Today, an intellectual grieves a loss greater than
he imagined. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Mary Wollstonecraft died on
September 10, 1797. Eleven days earlier she'd given
birth to the girl who would become Mary Shelley and
write Frankenstein. The placenta
hadn't come out cleanly. She'd been infected while
the doctor labored to remove it.
Mary was an important writer and the architect of
modern feminism. Her husband of only five months
was William Godwin, the primary theoretician of
anarchy. Anarchists believe that people can and
should rule themselves without the help of
Marriage seemed like one more needless institution.
In Godwin's words, "friendship had melted into
love" the year before. Only when Mary concieved did
they finally give in and wed.
When Godwin and Wollstonecraft first met, six years
before, they'd heartily disliked each other. Godwin
had wangled an invitation to supper with the
American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Mary was also
there, monopolizing conversation.
She'd taken a sour view of the human condition --
Godwin a hopeful one. He called her negative. She
called his optimism superficial. But two radical
18th-century geniuses had glimpsed one another. For
years they gravitated together. Friendship melted
into joy, but joy lasted only a few months. Now
Mary is dead. Godwin's wound is vast, and he
doesn't know how to grieve.
He retreats into logic. He dissects the loss in his
memoirs. What he's lost, more than pleasures of the
flesh, he says, is improvement. That odd word
recurs. Mary improved him. Now improvement will
cease. His carefully parsed desolation would be
less horrible to watch if he would just sit down
But Godwin cannot. We must weep for him. In the
end, he lost more than his beloved Mary. Together
they'd tried to make a world that was too clean --
too holy. But Godwin's anarchy has existed only for
moments in small communities. Mary's feminism has
stumbled over roles that neither sex will give up.
Godwin and Wollstonecraft fought a war they could
not win. Maybe their daughter saw the human lot
more clearly. Frankenstein's monster embodied those
irrational demons of the human heart that must
submit to structure --to government, to marriage.
Their friend, William Blake, wrote a poem a few
years later. "Mary moves in sweet beauty and
conscious delight." Mary had been a bright star --
a supercharger for 18th-century minds.
Still, Godwin's joy had to end with a bang. His
idealism couldn't have it end with a whimper. I too
believe in living a cooperative, leaderless life. I
want it to be possible. Yet in the long run, I will
take part in formal government, in the rites
surrounding marriage -- and most of the other
ritual dances we do, under a full moon.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Godwin, W., Memoirs of Mary
Wollstonecraft. (W.C. Durant, ed.) New York:
Greenberg Publisher, 1927.
For more on Godwin and Wollstonecraft see Episodes
382, 445, 462,
and 542. For more on
anarchy, see Episode 720.
The Blake poem, Mary, was, in the opinion of
several Blake scholars, based on Mary
Wollstonecraft. We do not have hard evidence,
however. The poem was published sometime before
1803 -- within six years of her death.
There are several Mary Wollstoncraft websites. The
following one includes the text of A Vindication
of the Rights of Women:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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