a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: This Shining Woman Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1601011h.html Language: English Date first posted: Nov 2016 Most recent update: Nov 2016 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
And all shall say, "Without a use this shining woman
Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?"
How great thy use!
How great thy blessing!
Everything that lives
Lives not for itself alone.
Thou seest me, the meanest thing, and so I am indeed...
I ponder and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love.
The Book of Thel.
William Blake, 1789.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN is now chiefly remembered as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a work that is, however, remarkable only for the sex of the writer, the period when, and the circumstances in which it was written. The book has often been quoted as the forerunner of the "freedom" of women that took place during the nineteenth century, at least in Great Britain, and Mary Wollstonecraft herself has been acclaimed as a prophetess of the emancipation of her sex, and as one who did much to smooth the way for subsequent female triumphs.
The question is a large one, and cannot be more than briefly touched on here. The very words "rights" and "freedom" do not now bear the plain meanings that they did to Mary Wollstonecraft. We cannot see the vast complex problems of humanity as simply as she saw them; we have much knowledge that was denied to her, and we have witnessed the working out of projects that were to her ardently desired ideals, but are to us merely expedients that are only partly successful.
Were Mary Wollstonecraft to return today, she would find that most of the changes that she had sighed for had taken place, and that her countrywomen had obtained "freedom" in the sense in which she used the word. But she would not find that all the problems that trouble women had been thereby solved, or all their burdens lifted.
It is probable that there were as many contented women in the England of Mary Wollstonecraft's time as in the England of today; each period has its own peculiar vexations and problems, and we can hardly claim that the story of mankind moves in a steady progress towards some ultimate perfection, and that therefore women are "better off" by 150 years of improved conditions than they were in the reign of George III. Many wrongs have been righted since then, many still remain. A woman is now undisputed mistress of her property and her person, but if she possesses no property and finds her person neglected or ignored and herself condemned to live in drab obscurity, she cannot enjoy her freedom, be happy or useful.
Nearly all professions are now open to women; but of what advantage is this to a woman who has not talent, capacity for learning difficult work, courage and robust health? And if she is gifted with all these and achieves success in her chosen line, still she is not a happy woman unless she has contrived a successful emotional life, too, and been loved as well as respected.
Mary Wollstonecraft's famous book was written in the light of ugly personal experiences; she was as indignant as she was sincere, and looked round passionately for remedies for the evils from which she and her friends had so cruelly suffered.
They have not yet been found, at least, in Europe; all that has been done for women in the last century and a half has not saved them from the tragedies that afflicted Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Bishop and Fanny Blood—inherited poverty, brutal or indifferent parents, disease following overwork and neglect, reluctant or faithless lovers, incompatible husbands, the struggle to wring a living from an apathetic world; all this is "any summer's story," and has not been ended by female suffrage or any other abstract benefits women have recently received.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her book before her own emotional experiences; her elaborate reasoning that ignores feminine instincts and passions was based on her observations of other people's faults and difficulties, failures and wrongs; when she met her own lover she became, as her sister Eliza Bishop bitterly remarked, "but a woman." She had no more to say of the rights of women, for she had learned the sharp lesson that the only thing that matters to a woman—of her type, at least—is luck in love.
Mary Wollstonecraft's fame depended almost entirely on her sex; what she said was platitudinous or crude—but a woman said it; what she did was not so very extraordinary—but a woman did it. Therefore half her world shut its doors in her face and the other half extolled her as a paragon.
Many of the admirers of Mary Wollstonecraft have written of her in a strain of defiant championship that exaggerates her qualities as much as her detractors depreciated them.
It is noticeable how Mrs. Pennell and Mrs. Fawcett, writing respectively in 1885 and 1891 of Mary Wollstonecraft, judge her in terms that now seem as old-fashioned as their heroine's own diatribes. So in another fifty years will anything that may be written now of this woman or of this subject seem out of date.
We can obtain a true view of Mary Wollstonecraft only by seeking in her character for the eternal essentials of human nature and feminine instincts. Mrs. Pennell labours to defend Mary Wollstonecraft's two illicit unions by trying to prove that in each case she acted on principle—wrong, perhaps, but sincere—and that she became, in a short space of time, the mistress of two different men as a gesture of independence and as an affirmation of her belief in sex equality. Mr. Kegan Paul wrote: "She ran counter to the customs of society, yet not wantonly or lightly, but with forethought, in order to carry out a moral theory gravely and religiously adopted."
How cold and priggish does such a theory make this warm-hearted woman out to be! Mary Wollstonecraft did not live her life that it might be an example of independence, a hundred years later, to supporters of women's suffrage or "rights." She lived with Gilbert Imlay, because she fell deeply in love with him, and he was not to be had on any other terms, and because she had the courage and the financial independence to defy convention at the dictates of passion. She lived with William Godwin, because she was mentally exhausted, emotionally broken, lonely and eager for at least some imitation of the conjugal life she had led with Imlay. She married Godwin, because she dreaded social ostracism and the bringing of a second illegitimate child into an orthodox world; she was by then worn out with grief and disillusionment and had given up the hopeless struggle with conventionality.
None of this is at all heroic, and it strips Mary of much of the glory that has been given her by the ardent feminists who have tried to depict her as always acting on rigid principles of right and wrong, and as opposing to a corrupt society the purity of her noble and resolute character, but that it is the truth an unbiased reader of her tragic story can hardly doubt.
Passion, not principle, dictated her letters to Gilbert Imlay; passion, not reason, was behind her two attempts at suicide; lassitude, not a lofty affection, was behind her union with Godwin, and mere expediency was behind her marriage.
She was not a woman of very brilliant gifts; she was self-educated, not well-read, and not imaginative; she was sensitive to a fault, proud, delicate-minded, and like so many women who have endured a wretched childhood, enamoured of an ideal domesticity. She was not witty, and not a stroke of humour—in any sense of the word—enlivens her work or her correspondence. Her miserable circumstances had given all her thoughts a melancholy cast and a bitter opinion of humanity; she was not without that touch of the scold natural to one who continually chides others, not without a suspicion of the old-time schoolmistress's didacticism, nor of a hint of that intellectual arrogance common to the clever woman in a period when clever women were rare. She was considered a wise judge of character, yet in the only case when this gift would have served her, that of Gilbert Imlay, she was grossly deceived. In allowing this man to treat her as his "wife" without any ceremony or legal bond, Mary Wollstonecraft made an immense mistake, but it was one that no warm-hearted woman in her circumstances could have avoided and that few women, even after going through the agony of desertion, would have regretted.
She had accepted, not refused, life, and her memories of that snatched happiness were worth what she paid for them.
This famous woman died in her prime, at the height of her powers, and, as her friends believed, with her best work unaccomplished.
This may be doubted; there is no indication in her posthumous work that she would have ever been more than what her daughter became—an intelligent, industrious writer, compiler and translator, breaking the monotony of hack work with occasional original pieces—all to be forgotten within a decade of her death.
Mary Wollstonecraft was harshly judged by many of her contemporaries and scurrilously abused both during her life and after her death, though it seems incredible now that the flat common sense, truisms and platitudes of her celebrated book could have not only aroused furies of dissent, but have provoked charges of inciting to moral anarchy against the author.
The bold advocate of feminine rights was considered by many to be not only wrong in opinion, but wicked in intention. Her own sex, her own sisters, condemned her pitilessly.
These hostile critics contended that by pointing out the gross defects in women's position, in their training and character, and by claiming for them an equality with men, she was first degrading her sex by stripping it of all its modesty, charm and mystery, and then suggesting an impossible remedy for negligible wrongs by proposing that women should become feminine males and give up all their cherished privileges for unwanted rights.
There was much truth in these arguments. It is certain that the great majority of Mary Wollstonecraft's female contemporaries repudiated her championship and rejected her advice, and that all her male contemporaries—with the exception of a few advanced Radicals or Jacobins—dismissed all she had to say as the dangerously hysterical ravings of an unsexed virago.
Mary Wollstonecraft was herself largely to blame for this. She adopted a violent, railing tone; she bitterly attacked feminine foibles and vices; she sourly inveighed against masculine brutalities and tyrannies, and she left out of account altogether the thousands of happy marriages, families and lives that the system she so sweepingly condemned had produced.
She wrote so completely from personal observation of a few individual cases that she lost all sense of proportion, and was not able to see that the institutions, customs and laws that she attacked were not in themselves bad, and that where they broke down the fallibility of human nature was to blame, and that if they were to be swept away it would be very difficult to replace them. The safety, dignity and repose of women were carefully legislated for centuries before Mary Wollstonecraft was born; a woman was protected in her father's house until she entered that of her husband; her widowhood, her old age, her children were all provided for out of her property; if no husband could be chosen for her, she entered a convent, where she found a shelter respected by the most lawless.
Nor did women lead idle or slavish lives. They were most carefully educated and trained, and the running of the great households—self-supporting and as large as small villages—fell to them. When young, they served as excuses for the masculine ideals of chivalry; when past the charms that then were allowed to fade so quickly they acted as friends, advisers, guides and supporters of the male members of the family. There is nothing in history to make us suppose that feminine influence on human affairs was less before women obtained their "rights" than after they were admitted to political equality, or that they did not then, on the whole, enjoy as much respect, happiness and peace of mind as at any subsequent period.
In Mary Wollstonecraft's day the elaborate social machinery of the Middle Ages had broken down and marriage suffered from the lax morality, the economic disturbances and the loose thinking of the period. The main trouble was financial. The marriage laws were slackly administered and much abused, heiresses were insufficiently protected, fortune hunters were unscrupulous, and a decaying landed gentry bartered its daughters to flourishing tradesmen, and heirs to ruined estates married well-dowered city madams. Marriage laws had broken down at several points, but so had most other laws and institutions. Not only in the treatment of women could the late eighteenth century be termed barbarous—civilisation was then at a low ebb in England.
