A Liberated Woman: The Story of Margaret King

Inspired by her governess, the radical feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret King cast aside her immense privilege, cross-dressed as a man to go to medical school, and inspired a new generation of women to push against the rigid conventions of their era.

Emma Garman | Longreads | May 2016 | 16 minutes (4,200 words)

 

In October 1786, 27-year-old feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft journeyed from London to her new temporary home: an imposing Palladian-style mansion in County Cork, Ireland. Set in 1,000-plus acres of woodland, flanked by colonnades leading to outbuildings, and featuring statued terraces, vineyards, and conservatories, Mitchelstown Castle was the seat of Robert and Caroline King, who as Lord and Lady Kingsborough were the country’s largest landowners.

To Wollstonecraft’s radical sensibilities, such aristocratic excess was anathema. (As, no doubt, was the depiction of The Rape of Proserpina that graced the mansion’s entrance hall ceiling.) Still, she needed to financially support herself, as well as her two sisters, so had agreed to join the Kingsborough household’s 80-strong staff as governess to three girls. Caroline, it was rumored, had dismissed Wollstonecraft’s predecessor for sleeping with Robert. But she viewed the new hire as trustworthy, a principled woman of intellect unlikely to catch her husband’s eye. And Wollstonecraft, who had already written her first book—the soon to be published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters—wasn’t about to start batting her eyelashes at his lordship. His “countenance,” she wrote sniffily to her sister Eliza, “does not promise much more than good humour.”

Peter Paul Rubens - The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Peter Paul Rubens – The Rape of Proserpina, 1636-1638. Via: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, literary scholar Janet Todd—author of Rebel Daughters: Ireland in Conflict 1798, a fascinating study of the Kingsborough family’s enmeshment in history—suspects that Wollstonecraft did end up falling in love with Robert. If so, little came of it except gossip; for Caroline, far more disastrous was the extent to which the governess’s brief tenure shaped the fates of the Misses King, especially 14-year-old Margaret. Thanks to, in the adult Margaret’s words, “the extraordinary woman to whose superior penetration & affectionate mildness of manner I trace the development of whatever virtues I possess,” this six-foot-tall scion of Anglo-Irish Protestant nobility became a political agitator, a cross-dressing rebel, and—long before women were allowed to qualify as doctors—a practicing medic whose 1823 child-rearing manual influenced generations. Published in the United States, Britain, and Italy, and still in print today, Advice to Young Mothers On the Physical Education of Children By a Grandmother offers Margaret King’s authoritative instruction on the evils of corsetry, the particular uses for a laudanum enema, the superiority of female midwives, and many other topics both relevant to modern readers (the benefits of breastfeeding) and less so (young children’s wine drinking habits).

Margaret’s virtues may be credited to Wollstonecraft, but her preoccupation with female reproductive health and childcare can be traced to much earlier in her life. When her parents married in Dublin in December 1769, Caroline was fifteen and Robert was sixteen; it was a union of cousins brokered, by their respective fathers, as a financial transaction between two great Irish estates. After the marriage, the bride kept her governess and the groom, rather than returning to school at Eton, engaged a secretary-tutor. In theory, these attendants would prevent the couple from consummating the relationship until they were older; in practice, the stable door was shut after the horse had bolted. According to Lyndall Gordon, author of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, it seems that Caroline was already five months pregnant at her wedding, hence the precipitate walking of two virtual children down the aisle. “It was not customary,” Gordon points out, “for boys to leave Eton at sixteen to be married.” Baby George likely came along in 1770, followed by Margaret in 1771. In an attempt at concealment, the family gave Burke’s Peerage false dates for both arrivals, and there is still confusion over when, exactly, Margaret was born.

Over the subsequent years Caroline had ten more surviving children: altogether the Kings had seven sons and five daughters. This remarkable prolificity was boosted by the practice, then widespread among the upper classes, of using wet nurses. Freedom from “suckling,” so convention dictated, allowed a mother to immediately recommence her social activities, travel schedule, and sex life. (It was believed that a nursing woman should be chaste, a myth going back to Ancient Greek physician Claudius Galen’s edict that sex disturbs the blood, and therefore the milk.) Yet it is breastfeeding, Margaret would later counsel her readers, that delays the resumption of ovulation after childbirth, thus avoiding the near-constant pregnancy she witnessed in her mother.

