Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Revolutionary Heart; One Woman's Courage

Mary Wollstonecraft, an early advocate for women's rights

It's July, and with celebrations of revolutions taking place in two different countries this month, Independence Day in America and Bastille Day in France, my mind has been on revolutionary heroes.

In my quest for timeless lovers, I sometimes find romance in the most unusual places. While researching for a historical fiction novel I am writing about Mary Wollstonecraft, I stumbled on some extraordinary romance tidbits worthy of a blog post.  For those who have never heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, or have erroneously assumed she was the author of Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was her daughter!) let me introduce you to our Romantic heroine for this week's blog. Mary Wollstonecraft was an English woman born in 1759 to a merchant family of impoverished means. She was the second child of Edward John and Elizabeth (Dixon) Wollstonecraft, and a bit of a rebel from the start. Her home life was miserable. Her father beat her mother and was a perpetual drunk who moved them often to avoid creditors. As the oldest girl, Mary was expected to help watch the children in the home. Her elder brother, Ned, was the family favorite, and given all the opportunity and education. Mary resented this, as she had a voracious mind and wanted to pursue and education like her brother.

Rustic Courtship

In Mary's time, it was expected that a young girl would attract a husband and become settled into married life. Mary defied her family and struck out on her own at seventeen, becoming first a lady's companion and then a schoolteacher to support herself rather than marry simply for a meal ticket. At this time in history, it was unheard of for a woman to become independent and support herself by working rather than simply marry a shopkeeper or farmer as a means of being provided for.  Women became governesses, teachers or ladies companions out of desperation, because they had no other prospects. Yet Mary would rather be independent and poor than married to a man she could not love.

Mary had suitors here and there, and turned down a few marriage proposals, which seems counter-intuitive considering her circumstances. She lived virtually hand to mouth in her independence by teaching children at a village school she set up in Newington Green. When the school failed to provide the steady income needed, she became a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland. She also supported herself by writing a few novels, and then writing a very shocking and emotional book that propelled her into the public forefront almost overnight due to it's scandalous presumption.  

A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, written and published in 1792, was a bestseller, and polarized the readers. They either loved it or hated it, but people were talking about 'that book' and 'that woman'! Most of the women loved it, and most of the men hated it--for obvious reasons as it raised the consciousness of a nation about the treatment and legal status of women in a time when political upheaval and revolution were occurring in many places in the world.

The most intriguing part of all this is Mary's private life as an 18th century woman. Mary Wollstonecraft defied convention time and again, but not marrying as her family hoped at an early age, by writing a series of arguments for rights for women at a time when they were merely the dependents of men in the legal system, much as children are to parents legally today. Mary was a trailblazer. She fell in love with a married man, Henry Fuesli, the painter of the famous spooky painting, "The Nightmare".

 They shared an intellectual relationship. Perhaps a clandestine one as lovers, although it has never been proven that they were lovers in the physical sense. Nevertheless, when Mary learned Feusli was traveling to France in 1792 to observe the events of the French Revolution, she followed him there.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix
  To our modern sensibilities it may seem relatively easy to follow a lover to France, but consider the situation. Mary is a single woman in the eighteenth century,  a woman of limited financial means. She is traveling alone, by ship, to a country that has being torn apart by a bloody revolution. While she is in France, some of her English intellectual friends were imprisoned there, including Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man. Paine was supposed to be executed in France, but through a twist of fate, he escaped the guillotine. The practice was when someone was condemned to be executed the next day, they placed an X on the outside of the prisoner's wood door. Somehow, the X was erased before morning and so Paine lived and went on to be hated and reviled in two countries for his revolutionary writings arguing for reason over religious fanaticism.

In France, Mary met Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman. They fell in love, and when things became too dangerous in the city of Paris they fled to the country and lived in a nice little cottage in the French countryside. Mary gave birth to Imlay's child, Fanny, at the cottage. Fanny was born out of wedlock. Again, Mary was still living her own way by thumbing her nose at convention and following her heart.

But, that heart would soon be broken.

Gilbert Imlay became disillusioned with their romantic dream, eventually abandoning Mary and his infant child during the worst years of the terror. Mary had hoped all along that he would marry her, and there is evidence he had promised to do so. Instead he left her with an infant to care for in a foreign land torn apart by civil war.  Mary was helped by friends and family to return to England, but she was despondent over Imlay's betrayal and even tried to commit suicide by jumping into the River Thames. As an author, she was later vilified for her scandalous behavior in living with a man out of marriage and having his child. This resulted in public opinion swinging against her and holding her up as an anathema, an example of what would happen if women were given equal rights and the freedom to make their own way in life. This stigma would last for nearly a century, pushing her seminal work on women's rights into obscurity until modern feminine voices unearthed it again.

Mary did have a her much deserved Happily Ever After: another intellectual friend and fellow writer, William Godwin, was much taken with her. He wooed Mary, and they eventually married. He also adopted her daughter, Fanny, as his own. They had a happy, but short life together, as Mary died some years later from complications of childbirth as she brought William's child into the world: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to marry Percy Shelley and write the famous novel, Frankenstein.

Cheers to a brave woman who deserves a place of honor among famous revolutionaries.

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