Monday, 30 September 2019
October 1792: Mary Ann and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
In a talk on Sunday 13 October I shall be discussing Mary Ann's life from the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Details of the talk are available here.
October 1792 was a low-point in Mary Ann's life. Her husband refused to maintain her, she had given up her career, she had eight children to support, and was living with her aged mother in Somerstown, just north of London's New Road (now the Euston Road). At the same time she had urgent business in Central London, and whenever this detained her until evening she had to trudge in the rain the length of Tottenham Court Road, because the hackney coachmen charged double after sunset. But she was always resilient, with a strong streak of optimism. She ended one of her letters to her son George Canning:
"All the last page I have written in the dark, but what you can't read, you will guess at. -- Upon the whole, my Love, I think matters mend -- and I know you will rejoice with me that I have a fairer prospect for the Evening of my Life, than has attended its gloomy Afternoon. ...Oh by the bye! Have you read the vindication of the rights of Woman? -- I have spent some delightful hours in its society -- if I may be allow'd the expression. -- Bless the woman! She has raised my Sex, (and in consequence myself) to a State of dignity for which Statues shoud be erected to her Memory: Doctor Downman decrees that Honor to Lady M. W. Montague, for introducing inoculation to preserve the Beauty of the Female world; what shall we offer to Mrs. Wollstonecraft, for having pointed out the method of ennobling, or rather of asserting the Native Nobility of our Minds? ... do read this beautifull work and whenever you do, fail not to give me your Opinion of it. -- Do not think your Sex's rights invaded. -- They woud only be render'd more sacred & more valuable. -- You are all concerned in what does us honor, -- whether as Sons, Husbands, Brothers or Fathers; -- that you may be blessed in every tie that binds you to the Sex prays your Affct. Mother, -- M.A. Hunn"
It is not known how George reacted to his mother's enthusiasm for the recently published work of a known sympathiser with the French Revolution. He had finally made up his mind to abandon his reformist friends, go over to William Pitt and support the increasingly repressive policies of the government. Although he had mixed motives for this defection, his main justification was that he had been shocked to learn the extent of revolutionary activity in Britain. What tipped the balance, it seems, was his realisation that the revolutionaries included serious and intelligent men, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's fellow radical, and future husband, William Godwin. Godwin, according to one story, had offered to make him a leader of the revolution.
The following May Mary Ann, who had moved back to Devonshire, asked George to send her all the books of Mary Wollstonecraft. He did as she asked, apparently without comment. Then at the end of 1794 he recorded in his diary: "The whole day reading a new novel Caleb Williams written by Mr Godwin and intended to attack the English Law. Very good."