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The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

“We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.”

The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

At the end of the eighteenth century, no woman anywhere in the world could obtain higher education. Women’s right to vote was more than a century away in both England and America. Marriage was a tyrannical institution from which women could liberate themselves legally only with great difficult and at great cost — in the entire eighteenth century, only four women in Great Britain were able to obtain legal separation from their husbands. In divorce, which only men could initiate, children were considered the father’s property — the mother was automatically denied custody. Married women had no share of the household’s property and no legal protection — a husband could violate his wife with impunity. In Great Britain, chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals would obtain legal protection from abuse in 1824 — two decades before the first legislature addressing violence against women. Even these laws exempted husbands from prosecution — a wife was still considered personal property, to do with as the husband pleases. No term for marital rape existed and the crime wouldn’t be codified as such for another two centuries.

Against this backdrop, the self-educated political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman — the ignition spark of what we now call feminism. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men,” Wollstonecraft wrote, “but over themselves.” Her dedication of the book read:

Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

Four years after she published her landmark Vindication, having survived a heartbreak so deep that it drove her to attempt suicide, Wollstonecraft met the political philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship was slow, even reluctant — not the mad and maddening magnetic pull of instant infatuation, but the gradual and careful advance by which two people come to know the depths of each other’s being and arrive at a love that springs from those depths.

William Godwin (portrait by James Northcote) and Mary Wollstonecraft (portrait by John Opie)

They were married on March 29, 1797, with Mary four months pregnant, and entered a true marriage of equals — a notion not merely radical but utterly countercultural at the time. Godwin, a feminist long before feminism existed, considered marriage a necessary evil in society — necessary for its structural and legal value, evil for its inequitable treatment of women. Their marriage would be different — a beautiful bond not based on bondage, one in which neither lost themselves in the other, embodying instead Rilke’s insistence that the richest love is “the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” They each continued working on their respective literary projects, exchanging ideas while sharing household duties.

They were different, too — undergirding Mary’s intense intellect was an emotionally expansive imagination, while William placed reason at the center of his character and conveyed his emotions, however strong, with great reserve. But these differences, despite occasionally frustrating the couple, complemented each other and enlarged each of their natures. Two centuries later, the poet Mary Oliver would speak to such complementarity in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together: “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”

Wollstonecraft and Godwin came to be admired by their contemporaries as “the most extraordinary married pair in existence.” Charlotte Gordon writes in her superb mother-daughter biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley (public library):

Young poets and intellectuals gathered at the Polygon to pay court to these middle-aged radicals and to admire the partnership that they had forged. The Godwin/Wollstonecraft marriage seemed to unite all the principles they held most dear: freedom, justice, reason, sensibility, and the imagination — in essence, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the exciting new tenets of Romanticism.

But true equality in love cannot exist solely at the level of ideas — of shared interests and values. It springs, rather, from the deepest stratum of the heart — a parity of emotional investment in the relationship and a certain symmetry, certain balance of affection and attention. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s few surviving love letters emanate such a rare and beautiful marriage of equals at the level of the heart. Several months into her pregnancy, convinced that she is carrying a boy whom the couple nicknamed “Master William,” she writes to Godwin:

I am well and tranquil, excepting the disturbance produced by Master William’s joy, who took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie. Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever — and I will add what will gratify your benevolence, if not your heart, that on the whole I may be termed happy.

Godwin is not “spoilt” but stirred by her openhearted outpouring of love — instead of retreating into reserve, he responds with even greater sincerity of affection:

You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections, so perfectly as you do: &, after all one’s philosophy, it must be confessed that the knowledge, that there is some one that takes an interest in our happiness… is extremely gratifying. We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.

The baby turned out to be not a boy but a girl, who would go on to author Frankenstein. Ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever — one of the era’s most dangerous diseases — leaving behind the foundation upon which the next two hundred years of humanity’s model of gender equality would be built.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Complement this particular portion of Romantic Outlaws — which stands as one of the finest, most beautifully written and rigorously researched biographies I have ever read — with the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, another rare marriage of equals in an era of grave inequality, and Kahlil Gibran on the essential balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection and devour other beautiful love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Werner Heisenberg, and Hannah Arendt.

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William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Political Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Book of Moral Education for Children

“Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason.”

William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Political Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Book of Moral Education for Children

Four years before she ignited the dawn of feminism with her epoch-making 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the pioneering British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) set out to change the fabric of society at the loom: She decided to write a children’s book of allegorical stories inviting young readers to contemplate questions of moral philosophy. At the heart of her vision was an insistence on the value of girls’ education as a counterpoint and challenge to Rousseau’s seminal 1762 book Émile, or Treatise on Education, which focused on the education of boys and reflected the era’s dominant ethos that women are to be educated only in order to make desirable wives and good conversation companions for their husbands.