Furthermore, admonishes Advice to Young Mothers, for a woman “to throw her infant on the bosom of a stranger, for that nourishment which nature commands her to administer from her own…is often injurious to the health of both mothers and children.” Margaret was almost certainly thinking of her own constitution, delicate throughout her life, and of Wollstonecraft’s anti-wet nurse stance as put forward in her magnum opus, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792 when Margaret was a newlywed, the book contains scathing depictions of Caroline as the “fine lady” who was “reckoned very handsome, by those who do not miss the mind when the face is plump and fair,” who “has only been incited to acquire accomplishments that rise a degree above sense,” and who, perhaps most lamentably, “took her lapdog to her bosom instead of her child.”

That Caroline doted on her little dogs and ignored her children hardly made her unusual. As Margaret put it, people in their “rank of life” were “too much occupied by frivolous amusements to pay much attention to their offspring.” Indeed, when she was a toddler, her teenage parents left her outside of London for eighteen months while they went on a grand tour of Europe. For the rest of her childhood, Margaret—along with her siblings—was shuffled between various grand family houses and cared for by “hirelings.”

Little wonder, then, that when Wollstonecraft first encountered 14-year-old Margaret and her two younger sisters, twelve-year-old Caroline and six-year-old Mary, she thought them “wild.” But she saw how they feared their cold and condescending mother, and couldn’t help but sympathize: she too had been starved of affection as a child, with a violent alcoholic father and a mother who only had love enough for her firstborn, Ned. So Wollstonecraft set about befriending her charges, and devised a program of learning based on their interests, instead of what she disparaged as the “heap of rubbish miscalled accomplishments”—needlework, French, music—meant to enhance the marriageability of well-to-do girls.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Tate Gallery, John Opie. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in the Tate Gallery, John Opie. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Before long Margaret, unused to being shown affection, much less respect, was enamored of this unorthodox creature who railed against income inequality, let them read novels (a pastime Caroline disapproved of), extolled the spiritual comforts of Anglicanism, and—to their astonishment—took them for daily walks in the fresh air. (In a recommendation that was still fairly outlandish in the early 19th century, Advice to Young Mothers states that adolescent girls should “have as much air and exercise as possible.”) For Wollstonecraft Margaret felt “an unbounded admiration,” she later reminisced, “because her mind appeared more noble and her understanding more cultivated than any others I had known.”

Whereas Caroline might spend five hours a day dressing, styling her hair, and applying make-up, Wollstonecraft disdained fashion and feminine frippery, an outlook that deeply resonated with Margaret. The elaborate costumes then in vogue—with their satin flounces, puffy sleeves, and artificially pulled-in waists—did not suit her large, athletic frame, and she bridled at the physical restriction and discomfort they imposed. “Lacing,” she would come to believe, was not only unnecessary, it was hazardous to health:

the worst of all pressures is what is frequently inflicted on the bodies of female children, by that most detrimental of all fashions, the use of stays—and the origin of a thousand deformities and diseases, and the cause of many fatal accidents. Where it even true that an excessively small waist was a necessary part of beauty, and that great sacrifices ought to be made for the acquisition of it, we should first consider how far this mode of squeezing the stomach and bowels is likely to have the desired effect; or whether it is worth while, for the doubtful chance of obtaining this end, to run the risk of producing certain ugliness, by crookedness and bad health. I have very good reason for believing that this mode of acquiring a slender shape does not always succeed.

To the horror of her mother, who was making a shortlist of possible husbands, under Wollstonecraft’s guidance Margaret’s “disgust to the follies of dress, equipage & the other usual objects of female vanity” deepened. Like her mentor, Margaret craved appreciation for her mind, not her appearance, a ruinous attitude from Caroline’s abidingly traditional perspective. With relations between her ladyship and the governess already strained—Wollstonecraft thought her employer shallow and haughty, while her own mopey moods and prickliness infuriated Caroline—their creeds clashed irreconcilably over the molding of Margaret. Yet in the heart of the defiant teenager, not the merest conflict dwelled. She mutinied against her mother at every turn and remained a devoted disciple of Wollstonecraft, who with obvious pride wrote to her sister Everina: “I govern her completely—yet her violence of temper teases me though I myself never feel the effects of it—she sees her mother’s faults.”

Possibly the final straw for Caroline was Margaret’s open anguish at the prospect of Wollstonecraft leaving for a short visit to her sisters. To Caroline such emotional display was both indecorous and irrational: the destructive spell cast by the insubordinate tutoress must, she decided, be broken once and for all. Less than a year after Wollstonecraft entered the Kings’ lives, she was dismissed. Margaret would never see her again.

