Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman by William Godwin


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Page 1

The facts detailed in the following pages, are principally taken from
the mouth of the person to whom they relate; and of the veracity and
ingenuousness of her habits, perhaps no one that was ever acquainted
with her, entertains a doubt. The writer of this narrative, when he has
met with persons, that in any degree created to themselves an interest
and attachment in his mind, has always felt a curiosity to be acquainted
with the scenes through which they had passed, and the incidents that
had contributed to form their understandings and character. Impelled by
this sentiment, he repeatedly led the conversation of Mary to topics of
this sort; and, once or twice, he made notes in her presence, of a few
dates calculated to arrange the circumstances in his mind. To the
materials thus collected, he has added an industrious enquiry among the
persons most intimately acquainted with her at the different periods of
her life.

* * * * *

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on the 27th of April 1759. Her father's
name was Edward John, and the name of her mother Elizabeth, of the
family of Dixons of Ballyshannon in the kingdom of Ireland: her paternal
grandfather was a respectable manufacturer in Spitalfields, and is
supposed to have left to his son a property of about 10,000l. Three of
her brothers and two sisters are still living; their names, Edward,
James, Charles, Eliza, and Everina. Of these, Edward only was older than
herself; he resides in London. James is in Paris, and Charles in or near
Philadelphia in America. Her sisters have for some years been engaged in
the office of governesses in private families, and are both at present
in Ireland.

I am doubtful whether the father of Mary was bred to any profession;
but, about the time of her birth, he resorted, rather perhaps as an
amusement than a business, to the occupation of farming. He was of a
very active, and somewhat versatile disposition, and so frequently
changed his abode, as to throw some ambiguity upon the place of her
birth. She told me, that the doubt in her mind in that respect, lay
between London, and a farm upon Epping Forest, which was the principal
scene of the five first years of her life.

Mary was distinguished in early youth, by some portion of that exquisite
sensibility, soundness of understanding, and decision of character,
which were the leading features of her mind through the whole course of
her life. She experienced in the first period of her existence, but few
of those indulgences and marks of affection, which are principally
calculated to sooth the subjection and sorrows of our early years. She
was not the favourite either of her father or mother. Her father was a
man of a quick, impetuous disposition, subject to alternate fits of
kindness and cruelty. In his family he was a despot, and his wife
appears to have been the first, and most submissive of his subjects. The
mother's partiality was fixed upon the eldest son, and her system of
government relative to Mary, was characterized by considerable rigour.
She, at length, became convinced of her mistake, and adopted a different
plan with her younger daughters. When, in the Wrongs of Woman, Mary
speaks of "the petty cares which obscured the morning of her heroine's
life; continual restraint in the most trivial matters; unconditional
submission to orders, which, as a mere child, she soon discovered to be
unreasonable, because inconsistent and contradictory; and the being
often obliged to sit, in the presence of her parents, for three or four
hours together, without daring to utter a word;" she is, I believe, to
be considered as copying the outline of the first period of her own

But it was in vain, that the blighting winds of unkindness or
indifference, seemed destined to counteract the superiority of Mary's
mind. It surmounted every obstacle; and, by degrees, from a person
little considered in the family, she became in some sort its director
and umpire. The despotism of her education cost her many a heart-ache.
She was not formed to be the contented and unresisting subject of a
despot; but I have heard her remark more than once, that, when she felt
she had done wrong, the reproof or chastisement of her mother, instead
of being a terror to her, she found to be the only thing capable of
reconciling her to herself. The blows of her father on the contrary,
which were the mere ebullitions of a passionate temper, instead of
humbling her, roused her indignation. Upon such occasions she felt her
superiority, and was apt to betray marks of contempt. The quickness of
her father's temper, led him sometimes to threaten similar violence
towards his wife. When that was the case, Mary would often throw herself
between the despot and his victim, with the purpose to receive upon her
own person the blows that might be directed against her mother. She has
even laid whole nights upon the landing-place near their chamber-door,
when, mistakenly, or with reason, she apprehended that her father might
break out into paroxysms of violence. The conduct he held towards the
members of his family, was of the same kind as that he observed towards
animals. He was for the most part extravagantly fond of them; but, when
he was displeased, and this frequently happened, and for very trivial
reasons, his anger was alarming. Mary was what Dr. Johnson would have
called, "a very good hater." In some instance of passion exercised by
her father to one of his dogs, she was accustomed to speak of her
emotions of abhorrence, as having risen to agony. In a word, her conduct
during her girlish years, was such, as to extort some portion of
affection from her mother, and to hold her father in considerable awe.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 23:09