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William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft

If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother should be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues springs, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of the race. Woman should be prepared by education to become the companion of man, or she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practise.

--Mary Wollstonecraft


Others may trace the love-tales of milkmaids and farmhands; I deal with the people who have made their mark upon the times; people who have tinted the world's thought-fabric and to whose genius we are all heirs. And the reason the story of their love is vital to us is because their love was vital to them. Thought is born of parents, and literature is the child of married minds. So this, then, is the love-story of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

History and literature are very closely related. If one sets down the chief events in political history, and over against these writes the names of the radical authors and orators of the time, he can not but be convinced that literature leads, and soldiers and politicians are puppets tossed on the tide of time. A thought, well expressed, is a bomb that explodes indefinitely.

Two men, Rousseau and Voltaire, lighted the fuse that created the explosion known as the French Revolution. Luther's books and sermons brought about the Reformation.

Thomas Paine's little book, "The Crisis," of which half a million copies were printed and distributed from Virginia to Maine, stirred the Colonists to the sticking-point; and George Washington, who was neither a writer nor an orator, paid "Letters and Truth" the tribute of saying, "Without the pamphlets of Thomas Paine the hearts and minds of the people would never have been prepared to respond to our call for troops." No one disputes now that it was a book written by a woman, of which a million copies were sold in the North, that prepared the way for Lincoln's call for volunteers.

Literature and oratory are arsenals that supply the people their armament of reasons. And through the use and exercise of these borrowed reasons, we learn to create new ones for ourselves. Thinkers prepare the way for thinkers, and every John the Baptist uttering his cry in the wilderness is heard.

And the fate of John the Baptist, and the fate of the Man whom he preceded, are typical of the fate of all who are bold enough to carry the standard of revolt into the camp of the entrenched enemy. The Cross is a mighty privilege; and only the sublimely great are able to pay the price at which hemlock is held.

Buddha said that the finest word in any language is "Equanimity." This is a paradox, and like every paradox implies that the reverse is equally true. Equanimity in the face of opposition, steadfastness in time of stress, and wise and useful purpose, are truly godlike.

And there is only one thing worth fighting for, talking for, or writing for; and all literature and all oratory have this for their central theme--Freedom. It was only Freedom that could lure Cincinnatus from his plow or Lincoln from his law-office.

And so Mary Wollstonecraft's book, "The Rights of Woman," was the first strong, earnest, ringing word on the subject. She summed up the theme once and for all, just as an essay by Herbert Spencer anticipates and answers every objection, exhausting the theme. And that the author had a whimsical touch of humor in her composition is shown in that she dedicates the book to that Prince of Woman-Haters, "Talleyrand, Late Bishop of Autun."

"Political Justice," by William Godwin, was published in Seventeen Hundred Ninety-three. The work, on its first appearance, created a profound impression among English thinking people, although orthodoxy has almost succeeded in smothering it in silence since John Stuart Mill declared that this book created an epoch and deserved to rank with Milton's "Speech for Unlicensed Printing," Locke's "Essay on Human Understanding" or Jean Jacques' "Emile." That it was a positive force in Mill's own life he always admitted.

However, it is only within our own time--only, in fact, since Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six--that the views of Godwin as expressed in "Political Justice" have been adopted by the spirit of Christendom. Godwin believed in the perfectibility of the race, and proved that man's career has been a constant movement forward. That is, there never was a "Fall of Man." Man has always fallen upward, and when he has kicked the ball it has always been toward the goal. Godwin believed that it was well to scan the faults of our fellows closely, in order to see, forsooth, whether they are not their virtues. The belief that mankind should by nature tend to evil, he considered absurd and unscientific, for the strongest instinct in all creation is self-preservation; and that certain men should love darkness rather than light was mainly because governments and religions have warped man's nature through oppression and coercion until it no longer acts normally. "Normal man seeks the light, just as the flowers do. Man, if not too much interfered with, will make for himself the best possible environment and create for his children right conditions because the instinct for peace and liberty is deeply rooted in his nature. Control by another has led to revolt, and revolt has led to oppression, and oppression occasions grief and deadness: hence bruises and distortion follow. When we view humanity, we behold not the true and natural man, but a deformed and pitiable product, undone by the vices of those who have sought to improve on Nature by shaping his life to feed the vanity of a few and minister to their wantonness. In our plans for social betterment, let us hold in mind the healthy and unfettered man, and not the cripple that interference and restraint have made."

