Love, Passion, Reason and Marriage

October 19, 2014

Feminism, Love, Marriage, Passion

Mary Wollstonecraft


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), the founder of modern liberal feminism, was also a serious philosopher, anonymously writing a Vindication of the Rights of Men in 1790, the first counter to Edmund Burke’s treatise on the dangers of the French Revolution. But it was her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with her name appearing on the title page, written in 1792, that made her famous. Responding to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had fetishized romantic love, Wollstonecraft argued that romantic love was an animal appetite which would inevitably fade away, leaving in its wake bitterness, betrayal and debauchery. Rousseau had wanted women:

“To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable”

Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, thought that women should be more rationally educated, so they would be content to love, get married and then have their passion transition into friendship, “that tender intimacy which is the best refuge from care.”

Although she thought that sexual attraction was a romantic delusion which destroyed friendship and corrupted the relationship between the sexes, she nevertheless fell in love with an eccentric Swiss artist, Henry Fusili, who used to voice out aloud his sexual obsessions. As Fusili was already married, Wollstonecraft attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade his wife that she should move in with them both.

In 1793 she bravely traveled alone to revolutionary Paris, where she had a ringside seat at the daily exhibition of death and destruction, and personally witnessed Louis XVI being marched off to trial. She found a refuge from fear and insecurity in the house of Gilbert Imlay, an American revolutionary soldier. Again, despite her writing about the delusory and destructive nature of romantic passion, she fell madly in love with Imlay, and when he traveled to escape her smothering emotional intensity, she wrote to him demonstrating the same desperation and dependency that she had long despised in women. On discovering that Imlay had a mistress, she twice attempted suicide, although she was still nursing her daughter Fanny from him.

In 1797 she married William Godwin (1756-1836), the anarchist political philosopher and novelist. The marriage was an unlikely affair. Wollstonecraft, who had been raised by a tyrannical, abusive, and alcoholic father, was philosophically opposed to marriage, as was Godwin. However, the two decided to marry after Wollstonecraft became pregnant (they meticulously practiced the most sophisticated birth control of the day: abstention for three days following menstruation and then frequent sex for the remainder of the month) although they maintained their own residences and friends. Godwin was a man of cold, hard reason (he initially remembered Mary as an archetypical female chatterbox who would not shut up when he wanted to listen to Tom Paine at a dinner) but Mary taught Godwin how to love, and Godwin, in return, provided Mary with the stability she needed amidst a life of tumultuous passion.

Unfortunately their happiness was only to last six months, as Mary died in great pain following the birth of her daughter, Mary Godwin. Twenty years later, Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley (she married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), would give  birth to what she called her “hideous progeny” as the author of the most famous horror story of all time, Frankenstein. Thus Mary Wollstonecraft became grandmother to the most wounded of motherless children, an allegory combining the dangers of child-rearing, the fear of pregnancy and the destruction and despair that ensue from an unloved child.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s struggles to manage motherhood, career, sexual passion, obsessive love and education are the same struggles as those faced by women today, but her context was a society where women were considered legally dead once they were married. In 18th century England married women had no control of their earnings, inheritance or property and could not appear in court as a witness nor vote. Despite these obstacles Mary had the courage to suck the marrow from life as few knew how, both then and now. William Blake was acquainted with Mary, even illustrating one of her books, so it’s possible that his poem, Mary referred to her. Certainly the following extracts from Mary seem to accurately describe her character and situation:

“Mary moves in soft beauty and conscious delight,”

“Some said she was proud, some call’d her a whore,
And some, when she passèd by, shut to the door”

“O, why was I born with a different face?
Why was I not born like this envious race?
Why did Heaven adorn me with bountiful hand,
And then set me down in an envious land?”

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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46 Comments on “Love, Passion, Reason and Marriage”

  1. matt Says:

    Hey, Malcolm, good to hear from you again.


  2. Michael Denny Says:

    Completely wonderful Malcolm…thank you for posting. Thank you for sharing your mind.


