Friday, April 2, 2010

Why I Love Rebellious Women by Nancy Means Wright

I LOVE REBELLIOUS WOMEN: A Tale of Three 18th Century Rebels.

How did they become rebels, these three amazing women: Mary Wollstonecraft in England (1759-1797, Margaret King (1772-1835) in Ireland, and Annette Vallon (1769-1844) in France, all brought up to be members of a proper 18th century society? For Mary Wollstonecraft, eldest but shortest-lived of the three, and heroine of my new series, the answer is obvious. She had neither the education offered her older bullying brother nor a room of her own to write and dream in. Her father was a drunkard who abused his wife and daughters. When her submissive, unloving mother died, he married his mistress, and Mary left home, still in her teens.

Who wouldn’t rebel under those circumstances? Impecunious and desperate, Mary settled for one of the few respectable female positions: teaching children. The school she began failed when Mary took ship to Portugal to help her consumptive friend Fanny Blood through childbirth. Fanny died, and on the way home through turbulent waters, a grieving but fiery Mary threatened to take the ship’s captain to court if he didn’t stop to save the sailors of a sinking French ship (he did). Angry at any injustice, Mary subsequently “kidnapped” her sister Eliza, then in a post-partum state of delirium, from an abusive husband. They leapt from carriage to carriage on their mad dash to a rented room, husband in pursuit, while the crazed Eliza bit her wedding ring into pieces.

Two years later, in 1786, Margaret King came into Mary’s life, when the still penniless Mary took a position as governess at Mitchelstown Castle, home of the aristocratic Kingsborough family—Mary called it a Bastille. Her devoted pupil Margaret was then fourteen, a bright girl who, like firebrand Mary, was deeply concerned with the plight of the oppressed Irish peasants. (My novel, Midnight Fires, is set in Ireland during this year of Mary’s governessing.)

Several years after a jealous Lady Kingsborough dismissed Mary for teaching her daughter to “think for herself”—an impediment, according to Milady, to a girl’s modesty!—Margaret went through with an arranged marriage to a boring aristocrat. But seeing herself as simply Irish, not Anglo-Irish like her family, she joined the United Irishmen and secretly used her husband’s estate to shelter hundreds of Irish rebels. Though a Protestant, she advocated universal toleration, and like a handful of other female spies, carried secret messages into prisons, along with knives and ropes. Six-feet-tall and dressed in breeches, she mingled with the men with impunity, and published anti-establishment pamphlets. She ultimately bore six children—four out of wedlock when she renounced the aristocracy to live with a middle class man. She later wrote that much of her life’s philosophy was due to the teaching of her mentor, Mary Wollstonecraft, for whom she felt an “unbounded admiration.”

The pair corresponded after a dismissed Mary left for London and in 1792 wrote her controversial A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Surely Margaret read it with a grin! Mary weathered the storms of protest, and went to Paris—“Neck or nothing!” she declared. There she fell passionately in love, and with France and England at war, risked her neck walking the streets during the bloodiest days of the Great Terror when heads were rolling. She faithfully visited her imprisoned friends Thomas Paine, Manon Roland, and Olympe de Gouges, and wept as the latter two were guillotined. She bore a child out of wedlock—and devastated by her lover’s betrayal, a pariah in London society, she went to Scandinavia alone (unheard of in those days) to recoup her feckless lover’s funds for him. Her sole conventional act was perhaps her marriage to Willliam Godwin, whom she genuinely loved; she died, aged thirty-eight, after giving birth to their daughter (future Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame).

Perhaps Mary passed by Annette Vallon’s brother in Paris’s latin quarter during the Revolution; and she knew Annette’s lover, poet William Wordsworth, through their publisher’s dissenting circle back in London. But the two women had much in common: their fight against oppression; the bearing of a love child. Annette met Wordsworth in Orleans, France, where she was his language tutor, and then lover; after his escape to England during the Reign of Terror, she gave birth to his daughter. Alone with her child, she became a heroine in the resistance movement against Robespierre and the Terror—and later against Napoleon’s secret police. She was a female Scarlet Pimpernel: mother—and underground fighter. A surviving document describes her selflessness and “courage without any thought of personal gain…Annette has for the past 25 years, hidden and aided a great number of émigrés and other persecuted persons. She has engineered escapes from prisons and has saved many loyal subjects from death.” Wordsworth came to visit Annette and their daughter in later years, but always returned to his wife, while she died as she had lived: a rebel and single mother.

I love these rebellious women. They have been role models for me, daring women whom I could never hope to emulate in my quiet writerly life. I can only try to relive their lives through my reading, writing—and my imagination.

Facebook page: “Becoming Mary Wolstonecraft”

Nancy Means Wright novel Midnight Fires will be released on April 10th


  1. Nice blog, Nancy, Fascinating people. Imust admit, I too am attracted to rebellious people of either sex throughout history and those who just didn't go with the common flow.

  2. Heaven forbid, girls being taught to think.

    Thanks for a fascinating guest post,and good luck with your book.

  3. Thanks, Nancy. Fun post! Reminds me of a bumper sticker that says, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

  4. Great post! These few outspoken historical rebels always make me wonder how many other women thought and acted in smaller ways for themselves, snubbing societal norms in unrecorded defiance. Makes history so much richer to think about these fascinating women!

  5. I'm reading a book about a rebellious woman right now! -- "Her Mother's Hope" by Francine Rivers. This is the first in a two-part saga, which spans generations and continents. The heroine, Marta, is quite rebellious and leaves Switzerland (and jerky father) to find life on her own terms. It's the author's first full-length novel since 2003. She wrote "Redeeming Love," which was a best-seller.

    And Suzanne -- I helped my brother find a plaque with that "well-behaved" quote on it for his SO. She LOVES that! Hmmm, I should get that for myself as well.

  6. Thanks to Roger, Marg, Suzanne, Rowanna, and Liz for your interesting, perceptive comments, and especially to Ana for putting up my guest blog in this delightful, historical ambiance. So grateful to you all! Cheers, Nancy

  7. I love rebellious women, too, Ana! As I am a bit of a rebel myself, always have been. I often like to think that in those circumstances I would have reacted in the same ways. Great post.