The result was Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (public library | free ebook), composed when Wollstonecraft was twenty-nine — six years before the birth of her own first child, Fanny, and nine years before that of her second, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.

“Every Prospect Smiled” (William Blake Archive)

Two centuries before beloved Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White declaimed that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” and that they are instead to be written up to, for they are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Wollstonecraft wrote with the conviction that children ought not be shielded from life’s most demanding and difficult questions — mortality, kindness and cruelty, the meaning of mercy, the eternal interplay of good and evil. She outlined her aim and her means in the preface:

Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason… Reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.

In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition… The way to render instruction most useful cannot always be adopted; knowledge should be gradually imparted, and flow more from example than teaching: example directly addresses the senses, the first inlets to the heart; and the improvement of those instruments of the understanding is the object education should have constantly in view, and over which we have most power.

Three years after the publication of the book, just as Wollstonecraft was finalizing Vindication, her publisher began preparing a second edition of Original Stories from Real Life and commissioned William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) to illustrate it. Only a year earlier, Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Two songs in it — “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” — were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.

William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Blake reworked his preliminary drawings for Original Stories, ten of which survive, into the etchings that appear on the six illustrated plates in the book.

“Look What a Fine Morning It Is” for Plate 1 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 1: “Look What a Fine Morning It Is” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“A Starving Woman with Two Children” (William Blake Archive)
“She Turned Her Eyes to Her Cruel Master” (William Blake Archive)
“How Delighted the Old Bird Will Be” (William Blake Archive)
“God Sent for Him” (William Blake Archive)
“The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” for Plate 2 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 2: “The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Indeed We Are Very Happy” for Plate 3 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 3: “Indeed We Are Very Happy” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” for Plate 4 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 4: “The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
Plate 5: “Trying to Trace the Sound I Discovered” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” for Plate 6 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 6: “Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Six years later, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world. Influenced by her work and moved by the tragedy of her personal story, Blake commemorated her in an engraving:

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)”

Complement with Esperanza Spalding’s stunning soul-jazz performance of Blake’s poem “The Fly,” his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and his most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — then revisit Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Mary Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection.

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Pioneering Feminist Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on Loneliness, Friendship, and the Courage of Unwavering Affection

“Friendship… requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose.”

Pioneering Feminist Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on Loneliness, Friendship, and the Courage of Unwavering Affection

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich observed in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships shortly before we began commodifying the word friend by egregious misuse and overuse in the hands of so-called social media. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in contemplating how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship.

A century before Mitchell and two centuries before Rich, another trailblazing woman — the British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) — considered the complexities of friendship and companionship in her 1796 book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (public library | free ebook), composed four years after she ignited the feminist consciousness with her landmark treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman and shortly after she attempted suicide in the wake of heartbreak.

Part travelogue and part memoir, exploring subjects spanning from beauty and the sublime to divorce laws and prison reform, this collection of twenty-five pieces drawn from Wollstonecraft’s diaries and letters to her lover inspired readers to travel to Scandinavia and influenced the titans of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge. A year after its publication, Wollstonecraft would die of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world.

Mary Wollstonecraft shortly before her death. Portrait by John Opie.

In the twelfth letter, having left Norway’s Tønsberg for the next stop on her journey, Wollstonecraft considers how it is possible to arrive at a place with “a sort of emancipation” and yet suffer a hollowing loneliness in the absence of loved ones:

I dreaded the solitariness of my apartment, and wished for night to hide the starting tears, or to shed them on my pillow, and close my eyes on a world where I was destined to wander alone. Why has nature so many charms for me — calling forth and cherishing refined sentiments, only to wound the breast that fosters them? … Self-applause is a cold solitary feeling, that cannot supply the place of disappointed affection, without throwing a gloom over every prospect, which, banishing pleasure, does not exclude pain. I reasoned and reasoned; but my heart was too full to allow me to remain in the house, and I walked, till I was wearied out, to purchase rest — or rather forgetfulness.

From this paradoxical place of emancipation and loneliness, she laments the common pitfall of friendship and companionship:

Friendship is in general sincere at the commencement, and lasts whilst there is anything to support it; but as a mixture of novelty and vanity is the usual prop, no wonder if it fall with the slender stay.

Lasting relationships, Wollstonecraft argues, require a certain courage and tenacity of affection after the novelty and the flattery of the other person’s attention wear out:

Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose. Besides, few like to be seen as they really are; and a degree of simplicity, and of undisguised confidence, which, to uninterested observers, would almost border on weakness, is the charm, nay the essence of love or friendship, all the bewitching graces of childhood again appearing… I therefore like to see people together who have an affection for each other; every turn of their features touches me, and remains pictured on my imagination in indelible characters.

