As she matured, Mary Wollstonecraft, like Godwin, was beginning to believe that marriage was a kind of a prison, and she wanted no part of it. She’d witnessed her own mother’s sad experiences—and now she was alarmed by the recent marriage of her sister Eliza to a man named Meredith Bishop.
When Eliza gave birth to a daughter, she had terrible difficulties. She slipped into a deep depression—something of a family trait—and her husband, desperate for relief, invited Mary to live with them. With Mary’s aid, Eliza gradually regained her strength and mental equilibrium—but this was only temporary. Her husband was mystified.
And then . . . a bizarre episode. Mary—deciding that her sister was in mortal danger and that Bishop, her husband, was not a good spouse—plotted to help Eliza “escape.” Early one Saturday morning in 1784, the sisters fled by coach across London Bridge into the city. Inside the coach, Eliza was so upset that she bit her wedding ring in half. Using false names, they registered at an inn … and waited. Eliza had left behind most of her possessions and—surprising to us—her baby.
Why did she leave her child? Because both Eliza and Mary knew that English law gave virtually all family rights to the husband. He could decide how to treat his wife (she was considered property), how to treat his children (also property). When a woman married, all her possessions became her husband’s. So Eliza realized that when her husband found her, he would just take the child. And the law would be on his side.
Sadly, Eliza never again saw her baby, for in August, the little girl died. She had not lived long enough to celebrate her first birthday.
The Wollstonecraft sisters were relieved when Bishop decided not to pursue his runaway wife. But Mary was not sure what do to next. They had to do something, and soon. Money was short. She convinced Eliza that they should start a school—just as Godwin had tried to do only a year earlier.
They heard of an opportunity in Newington Green, an area in the village of Stoke Newington, just northeast of the city (and now part of London). There they found a large empty house, and even some students—all girls. Mary’s friend Fanny Blood taught drawing and sewing, sisters Everina and Eliza helped out as best they could, and Mary herself taught the traditional subjects of reading and writing. The women worked hard, earned a good reputation, and soon—after only a few weeks—had twenty girls with them. Godwin later explained Mary’s success as a teacher: “No person was ever better formed,” he wrote, “for the business of education.”
But something terrible was looming in the near future, something that nearly devastated Mary. Fanny Blood was deathly sick. Mary had seen what was happening, had known what the symptoms meant. Coughing. Spitting blood. Tuberculosis. TB was almost always fatal in Mary’s day. So she left her school and remained with Fanny until she died.
But when the grieving Mary returned to Newington Green, she found the school was in trouble. Debts were mounting, students were quitting—even their boarders were leaving. The sisters were forced to close their school.
Mary’s only other source of income was from a little booklet she had hurriedly written and sold to publisher Joseph Johnson, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Generous Mary gave her entire advance from the publisher (ten guineas) to Fanny Blood’s parents for their expenses.
The booklet was really a list of guidelines for mothers. Mary advised women to nurse their own children, to keep firm but fair rules, to dress children simply, and to emphasize basic skills. But, she stressed, “The main business of our lives is to learn to be virtuous.”
Meanwhile, with the school a failure, there was no choice: The sisters had to separate.