Friday, March 5, 2010

When Bad Things Happen: What I Learned From Mary Wollstonecraft

A guest blog by Nancy Means Wright

Eighteenth century Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and feminist (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) is my alter ego. Our lives connect in so many ways: as religious dissenters and rebels; as mothers and betrayed lovers. We both learned early on that when bad things happen, often out of our control, one can either curl up in a corner—or get up and try again. Rebel. Change the world—or at least one little corner of it.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s father had no talent or business sense. He moved the family seven times, and each time the family purse shrank. His wife and seven children were victims of his drunken fits of rage. Young Mary would lie nights on the landing to defend her mother from his brutalities. At each move the girl asked, in vain, for a room of her own. Finally, at the age of nineteen, she defied her parents to work as live-in companion for a rich, tyrannical widow—one of the few paid employments that a “respectable” woman could have. She felt humiliated—and depressed. Yet determined to succeed, she began a lifelong rebellion against dependency and injustice.

She kidnapped her sister Eliza from an abusive husband, and compelled an English captain to rescue a boatload of half-drowned French sailors. She risked the failure of her new female academy to race to the aid of her beloved friend Fanny Blood; Fanny died in childbirth and the school failed in Mary’s absence. She was governess in a notorious Anglo-Irish family in Ireland (the setting for my new novel in Mary’s persona)—then dismissed because Milady was jealous of the children’s affection for their governess. In 1792 she published her famous Vindication, in which she advocated divorce and coeducational schools—anathema to eighteenth-century society! Critic Horace Walpole labeled her a “hyena in petticoats.” And though skeptical of marriage, she relished the company of men—but they kept betraying her.

Persevere, she told herself. Don’t give up.

Seduced by the ideals of the French Revolution, and humiliated by artist Henry Fuseli’s angry rejection when she (albeit foolishly) tried to move in with him and his wife, she took off for Paris (“neck or nothing!”). While heads rolled under the guillotine, she lost her own to a handsome but feckless fellow who got her pregnant and then abandoned her. A leap into the Thames River didn’t work, nor an overdose of laudanum, but she and the baby endured. She went alone to the wilds of Scandinavia to recoup funds for the child’s father, wrote a brilliant travel book—and at last gained a loving father and husband in the writer William Godwin. For a year she lived life to the full—and kept writing almost to the last breath before she died of septicaemia after the birth of a daughter (soon to be Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame). It was not herself, but the doctor’s unwashed hands trying to remove the stubborn placenta that ultimately did her in.

My story is not so adventurous or brave. I, too, left home early on; already my family had moved thirteen times, renting a different house each time. When I was born (a tumor, my forty-two-year-old mother thought), my father had already cancelled his insurance for lack of funds, then suddenly died, leaving my mother destitute. A resilient woman herself, she got work as housemother in a girl’s boarding school, where I got a superb education, and ultimately a full scholarship to Vassar. (Wouldn’t self-schooled Mary have loved that!) Armed with an AB in English (but no money), I took a job at a girl’s school in Baltimore (we do repeat ourselves), married a football coach (mistake!), and went to live in a boys’ school (aka locker room), where I wasn’t allowed to teach English at all because, according to the headmaster, English was a man’s subject.

Remembering Mary Wollstonecraft, who dared tell Milady she was teaching her pupils to think and not to embroider, I directed controversial plays that weren’t his “cup of tea,” taught French after earning an summers, bore four children, and wrote my first novel about a faculty wife in a boys’ school who slowly anesthetizes herself with sherry (Mary’s first novel was autobiographical, too). But when I was thirty-eight, Mary’s age when she died, I had only one published book while she had eight—some with her own name on the cover, and in a century when writing women were called “scribblers!” How did she do that?

Perseverance, yes. Tough it out…

Two decades later, I divorced a husband who could never understand my need to write—and with empty pockets and a third-hand car, drove down to live, teach, and write my first mystery series in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., singing the old Nancy Sinatra song: “Been Down So Long it Looks like Up to Me.” And now, fifteen books later, Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft will be out in April. “Captivating,” Publishers Weekly calls it—and fittingly, from Perseverance Press!


Bill Kirton said...

What a posting! (And I rarely use exclamation marks.) I heard a BBC radio programme about Mary Wollstonecraft recently and was embarrassed at how little I knew of her - except for the obvious, male-related bits. She truly was a remarkable person, way, way ahead of her time.

Then, to that you add your own amazing story, with its confirmation that women still have to fight harder than men to achieve the same ends. What can I say, Nancy, but 'Respect'.

Jean Henry Mead said...

A terrific article, Nancy, and much enjoyed. I look forward to reading your book. Thanks for guest blogging here.

Ben Small said...

Great article! Amazing woman! Thanks for posting this.

nancyden said...

Thanks to Bill and to Ben for their kind words, and especially to Jean Henry Mead for inviting me into her inner sanctum to blog.
I'm truly grateful.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Nancy, thanks for your post. With few exceptions, anyone who is successful has treveled the same road of persevearance and heartache. Perhaps these lessons are necessary to develop emotional and believable characters.

Beth Terrell said...

Remarkable. And what a legacy. Thank you for sharing Mary's history and your own.