Godwin, like Robert Ingersoll, was the son of a clergyman, which reminds me that liberal thought is under great obligations to the clergy, since their sons, taught by antithesis, are often shining lights of radicalism. Godwin was a non-resistant, philosophic anarchist. He was the true predecessor of George Eliot, Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, and the best that is now being expressed from advanced Christian pulpits harks back to him. All that the foremost of our contemporary thinkers have written and said was suggested and touched upon by William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, with like conclusions.

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Carnegie is credited with this: "There is only one generation between shirt-sleeves and shirt-sleeves." Now, the grandfather of Mary Wollstonecraft was an employing-weaver who did his work so well that his wares commanded a price.

He grew rich, and when he died he left a fortune of some thirty thousand pounds, not being able to take it with him. This fortune descended to his eldest son.

Samuel Johnson thought the law of primogeniture a most excellent thing, since it insured there being only one fool in the family. The Wollstonecraft boys who had no money went to work, and in taking care of themselves became strong, sturdy and prosperous men. The one who succeeded to the patrimony was at first a gentleman, then a shabby-genteel, and at forty his time was taken up with schemes to dodge the debtors' prison, and with plans to pay off the National Debt; for it seems that men who can not manage their own affairs are not deterred thereby from volunteering to look after those of the nation.

It appears, also, that Mr. Wollstonecraft wrote a book entitled, "How to Command Success," and by its sale hoped to retrieve the fortune now lost--but alas! he ran in debt to the printer and finally sold the copyright to that worthy for five shillings, and on the proceeds got plain drunk.

The family moved as often as landlords demanded, which was about every three months. There were three girls in the family--Mary, Everina and Eliza--all above the average in intelligence. Whether there is any such thing in Nature as justice for the individual is a question, but cosmic justice is beyond cavil. The stupidity of a parent is often a very precious factor in the evolution of his children. He teaches them by antithesis. So if a man can not be useful and strong, all is not lost: he can still serve humanity as a horrible example--like the honest hobo who volunteered to pay the farmer for his dinner by acting as a scarecrow. Children of drunkards make temperance fanatics; and those who have a shiftless father stand a better chance of developing into financiers than if they had a parent who would set them up in business, stand between them and danger, and meet the deficit.

Women married to punk husbands need not be discouraged, nor should husbands with nagging wives be cast down, for was it not Emerson who said, "It is better to be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo?"

Thus do all things work together for good, whether you love the Lord or not.

The Wollstonecraft family traversed London with their handcart, from Chelsea to East End; they also roamed through Essex, Yorkshire and Kent. When matters became strained they fell back on London, paid one month's rent in advance and then stayed three, when their goods and chattels were gently landed on the curb, and the handcart came in handy.

As the girls grew up they worked at weaving, served as house-girls and nurses, and finally Mary became a governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, an Irish nobleman. This gave her access to her employer's library, and she went at it as a hungry colt enters a clover-field. Not knowing how long her good fortune would last, she eagerly improved her time. She wrote frequent letters to her sisters, telling what she was doing and what she was reading. She was eminently superior to any of the females in the family, and acknowledged it. A tutor in the house taught her French; and whether the nobleman's children learned much or not, we do not know, but Mary soon equaled her teacher.

Knowledge is a matter of desire.

The next year the Wollstonecraft girls opened a private school, a kind of "Young Ladies' Establishment," quite on the Mrs. Nickleby order. And indeed, if a Micawber had been wanting, Mary knew where to look for him.

About this time Mary met Ursa Major, who may have treated men very rudely, but not your petite, animated and clever women.

