Hunting for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Grave

Today we’re sauntering back to St Pancras Churchyard to visit the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

A rather unremarkable tomb and marker, the grave at London’s St Pancras commemorates the resting place of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Jane Godwin and is a Grade II listed monument for this very reason.

Wollstonecraft and Godwin were both writers and radical philosophers of the 18th century. William Godwin (1756-1836) began a clerical career, like his minister father, but following a change of religious views, he moved to London and became a writer. His political works ensured his status as a radical thinker, and he was idolised by groups of fashionable young thinkers, philosophers and politicians, including a young and infamous Percy Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, philosopher and feminist writer, whose ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792) is regarded as the first work of philosophical feminism, stating that women are not inherently beneath men, and are equal human beings deserving of the same rights. She was a force to be reckoned with, with politician Horace Walpole calling her a “hyena in petticoats” for her unconventional and tenacious ways. Her personal life was equally atypical; Wollstonecraft already had a daughter (out of wedlock) named Fanny from a previous relationship with American diplomat and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Following her marriage to Godwin, they continued to live separately, sending letters between their houses, with Mary even referring to their baby (before birth) as their “animal”.

However, following the birth of baby Mary (who would become Mary Shelley), Wollstonecraft became incredibly ill and contracted ‘childbed fever’, a once-rife infection following birth. Several days later, she died in agony of septicaemia, leaving young Mary to grow up without a mother. In a letter to a friend, Godwin wrote of his late wife, ‘I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”

Wollstonecraft was buried at St Pancras old churchyard with an epitaph reading ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797.’

[Obligatory tourist photo. Its me, you know I have to.]

The tomb is of simple design, being a standard 18th century pedestal tomb with a simple epitaph. The die of the tomb was reinstated in 1992, being the bicentenary year of the publication of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’.

None of the buildings inhabited by Wollstonecraft survive today, making her grave all the more important to historians and devotees of her work.

Mary Shelley grew up in the shadow of her mother’s legacy, revering her like a deity. She wrote in 1827 that ‘The memory of my mother has always been the pride and delight of my life.’ Young Mary was said to have learned how to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s grave, aided by the fact both of them had the same first name.

[Mary Shelley]

Famously, Mary Shelley spent many hours in the graveyard that held her mother’s remains and was said to have professed her love for Percy Shelley, her future husband, there. At the time of their meeting, she was 16, while Shelley was 21, a devotee of her father, and married. ‘Professed their love’, however, in some instances is believed to be another term for ‘lost her virginity on/beside her mother’s grave.’ This ‘fun fact’ seems to have little substantive evidence behind it, but is keenly passed around as further evidence that Mary Shelley grew up to be indeed, the ultimate goth icon.

Today the Wollstonecraft/Godwin grave survives as an unassuming block of stone beside far grander memorials. The grass beside it appears to be perpetually well worn from visitors, crouching to read the same inscriptions traced by the mother of Frankenstein, so many years before. At least one hopes the mud is as a result of tourism, as the other option of romantic recreation leaves a lot to be desired…

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