lover, daffodils rising around the squat cubic pillar. “MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN,” the stone reads. “Author of A Vindication of the rights of Woman. Born 27th April, 1759. Died 10th September, 1797.” I didn’t tell him why I wanted to go there; I had a sense that Wollstonecraft would understand, and I often felt so lost that I didn’t want to talk to real people, people I wanted to love me rather than pity me, people I didn’t want to scare. I was often scared. I was frequently surprised by my emotions, by the things I suddenly needed to do or say that surged up out of nowhere.

Unexpected events had brought me graveside: when I was thirty-two, my fifty-seven-year-old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t genetic; no one knew why she got it. We would, the doctors said, have three to nine more years with her. Everything wobbled. This knowledge raised questions against every part of my life: Was this worth it? And this? And this? I was heading for children in the suburbs with the husband I’d met at nineteen, but that life, the one that so many people want, I doubted was right for me. I was trying to find my way as a writer, but I was jumping from genre to genre, not working out what I most wanted to say, and not taking myself seriously enough to discover it, even. Who do you tell when you start to feel these things? Everything seemed immovable. Everything seemed impossible. And yet I knew I had to change my life.

There were a string of discussions with my husband, threading from morning argument to online chat to text to phone to therapy session to dinner, where we floated ideas about open marriage and relationship breaks and moving countries and changing careers and dirty weekends. But we couldn’t agree on what was important, and I began to peel my life away from his. We decided that we could see other people. We were as honest and kind and open as we could manage as we did this, which sometimes wasn’t much. The spring I began visiting Wollstonecraft’s grave, he moved out, dismantling our bed by taking the mattress and leaving me with the frame. I took off my wedding ring—a gold band with half a line of “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath etched on the inside—and for weeks afterward, my thumb would involuntarily reach across my palm for the warm bright circle that had gone. I didn’t throw the ring into the long grass, like women do in the movies, but a feeling began bubbling up nevertheless, from my stomach to my throat: it could fling my arms out. I was free.

At first, I took my freedom as a seventeen-year-old might: hard and fast and negronied and wild. I was thirty-four and I wanted so much out of this new phase of my life: intense sexual attraction; soulmate-feeling love that would force my life into new shapes; work that felt joyous like play but meaningful like religion; friendships with women that were fusional and sisterly; talk with anyone and everyone about what was worth living for; books that felt like mountains to climb; attempts at writing fiction and poetry and memoir. I wanted to create a life I would be proud of, that I could stand behind. I didn’t want to be ten years down the wrong path before I discovered once more that it was wrong. While I was a girl, waiting for my life to begin, my mother gave me books: The Mill on the Floss when I was ill; Ballet Shoes when I demanded dance lessons; A Little Princess when I felt overlooked. How could I find the books I needed now? I had so many questions: Could you be a feminist and be in love? Did the search for independence mean I would never be at home with anyone, anywhere? Was domesticity a trap? What was worth living for if you lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman’s life? What was worth living for at all—what degree of unhappiness, lostness, chaos was bearable? Could I even do this without my mother beside me? Or approach any of these questions if she was already fading from my life? And if I wanted to write about all this, how could I do it? What forms would I need? What genre could I be most truthful in? How would this not be seen as a problem of privilege, a childish demand for definition, narcissistic self-involvement, when the world was burning? Wouldn’t I be better off giving away all I have and putting down my books, my movies, my headphones, and my pen? When would I get sick of myself?

The questions felt urgent as well as overwhelming. At times I couldn’t face the page—printed or blank—at all. I needed to remind myself that starting out on my own again halfway through life is possible, has been possible for others—and that this sort of life can have beauty in it. And so I went back to the writers I’d loved when I was younger—the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft, the novels of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. I read other writers—Elena Ferrante, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison—for the first time. I watched them try to answer some of the questions I myself had. This book bears the traces of the struggles they had, as well as my own—and some of the things we all found that help. Not all of the solutions they (and I) found worked, and even when they did, they didn’t work all the time: if I’d thought life was a puzzle I could solve once and for all when I was younger, I couldn’t believe that any longer. But the answers might come in time if I could only stay with the questions, as the lover who came with me to Wollstonecraft’s grave would keep reminding me.


