|William Godwin on Mary Wollstonecraft
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
03 December 2005
"No one had written like this about a
woman before," says Richard Holmes in the introduction
to his fine new edition of William Godwin's life of Mary Wollstonecraft
(Harper Perennial £6.99). And he is surely correct. Godwin
writes as a widower, but he is forthcoming about his late wife's
previous loves, and indeed vigorously takes her side over her
treatment at the hands of Gilbert Imlay when their affair came
to an end.
He is at one with Mary in her belief that an
affair of the heart should be sincerely undertaken and pursued,
regardless of the conventions of society, and he thinks that
she led an exemplary life in this respect. Indeed, what he wrote
was conventional (for biography) in the sense of being a recommendation
of its subject as an example. But it was revolutionary, in the
sense that the example being recommended was an unconventional,
Within the tradition of life-writing, there
is a recurrent interest in death-bed scenes, whether they come
as a repentance for past life (as in Bishop Burnet's life of
the poet Rochester) or as a moment of culminating grace (as
in innumerable works of hagiography). The tradition extended
to figures of the Enlightenment. David Hume's autobiography,
that short work written in the knowledge of impending death,
is accompanied by Adam Smith's description of Hume making a
good, but not pious, end.
Wollstonecraft died in 1797, aged 38, after
a difficult childbirth, and the detail which no one who reads
Godwin's life can ever forget is the extraordinary moment at
which puppies are placed at Mary's nipples in order to draw
off the milk. "This," says Godwin, "occasioned
some pleasantry of Mary with me and the other attendants."
That is, she made a joke of it. The significance of the moment
is that the doctor has forbidden the child its mother's milk.
Puerperal fever, I learnt the other day (from Mozart's letters),
was known as milk fever. The belief was that it was the turning
of the milk in the mother's breast that brought on the fever.
Hence the use of puppies, which presumably were thought an efficient
form of breast pump. But the joke, the pleasantry (whatever
it was), had the effect of helping pass over the moment of recognition
that milk fever had set in, or was threatened.
I disagree with the blurb in calling Godwin's
"a masterpiece of indiscretion" - there is discretion
at work here, for all the shocking intimacy of the account.
For instance we learn that Mary, on her deathbed, "was
not tormented by useless contradiction. One night the servant,
from an error in judgment teased her with idle expostulations,
but she complained of it grievously, and it was corrected. "Pray,
pray, do not let her reason with me," was her expression."
And Godwin finishes the paragraph with the observation, "Death
itself is scarcely so dreadful to the enfeebled frame, as the
monotonous importunity of nurses everlastingly repeated."
Clearly the servant here is trying to push
her in the direction of repentance, in some way that does not
accord with her rather broad conception of religion, and has
to be called off. But Godwin does not want to shock the religious
sensibilities of the reader at this moment - he has done enough
of that elsewhere - and so he does not give us detail of what
was said. Mary's religion, says Godwin, "was not calculated
to be the torment of a sick bed; and, in fact, during her whole
illness, not one word of religious cast fell from her lips."
The distinguished surgeon Anthony Carlisle,
one of several figures in attendance, told Godwin not to let
Mary know that she was dying: "He observed, and there is
great force in the suggestion, that there is no more pitiable
object, than a sick man, that knows he is dying. The thought
must be expected to destroy his courage, to co-operate with
the disease, and to counteract every favourable effort of nature."
But this advice puts Godwin in a quandary, since he wants to
find out if Mary has any instructions to be carried out after
"I therefore affected to proceed wholly
on the ground of her having been very ill, and that it would
be some time before she could expect to be well; wishing her
to tell me anything that she would choose to have done respecting
the children, as they would now be principally under my care."
He puts this to her repeatedly, until she says finally, "I
know what you are thinking of." But she has no instructions
to communicate. The exchange is like a tender compromise between
Carlisle's instructions and the couple's cherished habit of
plain speaking. This is as near as Godwin allows himself to
come in giving us the conventional last words.