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Caroline worried that her daughters’ characters were already warped beyond saving—and ten years later, public reaction to a series of shocking incidents corroborated her fears. Margaret’s younger sister Mary, at age 16, had begun an affair with a married man of nearly 30: Henry Gerald Fitzgerald, their mother’s cousin (probably—accounts vary, with some even making him her illegitimate half-brother). A drawn-out debacle ensued, one involving a pregnancy, an elopement, advertised rewards for Mary’s safe recovery, and a pistols-at-dawn duel between her lover and her second-eldest brother. Finally, the wayward girl’s honor was avenged by her father, who shot Fitzgerald dead—and was soon arrested.

In the run up his lordship’s trial for murder, many commentators were eager to identify the real villain of the piece: Mary’s former governess. By strange synchronicity, Wollstonecraft had died after giving birth to her daughter, Mary, in the same month, September 1797, that Mary King ran away. The following January her widower, political philosopher and writer William Godwin, published his Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Following coverage of the book, a correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine wondered if

Miss K whose unhappy story so lately engaged the public attention, be one of the daughters of Lord Kingsborough, in whose family the late Mrs Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a governess. Whether this may have been the fact or not, is not every degree of indiscretion, and even of profligacy, the natural consequence of such principles as Mrs G maintained in speculation, and exhibited in her own conduct?

Those same contaminating principles also exercised a contributor to the Anti-Jacobin Review. “How far a woman of such principles was qualified to superintend the education of young ladies,” he wrote, “I leave to be discussed and determined by circles of fashion and gallantry; intimating only, that Miss W was a governess of the daughter of Lord Viscount Kingsborough.” These were not idle musings. As the scholar N.F. Lowe has argued, conservatives mobilized to exploit the scandal and present it as proof of the danger posed to Church and State by Wollstonecraft’s school of thought.

Mary was sent off to spend her confinement in secret, and “according to some,” reports Wollstonecraft biographer Claire Tomalin, “her baby was killed by her family.” Meanwhile, in May of 1798 Robert King was acquitted of murder—but not before Margaret, now a key player in the movement for an independent Ireland, tried to use the trial to advance her Wollstonecraftian political vision: the ending of British monarchical rule and the formation of a republic. Since Robert, newly promoted from Viscount Kingsborough to 2nd Earl of Kingston after his father’s death, had opted to be tried by his peers at the Irish House of Lords—and since the affair obsessed high society—the House would contain the entire Irish aristocracy as participants and spectators. Tickets were sold to the trial, which had to be moved to the larger House of Commons. What better time and place to launch a French-style revolutionary uprising?

In the end, the machinations of an informant led to the revolt being postponed at the eleventh hour. Yet the trial, observes Janet Todd, represented such a unique opportunity for republican forces to grab power that, had the original plan gone ahead, the future of Ireland would have taken a very different course.

Margaret continued her political maneuverings, writing pamphlets and campaigning against the union of England, Scotland and Ireland—“an unfathomable abyss”—proposed in the wake of the bloody battle for Ireland’s soul that waged throughout the summer of 1798. Her efforts were in vain: in 1800, the Acts of Union bill was passed, spelling the abolition of Ireland’s Parliament, which was located in Dublin, and with it the country’s semi-independence. Twenty years later, in a letter to Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Margaret described this event as a shock from which “my nerves have never recovered.”

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Margaret’s husband, Stephen Moore, Earl of Mount Cashell, did not share her political idealism, nor her intense intellectual engagement. She had married him at nineteen, uncharacteristically bowing to familial expectation: he was rich, titled, and eminently suitable. And she longed to escape from Caroline’s control. Given time, however, she realized her mistake. In an account of her life written for her two youngest daughters, and reproduced in The Sensitive Plant: A Life of Lady Mount Cashell by Edward C. McAleer, she explains that

Stephen Moore Earl of Mount Cashell was about one and twenty, a handsome man with gentle manners & the appearance of an easy temper. His education had been of the meanest sort; his understanding was uncultivated & his mind contracted. He had an aversion to literature, was incapable of comprehending the feelings of a noble spirit & respected nothing but wealth & titles—how he came to think of me for a wife God alone knows. To my shame I confess that I married him with the idea of governing him, the silliest project that ever entered a woman’s mind.

Nevertheless, she had seven children with Moore (including a little boy who died young). She was pregnant with the eighth when, during a tour of Europe in 1804, she began spending time with George Tighe, a handsome, cerebral Irishman four years her junior, upper-class but of slender means. Their affair led to the breakdown of Margaret’s 14-year marriage. Consumed by a passion which, she confessed, she lacked “sufficient resolution to withstand,” she didn’t foresee that splitting from her husband would mean losing her children. At his vindictive but legally-sanctioned insistence, they all went to live with him in Ireland; his friends, Margaret was convinced, had persuaded this “weak man” that “his character would rise on the ruins of mine.”