There is abundant evidence, however, that human kindliness and common sense adjusted all difficulties in the vast majority of instances; men and women lived together on the whole happily. The successful marriages of the ordinary people are unchronicled, but examples of perfect unions among the famous people whose names have endured come at once to mind. Catherine Blake, Lady Romilly, Jane Hogarth, Ann Cobbett were not concerned, in their beautiful obscurity, with the rights of women; their wifely devotion was as lovely and unblemished as that of the women of an earlier generation—Margaret Lucas, Dorothy Temple, Lucy Fanshawe, Rachel Russell, and that Stewart Queen Mary II, who regretted "that she had only three crowns to give her husband."
Mary Wollstonecraft herself, for all her intelligence and vicarious experience, fell a victim to her own passion and another's inconstancy and was reduced to the supreme humiliation of attempted self-destruction; none of the rights she clamoured for would have saved her from that depth of self-confessed failure. Indeed, that a famous, brilliant woman should try to take her own life because of her lover's desertion is a most pitiful thing, for it reveals, with disconcerting clarity, that nothing avails a woman crossed in love and that the ignorant little kitchen maid and the celebrated ornament of her sex alike seek the final oblivion when faced with the emptiness of an existence where passion has been and is no more.
It is not, then, either as a champion of women's rights, or as a literary figure, or as a reformer or a philosopher that Mary Wollstonecraft is interesting, but as a woman "lovely in her person," intelligent, brave and unfortunate, whose story was odd, tragic and touching.
Her valiant struggles for independence, for happiness, for her ideals, her rebellion against her circumstances, her defeat, recovery and resignation will always make her life an absorbing study for other women, none of whom can surely refuse her memory sympathy, understanding and some admiration.
It is the story of her life that is given here, not that of her opinions or her times; the former are only dwelt on as they illustrate her character, the latter as they form her background.
The materials for a life of Mary Wollstonecraft are not very abundant, nor are they so scanty as in the case of many of her contemporaries; her husband's story of her career is more in the nature of a justification of her actions than a detailed narrative of her life, of which perhaps William Godwin was not very well informed. The radical philosopher, with tender care, also collected his wife's papers and letters.
Mary Godwin, afterwards Mary Shelley, seems to have come into possession of much of her mother's early correspondence, which must have been sent to her by her aunts and George Blood; these papers remained in the possession of the Shelley family, and were lent to Mr. Kegan Paul by Sir Percy Shelley in 1879. Unfortunately, in his valuable William Godwin and his Friends, Mr. Kegan Paul gave only a selection from these papers, and both the originals of these and also those not published appear, according to a later biographer, Mr. Ford K. Brown, William Godwin, 1926, to have been unaccountably and most vexatiously lost. We have, then, only those portions of Mary Wollstonecraft's correspondence that her husband found among her papers and published—letters to Imlay, and a few to Mr. Joseph Johnson—and those that Mr. Kegan Paul chose to select for his biography.
The remaining materials consist of scattered allusions in contemporary writings, in William Godwin's stoic diary and in Mary Wollstonecraft's own works, which are, however, poor in autobiographical details. We can only guess at her experiences from her opinions and prejudices, and thus confirm what we know of her circumstances from what we read of her feelings.
The great gap in the materials for a life of Mary Wollstonecraft is caused by the lack of any detailed or sure knowledge of Gilbert Imlay. Her husband and her friends, who must have known much about him, thought him only deserving of oblivion and disdained to record any particulars of his person, his career, his business or prospects.
Mary Wollstonecraft's later biographers likewise have treated the inconstant lover with haughty indifference; Mrs. Pennell briefly dismisses him with "unworthy of Mary's noble affection."
There must be more to the story than that; Mary's love for Imlay was the most important event in her life, and the man himself becomes of supreme interest to anyone who wishes to reconstruct her character.
But, as his letters have gone, and all his contemporaries agreed to keep silence on the subject of Mary's lover, we have to put him together as best we can from what little we know of his behaviour, from the letters addressed to him, and from the brief account of him given by Godwin.
Darnford, in the Wrongs of Woman, is supposed to be a portrait of Imlay; but Mary, unfortunately, was neither a descriptive writer nor a mistress of the vivid phrase, and we are not told even the colour of Darnford's hair or eyes, or indeed given any hint to his appearance, while his character is drawn on general lines—a dissipated youth, a ready way with women, inconstant as seductive, a Robert Lovelace without any of the grace and humour that Richardson cast about his charming villain.
It is much to be regretted that Mary's friends did not pay more attention to the man for whose sake she twice attempted suicide, and that someone did not try to justify her love by extolling the object of it, for, if Imlay was worthless, Mary was a fool, blinded by those mere physical passions she had herself so loudly despised in her Rights of Woman.
In this, as in other unhappy love stories, all the nobility cannot be on the side of the women and all the baseness on the side of the men, unless one allows—what Mary Wollstonecraft never would allow—that the purity of the female character is equalled only by the imbecility of the female mind.
There is indeed every indication, as we shall see when we come to consider the case, that Gilbert Imlay was an attractive person with many admirable qualities, and that his seemingly heartless behaviour towards his mistress was the result of the profound difference between their circumstances and their points of view when their connection began.
Matthew Arnold said, with some self-righteous petulance, that the suicides and attempted suicides in the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle "sickened him of irregular relationships."
But Mary Wollstonecraft can hardly be held responsible for the suicide either of Fanny Imlay or of Harriet Westbrook, or for the vagaries of Jane Clairmont; death had rescued her, nearly twenty years before, from these tragic entanglements that sprang more from poverty and uncontrolled passion than from "irregular relationships." Lawful matrimony has its disasters, too, and perfect respectability its spectacular failures.
There is only one undisputed portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in existence, that by Opie, which used to hang in William Godwin's room at Snow Hill, and preside, like a revered idol, over the tempestuous shifts of the philosopher's raggle-taggle household; it passed into the possession of Sir Percy Shelley, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This picture of a full-faced young woman in a plain gown with loose hair does full justice to Mary's good looks and the expression has nothing of that arrogance which Robert Southey found objectionable in the countenance of the celebrated authoress; it must have been painted shortly before her unexpected death. It was engraved by Heath and published by Joseph Johnson in 1798.
A cast taken after death and a quantity of bright auburn hair, also in the possession of the Shelley family, are said to confirm the truth of the likeness of this portrait.
In 1796 a print appeared inscribed as engraved by Ridley after Opie and entitled Mary Wollstonecraft. This print passed undisputed during Mary's lifetime. In the mid-nineteenth century a picture from which the print appears to have been taken was in the possession of a Mr. William Rennell, sold to him as by Northcote, but declared afterwards to be by Opie. It is now in the National Gallery, London.
This picture shows a young woman with a ribbon binding powdered hair, in a striped dress, holding a book, the expression very grave, almost disagreeable. There seems no reason to doubt that this is a likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft other than that the print by Ridley seems to have been pirated and that the fashionable attire and coiffure are not judged likely details for a portrait of this ardent feminist.
Paris, July, 1936
George R. Preedy
Each man is in his Spectre's power
Until the arrival of that hour
When his humanity awake
And cast his Spectre into the Lake.
AS the storm blew away across the Welsh hills and the watery light of a chill evening fell over the lonely farm, the girl peered out from her hiding-place—the loft of a small barn that was, like the rest of the wretched estate, dirty and neglected.
Her apprehensive but resolute glance ranged over a dreary scene. Not only was the landscape sombre, massive in outline and dark in colouring, but the farm lands showed thriftlessness and poverty; broken fences, swinging gates, gaunt and filthy straying animals formed the foreground to a grey stone house with a slate roof that matched in drab hues the gloomy scene. Household uses had polluted the stream that, gushing clear and brilliant from the mountainside, here flowed sluggishly, clogged with refuse, through the yard where a few hens scratched, and a few cotton garments flapped on a string fastened between two poles.
The bleak aspect of the house was not softened by the squares of soiled white dimity curtains at the severe, flat windows or by the melancholy resignation of the underfed dog stretching his iron-coloured fleece in front of the half-opened door that revealed a dark interior.
The watching girl's peaked, intelligent face became sharp with concentration as she gazed and listened, on the alert for enemies.
A violent shouting of her name—"Mary! Mary!"—first in a hoarse male voice, then in the querulous tones of a woman, made the little girl withdraw instantly into her shelter and lie down trembling and panting on the boards rough with chaff and dust.
The man's angry cries came nearer; the child heard her name mingled with obscene curses, which were to her so familiar as to cause her no astonishment; she peered cautiously through a chink in the wooden side of the barn and saw her father stumbling through the wet overflow of the steaming midden heap; he still held the whip with which he had an hour before thrashed his Mary, and he looked round in a sidelong fashion, alternately shouting and muttering and poking the while with his whip in an aimless fashion at the piles of refuse, the squawking hens, the broken, rusty farm implements on the rough ground.
Mary lay rigid; she knew how to escape out of the ruined barn by the back, she knew the path up to the hills, and she meant to run away to that cold and stormy refuge if her father found her; she had no regrets for her forfeited supper and bed; indignation was stronger in her wild little heart than fear; she preferred any danger to the risk of being again beaten by the big red-faced man in the patched, shabby clothes, who was plainly searching for her, blaspheming because she had escaped him.
His fury had been roused against the dog, and while the younger children had stood round, crying hysterically because the friendly, amusing animal was being beaten, Mary had leapt at the tyrant and struggled for the whip, crying out the while in a frenzy of indignation. She was soon mastered, and received the punishment intended for the beast. Her father had dragged her into the kitchen, and in front of the untidy hearth had thrashed her in the presence of her mother and the other children.
Mrs. Wollstonecraft, though she hated her husband, liked the dog and pitied Mary, yet was a strict upholder of discipline and filial obedience, therefore she did not interfere, but relieved her breaking nerves by violently scrubbing with a soapless brush the long neglected dresser.
