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Marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft

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Even before the publication of Political Justice, Godwin’s other writings had drawn him into the circle of London’s radical political and literary elite. At a dinner with Thomas Paine, in 1791, Godwin met the woman who changed his life: Mary Wollstonecraft, who would soon become known for her groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an impassioned call for equality between the sexes. Upon their first meeting, Wollstonecraft thought Godwin argued too much; Godwin thought Wollstonecraft talked too much.

When Godwin and Wollstonecraft met again in 1796, they fell in love. Godwin found his world of reason breached by the irrationality of passion. Furthermore, after Wollstonecraft became pregnant, he compromised his own views on marriage to spare her from the then-crippling stigma of unwed motherhood, and the couple quickly legitimized their relationship. Wollstonecraft already had one child, Fanny Imlay, who many correctly suspected was born out of wedlock; two bastard children would have damaged her reputation beyond repair.

For 48 years, Godwin kept a daily journal, briefly and methodically recording his unvarying routine of reading, writing, and dining out. His circle of friends and acquaintances was enormous, and the journal is an invaluable record of the political and cultural life of the time. It is also possible to trace his relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft in its pages (the first page in the diary to mention her — her name misspelled — is seen here). Their evenings and nights together are marked “chez moi” and “chez elle,” and the sexual nature of these occasions is recorded using a system of dashes and dots.