Margaret embarked on a new and very different life with Tighe. An Honorable at birth and a Countess on her marriage, immense privilege was all she had ever known. Now she was unprotected by status and title—she renamed herself Mrs. Mason, after the governess in Wollstonecraft’s children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life—and had relinquished all the trappings of social respectability. But for the first time, in her early thirties, she was in love. Moreover, she was free to follow her dreams: she attended medical school in the German town of Jena, obeying A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’s precept that women “might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses.” Of course, society did not yet agree with Wollstonecraft, but that was a problem easily solved: tall, muscular Margaret simply went to lectures dressed as a man. (Interestingly, it was around this time that her namesake and fellow Irishwoman Margaret Ann Bulkley—aka James Miranda Barry—began passing as a man and trained as a doctor. Her uncle was friends with William Godwin, suggesting that Wollstonecraft’s legacy was again at work.)

Liberation came at a cost: Margaret and her lover, all but ostracized by friends and family, endured a long stretch of near-indigent wandering fraught with “anxieties and difficulties.” For extra money, she turned her hand to writing children’s fiction, and in 1808 her Stories of Old Daniel was published by Godwin’s Juvenile Library, the press set up by William Godwin and his second wife, Mary Jane. (Some years before, Godwin and Margaret had met in Dublin. Though they didn’t particularly hit it off, they began a cordial correspondence.) Several subsequent editions, with additional new stories, appeared. The couple’s finances continued to be tight, however, especially with the arrival of a daughter, Laurette, in 1809. And yet, as Margaret would later reflect in a letter to Mary Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, being “a vagabond on the face of the earth” habituated her to do without the typical comforts, or “thousand little wants,” of everyday life.

A happier era dawned in 1814, when Margaret, Tighe, and their 5-year-old daughter moved to Pisa, drawn by the small Tuscan city’s warm climate and calm beauty. By now Margaret had obtained a legal separation from her husband (though not a divorce) and an agreed yearly income, allowing the family to move into a modest but comfortable house: Casa Silva, set among orchards on the south side of the River Arno. Margaret took up her medical studies with Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, a renowned professor of surgery who was also a freethinking liberal and atheist. The doctor became a good friend, and under his guidance she ran an infirmary and dispensary for poor locals. Ahead of her time in the medical arena as in others, she championed preventative and alternative medicine, counseling against unnecessary drugs and interventions; she also began researching the book that would become Advice to Young Mothers. Tighe, for his part, spent his days experimenting with growing potato, both in the ground and, to the amusement of neighbors, in pots. A second daughter, Nerina, was born in 1815. Their life was one of obscure tranquility.

Claire Clairmont. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Claire Clairmont. Via: Wikimedia Commons

Yet try as she might to embrace obscurity, the currents of history were determined to pull Margaret back in. In September 1819 a notorious ménage arrived at Casa Silva with a letter of introduction from William Godwin: it was his daughter, Mary, her husband, Percy Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (the daughter of Mary Jane Godwin). The itinerant trio was en route to Florence, having left London five years earlier under a cloud of slander and disrepute. Shelley, wearing the mantle of poetic genius at age 22, had abandoned his pregnant wife to abscond abroad with two 16-year-old girls—whom he purchased for cash, so scurrilous rumor had it, from the perpetually impecunious Godwin. Many tribulations and adventures followed, including the night of ghost story writing at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva—still endlessly mythicized centuries later—when Mary began Frankenstein. Now all were mourning the loss of children. The Shelleys’ son had died that June in Rome, less than a year after the death of his sister, and four years after a premature baby girl lived for only weeks. And Claire had been forced to give up her daughter to the permanent custody of the girl’s father, Byron.

Margaret, who otherwise refused contact with English people, welcomed this band of outsiders with open arms. She empathized with their agonies: after all, she herself had lost a son, and was permitted no contact with her other Mount Cashell children. And she was bound to feel maternal toward Wollstonecraft’s daughter, the intellectually gifted but spectacularly unlucky young woman who never knew her own mother, and who was soon to give birth to her fourth child. After leaving again for Florence, the group exchanged letters with their new friend, and soon accepted her exhortation to return to Pisa to live.

