Sacred Secrets: Romantic Biography, Romantic Reform

By Mandell, Laura | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Sacred Secrets: Romantic Biography, Romantic Reform

Mandell, Laura, Nineteenth-Century Prose

Most critics from the Romantic period to our own rime attack William Godwin for the effect that his biography of Mary Wollstonecraff had on her reputation. This article argues, however, that there is more to this "mistake" than sheer social ineptilude or repressed hostility. By connecting Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Woman to a novel that influenced Godwin' s understanding of radical reform, Eliza Fenwick's Secresy, this article shows that Godwin understood the "indelicacies" in Wollstonecraft's life as actions promoting social justice and saw his own biography as participating in that project.


In his 1798 biography of his deceased wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin discussed Wollstonecraft's extra-marital connection with Gilbert Imlay as "an engagement ... of the most sacred nature," (1) the birth of Wollstonecraft's daughter Fanny testifying to her faith in its endurance even though the connection had not been ratified by church or state in an official wedding ceremony. For exposing the "sacred engagement," Godwin was considered an unfeeling husband by friends such as Robert Southey and William Roscoe: Southey accuses Godwin of "stripping his dead wife naked"; Roscoe sees Wollstonecraft as "mourn'd by Godwin with a heart of stone." (2) Godwin was judged "insane" by Richard Polwhele in The Unsex'd Females (1798), (3) and has been pronounced Wollstonecraft's worst enemy by her other biographers from Archibald Rowan in 1803 to Ralph Wardle in 1951. (4) But Godwin himself did not see his biography as unfeeling. Even more extraordinary, Godwin believed, as he says in his preface to the first edition, that these memoirs would improve humankind: "There are not many individuals with whose character the public welfare and improvement are more intimately connected, than the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (204). How could Godwin believe that the pubic would find "improving" his Memoirs and Wollstonecraft's private Letters to Imlay which he published the same year, especially given that the tale they tell is one of broken vows, illegitimate children, and attempts at suicide?

One way to begin to answer this question is to read Godwin's Memoirs in conjunction with Eliza Fenwick's novel Secresy, published three years earlier in 1795. Events in the life of the heroine, Sibella Valmont, strikingly resemble events in Wollstonecraft's life. Sibella similarly engages in a "sacred union" with her beloved Clement, similarly becomes impregnated, and is similarly betrayed. There is even a scene in which Sibella jumps into a moat, resembling perhaps Wollstonecraft's suicidal leap into the Thames. Fenwick was a friend of Wollstonecraft, close enough to her and to Godwin that Fenwick took care of Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) for the first ten days after Wollstonecraft's death. Though people often suggest that Sibella is modeled on Wollstonecraft, (5) the intertextuality is complicated: Fenwick's novel was published in the same year that Wollstonecraft moved from Paris to London, went to Norway on business for Imlay, wrote what sometimes sound like desperate letters attempting to get Imlay to honor the sacred nature of their engagement, discovered his infidelities, and twice attempted suicide. It's not quite clear how much, or when, Fenwick and other London radicals knew about this relationship.

However, even if Fenwick did not write the novel with Wollstonecraft in mind, Godwin certainly remembered Fenwick's Secresy while writing the Memoirs (Memoirs 269). Part of his belief that the public will find Wollstonecraft's life "improving" is based on his sense that Fenwick's representation of Sibella's life represents and instills virtue. Even if Secresy is not a veiled biography of Wollstonecraft, the novel clearly delineates what was at stake politically during the early Romantic period in the notion of a secret engagement. A careful analysis of the novel reveals why Godwin thought so admirable any depiction he might make of Wollstonecraft as undertaking a secret engagement, attempting to ratify it, and adhering to it even to the point of suicide. …

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