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No. 773:
Godwin & Wollstonecraft

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 government.

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 and weep.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Godwin, W., Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft. (W.C. Durant, ed.) New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1927.

For more on Godwin and Wollstonecraft see Episodes 382445462, 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.

You may read the text of A Vindication of the Rights of Women by clicking here.