Turtle Bunbury

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HISTORY

HEROES AND VILLAINS

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797)

THE IRISH EXPERIENCES OF A PIONEERING FEMINIST

A grumpy personality is never a good attribute in a child minder and certainly Lady Kingsborough was becoming increasingly exasperated by the constant mood swings of her children’s governess. Not long after her inevitable dismissal,

Mary Wollstonecraft, the troublesome governess, was to become one of the founding philosophers of feminism, not to mention being the mother to Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’.

Nearly 220 years after her death, Wollstonecraft is widely applauded for her 1792 essay ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, a brilliant shout-out for women’s education in an age when men alone controlled the world.

Wollstonecraft is the subject of a cheerful new biography, ‘In Search of Mary – The Mother of all Journeys’, written by the journalist and broadcaster Bee Rowlatt. The award-winning book sees Rowlatt, accompanied by her baby son, retrace Wollstonecraft’s footsteps on a trip that brings her from the fjords of Norway to revolutionary Paris to a naked re-birthing in California.

Mary’s grandfather was a successful handkerchief manufacturer of Irish extraction based in Spittalfields in the East End of London. Irish blood also came through her mother Elizabeth Dickson, the daughter of a wine merchant from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. However, the man who did most to shape her formative years was her alcoholic father Edward John Wollstonecraft, an apprentice weaver, whose violent tantrums dominated her childhood and imbibed her with such a fighting spirit.

Her best friend during those traumatic years was Fanny Blood, a neighbour whose parents hailed from Craggaunboy on the banks of the River Fergus in County Clare, and who had fled Ireland to escape creditors. Fanny’s brother George Blood would later become closely involved with the copper mines in County Wicklow. After her mother’s death, Wollstonecraft lived with the Bloods for two years.

Fanny’s premature death in 1786 was a devastating blow to Wollstonecraft but the following year, the 27-year-old took advantage of her Irish connections to secure a post as governess to Viscount Kingsborough’s daughters at Mitchelstown Castle in north Cork.

The King family had been prominent in Ireland since the Tudor age, amassing vast estates in Roscommon, Sligo and Cork, as well as the Earldom of Kingston in 1768. They became probably the wealthiest family in Ireland when Lord Kingsborough married the 15-year-old heiress Caroline Fitzgerald.

Wollstonecraft spent just under a year looking after the Kingsborough’s three daughters but seems to have loathed almost every minute of it. Her writings are filed with angry remarks about the ‘dissipated lives’ of Ireland’s aristocratic elite, despite Lady Kingsborough’s efforts to make her feel more at home by bringing her to fashionable plays and society events in Dublin.

The fact that the Kingsborough children clearly preferred the governess to their own fearsome mother was further cause for her inevitable dismissal. The following year Wollstonecraft published her Irish experiences in a scarcely camouflaged fictional work called ‘Original Stories from Real Life’ in which a governess called ‘Mrs. Mason’ teaches compassion and morality to two teenage girls.

Wollstonecraft’s time at Mitchelstown had a profound effect on the Kingsborough’s eldest daughter, Lady Margaret Jane King. The free-thinking teenager had been Wollstonecraft’s ‘most devoted protégé’ and would later claim that the governess had ‘freed her mind from all superstitions.’ For her part, Wollstonecraft praised Margaret’s ‘wonderful capacity’ but feared it would be ‘lost in a heap of rubbish [and] miscalled accomplishments.’

Following Wollstonecraft’s departure, Margaret would maintain a secret correspondence with her that lasted until 1797 when the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia, eleven days after giving birth to her daughter Mary.

Margaret had been married off in 1791 to Stephen Moore, 2nd Earl Mount Cashell. Shortly before their wedding, the 21-year-old earl had inherited a massive 40,000-acre estate in Munster that included the Rock of Cashel from which he derived his title.

The Mount Cashells had seven children but their marriage was an unhappy one. With few common interests, they were prone to constant and intensive rows. They lived between the family mansion of Moore Park at Kilworth, Co. Cork, and a townhouse on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, where they entertained guests such as Henry Grattan and John Philpot Curran.

In 1797 Margaret’s father succeeded as 2nd Earl of Kingston but the King family reputation came asunder the following year when her brother Robert was tried for the murder of a cousin who had raped their sister.

Margaret herself became increasingly close to another cousin Lord Edward FitzGerald, one of the leaders of the Society of United Irishmen. Always radically minded, she supported the Society’s ill-fated rebellion in 1798, in which Lord Edward was killed, and subsequently wrote a number of controversial pamphlets denouncing the Act of Union.

In December 1801, Margaret – or the Countess of Mount Cashell as she was properly known - embarked upon an extended Grand Tour of Europe with her husband and nine other self-proclaimed ‘Irish adventurers’.[i]

Towards the end of the tour, Margaret met a young Irish officer by name of George William Tighe whose family owned considerable lands in Counties Wiclow and Kilkenny[ii]. (As a curious literary aside, George’s half-brother Thomas Tighe was a County Down schoolmaster who greatly influenced the young Rev. Patrick Bronte, father of the famous sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne.)