Mary's punishment, which she had endured stoically, for she was deeply relieved that the dog had escaped, was interrupted by the arrival of a Welshman with an overdue account for cattle meal.
The creditor was not reassured by the sight of the farm—obviously bankrupt—and the ragged family, or soothed by the debtor's swaggering airs of London gentility. He brusquely demanded his money, and during the noisy altercation that followed Mary had fled to the barn through a heavy storm of rain that broke over the gloomy landscape.
Now the creditor had been got rid of somehow, and Mr. Wollstonecraft, in a humour rendered more vindictive by that violent interview, was searching for his victim. The brow-beaten mother, with spiritless obedience to her master, continued to cry, "Mary! Mary!" as she shuffled the evening meal on to the table, pausing now and then to shout out of the window or up the stairs.
Mary, lying mute in the old granary, viewed her father as he prowled below, and considered him with the detachment of hatred.
Edward Wollstonecraft was in the prime of life, stoutly built, tall, with good features, and thick auburn hair tied back by a dirty string; a week's growth of reddish beard disfigured his inflamed face, his linen was torn and dirty, his high boots required both cleaning and mending. He looked what he was—one of those wastrels who, bred as gentlemen—that is, as human beings on whom money has been spent, who have been allowed soft living, authority and leisure—have never learned any kind of profession or performed any manner of work, but have been employed solely in spending on vicious self-indulgence a patrimony gained by another's thrift and labour.
Banks of purple clouds blew again across the purple hills and increased the rapidity with which the dusk fell over the miserable farm. A dim light showed in the kitchen windows, and Elizabeth Wollstonecraft, in a voice that had once been pretty and with an Irish accent that was still pleasing, timidly called her husband in to supper.
The exasperated man gave up his search, and roaring a last defiance to the truant—he knew where she was hiding, she should go to bed hungry for a vixen, and so on—returned to his wretched home.
Mary gave a great sigh and relaxed her tense attitude; her head sunk on to her folded arms; her bruised body quivered with relief under the dress of common material.
She was sixteen years of age and knew a good deal of the miseries of existence; her intelligence, acute and precociously developed, wondered at her misfortunes, which seemed grotesque and unnatural, but she was forced to accept them with resignation, since she knew nothing else.
She acquiesced in her mother's constant sigh: "A little patience, and all will be over." An end would come, Mary believed, peace would follow all these miseries; death, she thought, was the name of this peace, this end; God would take them to Heaven, where there would be ease and silence. She had seen in many graveyards the names of those who had died much younger than herself; "a little patience," then, and relief would come.
Yet something strong and ardent that she could not herself understand surged in the child's spirit and struggled against this patience, this resignation. Zest for life warmed her, though she had never known any joy; ambition urged her, though she did not know what there was to achieve.
She was also, without knowing as much, bold, proud and exquisitely sensitive, and her circumstances galled her at every point. She detested being in subjection to a creature whom she despised, she revolted against the indecencies of a drunkard's poverty-bitten home, and she felt with keen poignancy every detail of her own pain and degradation and of that of her mother, brothers and sisters whom she loved fondly.
The dark filled the granary. Mary huddled into some old rough sacks. She would not return to the house. She was not afraid of solitude or the night, and this was not the first time that she had slept in the barn or in the passage outside the room that she shared with Everina and Eliza, ready dressed so as to be able to fly at the first alarm.
She had little imagination, and was not troubled by supernatural terrors; her fears and her consolations were alike material. As she lay huddled in the barn she began to plan—not for the first time—to escape from her father's power. She had seen girls no older than herself working on the scattered Welsh farms, driving the cattle, herding the sheep, scouring pans at the open doors; they seemed, these cheerful creatures in their red shawls and bright hats, to be happier than she was. She did not mind work, arid surely she could earn her food and some loft in which to sleep, and, in her snatched leisure, to study.
Her dearest possessions were a few books that had been bought for her when she had gone to school in Beverley, and she dreamed now of wrapping these in a kerchief—as soon as it was light enough to creep back to the house and fetch them—and running far, far away over the hills until she reached some farm or cottage that required an eager, willing little servant.
She peered through the chink in the boards at her home. The yellow speck of a rush-light showed in each of the upper windows; the children were going to bed, Charles and James in one room, Eliza and Everina in the other. The house was silent; probably Mr. Wollstonecraft had gone down to the dark and straggling village to drink at the dirty inn.
His Irish wife, who had been bred a gentlewoman, would be clearing up the house, trying, though hampered by exhaustion and despair, to preserve the decencies, even the niceties, of life.
Tears came into Mary's eyes. She knew that she could not escape, could not forsake these fellow-victims. She rose, shook off the husks that clung to her damp dress, left the barn and, picking her way carefully through the disorder of the yard, entered the house.
Margaret Wollstonecraft was putting away the crocks and pans. Her sleeves were rolled up, her hands and arms were red from cold water and coarse soap, a rough apron was tied over her woollen gown, her dark reddish hair was confined in a cotton cap. She had been lovely, and was still graceful, small, elegant. Well-proportioned bones made her face still pleasing, though she had faded rapidly through child-bearing, grief, anxiety and poverty. Her air of utter exhaustion gave her, when she closed her eyes, the appearance of a dying woman.
She greeted her daughter coldly and began to scold her for disobedience and for running away. Mary did not answer. She could always endure her mother's reproofs; it was those of her father that were intolerable. She began to help her mother prepare the room for another dreary day, drudging patiently with broom and duster by the light of the poor lamp fed by the coarse oil that gave a yellowish light. She was tall and had inherited the good looks of her family; her features were small, infantile for her years, her complexion was pure and rich, and heavy masses of bright auburn hair were gathered in a knot of penny ribbon.
When the work was ended Mrs. Wollstonecraft dryly dismissed her daughter, and Mary went up the crooked stairs to the bedroom where the rush-light burned between the beds of Everina and Eliza, who were lying awake, awaiting Mary's return. They were beautiful children, with something alert and nervous in looks and gestures. They lay tense and silent beneath the patched coverlets, gazing at Mary with grave brown eyes.
The elder sister kissed them in silence. They did not dare to speak—the mother's discipline was unyielding; no matter what the sufferings of the children were, no matter what upsets were caused in the wretched home by the caprices and cruelties of the father, the children must be obedient, quiet, punctual, neat, and always aware of their own insignificance.
Mary folded up her clothes carefully, put on her calico nightsmock and crept under the thin blankets with a sigh; then she put out her hand and extinguished the rush-light.
As the girl lay still in the dark listening to the tossings of her sisters in their uncomfortable truckle beds and the beating of the rain on the window she tried to think out some solutions to the problems that beset her—the need to escape from paternal tyranny, the desire for education, the vicarious responsibility that she felt for her younger brothers and sisters. She had, in brief, the eternal puzzle of humanity to solve—how to adjust herself so that some semblance of happiness and safety might be obtained under circumstances over which she had no control, that she had done nothing to help create, yet in which, by the mere accident of birth, she was helplessly involved. She looked back on her childhood and saw a series of episodes full of loneliness, pain and humiliation.
Edward John Wollstonecraft was the son of a Spitalfields silk weaver who had earned a considerable fortune by supplying those glistening silks and stiff brocades considered necessary for the adornment of the persons of all but the very poorest; even the maidservant or the shopgirl contrived one silk gown or one silk kerchief for her Sunday wardrobe. This prudent and hardworking merchant left to his only son, Edward John, a flourishing business and a capital of over ten thousand pounds securely invested.
The young man despised his father's trade, and soon began to squander his father's fortune. The business was left to others, and the profits from it speedily diminished, while the carefully-garnered capital was, portion by portion, wasted in foolish speculation.
Edward Wollstonecraft had been brought up in an atmosphere of gentility; he was used to servants to wait on him, comfortable houses, good clothes and loose change in his braided pockets. He was, however, as without culture as he was without business acumen. His vices were those of a stupid man, and he wasted his money in mean company.
Before his fortune was wholly ruined, he married "for love," as he termed it, Margaret Dixon, of a good Irish family, who brought him a small dowry which, passing into his absolute control, was soon squandered together with his own fortune.
Mrs. Wollstonecraft had been educated on narrow, rigid lines. She believed implicitly in the right of a man to domineer in his own household, and in the unquestionable obedience of children to their parents. She became at once a submissive slave of the brutal bully whom she had married, and quickly sunk into a household drudge, permitting her husband unreasonable tyranny, and in her turn tyrannising over her family. She found, indeed, a certain relief from her own bitter disillusionment in exercising over her children an unreasonable authority that caused vexation and restraint to enter into the most trivial matters. She exacted the most unconditional submission to her orders, which were often inconsistent and contradictory, and her feeble and shrewish scolding added to the misery that the father inflicted upon the household.
The family consisted of six children. The eldest, Edward, was the mother's favourite. She contrived to give him some education out of the money on which she could lay her hands, and he early left to be articled to a lawyer. His escape from the detestable home life was facilitated by his own disposition, which was selfish and heartless, and by his ability to submit, when he knew it was for his own good, to training and discipline.
Mary was the next child, and on her fell the full force of the mother's theories. Mrs. Wollstonecraft considered it only natural that her eldest daughter should be nurse and servant to the other children and drudge at the most menial tasks, not only without reward or thanks, but under the continual goad of reproach and criticism.
Soon after his marriage the basic faults of Edward Wollstonecraft were increased by his intemperate habits. He developed that capricious restlessness so characteristic of the drunkard, and was forever evolving fresh schemes, only to abandon them. Quite incapable of perseverance or sustained effort, he nevertheless was constantly undertaking enterprises that only patient, hard work on his part could have rendered successful.
Until she was five years of age, Mary resided between rooms in London, when the whim took her father to act the part of the gentleman of leisure, and the small house in Epping Forest, where he sometimes and for no known reason sent his family. He made several spasmodic and unsuccessful experiments in business. His father's manufactory was sold at a disadvantage, and his own income began to be miserably restricted.
