Mary Wollstonecraft: Influence Beyond the Grave
Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was a life filled with literary and personal discoveries, and regardless of a slight smearing of her character upon her death, her works have influenced an entire audience of future writers including (and most notably) the literary works of her own daughter, Mary Shelley.
Wollstonecraft considered herself first and foremost as a writer in the midst of “creating herself” in terms of her writing (Taylor, 29). From her straight-laced moralist tone derived from Thoughts on the Education of Daughters to the more sarcastic, bluntly radical personae displayed in both Vindication of the Rights of Man and Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft has created and re-created herself over and over in an almost obsessive fixation on exploring a writer’s authenticity (Taylor, 31). Despite gaining a slight notoriety through her writings, her reputation both professionally as a writer and socially was smeared by Godwin’s exposure of her intimate relationships in the work Memoirs of MaryWollstonecraft (Tomaselli).
Through Godwin’s exposure and description of her unsuccessful relationship with American Gilbert Imaly and her consequent suicide attempts she was transformed into a “warning” for other emerging female writers as an example of the “moral decay” that could happen when women were insistent on societal equality with their male counterparts (Tomaselli); her writings wholly discarded until being rediscovered in the early 20th century and going on to inspire other future feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf, and even influencing the writings of her own daughter Mary Shelley, despite dying eleven days after her birth (Taylor, 250).
Not knowing her mother did not mean that Mary Shelley did not feel a connection with her. On the contrary, she held her mother in the deepest veneration and was an avid reader of her mother’s manuscripts; it could even be argued that she was her mother’s best student (Biography). This influence can be seen in Mary Shelley’s works; it is seen most in her novel Frankenstein most notably in the travel portions of the novel. The picturesque descriptions of Monte Blanc and Victor’s descriptions of the English Dutch countryside echo Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; the theme of isolation, prevalent in Wollstonecraft’s works (namely Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman) is also portrayed in Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein (Smith). Acutely aware of her mother’s notorious (if not celebrated) status in her own literary and social circles, Shelley seemed to emulate her mother’s spirit and her own personal autonomy, especially in her decision to elope with the already-married Percy Shelley at the age of sixteen (Smith). This legacy of self-agency, a thirst for education, and an urging for Shelley to contribute to the intellectual circles she was exposed to from birth was her inheritance.