Archive | July, 2012

18th Century Celebrity: Mary Wollstonecroft

15 Jul

1759-1797

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This saucy lady was the mother to famed author Mary Shelly (Frankenstein anyone?) and well-known writer of her time. She was also a political advocate for women’s rights and wrote several books including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Mary never knew her daughter for she died in 1797 due to childbirth complications but her daughter grew up knowing all about her famous mother and was an adamant reader of her mother’s writings and journals that she kept while abroad.

Mary Wollstonecroft was an advocate for women’s travel abroad not only to seek the same ventures as men but also to learn and educate themselves and engage in their world. In an age when so many women never left their own countries, Wollstonecroft blazed her own trails and expected other women to do the same. The belief of the time that women were somehow inferior to men, Wollstonecroft argued, was due not to their mental capacity or ability, but to the lack of education available to them and the small scope in which they were ‘set’ to live their lives.

When the French Revolution broke out in France in 1789, Wollstonecraft traveled there on purpose to witness the action and the rebellion first class. She was passionate about the ideals that the French Revolution was being fought for and wished to witness their history first hand. While in France, Mary met American Gilbert Imlay with whom she had her first child, a daughter named Fanny. Their relationship set to the backdrop of the French Revolution, was passionate and daring but in the end, Imlay never really wanted to marry. However, once Briton declared war on France, Wollstonecroft and other British expatriates in France now faced great dangers as citizens abroad. It was because of this that Gilbert Imlay claimed Wollstonecroft as his wife on paper, though the two were never actually legally wed. Imlay left Wollstonecroft in Le Havre, France (a busy port town where many British tourists and visitors came through when they first arrived in France) promising to return but he never did. She was alone in a foreign country with a newborn baby…in the middle of a Revolution.

Wollstonecroft went on later in life to wed William Godwin, an acquaintance in her circle of activist friends back in England. After a long time spent lamenting over Imlay (including two suicide attempts and trip on his behalf to Sweden), Wollstonecroft fell in love Godwin and they lived happily though their marriage was cut short when Mary passed in 1797.

The legacy of Mary Wollstonecroft is that of a woman who had ambition beyond hearth and home in a time when few women traveled or explored their rights. She was a philosopher, writer, mother and traveler and she’s our 18th century celebrity of the day!

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18th Century Papparazzi Profile: Lady Elizabeth Webster Holland

13 Jul

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Lady Elizabeth (nee. Vessall) was born in 1771 and was married young to a much older man, Sir Godfrey Webster. They were married in 1786 when Elizabeth was only 15! Can you even imagine?! Her marriage was a most unhappy one and she often lamented of her poor marital circumstances in her letters to her friends or in her private journal entries.

In order to spend as little time with her husband as possible (or so many have speculated) Lady Webster spent most of her time traveling abroad throughout Europe. Sir Godfrey very rarely accompanied his wife on these travels and when he did, according to Lady Webster, he was most unpleasant. It was while she was abroad that she took Thomas Pelham as a lover though she did not marry him once her marriage to Sir Godfrey ended.

After her (scandalous!) divorce from Sir Godfrey, Lady Elizabeth went on to wed Henry Richard Fox, 3rd Holland. This marriage was much more amiable and she spent the rest of her days traveling around Europe with Fox. Lady Holland and her husband were active members in the Whig Party (a party made fashionable during the time by Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire). It was also said that Lady Elizabeth was jealous of Georgiana’s popularity both with the people and her fellow aristocratic friends and she sought to make Holland House in London, just as popular as Devonshire House, though she never succeeded.

Not only did Lady Elizabeth defy 18th century norms by getting a divorce (a very difficult thing for a woman of this period to do) but she also dared to venture abroad, an activity that made many men uncomfortable and that many women were terrified to do themselves.