Mrs. Wollstonecraft found herself obliged to part with servants, with furniture, with all the luxuries, and gradually with all the comforts of life. Still, she kept up a semblance of gentility. She insisted that her children should be trained to be genteel and well-bred—in other words, idle—and she was accepted as an equal by the upper middle-class families who resided in the various neighbourhoods to which she moved.
For some while the whim seized Mr. Wollstonecraft to try his hand at farming. He rented a small estate at Barking, and afterwards at other places in Essex, where the supplies of fruit and vegetables for the capital were largely grown. Some intelligence and industry could easily have made a success of this venture, but, as it was, it only increased the poverty and disrepute of the Wollstonecraft family.
They moved, again, to Beverley, in Yorkshire. The farm they had there was poorer and their circumstances more wretched than they had been in Essex. There the family remained for six years, and in the northern market town the three little girls received their only education. The mistresses of the local school taught them the accomplishments that were considered necessary for the daughters of gentlemen. Mary and Eliza excelled in French, and were quick in picking up from every possible source odd scraps of miscellaneous knowledge.
Mary found Beverley much more imposing than the Essex villages to which she had been used. It seemed to her a large, fine town, and she thought the northern squires and their ladies who gathered there on market day the height of fashionable elegance.
The Yorkshire farm was not profitable, but it had afforded a living to the family, given the children wholesome if rough food, and allowed them a healthy, open-air life. The remnants of the Wollstonecraft fortune paid for the modest school fees of the children and for Mr. Wollstonecraft's vices. He was seldom sober. His financial difficulties increased year by year, and he vented his sour disappointment in outbursts of fury against his wife, his children, his animals. Whip, cane and boot were frequently used against all of these, and the sullen furies or violent outbursts of the tyrant were the only excitements that varied the lonely monotony of life on the half-derelict farm.
Mrs. Wollstonecraft was obliged to dispense altogether with domestic help. She herself cooked and scrubbed, knitted and darned, cut and sewed her own garments and those of the children. She had little intelligence, less culture and education, and, when her animal spirits had fled with her health and her happiness, she had nothing left with which to sustain her through the dreary labour of the drab days.
Mary watched her mother shrewdly, helped her all she could, and bore her nagging reproaches in silence. She had a better head and more self-control than the other two girls. Eliza in particular was inclined to be hysterical, and her father's brutalities would often evoke in her a passion of sobs, tears or trances of insensibility. The two boys were rough and wild, though handsome and robust. Charles, though bold, was sly and insolent, and cringed before his father's face, only to revile him behind his back.
Mary had to find her interests and pleasure in her lessons, in her free ramblings with her brothers and sisters over the moors and in reading the few books, relics of better times, the residue of the silk merchant's library, that she found discarded in boxes in the farmhouse attic. She read these diligently, not to obtain any escape into a dream world, for she was without fancy, but in order to acquire knowledge.
When the affairs of the Yorkshire farm became too hopelessly involved for even Edward Wollstonecraft's apathy to endure, the family were moved to Hoxton, where Mr. Wollstonecraft hoped to engage in business. He was now tired of farming, and turned his befuddled attention to commerce. Part of his capital had been tied up by his prudent father, and it was only with considerable difficulty that he could obtain it. Nevertheless, he had squandered piecemeal by far the greater portion of the money that he had inherited. Still, enough remained for the family to keep body and soul together, and there was a small property in Wales that it was impossible to touch and that brought in a meagre income. The fortunes of the Wollstonecrafts had sunk considerably since they had last lived in London, and it was in an establishment modest even for a small tradesman that Mr. Wollstonecraft placed his wife and children in the pretty little village of Hoxton. They had sunk, too, in their social position. At Barking they had been intimate with the family of Mr. Bamber Gascoyne, a Member of Parliament, as in Yorkshire they had had the friendship of a well-placed and substantial family, the Allens; but in Hoxton they were obliged to associate with the hosier, the grocer, the chandler and the other little tradespeople who supplied the village necessaries.
Their surroundings now were exceedingly humble; their furniture was of the roughest description, their clothes of the commonest material, their food of the cheapest kind. To purchase books or even the newspapers was not to be thought of; no further schooling for any of the children was to be contemplated, nor might a visit to any place of amusement—such as the theatre, Ranelagh or Vauxhall—be for a second entertained. Yet the unhappy couple, in disagreement on every other point but this, continued to insist that the six children whom they had brought so recklessly into the world should be considered too well-born to be trained for any profession or trade, though not too good to act as slaves in their parents' home. There was no suggestion of finding work for the two growing lads, who became with every month more difficult to manage, nor any attempt to train for useful ends the obviously exceptional intelligence of Mary and Everina.
In the little house next door to that rented by the Wollstonecrafts lived a curious couple who had the reputation in the village of being eccentric, if not insane. The man was a retired Anglican clergyman, deformed and in very poor health. Lovingly attended by his devoted wife, he lived in seclusion, rarely leaving the books that were his abiding solace. Indifferent to the world, and possessed of means small indeed but sufficient for his modest wants, the invalid scholar lived contentedly among his mental exercises and his spiritual adventures.
The Clares made the acquaintance of the Wollstonecrafts. The old clergyman soon singled out the eldest girl as a child of exceptional ability. She paid him long visits, during which she read to him or he read to her, and the deformed old man and the bright maiden, both equally unworldly, discussed eagerly abstract questions of philosophy, religion and general knowledge. Mr. Clare gave Mary lessons in English, in French and history, corrected her essays and exercises and allowed her the run of his large miscellaneous library. By this means the child was able to create for herself an inner life that made her almost independent of the misery of her home. She also increased notably in strength of mind and boldness of character; she no longer trembled before her father as excessively as did her sisters, but often fearlessly defied him and stood between her mother or the other children and his violent drunken furies.
Mrs. Wollstonecraft sometimes looked at her eldest daughter with an amazement tinged with respect; her younger sisters began to regard her as a protectress and useful friend, while the brothers admired her and confided to her their wild and hopeless schemes of escape and self-advancement.
While Mary was at Hoxton, Mrs. Clare took her on a visit to some friends of hers who lived on the south side of London at the village of Newington Butts. This family, named Blood, consisted of the parents and several children; Frances and George, the two eldest, were about Mary's own age. Mr. Blood was a hosier in a small way, and it was in the little parlour behind the shop that Mrs. Clare introduced Mary Wollstonecraft to the modest interior. Fanny Blood was setting the table for her young brothers' and sisters' meal. She was a delicate little girl, of a gentle, winning expression and a peculiar softness in voice and looks.
Mary noticed at once the stark poverty of the room that was nevertheless most precisely kept. She understood then that Fanny Blood's position was much the same as her own. The little girl was the mainstay of a family that her father would not, and her mother could not, support. She soon learnt, indeed, that the hosier was another Edward Wollstonecraft for drunkenness, violence, idleness and unscrupulous self-indulgence.
Mary was instantly attracted to Fanny, for whom she felt a tender sympathy and a warm admiration. As she sat by Mrs. Clare's side in the coach that drove them across London to Hoxton, she learnt the unfortunate girl's history. Fanny, it seemed, was clever, and contrived somehow to obtain an education. Not only was she well read, she could play and sing very pleasingly, and had a marked talent for drawing; she was also an exquisite needlewoman and an accomplished housewife.
Mrs. Blood was ailing, dispirited and crushed by the tyranny of her husband, so on Fanny had fallen almost the entire burden of the family. By her designs for embroidery, her little drawings and paintings, she earned enough, supplemented by Mrs. Blood's needlework, to support the penurious household.
On hearing this tale, Mary at once wished to emulate the girl whom she so admired, and before she had reached home she was considering eagerly some means of making money, for it seemed to her, from whatever angle she viewed her problem, that poverty was at the bottom of it. She observed that all her family's countless discomforts, humiliations, privations and miseries had their root in lack of money. It was the grind of sour poverty that was ruining their lives, their characters, and that, as far as she could see, would ruin their futures, and in her eager inexperience she foresaw all the family troubles disappearing if only she could earn money, if only she could make her mother, her sisters and brothers independent of their father's wretched fortune.
Edward had already achieved this independency. He was established as assistant to an attorney with offices on Tower Hill, and an assured career seemed to lie before him; but Mary knew that he showed no interest in his family's difficulties, and that, though he was his mother's favourite and had always escaped her sternest severities, he made no offer to help her with the burden under which she was slowly succumbing.
Mary had no desire to earn money for her own benefit; her warm and generous nature, so easily moved to pity, was only eager to obtain relief for her family. How could she do this? She had not, like Fanny Blood, any talent for either music or painting, nor had she any opportunity of being instructed in these arts. All that she could hope for in the way of education must be obtained from the rambling instructions of Mr. Clare and from the confusion of ill-arranged books that weighed down his dusty shelves.
The eager child had no experience of anything save the vicissitudes of poverty. From her mother she had heard tales of another world where life was easy and pleasant, where men were kind and women respected, where well-paid servants did the menial work and creditors never knocked at the door. Mrs. Wollstonecraft had been bred in such a world, and considered that by right she belonged to it. She inculcated this belief in her children: they were gentlepeople, and it was only by some extraordinary misfortune that they had lost their rightful heritage.
Mary believed her mother's stories in the same way as a child may believe a fairy tale—such things may have happened, but they are not to be counted as part of usual experience. Mary was willing to credit her mother's statements that she had once worn silk dresses, ridden in her own carriage, had a comfortable house, been to theatres and concerts, had money in her pocket and a soft bed to sleep on, but she did not believe that any of these luxuries would ever come her own way. The hope that she did cherish was that she might earn somehow sufficient money to ease that incessant, gnawing poverty which to her was as intolerable as it had hitherto been unescapable.
Yet the companionship of the Clares, her new friendship with Fanny Blood and her vague though ardent hope for the future gave Mary a certain happiness during her second stay in Hoxton. This was shattered by Mr. Wollstonecraft's sudden resolve to depart to his small property in Pembrokeshire, and in Wales to try once more his hand at farming.
