Ghislaine McDayter, “On the Publication of William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1798″


William Godwin’s publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s memoirs in 1798 had a massive impact on Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation and literary legacy. While Godwin’s refusal to finesse an increasingly conservative readership by downplaying his wife’s sexual independence in the Memoirs may have initiated a violent rejection of Wollstonecraft’s work for nearly a century, it also highlighted the important political radicalism of her work that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Frontispiece from Wollstonecraft

Figure 1: William Blake's frontispiece to the 1791 edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's _Original Stories from Real Life_

When the feminist and radical intellectual Mary Wollstonecraft unexpectedly and tragically died due to complications in giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, her stricken widower, William Godwin, set about writing her memoirs to celebrate and eulogize his beloved, lost partner. A famous philosopher and novelist in his own right, Godwin self-confessedly lacked what he would refer to in the Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as  “an intuitive sense of the beauties of the imagination” (131).[1] This self-analysis was proven to be painfully astute once the scathing reviews for Godwin’s ill-judged Memoirs of his dead wife exploded upon the London literary scene in January 1798. The memoir fearlessly and scrupulously documented Mary Wollstonecraft’s hitherto little-known failed love affairs with the (already married) Swiss artist Henry Fuseli and the American businessman Gilbert Imlay. It recorded her two pregnancies out of wedlock, her two attempted suicides after Imlay’s desertion of her, and her highly unorthodox attitudes to marriage and religion. The public response to these revelations was predictably one of moral outrage. Robert Southey proclaimed the Memoirs to be a scandalous work revealing Godwin’s “want of feeling in stripping his dead wife naked,”[2] while the Anti-Jacobin Review quipped in its publication of a scurrilous poem, “The Vision of Liberty” in 1801, that the Memoirs was Godwin’s attempt to have his wife’s “brothel feats of wantonness set[] down” since “her whoredoms were not known enough.”[3] The contemporary response to Memoirs indicated that Godwin’s “education” in intuition by the empathetic Wollstonecraft had indeed been broken off long before he had successfully absorbed her “intuitive” life lessons:

The improvement I had reason to promise myself, was however yet in its commencement, when a fatal event, hostile to the moral interests of mankind, ravished from me the light of my steps, and left me nothing but the consciousness of what I had possessed, and must now possess no more. (133)

Godwin clearly had much to learn about the powers of intuition — and of the moral majority. Whatever its original intent, the Memoirs became notorious as what Cora Kaplan has quite rightly called the “book which undid [Wollstonecraft’s] influence and reputation for almost a century” (“Wollstonecraft’s Reception” 262). What is worse, the destruction of her reputation could not be blamed solely on the absurd suppositions of the reactionary critics who defamed her character when her sexual exploits were made known. Certainly, this had an enormous impact on her nineteenth-century reputation, but, arguably, by the twentieth century, such hegemonic sexual norms were hardly a deterrent to her growing reputation as a feminist theorist.[4]  Ironically, it was Godwin’s own defense of Wollstonecraft in his Memoirs as a woman who “worshipped domesticity” and who repressed “that mire and grossness, in which the sensual part of our species are delighted to wallow,” that eroded what little feminist legitimacy Wollstonecraft might have acquired by the twentieth century (129).  Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has repeatedly been cited as the single largest burden on Wollstonecraft’s literary legacy; it has been deemed offensive by critics then and now, by contemporary moralists, and by modern feminists. How could such a brief outpouring of a husband’s love for his dead wife have caused such formidable and wide-ranging damage?

