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Abstract

Like most readers of William Godwin's Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, I question what appears to be his overzealous commitment to frankness, and, as most critics do, I find challenging any attempt to categorize Memoirs as a genre—is it biography, autobiography, or, as Mitzi Myers argues, an "unusual hybrid" of the two? In comparing Memoirs to contemporary medical writings and dissection reports from the 1790s, I agree with Myers that this work certainly is an "unusual hybrid," but of biography and autopsy, which I term "autopsical biography." My argument offers an explanation for Godwin's biographical approach that both reconciles his authorial choices and elucidates the overwhelmingly negative response that Memoirs garnered from contemporary readers. In my exploration of Memoirs, I examine Godwin's authorial choices in light of contemporary fears of and fascinations with the science of autopsy and the common, late-eighteenth-century practice of dissection. Memoirs was influenced by, if not modeled after, contemporary medical writings, particularly dissection reports. Specifically, Godwin's apparently insensitive, factual detailing of Wollstonecraft's life may have been influenced by his interest in contemporary science, including anatomy.

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