Such uprooting had been frequent during Mary's childhood; every few years there had been the misery and discomfort of changing house, of travelling considerable distances over rough roads and in the humblest conditions. Mr. Wollstonecraft went on horseback or by coach, but his family had to jolt along in rude wagons with the luggage, often in bad weather and with no money in their pockets with which to buy food. Each sudden and capricious move had meant the abandonment of familiar places, pleasant acquaintances, then strange places and people to be faced, some agreeable habits to be broken, some cherished objects to be discarded. But no change of residence had caused Mary such a pang as this; not only did she have to give up the friendship of Mr. Clare and all the hopes she had placed on it, but she had to relinquish every chance of seeing Fanny Blood. Even when she lived at Hoxton it had not been possible for her to see her new friend often: she never herself had the money for the coach fare to Newington Butts, and it was only occasionally that Mrs. Clare could take her to that village; but what had been just possible in Hoxton would be quite impossible in Wales. Pembrokeshire sounded desperately far off, a place of exile, indeed, and Mary had the intelligence to see how hopeless it was to suppose that her father, with every month more ruined in reputation, prospects, health and character, would succeed in anything anywhere.
To the astonishment of her mother and the admiration of her brothers and sisters, Mary protested against the move to Wales. Her expostulations provoked nothing but an outburst of senseless wrath from Edward Wollstonecraft and stern rebukes from her mother for endeavouring to question the paternal fiat.
Poignant farewells had to be taken of the Clares, the scholar's charming little room with the beloved books visited for the last time, a farewell letter written to Fanny Blood, and the poor goods and chattels were once more packed upon the stage-wagon and the family sent off on the long, tedious journey to Wales.
The neglected farm, Laugharne, of which Mr. Wollstonecraft took possession, proved to be as dismal a habitation as Mary had feared. Her father had taken no interest in his remote property, which he had never visited before and which necessity only had driven him to visit now. The district was poor, the scattered neighbours consisted of small farmers and peasantry, and Edward Wollstonecraft had no longer any capital to put into his random enterprise. His family lived as best they could from hand to mouth, Mary and her mother continuing their life of domestic drudgery and the younger children running wild when they could escape their mother's discipline, their father's slothful anger.
No one tired of this gloomy exile sooner than Mr Wollstonecraft himself. He was a townsman by birth and training, and longed for those squalid pleasures of the city in which he had wasted his fortune. He had not, however, the money with which to return to London; he was therefore obliged to remain at Laugharne and to try to wring out of the poor farm at least sufficient money to pay his huge drink bills at the village inn.
In this wild and lonely place where there were no near neighbours to watch or restrain, where there was not the control that might be exercised by the public opinion even of a place like Hoxton village, Edward Wollstonecraft passed into the last stages of degradation. He was never sober; flasks of gin, whisky and brandy were always in his ragged pocket by day and under his soiled pillows by night. His habits lost not only all gloss of breeding, but all semblance of decency. His outbursts of temper took on a maniacal fury. Mary often stood between him and her mother to protect the unhappy woman from her husband's murderous assaults, thrusting her father back until the two lads could come to the rescue and drag the drunkard aside, using the obscene language that they had learned from him.
Enfeebled health and increasing despair had made Margaret Wollstonecraft relax with her younger children much of the severe discipline she had maintained with Mary, but she still upheld her principles of filial obedience, made no attempt to protect her daughters and sons from their father, and still, though more occasionally, rebuked Mary for resisting the tyrant.
The loneliness on the Welsh farm was complete. No news of the outer world reached the Wollstonecrafts, who were as cut off from the rest of the country as if they inhabited the moon. Mary for long never had in her possession the few pence necessary to send a letter to Fanny Blood or the Clares, and Mrs. Wollstonecraft had long ceased to communicate with any of the friends or acquaintances of her happier days, while twenty years of disastrous married life had cut her off from all her relatives at Ballyshannon. The hopes that Mary had cherished in Hoxton vanished in Pembrokeshire. She saw her brothers imitating their father's habits, she saw her sisters becoming daily more nervous, sensitive and uncontrolled; she saw her mother dying as surely as the plant that the worm eats at the roots; she saw herself excluded from every opportunity or hope of affording assistance to these loved ones; so, resigning every cheerful thought, she echoed her mother's muttered resignation: "A little patience, and it will all be over," and dwelt on death as the only prospect and the only solace. She had been taught by her mother, by her schoolmistresses, and by Mr. Clare a conventional, an angelic piety founded on a stern and precise theology that hitherto she had not questioned. In the moments of her most acute despair she prayed to this formidable and fearful Deity for succour, for a chance of escape from Edward Wollstonecraft, even if this meant leaving the incredible misery of earth for the incredible realms that she had been taught stretched beyond those sullen clouds she saw lying purple over the Welsh hills that hemmed her in, emphasising her hopeless exile.
The house was quiet, but Mary could not sleep. She took the large volume of Paradise Lost from the shelf over her bed and read it by the light of the farthing dip that she had made herself from one of the rushes of the lake nearby. The descriptions of Paradise only aroused in Mary, hungry, sore from her father's blows, lonely and hopeless, a sad contempt. She turned the pages, and her tired eyes caught the lines:
"To whom thus Eve with perfect beauty adorn'd. My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst Unargued I obey; so God ordains; God is thy Law, Thou mine; to know no more Is Woman's happiest knowledge and her praise."
Mary knew these lines by heart, but she felt a certain relief in turning the pages of the heavy book, in peering at the faded sepia words.
John Milton thought that God had set men over women, who were to obey them without question. Meekness and beauty, then, were all that women needed. Mary thought of her mother, of herself and her sisters, and closed the book. The ugly, brutal, indecent scenes that she had been forced to witness passed before her mind—all to be endured because she was a woman! She blew out the light—even a rush dip must not be wasted—crept into bed and drew her ragged coverlet over her shoulders. Through the thin partition of the patched room she could hear the gross snores of the drunkard who was her master, from the loft where her sisters slept, the shrill, nervous cries of the two girls in their uneasy sleep.
Are not these the places of religion, the rewards of
The self-enjoyings of self-denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely that thou seekest solitude?
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire.
Visions of the Daughters of Albion.
William Blake, 1792.
THE Wollstonecraft family remained in Wales until Mary was eighteen years of age. By shifts and contrivances, by loans and debts, by means of the poor produce of the poor farm, they managed to exist. Still, no effort was made to find professions or trades for the two wild boys, nor did there seem any prospect of husbands for the three undowered girls. Edward, who was doing very well for himself, sent neither help nor encouragement, and Mrs. Wollstonecraft's health was failing daily, with the result that the apathy with which she had so long regarded her family's wretched fortunes increased; but Mary grew in intelligence as in stature. She possessed a strength of character and a personal charm compounded of sincerity, honesty and courage that imperceptibly gained her a position of responsibility, almost of authority, in the miserable household. Such efforts as were made to raise the family from the depths of squalid poverty were made by Mary, such contrivances as brought some system and order into the monotonous days were of her contriving, such plans as were made for the dark and uncertain future were of her planning. She tried to inspire her two younger sisters with her own desire for self-improvement, and they responded eagerly.
Eliza was clever, with a touch of brilliancy, and Everina was determined and industrious. Both were possessed by an agonised resolve to escape from the degradation that surrounded them. When the rough work of the primitive farm was done and the ailing, scolding mother, the violent, drunken father out of the way, the three girls would get down their tattered books, and on any scrap of paper and with any ink and pen at hand try to pursue their studies. They perfected themselves in the grammar of the French language, which thus they were able to read exceedingly well, though they were nervous as to their accent. They obtained a fair knowledge of such history and geography as was taught in the schools, and they read eagerly the random volumes on Divinity, philosophy, poetry, that they found in the attics among rags and refuse; they also digested those moral essays written by divines for the instruction of the young, without which no library was considered complete, and that were indeed purchased in such numbers that it was difficult to find a shelf of books without one or two examples of these heavy, orthodox attempts to inculcate Christian ethics as understood by eighteenth-century clergymen.
Mary's reason and experience rejected these sonorous platitudes. She had only to look around her to realise that much that these painstaking divines wrote was false and could not apply to such a life as that which she and her sisters led. These fashionable, moral and educational works always assumed orderly and well-conducted homes where the father was the honoured and obeyed head, the mother the tender and respected guide and friend, households where there were servants, carriages and horses, well cared-for pets, good meals on the table, good clothes to wear, and round the corner wealthy marriages for the girls and satisfactory careers for the boys. Mary, pondering over these books, understood how her own parents had completely failed in their duties towards herself and her brothers and sisters. Here were six human beings who had been brought into the world haphazard by two people who could not provide them with the meanest necessaries of life or afford them the cheapest kind of education or training. How, then, pay them that respect, deference and gratitude which might be all very well for the sons and daughters of prosperous, respectable, well-placed people to offer to parents who were providing security, comfort, luxury, opportunity?
Mary closed her heavy volumes, Advice to Daughters and Moral Lessons on the Training of Young People, her sermons and essays that had been bequeathed to her from the Beverley school days, and decided to treat her unorthodox position in an unorthodox manner.
An unlooked-for circumstance made her task easier than she had ever expected it might be. During the loneliness and misery of those years in Wales, Edward Wollstonecraft rapidly deteriorated in mind and body. Disease, the result of dissipation and intemperance, sapped the strength that had once made him so formidable; the bully became the craven. Instead of violent scenes with whip and cane, there were maudlin tears and hysteric slobberings; the drunkard began to whine instead of threatening; he constantly bemoaned his ill-luck, his misfortunes, complained that every one's hand was against him, and that he had never had a chance, that he had been cheated by those on whom he had relied, that his good nature had been taken advantage of by rogues, and that now, in his old age, he was ill, abandoned and bankrupt. Though he still had his outbursts of ineffectual fury, he began to appeal to the pity of the tall girls and boys whom he had so atrociously ill-treated when they were helpless children. He wrote cringing letters to Edward, begging him to send money. He suggested crazy expedients to his other sons whereby the family fortunes might be repaired, he complained petulantly to his daughters because they did not find well-to-do husbands who might combine to keep him in ease, and he wept on the bosom of his worn-out and passive wife, while he laid all the blame of the bitter failure he had made of his life upon his Maker.
