The more I read about (and by) Mary Wollstonecraft, the more I realize that she is a miracle of human ambition—hers is the sort of story that should give everyone hope. Think of others who have emerged from relative obscurity to surprise the world (and probably everyone who knew them) with their sidereal talents—oh, say, Shakespeare? Trollope? Austen? Jack London? August Wilson? And on and on and on ...
Just picture this. It’s 1786, the year Mary Wollstonecraft will turn 27. Her mother is dead. Her father, an abusive drunk, has moved away. Her older brother (who will inherit the family’s assets, such as they are) has cut her off. Her best friend has just died. The school she founded with her sisters has just failed. She is a woman in an age that offers few opportunities for women. If there are any brothers in the family, they will inherit. Women cannot attend university, belong to a profession; if they marry, their husband has full legal authority over them—and the children.
And yet … Mary Wollstonecraft wants to be a writer, an intellectual. And so begins one of the great transformations in literary history. But slowly … slowly … Her immediate problem after the school closed? What to do for an income.
Following the school failure, sister Everina went back to live with her brother Ned, sister Eliza found a teaching job elsewhere, and Mary accepted a position as a governess to the daughters of the large, wealthy Irish family of Lord Viscount Kingsborough. There were twelve children. Now, she would have the opportunity to put into practice the educational ideas she’d written about in her booklet.
Although she grew to love the Kingsborough children, she found her situation very frustrating. As she wrote to her sister, she disliked associating only with “a set of silly females.” Still, the Kingsborough girls loved their new governess. Unfortunately, her popularity with the children began to annoy Lady Kingsborough—as did Mary’s fierce pride. Mary believed that her intelligence made her the equal of anyone. Wealth and position were irrelevant.
During her free time, Mary continued to read eagerly and to study foreign languages—she worked on her French and started learning Italian. And she continued to write, managing to complete a short novel based on her own life, Mary: A Fiction, a story that opposes the idea and practice of marriage. In it, “Mary” meets an older man, a very desirable one, who’s attracted to “Mary” because of “her appearance, and above all, her genius, and cultivation of mind.” They fall in love, but he sickens and dies, and a grieving “Mary” spends the rest of her days in selfless service: “She visited the sick, supported the old, and educated the young ….”
It was not long before the Kingsborough adults gave up on Mary. She did not seem to understand her place. She did not seem to know when to keep her mouth shut. And so in August 1787 they fired her.
Mary was not really sorry to lose her position. She hurried back to London, to the office of Joseph Johnson, who had published her first booklet. Johnson was looking for a hard worker like Mary. Her impressive determination convinced him to employ her. He also found her a small house, and she was very grateful. “You are my only friend,” she wrote to him. “I never had a father, or a brother—you have been both to me ….”
Late in 1790, Mary wrote a little anonymous volume called A Vindication of the Rights of Men—a book that supported the French Revolution. It sold so well that Johnson quickly printed another edition—this one with Mary’s name on the title page. And she became well known, especially among the young revolutionaries and radicals in London. Among them was William Godwin.