Oh, that children were... willing to sacrifice the unreasonable wishes of youth, to the experience of their affectionate and judicious parents! That they were sufficiently aware of the sacred claim paternal tenderness has on the gratitude and compliance of a child! But, till children themselves become parents, they but inadequately feel the labor, affliction, and anxiety, a parent undergoes... It is then only that they... truly feel the sacred nature and extent of filial duty!
-- Matilda Mortimer; or, False Pride, by Miss M. Woodland, one of four Tales for Mothers and Daughters
Bear and Forbear was one of four novellas by a "Miss Woodland," which were “intended to illustrate the force of education, and the dangers of mistakes in the commencement of life.” Bear and Forbear preaches that wives should be gentle, good-humoured, and accommodating if they want to be happy in life. The other three books focus on a particular failing: the dangers of indolence, the dangers of excessive pride, and the dangers of partiality, that is, favouring one child over another.
The publishing history of these four novellas indicates that they were re-issued and more widely read in the early part of the 19th century than the novels of Jane Austen. The publisher even paid for engraved frontispieces for all the books.
So who was Miss M. Woodland, the now-forgotten author of these four novellas? Was she an evangelical like the Rev. Fordyce or Hannah More? Who published this kind of finger-waggy didactic stuff for children? Well, the answer quite surprised me.
Bear and Forbear and the other three novellas were first published by children’s book publisher Benjamin Tabart. Tabart went bankrupt in 1810 and five years later, another publisher, M.J. Godwin, published all four tales separately and together as one volume. American editions came out in 1827.
Who was M.J. Godwin? Why am I surprised?...
Mary Jane Godwin was the second wife of William Godwin. Godwin (1756-1826) was a moral philosopher, essayist and novelist, but is mostly remembered today for being the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley. Four years after Wollstonecraft died, Godwin married Mary Jane, the widow next door. Many biographers have pointed out that none of the Godwins’ five children had the same mother and father: their ménage included Mary Wollstonecraft’s first daughter Fanny by her lover Gilbert Imlay; Mary was her daughter by Godwin. (The faulty post-partum care Mary Wollstonecraft received after Mary’s birth led to her death).
Mary Jane already had two children by different fathers and together, she and William Godwin had William.
Mary Jane had a career—she was a writer, editor, and translator of children’s books. She wrote Dramas for Children; or Gentle Reproofs for their Faults, translated from the French. Her publisher was Benjamin Tabart, the one who published the four moral tales.
Godwin had written a famous and influential book, Political Justice, but as scholar Ann R. Montanaro notes, being a philosopher doesn’t pay the bills. After their marriage, Godwin began to write children’s books as well, but under a pseudonym. His name was notorious at the time. (I could digress on the reasons for that, but let’s stick with the children’s literature). So, like writers during the Hollywood Red Scare of the 50’s, he wrote under assumed names—“Edward Baldwin,” “William Schofield,” and “Theophilus Marcliffe.” He also used Tabart as his publisher until Mary Jane set up as "M.J. Godwin" in 1805—again, avoiding the name "William Godwin" on the company masthead. They also opened a bookstore called the Juvenile Library.
Although their own contributions to children's literature are no longer read, some of the works the Godwins commissioned still are: Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and the English translation of Swiss Family Robinson.
Therefore, the widower of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft published a book which advises girls to “bear and forbear” in marriage; to be meek and yielding, even if it almost kills you.
Did the Godwins endorse this moral lesson in a book they published, promoted, and sold? (And if you haven’t read my previous blog post, have a quick look and consider how unlikely it is that Mary Wollstonecraft would have agreed with its message!)
I have not seen any scholarly comment on this surprising juxtaposition. While scholars have written about the Godwins and their place in the development of children's literature, I have seen no commentary about the “Miss Woodland” stories. Scholar Malini Roy acknowledges that one can find "mixed messages" in the children's fables, histories, and bible stories authored by William Godwin, but the “growing body of critical studies on Godwin’s Juvenile Library books has tended to appreciate the Juvenile Library books as a development of Godwin’s radical political thought and liberal pedagogies..."
Therefore, I think Miss Woodland’s four tales deserve some scholarly consideration because they definitely aren't radical. In A Tale of Warning, or the dangers of Indolence, a husband goes to the West Indies and he is portrayed as a good guy for helping out a plantation owner in financial difficulties. Nothing about the enslaved persons. In Rose and Agnes, the deceitful Rose poisons her mother against sweet little Agnes. But Agnes remains dutiful and affectionate to her mother. As the narrator warns us: “beware of imbibing the pernicious idea, that the mistakes of the parent can justify disobedience, or want of affection, in a child… nothing is more hateful than filial impiety; and filial love always meets a just reward.”