Mary listened, pondered, and decided. She had never forgotten Fanny Blood, whose circumstances were so like her own, and who had managed by her almost unaided labour to keep her entire family. Mary, when she grew into a certain independence on the lonely Welsh farm, had contrived to find the money to correspond with Fanny, and had kept alive that warm and tender friendship. Mary most ardently desired to follow Fanny's example. She believed that if only she could get to London she, too, could earn sufficient money to keep her family respectable. She had, too, schemes for her younger brothers. Might they not go to Australia or America, those distant and alluring countries that were, Mary believed, full of potential riches? Could she not earn the few pounds necessary to equip them? Or, if that was not possible, might they not become soldiers or sailors? Anything, the valiant girl thought, as long as they did not, through disgusting idleness, follow their father's example.
She discussed her plans with her two sisters, and they eagerly agreed. If only they could all return to London, they surely could do something for themselves. None of them was averse to work; they saw that they must, if they wished to escape from their present misfortune, either work or marry. Everina, austere and passionless, Mary, absorbed in the problems presented by poverty, were averse to matrimony. Both were frightened and disgusted by their parents' example, which had nauseated them with domesticity and almost with sex; but Eliza, lovely, gentle, inclined to be romantic, had her maiden dreams, and indulged those youthful fancies their bitter circumstances had withered in her sisters. Nor was she as bold, as resolute as Mary and Everina; she shrank from a struggle with the world, and declared frankly that she would marry the first man that asked her, for the sake of escaping from her home and of obtaining protection and shelter.
But on the remote Welsh farm no husbands offered themselves to the three girls, who had been bred as gentlewomen, taught to consider themselves gentlewomen, and who had been nevertheless forced to live as coarse servants. All of them were fastidious and high-minded, and considered themselves far above the local farmers and the tradespeople of the neighbouring town, who, on their side, would never have asked for the hands of the strange, penniless girls who did not belong to the neighbourhood, who had no part in any aspect of its life, who were proud, refined, and yet who might be seen scrubbing pots and pans at the door of the dirty farm or hanging out ragged clothes on the line stretched above the filthy yard.
Mary faced her father, opposing her clear and resolute young understanding to his fuddled and broken brain. She urged him to let the farm; in someone else's hands the little estate might prove profitable and bring them in a little money. She also insisted that they should return to London, where surely some member of the family could obtain some manner of work. This coincided with Mr. Wollstonecraft's own feelings. His restlessness had returned; he was utterly tired of Wales and of farming; he was anxious to return to the city that had always been able to offer gratification to all his vices. He looked at his five tall, healthy children, with their clear eyes and clean-cut features, their grave yet eager faces, and saw in this young life and hope something that could be taken to market and trafficked for his own benefit. He agreed to return to London; he listened to Mary's advice; he even acceded to her terms; she would, she told him, help him, perhaps even shoulder his entire responsibilities—but concessions must be made. She would no longer be treated as a child or as a slave, she required a certain relief from household drudgery; a room in which she could study; her father was not to strike her or abuse her; in front of her and her sisters he was to preserve some decency of demeanour. The cowed drunkard agreed; he also accepted Mary's suggestions that they should move somewhere near the Bloods, who were Mary's sole friends in London.
Mr. Wollstonecraft had some acquaintances in Walworth. Mary, in trembling triumph, wrote to Fanny Blood and begged her to secure the cheapest possible house in that district. Laugharne was let to a neighbouring farmer, and the few pounds made by the sale of the furniture and farm implements enabled the Wollstonecrafts to undertake the hard and monotonous journey to London, travelling in the cheapest manner over the rough roads, staying in the worst rooms of the cheapest inns, sickened and agitated by Mr. Wollstonecraft's constant drunken bouts, complaints and quarrellings. Mary took little heed of any of these miseries; she had a fixed goal before her and a fixed hope in her heart.
Fanny Blood received her recovered friend with enthusiasm, and the two girls renewed a singularly tender and delicate affection that had only been in suspension during their separation. Fanny's circumstances had altered little since Mary Wollstonecraft had last seen her.
This girl, then about twenty-one years of age, was still doing her drawing, her painting, her embroidery designs, and the housekeeping and a large portion of the housework. The hosier's shop was still kept on as a concession to the masculine pride of the nominal breadwinner, the drunken father. The mother added a good deal of incompetence and a few shillings earned by fine needlework to the home. The younger children were growing up and receiving a smattering of education. George, the eldest son, was in the London office of a young wine merchant, Mr. Hugh Skeys, who had a prosperous business established in Lisbon. George was healthy, attractive, but inclined to be rakish. His small salary was insufficient to pay for his own pleasures; he was, therefore, quite unable to lighten his sister's burden.
Mary soon made the close acquaintance of this pleasant young man. She liked him without being in the least emotionally affected by him. A desire for an independence that would assist her family amounted at this time to an obsession: she was as sexless as a child. George, however, on his part was soon a little in love with all the slim, auburn-haired Wollstonecraft sisters, and in particular fascinated by the austere Everina, who gave him not the least encouragement.
There was hardly any difference between the two homes in which Mary Wollstonecraft now spent her time. When she escaped from her own surroundings to visit Fanny, she found a replica of her own parents—the drunken father alternating between bullying and whining, the tight-lipped, exhausted, scolding mother, the poverty made detestable by masculine vices and supportable by feminine respectability, a crowd of young children growing up and involving the elder sister in intricate problems and responsibilities. Fanny Blood had long since parted with her harpsichord, but sometimes—rarely enough—she would take Mary to visit a friend who had such an instrument, and there Fanny would play and sing while Mary would read and study. Fanny had become very sickly after Mary had gone to Wales. Every winter she was shaken by a deep cough that did not wholly disappear even in the height of summer; her skin had an exquisite transparency; her eyes were very lustrous, the lashes long; the delicacy of her looks was matched by the eager energy of her spirits; she worked even harder than she need, and never seemed to rest.
Mary soon learned her secret, which was, to the untouched girl, an astonishing one: Fanny was in love, and, as it seemed, hopelessly so. In the office where her brother worked she had met the young wine merchant, Hugh Skeys. They had been mutually attracted to each other, and Mr. Skeys had visited the hosier's establishment, at first occasionally, then more frequently. He would have been an excellent match for Fanny; he was wealthy, sober, industrious, with the manners of a gentleman, attractive and comely. To the poor overworked, pleasure-starved girl he was the sun in the sky; she trembled when she whispered his name to Mary; to no one else had she breathed her trembling hopes. She believed that Mr. Skeys cared for her, but he had as yet made no offer for her hand.
The humiliating truth forced itself on both the anxious girls—the young man hesitated because of Fanny's circumstances, the drunken father, the incompetent mother, the brood of wild children, the stark poverty. Not from such surroundings as these did well-to-do young merchants choose their wives.
The gentle Fanny acquiesced in this point of view. Marriage with Hugh Skeys was beyond her highest ambition; she could but love and droop in silence. But Mary was indignant. Here was yet another instance of the wrongs that women had to endure at the hands of men. In her opinion, the beloved Fanny was far too good for this cold-blooded, hesitant lover. She could not understand this fondness that was so balanced by self-interest. How could a man look upon Fanny, overworked, failing in health, lovely, good and gentle, and not long to snatch her away to repose and the sunshine of the south? Mary longed desperately on Fanny's behalf for her marriage with Hugh Skeys and her transportation to those temperate climates that were supposed to act like an enchantment on a delicate constitution; but all the while she scorned the reluctant lover, and a little scorned even her darling Fanny for putting such a value upon this unworthy man.
Mary's circumstances were much improved in London, because she had the companionship of Fanny, sometimes that of George, and an occasional visit to the Clares at Newington Green, and because she had the stimulus of the vicinity of the capital. Nevertheless she soon discovered that the pact made with her father was not kept; she was not allowed a room to herself, nor any means whereby she could continue her studies; she saw herself, despite her utmost efforts, being reduced to a slattern and a drudge, who, when she did get a few hours' pleasure, was too exhausted to enjoy them. Her situation seemed to her desperate. She learned how difficult it was for any one—especially for a woman—to earn a living without training, friends, or special qualifications. She had many anxious consultations with Fanny Blood and with her sisters. None of the Wollstonecraft girls had Fanny's talent: they could not draw, sing, play a musical instrument, or sketch designs for embroidery, and their needlework was not above the ordinary. But Mary refused to admit her helplessness. Cut off as she was from all counsel, she appealed to the Clares, and the eccentric old scholar and his kindly wife were deeply moved by the girl's profound distress. Her situation, as she painted it to them, was terrible. Her mother had obviously not long to live; her father's habits in this, the last stage of his degradation, were more difficult to endure than his drunken furies; the two boys would soon no doubt go out into the world and somehow earn their bread, even if they were reduced to that last resort of the destitute—the Navy. But what prospect opened before the three girls, who would not for long, without suffering contamination, be able to support the company of their father and his acquaintances? The Clares bestirred themselves. They could not do much, being themselves only humble folk who lived an out-of-the-way life. But Mrs. Clare knew of a well-to-do acquaintance, a widowed lady who resided in Bath, whose only relative was a married son. This Mrs. Dawson employed a companion or kind of upper servant to wait on her infirmities of body and to serve as a butt for her infirmities of mind. This lady did not find it very easy to obtain a companion whom she considered suitable. She often applied to the Clares, because they lived near London, to recommend to her young ladies of unimpeachable character and unexceptionable behaviour, who would be willing, for the sake of a meagre board and lodging and a few pounds a year, to endure her caprices. Mr. Clare suggested to Mary that he should obtain this post for her. Mary accepted eagerly, and the affair was soon arranged.