A Vindication was written in six weeks. On January 3, 1792, the day she gave the last sheet to the printer, Wollstonecraft wrote to Roscoe: “I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject.—Do not suspect me of false modesty—I mean to say that had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book, in every sense of the word.” Wollstonecraft isn’t in fact being coy: her book isn’t well-made. Her main arguments about education are at the back, the middle is a sarcastic roasting of male conduct-book writers in the style of her attack on Burke, and the parts about marriage and friendship are scattered throughout when they would have more impact in one place. There is a moralizing, bossy tone, noticeably when Wollstonecraft writes about the sorts of women she doesn’t like (flirts and rich women: take a deep breath). It ends with a plea to men, in a faux-religious style that doesn’t play to her strengths as a writer. In this, her book is like many landmark feminist books—The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique—that are part essay, part argument, part memoir, held together by some force, it seems, that is attributable solely to its writer. It’s as if these books, to be written at all, have to be brought into being by autodidacts who don’t know for sure what they’re doing—just that they have to do it.

On my first reading of A Vindication as a twenty-year-old undergraduate, I looked up the antique words and wrote down their definitions (to vindicate was to “argue by evidence or argument”). I followed Wollstonecraft’s arguments in favor of education. I knew she’d been a teacher, and saw how reasonable her main argument was: you had to educate women, because they have influence as mothers over infant men. I took these notes eighteen months into an undergraduate degree in English and French in the library of an Oxford college that had only begun admitting women twenty-one years before. I’d arrived from an ordinary school, had scraped by in my first-year exams, and barely felt I belonged. The idea that I could think of myself as an intellectual as Mary did was laughable. Yet halfway into my second year, I discovered early women’s writing. I was amazed that there was so much of it—by protonovelists such as Eliza Haywood, aristocratic poets like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and precursors of the Romantics like Anna Laetitia Barbauld—and I was angry, often, at the way they’d been forgotten, or, even worse, pushed out of the canon. Wollstonecraft stood out, as she’d never been forgotten, was patently unforgettable. I longed to keep up with her, even if I had to do it with the shorter OED at my elbow. I didn’t see myself in her at the time. It wasn’t clear to me when I was younger how hard she had pushed herself.

Later in her life, Wollstonecraft would defend her unlettered style to her more lettered husband:

I am compelled to think that there is something in my writings more valuable, than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm elogiums—I mean more mind—denominate it as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers—

I wish I had been able to marshal these types of arguments while I was at university. I remember one miserable lesson about Racine, just me and a male student who’d been to Eton. I was baffled by the tutor’s questions. We would notice some sort of pattern or effect in the lines of verse—a character saying “Ô désespoir! Ô crime! Ô déplorable race!”—and the tutor would ask us what that effect was called. Silence. And then the other student would speak up. “Anaphora,” he’d say. “Chiasmus. Zeugma.” I had no idea what he was talking about; I’d never heard these words before. I was relieved when the hour was over. When I asked him afterward how he knew those terms, he said he’d been given a handout at school and he invited me to his room so that I could borrow it and make a photocopy. I must still have it somewhere. I remember feeling a tinge of anger—I could see the patterns in Racine’s verse, I just didn’t know what they were called—but mostly I felt ashamed. I learned the terms on the photocopy by heart.

Mary knew instinctively that what she offered was something more than technical accuracy, an unshakeable structure, or an even tone. Godwin eventually saw this too. “When tried by the hoary and long-established laws of literary composition, [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] can scarcely maintain its claim to be placed in the first class of human productions,” he wrote after her death. “But when we consider the importance of its doctrines, and the eminence of genius it displays, it seems not very improbable that it will be read as long as the English language endures.” Reading it again, older now, and having read many more of the feminist books that Wollstonecraft’s short one is the ancient foremother of, I can see what he means.

There are funny autobiographical sketches, as where Mary is having a moment of sublimity at a too-gorgeous sunset only to be interrupted by a fashionable lady asking for her gown to be admired. There is indelible phrasemaking, such as the moment when Mary counters the Margaret Thatcher fallacy—the idea that a woman in power is good in itself—by saying that “it is not empire, but equality” that women should contend for. She asked for things that are commonplace now but were unusual then: for women to be MPs, for girls and boys to be educated together, for friendship to be seen as the source and foundation of romantic love. She linked the way women were understood as property under patriarchy to the way enslaved people were treated, and demanded the abolition of both systems. She was also responding to an indisputably world-historical moment, with all the passion and hurry that that implies. Specifically, she addressed Talleyrand, who had written a pamphlet in support of women’s education, but generally, she applied herself to the ideas about women’s status and worth coming out of the brand-new French republic. In 1791, France gave equal rights to Black citizens, made nonreligious marriage and divorce possible, and emancipated the Jews. What would England give its women? (Wollstonecraft was right that the moment couldn’t wait: Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in October 1791 and ironically dedicated it to Marie-Antoinette, was guillotined within two years of its publication.)