  3. amac Says:

    Welcome back, Malcolm. Good to see you writing to us again. I’m curious what prompted this? Sucked the marrow out, eh? Thankfully we live in a society where many women can successfully juggle everything, especially with the love and friendship of a good husband.
    Cheers Malcom. Now don’t disappear again.. Audra


  4. aaforringer Says:

    Good stuff, loved the Frankenstein tie in at the end.


  5. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Malcolm, welcome back!
    Wonderful to read a post from you again.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, thank you. It’s been a long time. How is my eccentric blogging friend from the land of magic and music?


      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Sometimes a long time is the ‘right’ time. Just really glad to see you here again and the always inspiring posts you upload.
        I’m well, thank you. Been a great full on summer here on the emerald isle and just when I was ready to shift into autumn and winter mode, to dream and drift for a long while it appears life is gathering momentum instead. 🙂 All wonderful, interesting and creative things that holds both magic and music 🙂 However, I’m deliberately slowing down the flow a bit, to be ready for full force. So I’m about to head off without a return ticket… for a little unknown while. Not far though, Denmark and the Uk.
        And how is Malcolm?


  6. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Always know, Malcolm, that you provide a ‘quality of life experience’ for your fortunate readers.


  7. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Long time no read. Thete is lots to be learned from Wollstonecraft’s life. It may seem hopeless for the individual to fight social convention, but generations to follow will be thankful for every strong soul who whiddles away social injustice


  8. benvenutocellini Says:

    Particularly clever post, without being cold. Actually, very pleasant. Have you ever read “The Terribly Plain Princess”, by Pamela Oldfield?? Reading your post made me think about, even if the connexion is not so obvious.
    The opening line is, ‘Once upon a time there was this terribly plain princess. I won’t beat about the bush – she was terribly plain.’
    The terribly plain Princess falls in love with a plain gardener who longs to grow a giant blue marigold: ‘He confided this secret to nobody but the Princess Sophia – and the cook and most of his relations (and he came from a very large family).’

    A lovely deconstruction of fairy tales. You do it with your usual charm.
    Thank you:)


  9. Tahira Says:

    I too welcome you back, Malcolm! And what a fascinating post. Sometimes it seems woman have evolved and progressed so much and then sometimes one is reminded that regardless of time, space, and place, we still face the same issues. “despite her writing about the delusory and destructive nature of romantic passion, she fell madly in love with Imlay,” You have definitely piqued my curiosity and make me want to learn more about both Mary’s. Thank you.


  10. Pooja LoPriore Says:

    Reblogged this on S U A R I * सुअरी and commented:
    In my life I am empowered, strong and female because I am married to a strong and empowered male!


  11. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I’m glad I stuck with this one, Malcolm. I was getting exasperated with her. =) But then I can’t expect her to have been more normal with the kind of father she had. A most interesting geneology; I wasn’t aware of her relationship to Frankenstein’s Mary Shelley and my beloved Percy. Writing you makes me also appreciate what a startling literary creature M Shelley had birthed given her gender and the times she lived in. A great hawk’s-eye view you give us of the many ways the actions (and pathologies) of our fathers (and obviously, mothers) play out down the generations.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Diana, thank you. Mary was certainly an exasperating person but she grappled bravely with all the issues she wrote about without any of the accumulated knowledge and experience possessed by women today. You raise a great point about the contribution of family pathologies to literary creations.


      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        You wished to discuss The Confessions of Max Tivoli.

        I loved the descriptions of Max’s feelings for and response to Alice. They carried me through the first 2/3 of the book. I do wish I felt a little closer to her and even Max. Greer had not taken care to tie my heart strings nice and well to them, so that the reverberations of their life and pain were not loud when I closed the book. A surprise for me was the strength of love Hugh demonstrated; how convincing it was, that of a homosexual. Don’t mean to sound shallow or ignorant. I just hadn’t come across such love conveyed so profoundly in literature. Wasn’t as convinced by the closing plot, Max’s plan to stay briefly and then disappear as he would. Selfish indeed to do that to Alice and Sammy. But Greer’s prose is such a pleasure he is forgiven all imperfections.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “Greer had not taken care to tie my heart strings nice and well”

          Interesting. I thought he handled that very deftly. I wonder what more you think anyone could do HW?

          “I just hadn’t come across such love conveyed so profoundly in literature.”