The Countess and the officer fell head over heels in love and, despite having just had her seventh baby, Margaret abandoned her husband and family in Germany and eloped to Italy.

The couple settled at Casa Silva in Pisa under the alias of ‘Mr and Mrs Mason’, taking the name from Wollstonecraft’s ‘Original Stories from Real Life’. As the scandal became public, Margaret was prohibited from having any contact with her children in Ireland. Contemporaries lamented that she had surrendered herself to a life of ‘extreme poverty’, meaning she now only had two servants.

However, following in the footsteps of her late governess, Margaret took to study, homing in on medicine and surgery and working closely with a professor at the University of Pisa. In 1807 she went to London and met with the anarchic philosopher William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s widower, who helped her to publish a volume of children’ stories called ‘Stories of Old Daniel: Tales of Wonder and Delight’.

She then returned to Casa Silva where she and Tighe had two daughters, Laurette (1809-1890) and Nerina (1815-1874).

In 1818, Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s daughter Mary Shelley set off for Italy with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet. The couple were anxious to rebuild their lives after the pain of losing all three of their children. Mary, whose first novel “Frankenstein” had been published that same year, carried a letter of introduction from her father to “Mrs. Mason”.

Now aged 47, Margaret immediately felt a strong bond of affection for the sole child of her late governess and did everything in her power to make the Shelley’s comfortable in Pisa.[iii]

The two couples became exceptionally close but Mary Shelly became particularly fond of the Mason daughters. An entry in her diary for 10th August 1820 records: ‘Write a story for Laurette. Walk in the mountains … the weather is warm and delightful’. Entitled ‘Maurice’ or ‘The Fisher’s Cot’, this melancholy children’s story was rediscovered in the attic of a Tuscan palazzo in 1997.[iv]

After her husband’s death in Ireland in 1822, her son Stephen succeeded as 3rd Earl Mount Cashell. He was to become the oldest member of the House of Lords by the time of his death 61 years later.

The death of the 2nd Earl had also enabled Margaret and George Tighe to marry at last.

In 1823 Margaret published a book entitled ‘Advice to Young Mothers on the Physical Education of Children, by a Grandmother,’ which offered practical advice on household medicine for babies and children. She died in January 1835 and was buried in the Old English Cemetery, Livorno, on the north-west coast of Italy.

The Wollstonecraft connection with Ireland did not die with Mary. Her sisters Everina Wollstonecraft and Eliza Bishop set up a school on Hume Street by St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin and numbered Daniel O’Connell’s children among their pupils.[v] Eliza Bishop is buried in St. Canice’s graveyard in Finglas.

‘In Search of Mary – The Mother of all Journeys’, by Bee Rowlatt, is published by Alma Books.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Among them was the diarist Catherine Wilmot, a close friend of Margaret. Her diaries from the tour were eventually published in 1920 as “An Irish Peer on the Continent, 1801–03”. The introduction to this publication pointedly described Margaret as ‘socially charming and attractive, highly cultivated, upright and refined’, but ‘harsh to her children, a Freethinker in religion, and imbued with what were then the most extravagant political notions’.

[ii] He was the son of Edward Tighe, a sometime MP for Belturbet and Wicklow, and a grandson of William and Lady Mary Tighe of Rossanagh, County Wicklow.

[iii] In his poem, ‘The Sensitive Plant’, Percy Shelly refers to Margaret as "a lady, the wonder of her kind, whose form was up born by a lovely mind". She in turn penned “Twelve Cogent Reasons for Supposing P.B. Sh-ll-y to be the D-v-l Inc-rn-t-”, a flattering defence of the radical atheist poet.

[iv] The manuscript was assumed to have been lost for more than 150 years. However, in 1997, the year of Mary Shelley’s bicentenary, an Italian lady by name of Christina Dazzi came upon a little book of pages, sewn together by string, while rooting around in a wooden chest in the attic of her Tuscan palazzo. At the top of the first page were the sort of words that inspire people to nip up to their attics and get rooting: ‘For Laurette from her friend Mrs. Shelley’.

The Laurette in question was Laurette Tighe, Margaret and George's illegitimate 11-year-old daughter. Signora Dazzi’s husband Andrea was a direct descendant of Laurette’s sister Nerina who had married into the Cinis of Pistoia.

Perhaps inspired by the Shelleys, Laurette later wrote novels under her married name, Sara Tardi. Her husband, Professor Tardi of Genoa, died in 1914. “Maurice” was published by Viking in 1998 with an introduction by Claire Tomalin, author of highly acclaimed biographies of “Mary Wollstonecraft” and “Samuel Pepys” (winner of the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year Award).

[v] Maurice Daniel O’Connell (1803-1853), as published in ‘The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832’, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009. Available from Cambridge University Press via http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/oconnell-maurice-1803-1853

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