Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018
In honor of the great philosopher and founding mother of modern feminism Mary Wollstonecraft‘s birthday April 27, 1759, let me share the story of two 2018 visits to London in which I visited places associated with her life and legacy.
On January 11, 2018, I visited my friend Steven in London, who was studying history at King’s College after retiring from a successful law career. He kindly toured the city with me, showing me many of his favorite spots and accompanying me to others of my choosing, the latter mostly having to do with great thinkers and doers I admire and write about. It was great fun to run around London with a fellow energetic and restlessly curious traveler!
Among the sites I chose, the first stop was at the National Portrait Gallery to see the original 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft by John Opie. It was painted when Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter Mary, who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft’s portrait is hung among those of other British radicals, including that of her husband, eventual biographer, and father of her daughter Mary, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Below Wollstonecraft’s, I find a 1791 portrait by Laurent Dabos of her friend and ideological ally Thomas Paine. Both Wollstonecraft and Paine wrote in favor of using reason to design more just social structures and, contrary to Edmund Burke, in favor of the French Revolution. However, over time, Wollstonecraft and Paine found many reasons to become disillusioned with it. From an understandable and perhaps even laudable revolt against a massively unequal and unjust social system, the French Revolution developed into a wholesale bloodbath of the aristocracy and of real and perceived intellectual and political foes. For more connections between Paine and Wollstonecraft’s lives and ideas, please see my series ‘To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson.’)
Oakshott Court, London, at the site of 29 The Polyglon, where Mary Wollstonecraft died. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018
Portrait of William Godwin by James Northcote, 1802, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018
A few months later, on May 5th, my sweetheart Laurence accompanied me as I sought out two more sites, the day after we went on a fascinating tour of the Tower of London. Both are within easy walking distance of King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations. Our first destination was Oakshott Court, which stands at what used to be 29 The Polyglon, or Polyglon Square. Here, Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin settled in April of 1797 to enjoy a happy, if sometimes tumultuous, love. Wollstonecraft and Godwin had met many years before at a 1791 dinner held in honor of Paine, but had disliked each other at first. Both were passionate, opinionated people prone to speaking their minds, and they spent much of that first meeting arguing about religion. Godwin was also described by people who knew him as awkward with women. But the two had mutual friends and met again occasionally over the years, slowly warming to one another. In January of 1796, Godwin read Wollstonecraft’s travel book A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. As Godwin wrote in his biography of Wollstonecraft, the book increased his respect and admiration of her, and after she called on him in the spring of that year, they became real friends, then lovers.
At first, they lived apart. But when it became clear that Mary was pregnant, they decided to marry, though they both considered marriage an outmoded, superstitious, and even ridiculous institution. Wollstonecraft and Godwin decided that they didn’t want to subject their child to the social difficulties of growing up with unmarried parents. Godwin was also acutely aware of the struggles Wollstonecraft had faced raising her first daughter Fanny as a single mother, and wanted to spare her a repeat of that experience. Besides, Wollstonecraft gloried in the domestic lifestyle she and Godwin had settled into, so marriage didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice on her part. According to Godwin, they ‘declared’ their marriage in April 1797 though they had already married a short while before. They moved to the Polyglon house on April 6th, but their newfound joy was not to last long. The delivery of little Mary went well at first, but Wollstonecraft died 11 days later, on September 10, 1797, of an infection following the surgical removal of her undelivered placenta.
Old St. Pancras and churchyard, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018
Mary Wollstonecraft’s original sarcophagus at St. Pancras Old Church burial ground, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018
Laurence and I then headed a few blocks northeast to St. Pancras Old Church, just past the north end of St. Pancras International station and on the west side of the tracks. We were in search of the gravesite where Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane (Clairmont) Godwin were buried. I had read a description of the site but when we arrived, we found there was no map of the graveyard. It took some searching to identify it from the weathered inscriptions. Laurence spotted it first: a simple, tall, rectangular sarcophagus with a flared lid. Wollstonecraft and Godwin are no longer buried here: after Mary Shelley died in 1851, her parents’ remains were moved to join hers at the Shelley family burial ground at St. Peter’s in Bournemouth.
St. Pancras was a lovely place to be on such a lovely day; the leaves and grass were lush and green and lavishly sprinkled with flowers. I was happy to see that Wollstonecraft’s memory was still being honored, with flowers and other little tributes placed on the top. I suspect that it was Godwin who chose this elegant coffin and specially for Wollstonecraft, since she lived so independently of her family and was the first to be buried here. Its clean lines emphasize the carved text on the front: ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of Vindication of the rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759, Died 10th September 1797.’ This inscription also reflects Godwin’s intellectual love of Wollstonecraft. In the title of her biography, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he repeated this emphasis on her immortal ideas contained in her most memorable work.
The churchyard at Old St. Pancras, London, with Wollstonecraft’s sarcophagus second from the right. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018.
Wollstonecraft’s life was short, only 38 years, but oh, how fully she lived it! For my take on her fascinating life, please see my essay ‘Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love.‘
For more about the indefatigable Wollstonecraft, please see:
Articles and essays:
Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Sylvana Tomaselli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Mary Wollstonecraft: English Author ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica
Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797) ~ by Barbara Taylor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
…and various excellent essays about Mary Wollstonecraft~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Claire Tomalin
Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman ~ by William Godwin
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Lyndall Gordon
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