Oddly, Godwin’s memoir of his wife did much to destroy her reputation—and his—in a public becoming much more, well, Victorian—although Victoria would not take the throne until 1837, a year after Godwin died and some thirty years after he published this little book (the text is only about seventy pages in the Penguin Classics edition).
Why did it have such a deleterious effect?
Well, he wrote frankly (as frankly as was possible at the time) about Mary’s affair with the American Gilbert Imlay (see chapter above: “What’s Eating Gilbert Imlay?”). Godwin writes about how the two met, how they fell in love (a heart like hers was not formed to nourish affection by halves, he says), how Mary took the name “Mrs. Imlay” even though they were not married, how they lived together near Paris (while she was researching her book Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution), and—most damning of all: She found reason to suppose herself with child.
Oops. Godwin had just written (in his usual frank and unapologetic way) about an illicit affair, about a child born out of wedlock. Godwin was not naïve, I will quickly say. He was just true to his principles, principles he’d written about repeatedly in his essays and monographs—the obligation of human beings to be frank and honest with one another. He would quickly learn that most people in London and throughout the country did not agree.
Godwin went on to write candidly about how Imlay abandoned Mary, who now had a child (Fanny Imlay). Perhaps no human creature, he wrote, ever suffered greater misery [… than did] this incomparable woman.
Godwin went on to describe her suicide attempt—leaping at night into the Thames from Putney Bridge in 1795—another tale not destined to earn Mary or Godwin any admiration from the reading public.
The final two chapters of his ten-chapter text deal with his own relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, chapters that reveal their own sexual activity—but also featuring declarations like this one: I think I may venture to say, that no two persons ever found in each other’s society, a satisfaction more pure and refined—a sentence that surely elicited salacious snickers from readers.
He also talks about his great fondness for Mary’s daughter, Fanny, and how—although he and Mary shared living quarters—they maintained separate accommodations during the day, places near each other, places where they could do their own work and writing. During the day they wrote letters back and forth to each other (late 17th-century texting, in a way), and the surviving notes have been published in a lovely little book called Godwin and Mary: Letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Some are barely a sentence long; others, more lengthy. But all reveal—in a way that no biographer really could—the profound intimacy of these two—the lovely collapse of two human hearts into one.