The Memoirs is a perplexing text in many ways; it follows no clear genre, articulates no coherent motive for its existence, and seems to have no distinct target readership. There is very little in William Godwin’s history to explain his interest in producing such a personal text, and certainly his contemporary readers found his work distasteful and inappropriate in the extreme — especially for a man of his intellectual repute.[5] Godwin was already well established in the intellectual and political firmament of London for his brilliant Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) when Memoirs was released. The book’s often-graphic personal detail (and the curiously stilted style in which it is explored) showed Godwin’s literary and even personal bravery, following in the confessional autobiographical style of Rousseau’s infamous and much-admired Confessions. Godwin had even toyed with writing biographies in his early literary career. Yet this intimate examination of his relationship with his recently deceased wife is outside both the confessional tradition and Godwin’s own literary “comfort zone.” The biographer Richard Holmes refers to it as a “revolution in literary genres” (16). Further, the little information that Godwin offers to justify writing the book raises more questions than it answers. He notes that it behooves the survivors of famous individuals to make public the character of those individuals lost to posterity:

It has always appeared to me, that to give the public some account of a person of eminent merit deceased, is a duty incumbent on survivors. It seldom happens that such a person passes through life, without being the subject of malignant calumny, or thoughtless misrepresentation. (5)

Godwin here suggests that the example of such luminaries will encourage and offer models of behavior to a younger generation: “The justice which is thus done to the illustrious dead, converts into the fairest source of animation and encouragement to those who would follow them” (5). The Memoirs is thus, if not an orthodox conduct manual, then at least an inspirational document for younger women intellectuals and writers.  The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft should be made public, Godwin claims, precisely for the public welfare. We all should emulate her life.

Notably, the book’s severest critics focused precisely on its “conduct book” quality for their most vicious attacks.  It was labeled a “convenient Manual of speculative debauchery” by the critic T. J. Mathias, while a reviewer in the European Magazine urges his readers in his 1798 review of the Memoirs to find more admirable models of femininity: “Licentious as the times are, we trust it will obtain no imitators of the heroine in this country.”[6]  A critic for the notoriously right-wing Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine later claimed that:

We coincide with him [Godwin] in his opinion of the utility of a life of Mrs. Wollstonecroft [sic] though for a very different reason. Intended by him for a beacon, it serves for a buoy; it does not shew [sic] what it is wise to pursue, it manifests what it is wise to avoid.[7]

What made Godwin’s biography so very reprehensible for these critics was that he presented it as a source of inspiration and emulation for a younger generation of “innocent” women. Rather than writing a traditional confessional text in which Wollstonecraft’s unorthodox behavior is redeemed by a deathbed conversion, he has turned what should have been, according to the Anti-Jacobin Review, a condemnation of criminal behavior into a celebration of unblushing “concubinage”.[8]

To further complicate this question, Godwin’s assertion that Wollstonecraft needed to be defended from the malicious rumors that followed her to her grave rather overstates the case. Wollstonecraft’s work had been generally well-received during her life and her personal reputation for the most part, untarnished — until Godwin’s publication of Memoirs, that is. It is true that Wollstonecraft had come under attack by some conservatives and even some friends when she decided to marry Godwin, since this revealed the illicit nature of her previous relations with Imlay (the father of her daughter, Fanny). She had been known to many of her acquaintances as “Mrs. Imlay” until the marriage with Godwin. But, as many modern biographers have been quick to point out, the reviews and notices of Wollstonecraft’s work, specifically The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, were almost uniformly positive. R. M. Janes conclusively shows in her examination of the reception of the Vindication that “with one important exception, every notice the Rights of Woman received was favorable” (294). The work’s polemic force was largely ignored by both political parties, and as a result it was generally seen as “a sensible treatise on female education.” As Janes points out:

The Analytical’s response was typical. The work was catalogued for the year not under politics, but under “political economy,” and the reviewer observed that “in the present work is an elaborate treatise of female education . . . if the bulk of the great truths which this publication contains were reduced to practice, the nation would be better, wiser, happier . . . .“ (294)

The more revolutionary aspects of Wollstonecraft’s theories of gender performance were uniformly ignored. It was only after Godwin’s publication of the Memoirs that conservative critics went back to examine the Vindication and discovered in its pages not the fairly traditional educational manual they had hastily skimmed through the first time, but a highly radical text grounded in the philosophies of Thomas Paine. Janes continues:

With the appearance of the Memoirs, the Rights of Woman came to seem more revolutionary than it had at first. Providing a vulnerable combination of sexual and political error, Wollstonecraft became the symbolic center for attacks on radical female writers. (300)

Godwin himself had not commented at great length on the Vindication in his life of Wollstonecraft, but it is possible that his own brief references to its “amazonian” style raised eyebrows in the popular press, causing the reviewers to focus on aspects of the work that might well have gone unnoticed without Godwin’s remarks.