More than 30 years after Wollstonecraft had guided and nurtured Margaret, she did the same for the Shelleys and Claire, all of whom she regarded as honorary family. Assisting them in any way she could with the practicalities of settling in Pisa, she also gave medical advice to Shelley (who was both illness-prone and a hypochondriac), helped Mary with the new baby, and—for everyone’s sanity—broke up couple’s dysfunctional love-triangle with Claire. Margaret saw that as long as Shelley carried on a pseudo (or perhaps not so pseudo) romance with his stepsister-in-law, the women would fight and tension and ill-will would reign. As Charlotte Gordon describes in Romantic Outlaws, her masterful dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, the determined countess-turned-doctor had no qualms about stepping in. She arranged for a reluctant Claire to relocate to Florence, where she stayed with friends of the Masons. The young woman’s health depended on her getting away from the Shelleys, insisted Margaret, and so did her reputation and, thus, opportunities for gainful employment.

Though lonely in Florence, Claire was ultimately grateful for Margaret’s interference, remarking, “God only can tell me from what gulf of ruin, the counsels of that dear Lady saved me!” And Mary was pleased to be left in peace to work on her historical novel, Valperga. But tragedy was, as ever, beckoning: in July 1822, Shelley drowned in the Italian Riviera when his boat, sailing between Livorno and La Spezia, was hit by a storm. It so happened that Margaret was one of the last people to see him alive. The day before the accident, a Sunday, he had paid her a visit, looking unusually happy and healthy. Then on Monday night Margaret dreamed of a pale, melancholy Shelley, whom she encouraged to eat. “No,” he replied. “I shall never eat more.” She woke up disturbed and worried; it would be another ten days before his body washed up.

A few months later came another death: that of Margaret’s estranged husband, Stephen Moore. Though it meant the end of her annuity payments, it freed her to marry again. She and George Tighe, aging parents who had lived together for nearly two decades, finally tied the knot in 1826, in a ceremony at home. Yet by then, it seems, they were already growing apart. In 1823, Margaret had successfully, albeit anonymously, published Advice to Young Mothers, which she followed up with a well-received two-volume novel, The Sisters of Nansfield. In her fifties, she was becoming less hermit-like, and desirous of intellectually stimulating and varied company. Tighe, on the other hand, was increasingly reserved and reclusive, mostly preferring agronomy to people. While he retreated to a quiet life in the country, his wife spent much of her time at their apartment in Pisa, where she hosted a literary society: the Accademia dei Lunatici, or Academy of Lunatics, attended by poets and future revolutionaries. “It cannot entirely be a coincidence that many of the forty-six members later played important roles in the history of the Italian Risorgimento,” writes Margaret’s biographer, Edward C. McAleer, “and one is tempted to trace the liberalism of Mary Wollstonecraft into Italy by way of Mrs. Mason.”

Oil portrait of Margaret King. Via New York Public Library Digital Collection

Oil portrait of Margaret King. Via New York Public Library Digital Collection

In 1832, after a decade of drifting between Russia, Dresden, England, and Italy, Claire came to live with Margaret. “Hers is the only house,” she wrote to Mary, “except my Mother’s, in which all my life I have always felt at home. With her, I am as her child.” Together with Margaret’s lively daughters, Laurette and Nerina, they fostered an almost utopian atmosphere of female frankness and solidarity. But Claire’s happiness was marred by fears for her surrogate mother’s health, which was failing, and in January 1835 Margaret died in her early 60s. She was buried in the Old English Cemetery at Livorno; after two years, she was joined by her husband. For the rest of their lives, though mostly separated by geography, Claire and Mary would stay in touch with Laurette and Nerina.

Long after her death, Margaret’s books continued to be read. Posthumous Italian editions of Advice to Young Mothers, translated by her personal physician, were published under the name Contessa di Mount Cashell—Irlandese. And while Italian children were being raised according to Margaret’s teachings, so were the English children and grandchildren of a famous Italian: Gabriele Rossetti, whose copy of Advice to Young Mothers was passed down to his son, the Pre-Raphaelite writer William Michael. Perhaps the book’s stern injunction against ever “wounding a daughter’s sensibility, or mortifying her pride” helped paved the way for Olivia and Helen Rossetti to become precocious revolutionaries. (Their anarchist journal, The Torch, was founded when they were teenagers and published work by Emma Goldman, George Bernard Shaw, and Emile Zola.)

As for Mitchelstown Castle, that emblem of feudal barbarism described by Wollstonecraft as possessing “such a solemn kind of stupidity…as froze my very blood,” in 1823 it was torn down and recreated in Gothic-Revival style by Margaret’s older brother, George. A century later, during the 1920s Troubles, republicans stormed the castle and destroyed it with fire. It was never rebuilt.

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Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, Words Without Borders, The Awl, Tablet Magazine, and many other publications.