So … who was Mary Wollstonecraft? I published a lot of her story in my YA biography, The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but for those (legions) who have not read that book, I’m offering here a bit about Mary Wollstonecraft's life (adapted from The Mother of the Monster) so that subsequent sections here will perhaps make more sense
She was born in London on 27 April 1759. Her father was a silk weaver—as was his father before him. When Mary’s grandfather Wollstonecraft died in 1765, her father inherited some rental properties that provided enough money for the family to move to Barking (about eleven miles east of central London), where he farmed, though never successfully. Success was not a word that often fit the efforts of Edward John Wollstonecraft.
Mary’s was not a happy childhood. In many ways, she was born into the wrong world at the wrong time. Adults expected obedience at all times. But Mary was a child who loved to run and play, to explore. Her parents must have thought there was something wrong with her. And she deeply resented their rules and restraints.
Mary also resented the favoritism her parents showed toward her older brother, Ned. Because he was a boy, he received all the attention. He would have the opportunity to go to school, to enter a profession; he would inherit the family’s money and possessions. Mary always thought this was horribly unfair—even though it was common practice. As a result she never got along with Ned.
But throughout her childhood and youth, what Mary disliked most of all was her father. He drank, then became violent and abusive. He hit his wife. He hit his children. Later, sober, he would cry and beg forgiveness. Mary would sometimes throw herself between her parents to protect her mother. Sometimes she spent entire nights near their bedroom door when she feared her father would become violent.
When Mary was about nine, the family left Barking and moved north to a farm near Beverley, not far from the North Sea. Here, Mary loved running through the fields and playing sports. She loved letting her mind run, as well—staring at the moon, imagining shapes in the clouds. She never liked dolls or games that most other girls enjoyed.
But the farm failed in the hands of her feckless father, so the family moved again, this time into the town of Beverly. Although Mary missed the open spaces, she enjoyed the neat little town that had its own theater, school, and circulating library.
She also enjoyed seeing and meeting more people. One elderly couple—the Clares—befriended her. She grew to love them, so much so that she sometimes spent entire weeks at their house. Mr. Clare owned a little personal library that he encouraged Mary to use. This was the beginning of her lifelong reading habit. Books became her teachers; the Clares’ house, her school.
When she was about fifteen, the family suddenly moved again, this time back near London to Hoxton—during the time, coincidentally, that eighteen-year-old William Godwin was a student at the Hoxton Dissenting Academy. They did not meet—though it’s likely that they sometimes passed each other on the street, never realizing that for a moment they had been in the presence of a future spouse, that, together, they would create a daughter, a daughter who would … you know.
In Hoxton, Mary met Fanny Blood, who would become her closest friend. Mary later named one of her daughters Fanny. She dreamed that Fanny Blood and she would go off and live together and escape the dreariness of life at home. Mary fashioned a ring from a lock of Fanny’s hair and kept it always.
At 19, Mary took a job. Unmarried women from her social class had very few employment options. She could be a governess and raise the children of other people. She could be a teacher—though finding a school to employ her would not be easy. Or she could become a hired companion to an older person who needed help with the tasks of daily living. Or a tavern maid. Or prostitute.
So for two years Mary became a paid companion to Mrs. Dawson, a wealthy and somewhat bossy widow who lived in the fashionable resort of Bath, famous for its hot springs.
But Mary’s mother became very ill with dropsy—now called edema, fluids accumulating in the body due to congestive heart failure. So Mary left her job and returned home. For two years she nursed her ailing mother, who died on 19 April 1782. Her final words to Mary were pathetic: “A little patience, and all will be over!”
Mary’s father had been of no use throughout his wife’s final illness. He continued his drinking, his gambling, his spending. When she finally died, he married the housekeeper, Lydia, took along his youngest son, Charles, and moved to Wales, where he bought a little farm. He stayed there for the rest of his life, relying on the financial help of Mary and her older brother. Mary’s two sisters, Eliza and Everina (ages 21 and 18), went to live with brother Ned, where they would stay until they found husbands—a search the selfish Ned hoped would not take long. Another brother, James, went to sea.
And Mary? Now a tall, attractive young woman—with auburn hair and light brown eyes —she set off for Waltham Green, a little southwest of London, and moved in with the Blood family. She and Fanny were together at last. But it was not all that she had hoped for. The cottage was small, the family had little money, and so for eighteen months Mary experienced the frustration of having what she wanted—a life with her best friend—but in an unsatisfactory way. She tried to convince Fanny to leave with her, to set up their own household, but her friend declined.