Doctor Johnson quite liked little Mary Wollstonecraft. She matched her wit against his and put him on his mettle, and when Mary once expressed a desire to become an authoress he encouraged her by saying, "Yes, my dear, you should write, for that is the way to learn; and no matter how badly you write, you can always be encouraged by finding men who write worse." And another time he said, "Women have quite as much interest in life as men, and see things just as clearly, and why they should not write the last word as well as speak it, I do not know."

That settled it with Mary: She gave up her part in the school; and very soon after, the sisters gave up theirs; one of them wedding a ne'er-do-well scion of nobility, and the other marrying an orthodox curate with a harelip. Through the help of Doctor Johnson, Mary got a position as proofreader with a publisher. Here her knowledge of French was valuable, and she assisted in translations. Then she became literary adviser and reader for different publishers. She was making money, and had accumulated a little fortune of near a hundred pounds by the sweat of her brain. Her close acquaintanceship with printers and publishers thus placed her where she became acquainted with several statesmen who had speeches to make, and for these she constructed arguments and also helped them out of dire difficulties by rounding out their periods, and by introducing flights of fancy for men whose fancies were wingless.

On her own account she had written various stories and essays. She had met the wits and thinkers of London and had learned to take care of herself. She was an honest, industrious, and highly intelligent woman, and commanded the respect of those who knew her best. "To know her," says Godwin in his Memoirs, "was to love her, and those who did not love her, did not know her."

Of course, she was an exceptional person, for have I not intimated that she was a thinker? This was over a hundred years ago, and thinkers were as scarce then as now, for even so-called educated folk, for the most part, only think that they think. Frederic Harrison did not stray far a-field when he referred to Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a reincarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft had translated Rousseau's "Emile" into English, and had read Voltaire closely and with appreciation.

The momentous times of Seventeen Hundred Ninety-two were on in Paris. That mob of women, ragged and draggled, had tramped out to Versailles, and Marie Antoinette, a foolish girl who rattled around in a place that should have been occupied by a Queen, had looked out of the window and propounded her immortal question, "What do they want?"

"Bread!" was the answer.

"Why don't they eat cake?" asked Her Chatterbox.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary by nature. Looking about her she saw London seething with swarms of humanity just one day's rations removed from starvation. A few miles away she saw acres upon acres--thousands of acres--kept and guarded for private parks and game-preserves. Then it was that she supplied Henry George that fine phrase, "Man is a land animal." And she fully comprehended that the question of human rights will never be ended until we settle the land question. She said: "Man is a land animal, and to deprive the many of the right to till the soil is like depriving fishes of the right to swim in the sea. You force fish into a net, and they cease to thrive; you entrap men, through economic necessity, in cities, and allow a few to control the land, and you perpetuate ignorance and crime. And eventually you breed a race of beings who take no joy in Nature, never having gotten acquainted with her. The problem is not one of religion, but of commonsense in economics. Back to the land!" Of course a writing woman who could think like this was deeply interested in the unrest across the Channel.

And so Mary packed up and went over to Paris, lured by three things: a curiosity concerning the great social experiment being there worked out; an ambition to perfect herself in the French language by speaking only French; a writer's natural thirst for good copy.

In all these things the sojourn of Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris was an eminent success, but tragedy was lurking and lying in wait for her. And it came to her as it has come for women ever since time began--through that awful handicap, her nature's crying need for affection.

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In Paris martial law reigned supreme; in the streets the death-tumbrel rattled, and through a crack in the closed casement Mary Wollstonecraft peered cautiously out and saw Louis the Sixteenth riding calmly to his death. The fact that she was an Englishwoman brought Mary Wollstonecraft under suspicion, for the English sympathized with royalty. When men with bloody hands come to your door, and question you concerning your business and motives, the mind is not ripe for literature!

The letters Mary Wollstonecraft had written for English journals she now destroyed, since she could not mail them, and to keep them was to run the risk of having them misinterpreted. The air was full of fear and fever.

No one was allowed to leave the city unless positively necessary, and to ask permission to go was to place one's self under surveillance.

