Political radicalism and feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin

Mary Shelley’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were among the most important and controversial writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Mary Shelley’s mother was a feminist writer who published works of fiction and many books on education, morality and politics:

  • her most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued powerfully for a change in social attitudes towards the role and potential of women
  • later in 1792, she visited Paris to observe the aftermath of the French Revolution and subsequently wrote A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution
  • from 1794 to 1796 she lived with an American writer, Gilbert Imlay, by whom she had a daughter, Fanny
  • her relationship with William Godwin began in 1796 and they married a few months before the birth of Mary
  • Mary Wollstonecraft left an unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman, published in 1798.

William Godwin (1756-1836)

Mary Shelley’s father began his working life as a dissenting minister, but later lost his faith and became an atheist and political anarchist:

  • he believed that if people acted according to reason they would behave in such a way that laws and social institutions would not be necessary. He argued this case in his best-known political work: An Enquiry into Political Justice (1793)
  • his propagandist novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), is a psychological study concerning the tyranny exerted over the weaker members of society by those with power, privilege and wealth.

He continued to write novels until his death in 1836.

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