When Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died in 1797, Godwin was both heartbroken and a bit desperate. He did not have much income, and he now had sn infant for whose care he was spectacularly ill-equipped. Some women friends appeared to help, and he managed to continue the employment of his wife’s maid, Marguerite Fournée, a Frenchwoman.
He also threw himself into a project of love—a memoir about Mary called Memoirs of the Author of “The Rights of Woman,” a book he published with Mary’s publisher, Joseph Johnson, in 1798. He writes with great affection about her, telling the story of her youth, her struggles to become who she was, her beginnings as a writer.
He’s actually a bit condescending about her most famous book, mildly criticizing its literary style. But, he continues, when we consider the importance of its doctrines, and the eminence of genius it displays, it seems not very improbable that it will be read as long as the English language endures. Fairly prescient, I’d say, for her book does continue to occupy an honored place in the undergraduate and graduate school curriculum.
Mary and Godwin first met in 1791, and he includes a fairly detailed account of this initial encounter, an encounter that involved Thomas Paine (yes, that Thomas Paine). I’m going to reproduce it all here:
It was in the month of November in the same year (1791), that the writer of this narrative was first in company with the person to whom it relates. He dined with her at a friend’s, together with Mr Thomas Paine and one or two other persons. The invitation was of his own seeking, his object being to see the author of The Rights of Man, with whom he had never before conversed.
The interview was not fortunate. Mary and myself parted, mutually displeased with each other. I had not read her Rights of Woman. I had barely looked into her Answer to Burke, and been displeased, as literary men are apt to be, with a few offenses against grammar and other minute points of composition. I had therefore little curiosity to see Mrs. Wollstonecraft, and a very great curiosity to see Thomas Paine. Paine, in his general habits, is no great talker; and, though he threw in occasionally some shrewd and striking remarks, the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence, heard her, very frequently when I wished to hear Paine.
We touched on a considerable variety of topics and particularly on the characters and habits of certain eminent men. Mary, as has already been observed, had acquired in a very blameable degree, the practice of seeing every thing on the gloomy side, and bestowing censure with a plentiful hand, where circumstances were in any respect doubtful. I, on the contrary, had a strong propensity, to favourable construction, and particularly, where I found unequivocal marks of genius, strongly to incline to the supposition of generous and manly virtues. We ventilated in this way the characters of Voltaire and others, who have obtained from some individuals an ardent admiration, while the greater number have treated them with extreme moral severity. Mary was at last provoked to tell me, that praise, lavished in the way that I lavished it, could do no credit either to the commended or the commender. We discussed some questions on the subject of religion, in which her opinions approached much nearer to the received one, than mine. As the conversation proceeded, I became dissatisfied with the tone of my own share in it. We touched upon all topics, without treating forcibly and connectedly upon any. Meanwhile, I did her the justice, in giving an account of the conversation to a party in which I supped, though I was not sparing of my blame, to yield to her the praise of a person of active and independent thinking. On her side, she did me no part of what perhaps I considered as justice.
We met two or three times in the course of the following year, but made a very small degree of progress towards a cordial acquaintance.