It was at this time that Mary Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American, who had fought with Lafayette and Washington. He was a man of some means, alert, active and of good address. On account of his relationship with Lafayette, he stood well with the revolutionaries of Paris. He was stopping at the same hotel where Mary lodged, and very naturally, speaking the same language, they became acquainted. She allowed herself to be placed under his protection, and their simple friendship soon ripened into a warmer feeling. Love is largely a matter of propinquity.

It was a time when all formal rites were in abeyance; and in England any marriage-contract made in France, and not sanctified by the clergy, was not regarded as legal. Mary Wollstonecraft became Mrs. Mary Imlay, and that she regarded herself as much the wife of Imlay as God and right could command, there is no doubt.

In a few months the tempest and tumult subsided so they got away from Paris to Havre, where Imlay was interested in a shipping-office. At Havre their daughter Fanny was born.

Imlay had made investments in timber-lands in Norway, and was shipping lumber to France. Some of these ventures turned out well, and Imlay extended his investments on borrowed capital. The man was a nomad by nature--generous, extravagant and kind--but he lacked the patience and application required to succeed as a businessman. He could not wait--he wanted quick returns.

The wife had insight and intellect, and could follow a reason to its lair. Imlay skimmed the surface.

Leaving his wife and babe at Havre, he went across to London. Mary once made a trip to Norway for him, with the power of attorney, to act as she thought best in his interests. In Norway she found that much of the land that Imlay had bought was worthless, being already stripped of its timber. However, she improved the time by writing letters for London papers, and these eventually found form in her book entitled, "Letters From Norway."

Arriving at Havre she found that Imlay had dismantled their home, and for a time she did not know his whereabouts. Later they met in London.

When the time of separation came, however, she was sufficiently disillusioned to make the actual parting without pain. When Imlay saw she would no longer consent to be his wife, he proposed to provide for her, but she declined the offer, fearing it would give him some claim upon her and upon their child. And so Gilbert Imlay sailed away to America and out of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Exit Imlay.

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In London the position of Mary Wollstonecraft was most trying.

Penniless, deserted by Imlay, her husband, with a hungry babe at her breast, she was looked at askance by most of her old acquaintances. There were not wanting good folks who gathered their skirts about them, sneezed as she passed, and said, "I told you so."

Her brother Charles--a degenerate, pettifogging barrister, with all his father's faults and none of his grandfather's virtues--for whom Mary had advanced money so that he could go to college, came to her in her dire extremity and proffered help. But it was on condition that she should give up her babe and allow him to place it in a foundlings' home. This being done, the virtuous Charles would get Mary a position as weaver in a woolen-mill, under an assumed name, and the past would be as if it never had been. This in the face of the assertion of Pliny, who said, eighteen hundred years before, that one of the things even God could not do, was to obliterate the past; and of Omar's words, "Nor all your tears shall blot a line of it."

The mental processes of Charles are shown in his suggestion of a pleasant plan whereby Imlay could be lured back to England, arrested, and with the assistance of a bumbailiff, marriage forced upon him. His scheme was rejected by the obdurate Mary, who held that the very essence of marriage was freedom.

The tragic humor of the action of Charles turns on his assumption that his sister was "a fallen woman," and must be saved from disgrace. This opinion was shared by various other shady respectables, who kept the matter secret by lifting a soprano wail of woe from the housetops, declaring that Mary had smirched their good names and those of their friends by her outrageous conduct. These people also busied themselves in spreading a report that Mary had gone into "French ways," it being strongly held, then as now, by the rank and file of burly English beef-eaters, male and female, that morality in France is an iridescent dream--only that is not the exact expression they use.

Hope sank in the heart of the lone woman, and for a few weeks it appeared that suicide was the only way out. As for parting with her child, or with her brother Charles and his kin, Mary would stand by her child. It is related that on one occasion her sister Everina came to visit her, and Mary made bold to minister to her babe in the beautiful maternal way sanctified by time, before bottle-babies became the vogue and Nature was voted vulgar. The sight proved too much for Everina's nerves, and she fainted, first loudly calling for the camphor.

