Women’s History Month: A Tale of Three 18th-century Rebel-Writers

by Nancy Means Wright

     I can’t  let  Women’s History Month go by without celebrating three amazing women whose lives have made a difference in my life: Margaret King (1772-1835) in Ireland, Annette Vallon (1769-1844) in France, and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) in England.  How did these three women, brought up to be members of a proper 18th-century society, become rebels?

     For Mary, the eldest but shortest-lived of the three (and heroine of my mystery series), the answer is obvious. Because of the unfair practice of primogeniture, she had neither the education offered her older bullying brother, nor a room of her own to write in. Her father was a drunkard who abused his wife and daughters, her mother a  recluse. Who wouldn’t rebel under such circumstances! Mary left home at nineteen, and at twenty-five, she “kidnapped” her sister Eliza 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.  Impecunious and desperate, Mary opened a school for children–which failed when she rushed to Portugal to help fellow teacher Fanny Blood through a childbirth that left her beloved friend dead.

     Two years later, in 1786, Margaret King came into Mary’s life when the latter was governess at the manse of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family. Mary’s pupil Margaret was then fourteen, a bright girl, who like firebrand Mary, was concerned with the plight of the oppressed Irish peasants. After a jealous Lady Kingsborough dismissed Mary for teaching her daughter to “think for herself,” Margaret suffered an arranged marriage to a dull aristocrat. She joined the United Irishmen, wrote anti-establishment pamphlets, and secretly used her husband’s estate to shelter hundreds of Irish rebels. Though a Protestant, she advocated universal religious toleration; and dressed in breeches, she carried clandestine messages into prisons, along with knives and ropes.  She ultimately bore  six children–four out of wedlock when she renounced the aristocracy to live with a middle class man–and wrote four books. She later said 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 groundbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Surely Margaret read it with a grin! Mary weathered the storms of protest, and went to revolutionary Paris–“neck or nothing!” As an alien Britisher, she risked her neck walking the streets during the bloodiest days of the Great Terror, saw her friend Thomas Paine imprisoned, and her fellow rebels, Manon Roland and Olympe de Gouges, guillotined. Losing her own head, she bore an illegitimate child, then went to Scandinavia, alone, to recoup her lover’s funds for him. But he abandoned her and child, and she became a pariah in London society. She later married writer William Godwin, whom she genuinely loved, but died, aged 38, 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 mutual publisher’s Unitarian Dissenting Circle back in London.  Annette met Wordsworth in Orleans, France, where she became his language tutor, and then lover. After his escape to England during the Revolution, she gave birth to his daughter. Alone with her child, she became a heroine in the resistance movement against Robespierre and the bloody Terror–and later against Napoleon’s secret police.  For twenty-five years she engineered escapes from prisons, wrote pamphlets, and saved loyal subjects from death. Wordsworth came to visit Annette and their daughter in later years, but always returned to England, while the loyal Annette died as she’d lived: a rebel and single mother. (James Tipton has written a remarkable novel, Annette Vallon, about this affair.)   

     These three rebellious women have been role models for me. Daring women whom I could never hope to emulate in my quiet, writerly life. But thankfully, wollstonecraft with bookI can relive their lives through my reading, writing–and my imagination.

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14 Responses

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jacquie. Somehow it landed on the previous post “On the Road Again.” The vagaries of new technology! Anyway, yes, I wonder if I’d have the courage of my forebears to rebel against so much adversity. I guess we don’t know what we’d do until challenged.

  2. Bravo for these three courageous women and to you for sharing their stories.

    • Well, I try to honor them–and others each women’s history month. So many wonderful and courageous women have made us what we are. I’m sure you have mentors as well, Leigh?

  3. My mentor is my mother. She took up a career in real estate at the age of 45 and continued for almost 40 years. At the age of 83, she had to retake her 6 hour broker’s exam and she passed with flying colors. She also took up line dancing at 71, despite having no rhythm and no sense of direction:-) Mom taught me to set a goal and just get out there and do it!

    • I love this, Cindy! Hurrah for your mother. It’s never too late. Truly courageous to take up a new skill or practice that you don’t have a natural bent for. I tried yoga with my awkward body and quit after twelve sessions–the only pose I could do with any success was “the corpse.” No doubt your mother would have hung on.But yes–just do it. As you do!

  4. My inspirations were less intellectual or purposeful. My stepmother was uneducated but perpetually wise and the embodiment of unconditional love and acceptance, a role model in surviving life’s catastrophes and traumas with grace and dignity and a generous spirit. The women about whom I write are normal, surviving women who struggle with life’s emotional and philosophical issues while attempting careers and often finding themselves below their expectations. They don’t change the world, they change themselves.

    • Yes, D.K., a good way to put it: One can only change oneself, and not the world. Wollstonecraft herself wrote: “I don’t wish women to have power over men–but over themselves.” Your stepmother was surely a wise woman. What more can anyone want, but ‘unconditional love’?
      And I know what it is to find myself below my expectations. But we go on trying, don’t we?

  5. My grandmothers and my mom are my inspiration. They were some pretty tough chicks.

    • Love to hear more about those tough chicks, Pauline. Kind of you to drop by! And I really enjoyed your post-mortem blog…

      • Well, let’s see, one grandma rasped six kids in a log cabin (2 bedrooms, dirt floor for a long time!) and the other left the city for love of a cowboy. And my mom? She raised six kids (four boys!) is still my hero. She’s still feisty and awesome. Glad you enjoyed the blog post!

  6. Thanks for the reminders and inspiration, Nancy. I love reading stories like this. Two high school female teachers were single-handedly responsible for my having any sense of worth and any goals of helping others. They’re with me every day and every time I see an isolated girl (and a boy or two on the way.)

    • I have a few long ago high school teachers I adored, too, Camille. I was in a girls’ boarding school grades 8-12, and two or three of them made an enormous difference in my life. They piled on the homework, but college was a breeze after all they put me through. And yes, turned me into a teacher and writer as well.

  7. Nancy, three amazing women indeed! I can see why they inspired you.

    So many women have inspired me, teachers, friends and fellow writers. The first was probably Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, scribbling in the attic with her pet rat.

    • Oh, yes, I love Jo March. She was an early heroine of mine. I’d forgotten though, about that pet rat! Ha. I just have a pet cat who sits behind me and keeps pulling my hair.Anyway, Jo should definitely be added to the roster of inspiring female heroines. Thanks, Anita.

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