She revisits the subject in the seventeenth letter. After noting that under Swedish law, both husband and wife can easily obtain a divorce if they can prove the infidelity of the other party — not the case in England, where divorce at the time was readily available only to the rich and of great difficulty for women — Wollstonecraft writes:

Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is a beautiful and at times harrowing read, replete with insight into such facets of existence as gender, identity, politics, death, the building blocks of character, and the essential elements of social change. Complement this particular portion with Seneca on true and false friendship, Aristotle on the art of human connection, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the power of the imagination in human relationships.

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Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“These emotions … appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea.”

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue,” philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) wrote in her 1792 proto-feminist masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.” Independence became the animating force of Wollstonecraft’s life, and there was no form of it she valued more highly than the independence of the imagination — something her second daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, would come to inherit.

Wollstonecraft saw the imagination as the gateway to liberation, the most vitalizing nectar for the mind, and the most seductive aphrodisiac; she saw love as the domain in which “the imagination mingles its bewitching colouring” — for better or for worse, to enchant into rapture as well as to delude into despair. (A quarter millennium later, philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to write brilliantly about the imperfect union of the two.)

Wollstonecraft found herself afflicted with “the reveries of a disordered imagination,” which frequently caused her embarrassment and dejection — nowhere more so than in the passions of the heart, which coexisted with equal vigor alongside her formidable intellect.

“The pictures that the imagination draws are so very delightful that we willing[ly] let it predominate over reason till experience forces us to see the truth,” she wrote to her sister in a letter found in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library). But a pure love, she believed, was a region “where sincerity and truth will flourish — and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions.”

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan, 1787

In December of 1792, shortly after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a month before the execution of Louis XVI furnished a cornerstone of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left London for Paris. There, she met and became besotted with the American diplomat, businessman, and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Although in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she had renounced sexual passion as complicit in women’s oppression, Imlay awakened in her a magnitude of desire both dissonant with her political views and personally disorienting in far exceeding what she had previously thought herself capable of experiencing.

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter in the spring of 1794, just as Britain was preparing to declare war on France. Imlay had made clear his disinterest in marriage and domesticity but, alarmed by the political turmoil and the danger in which it placed British subjects in Paris, he registered Wollstonecraft as his wife in order to protect her and the baby, even though no legal marriage took place. It was an act more necessary than noble — many of Wollstonecraft’s compatriots in Paris had no such protection and were either arrested or guillotined — but it was also the beginning of the end of their romance. A slow-seething commitment panic began bedeviling Imlay, who eventually left Wollstonecraft heartbroken and alone with an infant amid a raging revolution.

But even in their parting letters, as it becomes clear to Wollstonecraft that her lover wouldn’t return, her beseeching despair is laced with a lucid sense of her unassailable independence. Radiating from them is an awareness of how she had grown infatuated with the fantasy of a man whose reality of character was wholly unworthy of her love. Where her imagination had been the aphrodisiac responsible for her passionate infatuation — a state Julian Fellowes has called “a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers” — Imlay’s lack of imagination became the agent of disillusionment.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

In a letter to Imlay from September of 1794, she makes no apologies about calling out his fatal flaw:

Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination — I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions — animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.

In a letter to Imlay from the following June, as his protracted abandonment drags on, she returns to the subject of the imagination and its role in human relationships. With an eye to the perennial question of telling love from lust — a question to which young E.B. White and James Thurber would provide a most delightful answer a century and a half later — and to the role the imagination plays in it, Wollstonecraft writes:

The common run of men, I know, with strong health and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason. — Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions, over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant; but they do not exist without self-denial.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

And yet for all the personal pain that her intense imagination caused her, it was also the wellspring of her creative and intellectual genius — the very thing that rendered her one of the most influential minds of her era. In a sentiment that echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Wollstonecraft adds:

These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea… I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.

The English political philosopher William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married after recovering from the heartbreak with Imlay and who fathered Mary Shelley, would later edit her posthumous works and laud these very letters as having “superiority over the fiction of Goethe” and being “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe” — perhaps supreme proof the kind of sincere love Wollstonecraft imagined possible, for Godwin transcended the jealous ego’s knowledge that these letters were written to a former lover and instead celebrated Wollstonecraft for the faculty she valued above all else: her imagination.

Complement this particular portion of The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library) with Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace, whose own ascent as a woman of intellectual accomplishment was shaped by Wollstonecraft’s legacy, on the imagination’s three core faculties.

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