The family din evidently caused Mary to go a step further than she otherwise might, and she dropped the name Imlay and called herself plain Mary Wollstonecraft, thus glorifying the disgrace. This increased fortitude had come about by discovering that she could still work and earn enough money to live on by proofreading and translations; and it seemed that she had a head full of ideas. There in her lonely lodgings at Blackfriars, in the third story back, she was writing "The Rights of Woman." The book in places shows heat and haste, and its fault is not that it leads people in the wrong direction, but that it leads them too far in the right direction--that is, further than a sin-stained and hypocritical world can follow.

When men deserve the ideal, it will be here. If mankind were honest and unselfish, then every proposition held out by Mary Wollstonecraft would hold true. Her book is a vindication, in one sense, of her own position--for at the last, all literature is a confession. But Mary Wollstonecraft's book is also a plea for faith in the Divinity that shapes humanity and "leads us on amid the encircling gloom."

It is moreover a protest against the theological idea that woman is the instrument of the Devil, who tempted man to his ruin. Very frank is the entire expression, all written by a Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a pure woman whom Fate had freed from the conventional, and who, wanting little and having nothing to lose, not even a reputation, was placed in a position where she could speak the truth.

Parts of the book seem trite enough to us at this day, since many of the things advocated have come about, and we accept them as if they always were. For instance, there is an argument in favor of women being employed as schoolteachers; then there is the plea for public schools and for co-education.

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William and Mary first met in February, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six. In this matter dates are authentic, for Godwin kept a diary for forty-eight years, in which he set down his acts, gave the titles of books he read, and named the distinguished people he met. This diary is nearly as valuable as that of Samuel Pepys, save that unfortunately it does not record the inconsequential and amplify the irrelevant, for it is the seemingly trivial that pictures character. Godwin's diary forms a continuous history of literary and artistic London.

William was not favorably impressed with Mary, the first time they met each other. Tom Paine was present, and Godwin wanted to hear him talk about America, and instead Mary insisted upon talking about Paris, and Tom preferred to listen to her rather than to talk himself.

"The drawing-room was not big enough for this precious pair," says Godwin, and passes on to minor themes, not realizing that destiny was waiting for him around the corner.

The next time they met, William liked Mary better, for he did most of the talking, and she listened. When we are pleased with ourselves we are pleased with others. "She has wondrous eyes, and they welled with tears as we conversed. She surely has suffered, for her soul is all alive," wrote Godwin.

The third time they met, she asked permission to quote from his book, "Political Justice," in her own book, "The Rights of Woman," upon which she was hard at work. They were getting quite well acquainted, and he was so impressed with her personality that he ceased to mention her in his diary.

Godwin's book had placed him upon the topmost turret of contemporary literary fame. Since the publication of the work he was fairly prosperous, although his temperament was of that gently procrastinating and gracious kind that buys peace with a faith in men and things. Mary had an eager, alert and enthusiastic way of approaching things that grew on the easy-going Godwin. Her animation was contagious.

The bold stand Mary had taken on the subject of marriage; her frankness and absolute honesty; her perfect willingness at all times to abide by the consequences of her mistakes, all pleased Godwin beyond words.

He told Coleridge that she was the greatest woman in England, and Coleridge looked her over with a philosopher's eye, and reported her favorably to Southey. In a letter to Cottle, Robert Southey says: "Of all the lions or literati I have seen here, Mary Imlay's countenance is the best, infinitely the best; the only fault in it is an expression somewhat similar to what the prints of Horne Tooke display--an expression indicating superiority; not haughtiness, not sarcasm, in Mary Imlay, but still it is unpleasant. Her eyes are light brown, and although the lid of one of them is affected by a little paralysis, they are the most meaning I ever saw. As for Godwin himself, he has large, noble eyes, and a nose--oh, a most abominable nose! Language is not vituperatious enough to describe the effect of its downward elongation." In mentioning the matter of Godwin's nose, it is perhaps well to remember that Southey merely gave a pretty good description of his own.

