Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) wrote Original Stories from Real Life to provide a model for teachers and pupils which would ‘fix principles of truth and humanity on a solid and simple foundation’, as she explained in her preface. The conversations mentioned in the full title take place between Mrs Mason and two young relatives whose education she has undertaken. 14-year old Mary and 12-year old Caroline are motherless and lack the good habits they should have absorbed by example. Mrs Mason intends to rectify this by being with them constantly and answering all their questions. Each chapter addresses a particular moral failing. For instance, in Chapter VII, which is shown here, Mrs Mason discusses vanity, using the example of roses and tulips in her garden. She uses the flowers to teach the distinction between something which is outwardly showy but has no substance – the tulips – and something more modest but long-lasting and sweet-smelling – the roses. These metaphors represent the beauty that comes from internal goodness. The 1791 edition pictured here is illustrated with engravings by William Blake, and commissioned by the publisher, Joseph Johnson.
Mary Wollstonecraft is best known as an early campaigner for the rights of women and in particular for her contribution to the debate on the French Revolution, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She was married to the social philosopher and radical, William Godwin, later a writer for children himself. Wollstonecraft died within a few days of their daughter’s birth, but this child, Mary Shelley, would go on to write many books herself, most famously Frankenstein (1817).