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Mary Wollstonecraft: Childhood

Mary Wollstonecraft was born 27 April 1759 in the Spitalfields section of London. She was the second of seven children born to John Edward and Elizabeth Dickson Wollstonecraft. The family was middle-class, but John Wollstonecraft was a poor manager of the little money they had. John Wollstonecraft moved the family frequently around England and Wales in a series of unsuccessful attempts to make it big. Ultimately, they only became poorer with each move.

An intelligent girl, Mary Wollstonecraft saw at an early age what the prospects were like for women of her social class, and she did not like it one bit. Despite her aptitude for learning, only her brother Ned was sent to school. She also saw how her father took his frustration out on her mother. Mary used to sleep in front of her mother's bedroom door to prevent her father from beating her mother during one of his rages. No wonder she announced at the age of fifteen that she was never going to marry.8

Fortunately, when the family moved to Hoxton, England in 1774, the teenage Mary met Mr. and Mrs. Clare (there is no record of their first names). Mr. Clare was a local clergyman. He and his wife took an interest in their bright young neighbor and opened their home and library to her. Mary Wollstonecraft credited her education to the couple.

Through the Clares, Wollstonecraft made another life-altering connection. The couple introduced her to a young woman about her age named Fanny Blood, who became her closest friend. Her attachment to Blood was intense. Wollstonecraft had a tendency to become fiercely and passionately attached to the people she cared about, a trait that would later cause her great heartache. She kept her friendship with Fanny alive through letters after her family moved from Hoxton to Wales, and then back to London.

In 1778, Wollstonecraft moved to Bath for her first job, as a companion to an elderly woman named Sarah Dawson. Jobs like companion, governess and teacher were the only respectable positions available in 18th century England to an unmarried woman of Wollstonecraft's means. What little money Wollstonecraft earned was often doled out to family or others in need, despite how short she was on cash. All her life, as her husband William Godwin put it, she was "the victim of a desire to promote the benefit of others."9

In 1781, her mother fell ill and Wollstonecraft returned to London to care for her. Elizabeth Wollstonecraft passed away in April 1782. John Wollstonecraft remarried immediately. Mary moved in with Fanny Blood's family, a clan even poorer than her own.

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