This modest monument is the location of the original grave where William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft were buried in the Old Saint Pancras Churchyard. Their remains were removed and reburied in St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth graveyard, where they remain today.
I visited the churchyard, now a public park a short walk from St Pancras Station in London, on Wednesday while I was down in the Big Smoke on business. I had a few hours to spare before my first meeting and decided to use the time to pay homage to Mary and her husband.
Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest feminists and advocate of the rights of women. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), she argued that women were human beings who were not naturally inferior to men and deserved the same fundamental rights.
In 1792, while visiting friends in France, Wollstonecraft met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant and adventurer. They started a relationship and Mary gave birth to a daughter, Fanny, in May 1794. Not long after Mary and her daughter were abandoned by Imlay. Returning to England she met the radical philosopher, William Godwin. A relationship developed and Mary fell pregnant. Although Godwin had advocated the abolition of marriage, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. They moved into two adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence. A rather modern arrangement! The chid, a daughter, was born on 30 August 1797. Sadly, Mary died eleven days after giving birth.
Their daughter, named Mary after her mother, was later to eloped at the age of 16 with the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was five years senior and already married. Later to become his wife she is famous in her own right as the author of Frankenstein.
William Godwin has been described as a “utilitarian anarchist”. His views were set out in his book Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, usually shortened to Political Justice which was published in 1793. Selling over 4000 copies it was a “best seller” in it’s day. Godwin argued against private property and marriage and believed that as long as people acted rationally, they could live without laws or institutions, rebuilding society in free and equal association, self-governed by reason alone.
After their marriage, an institution they had both opposed, Mary and William wee accused of hypocrisy by their opponents. But I take a different view. They lived within a society they opposed but could not isolate themselves from it. Marriage was a compromise for them as it was not easy to live together otherwise.
Like many early radicals, ’William and Mary aren’t as well known today as they deserve to be – although their portraits are hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London.