And though I love the Vindication for its eccentricities, I also love it for its philosophy. It is philosophically substantial, even two centuries later. Wollstonecraft understood how political the personal was, and that between people was where the revolution of manners she called for could be effected. “A man has been termed a microcosm,” she writes, “and every family might also be called a state.” The implications of this deceptively simple idea would echo down the centuries: what role should a woman occupy at home, and how does that affect what she is encouraged to do in the wider world? Every woman in this book struggles with that idea, from Plath’s worry that becoming a mother would mean she could no longer write poetry to Woolf’s insecurity about her education coming from her father’s library rather than from an ancient university. Much of Wollstonecraft’s own thought had risen from her close reading of Rousseau, particularly from her engagement with Émile, his working-through of an ideal Enlightenment education for a boy. I didn’t find as an undergraduate, and still don’t, her argument for women’s education, which is that women should be educated in order to be better wives and mothers, or in order to be able to cope when men leave them, to be feminist. But now I can see that Wollstonecraft was one of the first to make the point that feminists have repeated in various formulations for two hundred years—though I hope not forever. If woman “has reason,” Mary says, then “she was not created merely to be the solace of man.” And so it follows that “the sexual should not destroy the human character.” That is to say, that women should above all be thought human, not other.


With so much of Wollstonecraft’s attention taken up by revolutionary France, perhaps it was inevitable that she would go there. She wrote to Everina that she and Johnson, along with Fuseli and his wife, were planning a six-week trip: “I shall be introduced to many people, my book has been translated and praised in some popular prints; and Fuseli, of course, is well known.” She didn’t say that she had fallen in love with Fuseli. The painter was forty-seven and the protofeminist twenty-nine. Mary hadn’t been without admirers—she met a clergyman she liked on the boat to Ireland; an MP who visited Lord Kingsborough seemed taken with her too—but marriage didn’t appeal. She joked with Roscoe (not just a fan but another admirer, surely) that she could get married in Paris, then get divorced when her “truant heart” demanded it: “I am still a Spinster on the wing.” But to Fuseli, she wrote that she’d never met anyone who had his “grandeur of soul,” a grandeur she thought essential to her happiness, and she was scared of falling “a sacrifice to a passion which may have a mixture of dross in it … If I thought my passion criminal, I would conquer it, or die in the attempt.” Mary suggested she live in a ménage à trois with Fuseli and his wife. He turned the idea down, the plan to go to Paris dissolved, and Mary left London on her own.

She arrived in the Marais in December 1792, when Louis XVI was on trial for high treason. On the morning he would mount his defense, the king “passed by my window,” Mary wrote to Johnson. “I can scarcely tell you why, but an association of ideas made the tears flow insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach, going to meet death.” Mary was spooked: she wished for the cat she had left in London, and couldn’t blow out her candle that night. The easy radicalism she had adopted in England came under pressure. Though she waited until her French was better before calling on Francophone contacts, she began to meet other expatriates in Paris, such as Helen Maria Williams, the British poet Wordsworth would praise. In spring 1793, she was invited to the house of Thomas Christie, a Scottish essayist who had cofounded the Analytical Review with Johnson. There she met Gilbert Imlay, an American, and fell deeply in love.

Imlay was born in New Jersey and had fought in the War of Independence; he was writing a novel, The Emigrants, and made money in Paris by acting as a go-between for Europeans who wanted to buy land in the U.S. and the Americans who wanted to sell it to them. It is as if all Mary’s intensity throughout her life so far—the letters to Jane Arden, her devotion to Fanny Blood, her passion for Fuseli—crests in her affair with this one man, whom she disliked on their first meeting and decided to avoid. Imlay said he thought marriage corrupt; he talked about the women he’d had affairs with; he described his travels through the rugged West of America. After the disappointment with Fuseli, she offered up her heart ecstatically, carelessly: “Whilst you love me,” Mary told him, making a man she’d known for months the architect and guardian of her happiness, “I cannot again fall into the miserable state, which rendered life a burthen almost too heavy to be borne.” And yet she also noticed she couldn’t make him stay: “Of late, we are always separating—Crack!—crack!—and away you go.”

When my husband and I agreed we could see other people, he created a Tinder profile, using a photo I’d taken of him against a clear blue sky on the balcony of one of our last apartments together. He wanted to fall in love again and have children: pretty quickly he found someone who wanted that too. I met someone at a party who intrigued me, another writer visiting from another city, and I began spending more time with him: in front of paintings, at Wollstonecraft’s grave, on long walks, at the movies, talking for hours in and out of bed. After being married for so long, it was strange and wonderful to fall in love again; I felt illuminated, sexually free, emotionally rich, intellectually alive. I liked myself again. But I fought my feelings for him, reasoning that it was too soon after my husband, that sentiments this strong were somehow wrong in themselves, that he would go back to his own city soon and so I must give him up no matter what I felt. When he was gone, though, I saw I had found that untameable thing, a mysterious recognition, everything the poets mean by love. I wrote him email after email, sending him thoughts and feelings and provocations, trying out ideas for my new life, which I hoped would include him. Sometimes I must have sounded like Wollstonecraft writing to Imlay.