Indeed, far from defending the Vindication as Wollstonecraft’s great philosophical legacy, Godwin singles it out for criticism and his grounds for doing so are curious. While Maria and Mary, and even the immature fragment “Cave of Fancy” are praised for their imaginative force and sublimity, the Vindication is described regretfully by Godwin as an unfortunately “bold and original” production with unusual “strength and firmness.” True, he notes that the work offers “substantial service for the cause of her sex,” but in the process he nearly “unsexes” Wollstonecraft herself. There are to be found in its pages, Godwin laments, “occasional passages of a stern and rugged feature, incompatible with the writer’s essential character . . . yet, along with this rigid and somewhat amazonian temper,” there are nonetheless moments of “trembling delicacy,” which, at times, redeem the work for the author (55).

If Godwin’s motivation in writing his Memoirs had been to defend Wollstonecraft against the condemnations of the Anti-Jacobin Review and the ultra-conservative poet Richard Polwhele, who aligned Wollstonecraft’s radical politics with a perverted gender performance in his poem The Unsex’d Females (1798), then arguably he was going about it in precisely the wrong way. As many feminist literary critics have observed, his own descriptive rhetoric seems to be in agreement with the conservative critiques of the Vindication, presenting it as a flawed and irrational text written by a masculinized hack. He worries that:

The Vindication of the Rights of Woman is undoubtedly a very unequal performance, and eminently deficient in method and arrangement. When tried by the hoary and long established laws of literary composition, it can scarcely be placed in the first class of human productions. (56)

Godwin has frequently and deservedly come under attack by recent critics for his patronizing commentary on Wollstonecraft’s most politicized and certainly most famous work. Repeatedly, throughout the Memoirs, Godwin argues that the Vindication is not representative of the “real” Wollstonecraft, precisely because reading this work alone would compel us to agree that she is indeed a “stern and rugged” woman. It is for this reason that he urges his readers to avoid judging Wollstonecraft the woman based on this single text in her literary body of work, since the Vindication appeared even to the man who loved her as an irregularity or blemish on the face of an otherwise strongly feminine corpus.  Thus, he set out in the composition of his two 1798 editions of the Memoirs, as the modern literary critic Tillotima Rajan argues, to create “a contiguity between corpus and corpse.”[9] In a further patronizing irony, Godwin even privileges his Memoirs over Wollstonecraft’s own “corpus” of work for its authenticity as a faithful embodiment of the “true” Wollstonecraft. Studying the Vindication will teach us nothing about who Wollstonecraft really was, Godwin suggests, and at the heart of the Memoirs is the implied message that his own re-membered corpus of his wife is far more faithful to the original Mary than Wollstonecraft’s Vindication could ever be.

It is here that we begin to uncover some of the tensions and fissures that have made Memoirs such a contentious work for literary critics right up until the present day. Godwin spends the better part of his analysis of his dead wife and her work emphasizing, if not insisting, upon her femininity, her sensitivity, and her delicacy. Through some determined gender policing, he works very hard to convince his readers, and possibly even himself, that the dearly departed really was a “womanly” woman despite her brief and regrettable foray into the realm of masculine logic — a field of study that, in Godwin’s view, she failed to master. For Godwin, however, what this failure revealed was a consummately feminine nature, “eminently deficient in method and arrangement” (56). That is, it is the Vindication‘s very flaws that redeem the author. Thus, Godwin is quick to assert that those who had met Wollstonecraft having only read her atypical “amazonian” work were always shocked to find in her a womanly and delicate mother:

In the champion of her sex, who was described as endeavouring to invest them with all the rights of man, those whom curiosity prompted to seek the occasion of beholding her, expected to find a sturdy, muscular raw boned virago; and they were not a little surprised, when instead of all this, they found a woman, lovely in her person, and in the best and most engaging sense, feminine in her manners. (56)

Perhaps it would be churlish to point out that he himself did not prove to be one of those curious visitors “a little surprised” to find a woman instead of a virago when encountering Wollstonecraft for the first time. On the contrary, Godwin had initially been as underwhelmed by the flesh-and-blood Wollstonecraft as he had been by the manly persona he had encountered in her Vindication. She had been, in his mind, unnaturally aggressive and forceful in his first meeting with her at a dinner with Thomas Paine in 1791, and it wasn’t until he had read her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark that he acquired any interest in her as a woman. Even then, this interest was only triggered by the “softness” of her melancholic letters that erased the past unpleasant impression that had been made on him — an impression of the author’s “harshness and ruggedness” — during his previous reading of her Vindication (84). Letters, on the contrary, is a book “calculated to make a man in love with its author,” asserts Godwin, emphasizing as it does Wollstonecraft’s maternal nature, her “softness” and overwhelming “gentleness” (84).  In its pages, we at last find Godwin’s idea of the “real” Wollstonecraft – a kind of “female Werter,” as he un-ironically puts it (73).

Critics such as Claire Tomalin have forcefully argued that such privileging of the traditionally feminine side of Wollstonecraft’s character reveals Godwin’s retrograde, if not actually sexist, attempt to whitewash his wife’s character so as to align it more easily with the feminine ideology of the day.[10] Thus, his second “corrected” edition is often pointed to as an obvious attempt on his part to “soften” the more masculine lines drawn in his first portrait of Wollstonecraft. Of course, it is tempting to suggest that Godwin is so anxious to redeem Wollstonecraft from her presumed reputation as a phallic woman if only to protect his own reputation. If Wollstonecraft was so masculine and Amazonian by nature, it rather begged the question of what this might say about Godwin’s own sexuality. It is surely significant in this context that the final passages he rewrote in his second edition of Memoirs comprise a highly conventional articulation of a complementarian, which is to say a “different but equal” relationship so popular at this time:

A circumstance by which the two sexes are particularly distinguished from each other, is, that the one is accustomed more to the exercise of its reasoning powers, and the other of its feelings . . . . Mary and myself perhaps each carried farther than to its common extent the characteristics of the sexes to which we belonged. I have been stimulated, as long as I can remember, by the love of intellectual distinction; but as long as I can remember, I have been discouraged, when casting the sum of my intellectual value, by finding that I did not possess, in the degree of some other persons, an intuitive sense of the pleasures of the imagination. (130)

Based on such passages, Godwin seems eager to present his marriage to Wollstonecraft as a match made in a Rousseauian heaven, with Godwin/Emile playing opposite the redoubtable Wollstonecraft/Sophie as if torn from a page of Rousseau’s influential educational treatise, Emile: or On Education (1762) — a novel that Wollstonecraft attacks throughout her Vindication.

Quite apart from the fact that such a characterization of their relationship would have horrified Wollstonecraft, it also did untold damage to Wollstonecraft’s status in the modern field of gender studies. How are we, as twentieth-century feminists, to interpret the work and politics of a writer who should be considered a “mother of feminism,” but who is presented to posterity by her husband in the character of hegemonic femininity? What kind of mother are we speaking of, and how could we learn from her? Was she, following Godwin, the ideologically normative woman who was incapable of logical analysis but embodied the much-lauded feminine qualities of imagination, emotive force, and maternal softness? Or was she, as critics like Kaplan have influentially argued in the past, a figure who denied her womanhood and repressed all of her own sexual impulses while denigrating female desire as a kind of sexual contagion which all woman should ideally learn to cure?[11] What, in short, was Godwin thinking in privileging his own portrait of Wollstonecraft over and above that drawn by Wollstonecraft herself?