The eccentric clergyman, by an innocent subterfuge, described Mary Wollstonecraft as "a well-educated, well-behaved gentlewoman, the daughter of a gentleman of independent means." He did not add what might have been a further recommendation to Mrs. Dawson, that the girl was well used to privation, toil and submission that amounted to slavery.
Mary's resolution to leave home was received with dismay by her family. Her mother, breaking down the reserve of years, besought her eldest daughter, whom she had come to regard as a prop and stay, not to leave her. She wanted Mary to stand between her and her husband. The two younger girls were terrified at the threatened loss of their sole protector, the two boys complained at seeing some of their comforts diminished while Mr. Wollstonecraft himself made feeble attempts to exert his authority and declared that his daughter should not leave his house. Mary, with cool strength of character, resisted all these entreaties, menaces and complaints. She was absolutely sure that she could not help her family by remaining among them. If she went away there would be one mouth less to feed, one person less to clothe, and she would be able every quarter to send her mother a few pounds, for she intended to deny herself her entire salary. The only advantage she hoped for in thus exchanging one tyranny for another—for she had been well warned by the Clares of the type of woman that Mrs. Dawson was—lay in her intention to obtain a few hours in which she could study.
Fanny Blood approved her friend's resolution. The parting was hard, but had become in any case inevitable as the little hosier's business at Newington Butts had at last been sold up by weary creditors, and the Blood family were moving to Walham Green.
Mary Wollstonecraft cut short the farewells, the expostulations, the lamentations; she had wrung from her father a few shillings with which to equip herself; she had washed, ironed and goffered her kerchiefs and caps; she had turned, pressed, darned and mended her gowns and stockings. With all her care, her appearance was that of extreme poverty; but she had, in her carriage and air, a considerable distinction; she seemed not only a gentlewoman, but a rare and graceful creature. She put her few books in a satchel, her few clothes in a hair trunk, some jealously guarded coins in her slender purse, and stepped into the coach that was to take her to Bath.
When she left her family and her friends behind and found herself alone among strangers on an unfamiliar road, she realised that she had at length obtained that for which she had striven and longed—some measure of liberty, some measure of independence, even if it was only the liberty to choose her own form of servitude, even if it was only the independence to submit to a selected type of suffering. She had no hope of pleasure, happiness or excitement; she did not consider the possibility of finding a lover, a rich husband, a powerful friend in her new life: her sole ambition was still that of earning a few pounds to relieve the misery at home and of gaining a few hours in which to improve her own education. She was then nineteen years of age, tall and slender, with features that retained their infantile softness, and a pale but healthy complexion that goes with auburn hair, flushed with rose in the cheeks, and large brown eyes shadowed by drooping lids. Her rich tresses were carelessly gathered back under an unbecoming cap, her expression was grave and preoccupied. Absorbed in her modest ambition, she noticed no one, and few noticed her. Her charms, refined and uncommon, were such as did not attract the casual or careless observer; she had neither the gay, bouncing prettiness of the servant maid nor the polished loveliness of the young aristocrat, and not even those who admired and liked her, such as the Clares and the Bloods, had noticed that she gave promise of being a beautiful woman.
Mrs. Dawson was comfortably off, and lived in a pretentious house in one of those elegant crescents and circles that adorn the fashionable city of Bath. She kept several servants, some lap-dogs and parrots, and mingled with an air of sour disapprobation in the more sedate gaieties of the charming city. The medicinal waters that she drank with equal constancy and cynicism seemed to have little effect upon her health, and the spectacle of human frailties, follies and vice that she beheld every time she went abroad to the Pump-room, a concert or a drive had not given her a philosophic temper, though it afforded her endless themes for sermonising. Neglected by everyone save those whom she paid to endure her imperfections, Mrs. Dawson avenged the neglect of the world by a gross tyranny over her dependents. She was never able to obtain the services of any but those whom misfortune or incompetence had rendered desperate, and even these found her rule insupportable, save for a very brief period.
Mary Wollstonecraft soon gauged the manner of tyranny to which she had submitted herself, but she maintained her resolution that even this was better than idleness at home, and, well trained to the endurance of petty miseries, she passively accepted the peevish Mrs. Dawson's railings, invectives and complaints. The girl was well broken in to the tyranny of a petty creature, and in Mrs. Dawson's house she was assured at least of the decencies of life. Although she was treated much as an upper servant, her bedroom, though one of the worst in the house, was clean and belonged to her alone, her meals were regular, the food good, she had no menial work with broom, scrubbing brush or pail to perform, and though she was often treated both by mistress and by menials with less than respect, her position on the whole was that of a gentlewoman, and she did obtain what she most desired—a certain amount of leisure.
Mrs. Dawson must sometimes sleep, must sometimes go abroad without her companion, and on these occasions Mary turned to her books and her studies, wrote and thought, translated, criticised the works of others, and began to venture to hope that some day she might write herself. She sent numerous letters to her mother, to her sisters, to Fanny and to George Blood, and every quarter when her salary was paid, after retaining a few shillings for her own necessaries, she sent it to Mrs. Wollstonecraft.
Mary had never seen any place as fine, as carefree, as elegant as Bath. To the grey city with the Roman Baths, so gracefully set in the curve of the hills, came the most brilliant society of the moment. Statesmen, bishops, admirals, generals, their wives and daughters, actresses and authors, wits and dilettanti, heiresses and fortune hunters, hard-working people enjoying a holiday, people who never did any work at all, exchanging one leisured boredom for another—all these passed along the spacious pavements, sipped the waters in the Pump-room, listened to the violins playing in the concert hall, showed off to one another's admiration or disparagement their silks and satins, their coaches and pages, their horses and jewels, and chattered continuously, discussing now with gusto, now with apathy, politics, art, intrigues and the aimless malicious gossip of the day.
Mary Wollstonecraft stood outside this exciting and varied world and did not even wish to enter it. She saw girls of her own age being admired and courted, young women with no more beauty than she might lay claim to being praised and toasted, without envying them; she noted the fine clothes, the smart equipages, the numerous servants without desiring them; her thoughts were always with her sisters, her mother and with Fanny Blood.
It was the year 1780. George III had been on the throne for twenty years, the lifetime of Mary, and Lord North was his Prime Minister, an office that he had held for eight years. For five years a rebellion of the American colonies had involved the British in disasters that seemed incredible to the Englishman in the street. The defiant Americans had, in engagement after engagement, defeated British troops and the German mercenaries hired from grasping Electors of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Declaration of Independence had been made in 1776, and in 1780 it seemed as if the colonists were likely to be able to enforce it. The conduct of the war had not been to the credit of the Government, though honourable to many an individual sailor or soldier. Under an honest, narrow-minded King anxious to assert the royal power, a well-meaning, timid, fumbling minister and a corrupt parliament, was the navy controlled by "Jemmy Twitcher" (Lord Sandwich), a traitor and a knave, and an army under a man, Lord George Germaine, who was both violent and incapable and who had been cashiered by George II for misconduct on the field of battle. Rotten ships that sometimes broke under the troops they carried (for instance, the Royal George) were sent to sea by the bribed placemen; the war on land was a series of criminal blunders, muddles and follies. The respectable King and his amiable minister had carried the art of corruption to a greater pitch than ever that achieved by the Stuarts, and the Whigs in opposition had passed a resolution "that the power of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished."
But on the surface all was placid and had an air of complete stability; even the American war was remote, did not personally concern more than a few of the population, and was at worst little more than a nuisance to which the private citizen grew accustomed. To one outside any knowledge of the real state of affairs the country appeared in a static condition. To Mary Wollstonecraft everything was as it had been since her grandfather had trained his apprentices at Spitalfields in the craft that the refugee Huguenots had brought to England in 1688. In the opinion of most people the government of Great Britain and the condition of her inhabitants had been settled forever when the wealthy Whig middle classes had brought over foreign efficiency to regulate a constitution jeopardised by the vagaries of an imprudent, reckless and incapable monarch.
Mary saw around her the neat, sober houses of the middle classes, the filthy slums of the poor, the luxurious palaces of the rich, the parson in the pulpit, the squire in the manor house, the merchant at his counting-house desk, the nobleman in all the positions of power, and the women of every class occupied either in frivolous idleness or in domestic drudgery, and she never doubted but that all these conditions were permanent. "Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, beggarman, thief"—what should one do but accept these social distinctions and believe that they would endure forever? Neither did Mary question the rigid Theology of her day; no infidel or philosophical books had come her way, she had met no one who disputed what her mother had taught about God and Sin, Reward and Punishment, the black, flaming pit of Brimstone below, the Golden City above.
The former was easy to credit. Anyone could imagine darkness and fire and eternal suffering; Mary herself had shuddered at that possibility of Hell which had sent Eliza into hysteric tears again and again, but it was not so easy to picture Heaven.
Mary had but a vague idea of perfect bliss. She could find no coherency in the visions of St. John, and her practical mind had no faith in a paradise built of precious metal with winged creatures playing harps. She could only hope that Heaven would be at least a negation of suffering, peace, a dreamless sleep.
Meanwhile she tried to please God, not only by being dutiful, quiet and self-sacrificing, but by regularly attending the services in the Abbey, where, squeezed in the back pews behind the hoops and panniers of the more fortunate females, she listened to a cosy divine in a cauliflower wig lisping of the easier virtues and the more decorous sins.
Fresh young voices sang stale and gloomy hymns, the enclosed air had a graveyard reek, skulls lowered above mural tablets that extolled incredible paragons, and here and there the beautiful faces of youth or maiden showed amid the diseased and cynic visages of the dull congregation. Mary, in her lackey's place, in charge of smelling bottle, muff or reticule, accepted it all, and amid her mechanical prayers counted her pence and mourned her afflicted dear ones.