Matilda Mortimer, or False Pride, has an arguably unconventional ending because Matilda doesn't get married and there is no indication of romance. Instead, after learning to conquer her pride, Matilda makes a living as a drawing teacher, devoting herself to supporting her parents.
All these books preach a conventional, even a conservative, morality.
An 1816 Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland lists the author of Tales for Mothers and Daughters as Miss Woodland “of Devonshire.” The Feminist Companion to Literature in English surmises that some of the incidents in the four books might be based on experiences in the unknown author’s real life. While it’s unlikely that Miss Woodland married a Welsh baronet, maybe she knew what it was to grow up in a household where the mother favoured one child over another, or where the family went from prosperity to poverty, or where a mother completely neglected her children. Mary Jane Godwin’s own life before her marriage to Godwin was shrouded in mystery but an independent researcher has uncovered long-buried information about her, including her parentage and the names of the fathers of her out-of-wedlock children. There are also suggestions that she had connections to Devon.
By the way, Mary Jane wasn’t a widow, though she claimed to be; she was an unmarried women with two illegitimate children by two different fathers who had somehow managed to survive in an unforgiving world. Malini Roy notes that because of Godwin's radical political past, the Juvenile Library was "poised on political quicksand." If the parents who bought improving children's literature didn't want to buy anything from the widower of that "hyena in petticoats" Wollstonecraft, they definitely wouldn't buy a book from a "fallen woman." Mary Jane Godwin had to live a lie.
How sharper than a serpent's tooth
Whether Mary Jane Godwin is the author, or only the publisher, of the Miss Woodland tales, one thing is certain: these four stories, with their emphasis on parental and filial duty, are bitterly ironic when we consider the real-life dramas of the Godwin household. Did Fanny and Mary roll their eyes when customers bought Rose and Agnes, or the Dangers of Partiality? The evidence suggests they felt their stepmother was partial toward her own children. Although M.J. Godwin promoted Bear and Forbear, a book which advised women to never complain to or about their husbands, Mary Jane was known for her irritable temper and she occasionally walked out on Mr. Godwin.
And while M.J. Godwin was publishing stories which preached the most austere and conventional views of parental obedience and feminine meekness, two teenage daughters of the house of Godwin ran away to Europe with a married man. Her own daughter Jane (who changed her name to Claire) ran off with her half-sister Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In particular there is the irony that Shelley believed it was an act of the highest principle to abandon his pregnant wife and run off with a 16-year-old. Staying with a wife he no longer loved; now, that would be the immoral action. He believed he was serving Truth with a capital "T." He learned these principles from the first edition of William Godwin’s Political Justice.
In the words of the famous old PSA ad, "I learned it by watching you!" After running away from home, Jane changed her name to Claire, offered herself to Byron, became pregnant, but his brief dalliance turned to disdain--a replay of the story of her own mother and father.
Bear and Forbear was the kind of book parents wanted to buy, the kind of book that critics and clergyman approved of for its “didactic merit.” The Monthly Mirror praised Miss Woodland’s Tales for Mothers and Daughters as “a book which merits a place in the library of every young family… [the tale of Julia Marchmont] strongly inculcates patience, good temper, and filial duty.” If the Godwins were writing to market, then there was a market for this type of heroine. Julia "Doormat" Marchmont of Bear and Forbear is not an outlier in the literature of the time. And Fanny Price certainly fits into this mold, doesn't she? After reading Bear and Forbear, I feel I better understand the portrayal of Fanny Price.
This BBC podcast gives a lively introduction to the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley family saga.
It is of course possible that Miss Woodland was not Mary Jane Godwin. Maybe Tabart owed Mary Jane money for her editing work after he went bankrupt he offered her a book that was still selling well, as compensation. Perhaps some clues to Miss Woodland’s identity, or Godwin’s attitude toward these stories, are to be found in his surviving journals and letters.
Whoever Miss Woodland is, I think it cannot be Mary Shelley; although she is thought to have authored a picture book, Mounseer Nongtongpaw, at age 10, she was too young to have written the four moral tales. Her post-Frankenstein novels were written to market, that is, she was writing to support herself and her only surviving child after Shelley drowned.
Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin is regarded as an inferior successor to Mary Wollstonecraft. I think she deserves a lot more credit than she gets. If she had not been traduced by people burnishing Shelley's reputation, she would surely be regarded as a feminist heroine and a pioneering woman publisher in her own right. She, William Godwin, and the Juvenile Library make a brief appearance in my novel A Different Kind of Woman.
Taking this historical figure and weaving his life through her novel and the possibility of a woman following him through Europe... was completely fascinating. Making Mary Crawford that woman was absolutely brilliant! -- Goodreads review
My novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady, tells the story of Shelley’s sojourn in Italy with Mary and Claire (as Jane renamed herself). Not a happy-ever-after scenario.