Mary moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, a leafy village on the edge of Paris, and began writing a history of the revolution; throughout that summer of 1793, she and Imlay would meet at the gates, les barrières, in the Paris city wall. (Bring your “barrier-face,” she would ask him when the affair began to turn cold, and she wanted to go back to the start.) “I do not want to be loved like a goddess; but I wish to be necessary to you,” she wrote. Perhaps there was something in her conception of herself that made her think she could handle a flirt like Imlay. “Women who have gone to great lengths to raise themselves above the ordinary level of their sex,” Mary’s biographer Claire Tomalin comments, “are likely to believe, for a while at any rate, that they will be loved the more ardently and faithfully for their pains.” Mary perhaps believed she was owed a great love, and Imlay was made to fit. “By tickling minnows,” as Virginia Woolf put it in a short essay about Wollstonecraft, Imlay “had hooked a dolphin.” By the end of the year, Mary was pregnant.

Françoise Imlay (always Fanny, after Fanny Blood) was born at Le Havre in May 1794, and Mary wrote home that “I feel great pleasure at being a mother,” and boasted that she hadn’t “clogged her soul by promising obedience” in marriage. Imlay stayed away a lot; in one letter, Mary tells him of tears coming to her eyes at picking up the carving knife to slice the meat herself, because it brought back memories of him being at home with her. As she becomes disillusioned by degrees with Imlay, whose letters don’t arrive as expected, she falls in love with their daughter. At three months, she talks of Fanny getting into her “heart and imagination”; at four months, she notices with pleasure that the baby “does not promise to be a beauty, but appears wonderfully intelligent”; at six months, she tells Imlay that though she loved being pregnant and breastfeeding (nursing your own child was radical in itself then), those sensations “do not deserve to be compared to the emotions I feel, when she stops to smile upon me, or laughs outright on meeting me unexpectedly in the street, or after a short absence.”

Imlay’s return keeps being delayed, and Wollstonecraft uses her intellect to protest, arguing against the commercial forces that keep him from “observing with me how her mind unfolds.” Isn’t the point, as Imlay once claimed, to live in the present moment? Hasn’t Mary already shown that she can earn enough by her writing to keep them? “Stay, for God’s sake,” she writes, “let me not be always vainly looking for you, till I grow sick at heart.” Still he does not come, and her letters reach a pitch of emotion when she starts to suspect he’s met someone else. “I do not choose to be a secondary object,” she spits. She already knew that men were “systematic tyrants.” “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.” She starts signing off each letter with the threat that it could be the last he receives from her.

In April 1795, she decided to join him in London if he would not come to her. “I have been so unhappy this winter,” Mary wrote. “I find it as difficult to acquire fresh hopes, as to regain tranquility.” Fanny was nearly a year old, and Imlay had set up home for them in Soho. She attempted to seduce him; he recoiled. (He had been seeing someone, an actress.) She took the losses—of her imagined domestic idyll, of requited love, of a fond father for her daughter—hard, and planned to take a huge dose of laudanum, which Imlay discovered just in time. I find it unbearable that Mary, like Plath, would think that dying is better for her own children than living, but neither Mary nor Sylvia were well when they thought that, I tell myself.

Imlay suggested that Mary go away for the summer—he had some business that needed attention in Scandinavia. A shipment of silver had gone missing, and he could do with someone going there in person to investigate. She could take Fanny, and a maid. The letters Mary wrote to him while waiting in Hull for good sailing weather show that she had not yet recovered: she looks at the sea “hardly daring to own to myself the secret wish, that it might become our tombs”; she is scared to sleep because Imlay appears in her dreams with “different casts of countenance”; she mocks the idea that she’ll revive at all. “Now I am going towards the north in search of sunbeams!—Will any ever warm this desolated heart? All nature seems to frown—or rather mourn with me.” But she had an infant on her hip, a business venture to rescue that might also bring back her errant lover, and from the letters she wrote home, she’d mold a book that would unwittingly create a future for herself, even when she was not entirely sure she wanted one.


An adapted excerpt of A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Againto be published by Ecco/HarperCollins this May.

Joanna Biggs is the author of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work and a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. In 2017, she cofounded Silver Press, a feminist publishing house.