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.
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.)
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