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  • Biography as Autopsy in William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"
  • Angela Monsam

To examine the cause of life, we must first have recourse to death.

—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein1

When Mary Wollstonecraft died, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl named Mary, Wollstonecraft's husband William Godwin marked her grave with a stone and planted two willows over it. In 1809, when Mary Godwin was about twelve years old, her father published An Essay on Sepulchres; or, A Proposal for Erecting Some Memorial of the Illustrious Dead in All Ages on the Spot Where Their Remains Have Been Interred. Years later, during their courtship, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley would, from time to time, go to the St Pancras parish churchyard and sit near the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Ruth Richardson argues that "the need to commemorate—to preserve, identify, and signalize—the remains of the dead clearly held some emotional resonance for Godwin."2 I am intrigued by William Godwin's memorializing of and Mary's pilgrimages to Wollstonecraft's gravesite; Richardson's argument that both father and daughter [End Page 109] shared a "familial preoccupation" 3 with commemorating the dead informs my reading of William Godwin's authorial choices in Memoirs. Like most readers of Memoirs, I question what appears to be his overzealous commitment to "frankness,"4 and, as most critics do, I find challenging any attempt to categorize Memoirs as a genre—is it biography, autobiography, or, as Mitzi Myers argues, an "unusual hybrid" of the two?5 In comparing Memoirs to contemporary medical writings and dissection reports from the 1790s, I agree with Myers that this work certainly is an "unusual hybrid," but of biography and autopsy, which I term "autopsical biography."

My argument offers an explanation for William Godwin's biographical approach that both reconciles his authorial choices and elucidates the overwhelmingly negative response that Memoirs garnered from contemporary readers. In my exploration of Memoirs, I will examine Godwin's authorial choices in light of contemporary fears of and fascinations with the science of autopsy and the common, late-eighteenth-century practice of dissection. Memoirs was influenced by, if not modelled after, contemporary medical writings, particularly dissection reports. Specifically, Godwin's apparently insensitive, factual detailing of Wollstonecraft's life may have been influenced by his interest in contemporary science, including anatomy. Godwin's intellectual milieu in the 1790s situates him as an intimate of medical men, including his personal friends chemist William Nicholson and acclaimed surgeon Anthony Carlisle. And Political Justice, The Enquirer, and Caleb Williams, Godwin's political and fictional writings published prior to Memoirs, evidence both his interest in and familiarity with contemporary science. [End Page 110]

Tilottama Rajan places Memoirs within the tradition of Romantic biography, arguing that "Godwin looks to the reader to potentialize the revolutionary idealism in such apparently base occurrences as her love for [Henry] Fuseli and [Gilbert] Imlay."6 While Rajan's assertion of Godwin's desire to "romanticize" Wollstonecraft is compelling, contemporary readers' responses to Memoirs illustrate that Godwin, at least in the execution of this project, missed the mark.7 Rather, Memoirs, when considered as an instance of a biographical form, which I argue was a precursor to the Victorian "scientific autobiography,"8 was ahead of its time, like the majority of Godwin's writings. As well, in classic Godwin fashion, his praise of Wollstonecraft's unconventional relationships with Fuseli and Imlay was peculiar, if not rhetorically alienating to contemporary readers. While the negative popular reception of Memoirs may simply be attributed to these controversial revelations, which, no doubt, were a shock [End Page 111] to contemporary manners and decorum, readers' responses to Memoirs echo contemporary responses to dissection.

In form and function, Memoirs reads like late-eighteenth-century dissection reports, which were also titled Memoirs (see figure 1). In the 1790s, the Medical Society of London published ten volumes that included accounts of disease and dissection under the title Memoirs of the Medical Society of London.9 Both Godwin's Memoirs and the dissection report function to dispel suspicion regarding an uncommon subject, with a didactic purpose in mind. Similarly, the biographical...


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