          Yes, forget Alice and Max, the real love story is between Hughie and Max. I wasn’t surprised by this. Death in Venice comes to mind, as does the Baron de Challus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, one of the great gay characters in literature. I was completely drawn in to the improbable plot by Greer’s writing craft and as you surmised was especially mesmerized by the picture of a man totally alone, existentially cut off from the world and desperately swimming against the current. Imagine what it takes to always “be what they think you are”. Thank goodness Max practiced stoicism. His heart-breaking love for Alice which was always just out of reach, was as poignant as any love story I have ever read. Thank you again for this.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          “I wonder what more you think anyone could do HW?” I’ve read books that left me deeply moved (long after I closed them), aching for the characters to a depth I did not quite feel in this book – even secondary characters. Felt like I was reading of Alice (in matchless prose) but I couldn’t really make her out distinctly at an emotional level.

          Technically, it wasn’t a love story between the men. A revelation, and more one-sided, which is what made it so painful for H.

          All the layers and the multidimensional elements, the existential, the passion, desperation, the concept of time. Craft is really the word for what Greer did. I’m pleased it was worth your TiMe.

  12. Daniela Says:

    Greetings Malcolm,

    It is always a pleasure to visit your blog!

    I particularly enjoy reading this post not least because the topic is the same I recently wrote about albeit through a different lens.

    Having said that I would also venture to say that Mary herself might rather ‘agree’ with the view through my lens, because after all she: ‘…. despite her writing about the delusory and destructive nature of romantic passion, she fell madly in love with Imlay, and when he travelled to escape her smothering emotional intensity, she wrote to him demonstrating the same desperation and dependency that she had long despised in women …’ I maintain that our actions always speak much louder about who we are than our words -:)!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, thank you. I agree with you but you can’t help admiring her, born into poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father, struggling with all those issues, with no intellectual ammunition to support her other than what she created herself, often treated as a pariah, and with a social and legal system stacked against her.


  13. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Malcolm, so great to have you back ~ and this post did not disappoint. A fascinating look at how logic and reason some times seems to be in a perpetual battle with human nature. A history of a lady I have never known but now very intrigued to learn more ~ her relationship with Imlay is in such contradiction to what she disliked about Rousseau.

    “To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable” are the selfish attributes that men do desire ~ and I can’t help but think that it is only the great minds of women that can us men beyond this and into a great life.

    Welcome back and wish you well!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Dalo, thank you for the comment and heartfelt sentiments. We are naked apes with predispositions, drives and passions, as well as reason, and there is nothing in logic that would suggest that all these elements should be in harmony with one another. As you note, Mary Wollstonecraft was a living embodiment of these conflicts, one of the reasons why her life and work are of such interest.


  14. becwillmylife Says:

    Love, Passion, Reason, and Marriage is quite a mouthful! Great post; glad you are back. Woot!

    I’ve been on a journey to find balance my entire married life, and now I am watching my daughter traveling down the same path. I can relate to Mary. It sounds like a great read.


  15. cindy knoke Says:

    Absolutely fascinating, I didn’t know this history. Thank you posting~


  16. Michele Seminara Says:

    I love this post, Malcolm. Although I’ve read Vindication of the Rights of Woman, I didn’t realise all this about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Really fascinating. Thank you.


  17. Casey Says:

    Reblogged this on The Sprightly Writer and commented:
    Because this is gorgeous. And it resonates.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Casey, thank you for the reblog and for your comment. This is a messy, rambling post which I could have pruned to my usual three or four paragraphs, but then I realized that the whole point of the post is that love, passion, reason and marriage are messy concepts, both in theory and in practice. I know you understand this.

      If you read my last post you know that I am on an indefinite blogging break which I broke to respond to your comment. I mention this because I will not be visiting blogs while writing the book.


  18. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Not sure why you say that but if we have to leave it at that, all right. I understood all the cues and foreshadowings about H, and know the men’s intimate friendship was the counterpoint to the love story that was front and center. I knew MT did not ALLOW himself to know the truth about his friend and his special love for him or respond. Either way, I said it was one-sided in as far as it was unrequited, which was why it was so tragic for H.


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