In August, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, Godwin borrowed fifty pounds from Thomas Wedgwood, son of Josiah Wedgwood of Etruria, which money was to tide Mary over a financial stress, and afford her the necessary leisure to complete "The Rights of Woman." The experience that Mary Wollstonecraft had in the publishing business, now enabled her to make favorable arrangements for the issue of her book. The radicalism of America and France had leavened England until there was quite a market for progressive literature. Twenty years later, the work would have been ignored in silence or censored out of existence, so zigzag is the path of progress.

As it was, the work sold so that in six months from the time it was put on sale, Mary had received upwards of two hundred pounds in royalties. Recognition and success are hygienic. Mrs. Blood, an erstwhile friend, saw Mary about this time, and wrote to an acquaintance: "I declare if she isn't getting handsome and knows it. She has well turned thirty and has a sprinkling of gray hair and a few wrinkles, but she is doing her best to retrieve her youth."

Mary had now quit Blackfriars for better quarters near Hyde Park. Her health was fully restored, and she moved in her own old circle of writers and thinkers.

At this time William and Mary were both well out of the kindergarten. He was forty and she was thirty-seven. Several years before, William had issued a sort of proclamation to the public, and a warning to women of the quest that bachelordom was his by choice, and that he was wedded to philosophy. Very young people are given to this habit of declaration, "I intend never to wed," and it seems that older heads are just as absurd as young ones. It is well to refrain from mentioning what we intend to do, or intend not to do, since we are all sailing under sealed orders and nothing is so apt to occur as the unexpected.

Towards the last of the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, William was introducing Mary as his wife, and congratulations were in order. To them, mutual love constituted marriage, and when love died, marriage was at an end.

A sharp rebuke was printed about this time by Mary, evidently prompted by that pestiferous class of law-breakers who do not recognize that the opposites of things are alike, and that there is a difference between those who rise above law and those who burst through it. Said Mary, "Freedom without a sense of responsibility, is license, and license is a ship at sea without rudder or sail." That the careless, mentally slipshod, restless, and morally unsound should look upon her as one of them caused Mary more pain than the criticisms of the unco guid. It was this persistent pointing out by the crowd, as well as regard for the unborn, that caused William and Mary to go quietly in the month of March, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, to Saint Pancras Church and be married all according to the laws of England.

Godwin wrote of the mating thus: "The partiality we conceived for each other was in that mode which I have always considered as the purest and most refined quality of love. It grew with equal advances in the minds of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long-established custom had awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either part can assume to have been the principal agent in the affair. When, in the course of things, the disclosure came, there was nothing, in a manner, for either party to disclose to the other. There was no period of throes and resolute explanation attendant on the tale. It was friendship melting into love."

Mary was now happier than she had ever been before in her life. She wrote to a friend: "My bark has at last glided out upon the smooth waters. Married to a man whom I respect, revere and love, who understands my highest flights of fancy, and with whom complete companionship exists, my literary success assured, and the bugaboo of poverty at last removed, you can imagine how serene is my happiness." But this time of joy was to be short.

She died three months later, September Tenth, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, leaving behind her a baby girl eleven days old.

This girl, grown to womanhood, was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and without whom the name of Shelley would be to us unknown.

In writing of the mother who died in giving her birth, Mary Shelley says: "Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those rare beings who appear once, perhaps, in a generation, to gild humanity with a ray which no difference of opinion nor chance of circumstance can cloud. Her genius was undeniable. She had been bred in the hard school of adversity, and having experienced the sorrows entailed on the poor and oppressed, an earnest desire was kindled within her to diminish these sorrows.

"Her sound understanding, her intrepidity, her sensibility and eager sympathy, stamped all her writings with force and truth, and endowed them with a tender charm that enchants while it enlightens. Many years have passed since that beating heart has been laid in the cold, still grave, but no one who has ever seen her speaks of her without enthusiastic love and veneration. Was there discord among friends or relatives, she stood by the weaker party, and by her earnest appeals and kindliness awoke latent affection, and healed all wounds. Open as day to melting charity, with a heart brimming with generous affection, yearning for sympathy, helpful, hopeful and self-reliant, such was Mary Wollstonecraft." And here let us leave her.


Elbert Hubbard