But while lamentable in many respects, it is possible that Godwin’s lack of cultural savvy, and considerable literary self-importance, may have served Wollstonecraft well in the long run. Wollstonecraft’s name and work might have — if not exactly sunk into obscurity — then at least been less hotly debated had Godwin not championed her and her memory, no matter how ineptly. His attempts to dismiss the Vindication as a text not representative of his wife’s true nature, ironically, redirected contemporary critics to the powerful political underpinnings of the work that had been largely ignored during Wollstonecraft’s own lifetime. Again, it was only after the Memoirs that Wollstonecraft’s name became synonymous with radicalism and with dangerous female passion. Thus, while feminist criticism may continue to wrestle with the legacy left us by this “mother of feminism,” and while we may never fully accept the “truth” of her character constructed by her husband’s Memoirs, the fact that her literary corpus remains in the spotlight of critical analysis at all is curiously thanks to Godwin’s ill-judged, public re-membering of his lost lover.

Ghislaine McDayter is a Professor of English at Bucknell University.  Her last book, Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture was published in 2009 and she is presently working on a book entitled “Voluptuous Tyrants”: Mary Wollstonecraft, Feminism and Flirtation.


published May 2012

McDayter, Ghislaine. “On the Publication of William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1798.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Gleadle, Kathryn. Radical Writing on Women 1800-1850. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print

Godwin, William. Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. W. Clark Durant. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1927. Print.

Holmes, Richard. Introduction. A Short Residence in Sweden and Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman. By Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. London: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Janes, R. M. “On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39:2 (1978): 293-302. Print.

Kaplan, Cora. “Mary Wollstonecraft’s Reception and Legacies.” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. Claudia Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 246-271. Print.

Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism. London: Verso Press, 1986. Print.

Mellor, Anne.  “The Rights of Woman and the Woman Writers of Wollstonecraft’s day.” The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 141-159. Print.

Monsam, Angela. “Biography as Autopsy in William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 21.1 (2008):  109-130. Print.

Myers, Mitzi. “Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft: The Shaping of Self and Subject.” Studies in Romanticism 20 (1981): 299-316. Print.

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. 1974. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992. Print.

“The Vision of Liberty: Written in the Manner of Spencer” [sic]. Appendix. Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine 9 (April-August 1801): 518. Print.


Anne Mellor, “On the Publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


[1] The memoirs were originally published by J. Johnson and G.G. and J. Robinson in January of 1798, the second “revised edition” being released only a few months later. All subsequent citations from the Memoirs will be taken from William Godwin, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. W. Clark Durant. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1927.

[2] Cited in Myers 302. I have relied heavily on the excellent scholarship of Mitzi Myers for many of the references to the reception of Godwin’s Memoirs.

[3] Cited in Myers 302. This poem goes on to crow at Godwin’s “cuckoldom” since Mary has been known to sell herself to “half the town.”

[4] Recent scholarship by critics such as Kathryn Gleadle, however, has begun to uncover the many ways in which Wollstonecraft’s work was continuously drawn upon as a source of inspiration and emulation for woman writers as the nineteenth-century progressed.  As Anne Mellor notes, “Nonetheless many women writers who did not wish to be tarred with the blackened brush of Wollstonecraft’s reputation still continued to invoke and espouse her ideas” (145).

[5] Angela Monsam offers the intriguing theory that Godwin’s Memoirs were found to be so unusually disturbing to his contemporaries because of Godwin’s quite deliberate reliance on the language of medical autopsy in his “examination” of his wife’s past life.

[6] Cited in Myers 301; cited in Godwin 341.

[7] Cited in Godwin 343.

[8] Cited in Godwin 344.

[9] Cited in Monsam 3.

[10] See Tomalin, Mary Wollstonecraft, 296.

[11] See Kaplan, Sea Changes, 35.