Today is the birthday (1759) of Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so only because they frequently lack the education that men receive. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Nowadays anyone who has half a brain takes her ideas as self evident, but in her day they were revolutionary.
Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s personal life received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the prime movers in the anarchist movement. She died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, had an illustrious career of her own as a writer, although tends to be remembered as the wife of Percy Shelley and the author of Frankenstein (as Mary Shelley) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-shelley/
After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.
To be blunt, I’d classify you as a moron if you judge the value of people’s work by the manner in which they choose to live their lives. Granted, certain writers can be branded as hypocrites if they say one thing and do the opposite. But that fact does not diminish the value of their work. Men are often guilty of such hypocrisy, yet frequently judged less harshly than women for the same behavior. Wollstonecraft can hardly be called a hypocrite; she lived according to the values that she preached. Yet she was judged harshly for over a century because she did not conform to the social mores of her times (as well as later times). This too is rank hypocrisy. There are plenty of famous men of the 18th and 19th centuries who flouted the norms of marriage, and yet their behavior is excused or treated as a minor footnote to the “greatness” of their work. I rather hope there comes a time (probably not in my lifetime) when ideas are judged on their own merits, and not ranked according to the perceived social value of their authors. I also hope there comes a time when a person (male or female) is not termed a “feminist” for believing that men and women should have the same rights and benefits, but is called “rational” and a person who does not, “bigot.”
In this light I am going to downplay what people have judged the prurient aspects of Wollstonecraft’s and, instead, say a little about her life challenges. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in London. She was the second of the seven children of Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft’s youth. The family’s financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft’s father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother’s bedroom to protect her.
Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft’s early life. The first was with Jane Arden in Beverley. The two frequently read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden’s father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. Wollstonecraft reveled in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Arden greatly. In some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Arden, she reveals the volatile and depressive emotions that would haunt her throughout her life.
The second and more important friendship was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, introduced to Wollstonecraft by the Clares, a couple in Hoxton who became parental figures to her. Wollstonecraft credited Blood with opening her mind. Wollstonecraft was unhappy with her home life and, in consequence, struck out on her own in 1778, accepting a job as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In 1780 she returned home, called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson’s employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft at the time. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to her and her family throughout her life, and frequently gave financial assistance to Blood’s brother.
Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood. They made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and after their marriage her husband, Hugh Skeys, took her to Lisbon to improve her health, which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings, Blood’s health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood’s death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).
After Blood’s death, Wollstonecraft’s friends helped her obtain a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family in Ireland. Although she could not get along with Lady Kingsborough, the children found her an inspiring instructor. Margaret King later wrote that she “had freed her mind from all superstitions”. Some of Wollstonecraft’s experiences during this year would make their way into her only children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).
Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women—an impediment which Wollstonecraft eloquently describes in the chapter of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters entitled “Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune”—she decided, after only a year as a governess, to embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become “the first of a new genus”. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts, most notably Of the Importance of Religious Opinions by Jacques Necker and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. She also wrote reviews, primarily of novels, for Johnson’s periodical, Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft’s intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson’s famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were both disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject. Johnson himself, however, became much more than a friend. She described him in her letters as a father and a brother.
While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was married. She was, she wrote, enraptured by his genius, “the grandeur of his soul, that quickness of comprehension, and lovely sympathy”. She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli’s wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft. After Fuseli’s rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to escape the humiliation of the incident, and to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and it made her famous overnight. She was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) was the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work.
For a variety of reasons Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795. Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson’s circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Godwin had read her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and later wrote: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.” Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin received criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. After their marriage on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.
On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; puerperal fever was a common and often fatal occurrence in the 18th century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797.
There is no better source for a recipe to celebrate Wollstonecraft than Hanna Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Simple (1749). Glasse was a woman in Wollstonecraft’s mold. She was the family breadwinner because her husband John Glasse could not make a decent living, and she wrote the book to train up literate girls to be professional cooks, a profession dominated by men at the time. In fact, for many years it was believed that the book was written by a man because it was assumed that a woman was incapable of producing such a work. The original edition gave simply “A Lady” as the author. The book opens:
I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.
Here’s her original recipe for Portugal cakes:
MIX into a pound of fine flour, a pound of loaf sugar beat and sifted, then rub it into a pound of pure sweet butter till it is thick like grated white-bread, then put to it two spoonfuls of rose-water, two of sack, ten eggs, whip them very well with a whisk, then mix into eight ounces of currants, mixed all well together; butter the tin pans, fill them but half full and bake them; if made without currants they will keep half a year; add a pound of almonds blanched and beat with rose-water, as above, and leave out the flour. These are another sort, and better.
It’s a bit obscure at the end, but reasonably clear overall. The basic recipe is made with wheat flour, but she is suggesting that it is finer if you use almond flour. She says “almonds blanched” but you are meant to understand that the almonds are beaten to flour. You can buy almond flour (sometimes called “almond meal”) at health food stores. It makes very rich cakes. Go careful, though, and don’t do this too often because almonds are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Sack is sweet sherry. I would halve the recipe and use decorative muffin tins, rather than baking a single cake. Bake in a 375°F/190°C oven for 20 minutes. Serve with tea or a glass of sherry.