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In My Good Books

William Godwin on Mary Wollstonecraft

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published 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, revolutionary model.

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 her decease.

"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.

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Godwin on Wollstonecraft is one of the latest batch in the series Classic Biographies, edited by Richard Holmes, Harper Perennial, £6.99. The other titles are Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, Johnson on Savage, Southey on Nelson, Gilchrist on Blake, and Scott on Zélide.

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin, London 1974, is available in Penguin.

Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus, by Lyndall Gordon, London, Little, Brown, 2005, lists several shortcomings in Godwin's biography. See pp 366-375.

In a letter to his father dated June 18, 1783, Mozart says he is somewhat worried about his wife getting milk fever. See Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, Selected Letters edited and newly translated by Robert Spaethling, Faber, London 2000. See page 354.


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