She remained completely outside the social life about her. Had she been permitted to enter it, she might have found her place among these people whom she regarded with the cold appraisement of an outsider.
Since she found herself, for no fault of her own, shut out from all that was easy or agreeable in life, since she had known nothing but anxiety, privation and unhappiness, it was natural that she should judge severely those who, through no merit of their own, enjoyed advantages that often enough they did not know how to profit by.
When Mrs. Dawson went to mingle in amusing company or to attend some entertainment, Mary was left at home to exercise the lap-dogs, overlook the household accounts, mend linen or embroider initials in hair on lawn handkerchiefs. When gay or interesting people called at Mrs. Dawson's house, Mary was sent out of the withdrawing-room on some errand, either to fetch her employer's physic from the apothecary or to match silks or wools at the embroidery shop or to take back some garment that had displeased the disagreeable old lady to the mantua maker. It was therefore natural that the gifted, high-spirited girl should take a dark, even a bitter view of this society from which she was so ignominiously excluded.
Her judgment of her own sex was severe. The women whom she observed about her in Bath seemed to her insipid, sensual, selfish and hard; she observed that they seemed to have no other end in view than pleasure, and that their great aim was husband catching.
Mary not only disdained them for their vulgar employments, but scorned them for their neglect of the poor, who, even in opulent Bath, were abundantly evident in a misery that seemed hopeless. Mrs. Dawson's companion, who had no means of relieving the distress she saw about her, felt moved to an indignant pity at the neglect of those who had time, money and opportunity for social service.
Mary had noticed the squalor of the alleys behind the grandiose squares, circles and parades of the smart city, she had observed the poor creatures who haunted the doors of the Abbey and the Pump-room on the chance of a coin, and she heard from Mrs. Dawson's servants stories of girls turned adrift with bastard children to die in ditch or hospital, of the widow and the orphan left helpless, and of the depths of degradation from which there was no hand to save them. Mary's whole being went out in pity to all who were wretched. Fastidious as she was, her strong common sense told her that the vices that were the result of hopeless poverty were rather misfortunes than faults.
Women in distress were peculiarly objects of the poor companion's sympathy; she felt for these fallen wretches as warmly as she scorned the frivolous ladies who ignored everything but their own interests; she observed how completely feminine security, respectability and happiness were in masculine power and subject to masculine caprices and vices; she saw how difficult it was for a woman to earn a living save at the most menial, roughest work, and how impossible for a poor woman, tarnished even by an indiscretion, to raise herself out of the gutter, while the sins of a great lady were not only condoned, but applauded. Her own passionate desire for education led her to remark how untrained women were in everything save the accomplishments considered likely to attract men and the intrigues believed necessary to deceive them. Mary scorned this slave mentality that tried to gain by cunning and cheating what it could not obtain by justice. She was shocked at seeing men exalt as goddesses rich, pretty, young and charming women, and treat with brutal contempt those who were unprotected, plain, elderly or poor and friendless.
Though she had no knowledge of, and took no interest in, politics, her mind had been stirred by the American Revolution and by the Declaration of Independence made by the bold colonists. Mary often thought of these men. She admired all that she knew of them. They were surely bold, virile creatures, very different from the fops and fribbles, paunchy old rakes and sickly young fools whom she saw chattering and ogling in the trains of heiresses and belles.
The struggling Americans—whose final success was yet in doubt—seemed to Mary to represent an ideal people and their country an ideal place. She imagined the New World as free from all the faults and vices that she saw smirching the Old World. Surely there even the women would enjoy some measure of true respect and freedom.
It was impossible to dream of going herself to the colony at war with England, but Mary often planned to send one of her brothers to America when she could save the money for his equipment and when affairs should be settled.
No tender episode softened the lonely girl's stay in Bath. Her miserable situation, her withdrawal from all social life, her proud reserve prevented any man from noticing the uncommon charms of her person and the even rarer endowments of her mind and heart.
This did not trouble her; she was neither romantic nor sentimental; she was still undeveloped emotionally and still influenced by the disgust that her parents and Fanny Blood's parents had given her of matrimony and of sex; she did not desire the homage or the caresses of any of the young officers on leave, lordlings en vacances, or esquires taking the waters who had come to Bath to find rest, amusement and perhaps a wife.
None of these stirred either her fancy or her senses; she trained herself to despise them all. The only lover of whom she knew, Hugh Skeys, was, in her opinion, a contemptible being. Fanny still waited on his hesitancy, still toiled and drooped while the rich young man debated whether he could overcome his distaste to his beloved's drunken father, pinching poverty and lowly station.
Mary endured the situation with Mrs. Dawson longer than had any of her predecessors. She remained two years in Bath supporting the bitterness of existence in the service of the detestable old woman with a fortitude that gave a slight hardness to her character. She might have remained longer had not an urgent letter from Everina brought her servitude to an abrupt end.
Margaret Wollstonecraft, who had been so long dying, had come at last to that peace which she had so often and so ardently desired. Mary was summoned to her mother's death bed. Mrs. Dawson would not grant a sudden "holiday," as she termed it, so the poor companion accepted dismissal, packed up again her few books, her few clothes, and took the London coach.
The Wollstonecraft family had moved from Walworth to Enfield while Mary was in Bath. The father had ceased even any pretence at work either in agriculture or in commerce. He was living on such sums as the small residue of his fortune, largely tied up in the Pembrokeshire estate, afforded, on occasional doles from his eldest son, Edward, then established on his own account as an attorney on Tower Hill, and on such loans as he could extract from the friends and acquaintances of his better days.
The second son, James, while yet a stripling, had gone away to sea; when Mary returned home from Bath there had been no news of him for several months. Eliza and Everina remained at home, nursing their mother, who was sinking under a complication of diseases, and keeping some air of decency over the miserable household, where Charles, the graceless younger brother, still idled and pestered his sisters.
Margaret Wollstonecraft turned to her eldest daughter with gratitude, and Mary began the only domestic work she had not yet experienced—that of nursing a sick person. Mrs. Wollstonecraft lingered in sharp torture for several months, and Mary was her constant comfort, attending to her wretched needs day and night, barring her poor door from the intrusions of her drunken husband, soothing the fears of the two younger girls, who, exhausted mentally and physically, had no strength with which to withstand this crisis, and quieting the noisy Charles by promising him help for his future.
In the first few days after Mary's return the dying woman dealt with her affectionately, and even expressed her regret for her former harshness. She acknowledged that she had been wrong in the way in which she had trained her children; she thought now, she whispered, that more indulgence and less severity would have gilded even their unhappy circumstances with a little happiness. But, as she became used to her daughter's presence, the old railing spirit returned; the agonising woman regarded Mary's devotion as a mere duty, and accepted ungraciously the girl's efforts to soften the rigours of poverty and approaching death.
Mary had no opiates with which to relieve her mother's incessant agony, no luxuries with which to beguile the tedium of the long hours of waiting for the end. The patient's brief slumbers were often disturbed by quarrels between her husband and son, or by the drunken shouts of the companions whom Mr. Wollstonecraft brought home, or by Eliza's half-hysterical attempts to deal with some importunate creditor. The dying woman repeated so often the sentence with which she had formerly consoled her miseries that it became imprinted upon Mary's heart and mind: "A little patience, and all will be over."
The girl still put the same interpretation upon these words: it was death that would bring peace, God that would offer the final rest. Mary often spoke to her mother about God, and the two women consoled themselves with this narrow, even angelic, piety—God, for His own good purposes, had treated them thus. God would see that in another world they obtained their reward. Neither of them could visualise Heaven; they trusted it was there, with that simple faith which no one had as yet tried to undermine. Mary had never even heard of anyone who disbelieved in God.
Margaret Wollstonecraft died, and Mary spread the sheet that served as a shroud. A few shillings purchased six feet of earth in Enfield Burial Ground, and the three sisters, in cheap home-made black clothes, came home from that pauper's funeral to face the future.
Mary was uncommonly self-confident and self-reliant, bold and enterprising; but she was then worn by ill-health; the strain of nursing her mother had continued for months, and the miseries of her own home had been felt by her more acutely after the comparative peace, order and comfort of Bath. Anxiety and loss of sleep threw her into a fever, and for several days she remained in a state of insensibility on the bed, the only decent one in the house, on which her mother had died. Her sisters did what they could. Everina became daily more tight-lipped and austere, Eliza more frightened and hysterical. Now and then the self-control of both the girls would snap, and violent scenes with their father and brother would ensue.
When Mary dragged herself up after her illness, she felt considerably weakened in body, though her resilient spirit was full of courage, and even, oddly enough, hope. This illness left her with a slight paralysis in one of her eyelids; it always drooped heavily, and gave a peculiar expression to her face.
When she was able to consult again with her sisters, all three decided that they must immediately leave their father's house. Within a few weeks of his wife's death he had introduced a slatternly mistress. Neither the language and habits of this woman, nor the situation, could be endured by the three girls.
They were, however, quite at a loss how to meet the emergency; they were untrained as servants, and had neither the appearance nor the manners acceptable in cooks or parlourmaids; they were also incapable of any other kind of work. It was decided that they must do as Mary had done—go out as companions; but it was impossible at once to find situations. Mary suggested as the goal of their utmost ambitions that they might keep a little dame-school for small children, but this project was obviously too grand for immediate realisation.
The desperate girls set their wits to work to try to solve the problem of escape from their father's impossible establishment. Finally Edward Wollstonecraft, with some reluctance, for he forbore as much as possible to interfere in family affairs, offered Everina an asylum. The girl's independence and the young man's thrift were satisfied with an arrangement whereby she was to act as his unpaid housekeeper and upper servant.
Fanny Blood, still living at Walham Green, offered Mary a temporary home, and the charming Eliza, half-laughing, half-frantic, told her sisters that she would solve her difficulty by marrying. The lovely girl, then only seventeen years of age, had found a man who was willing to take her without a penny. He was a young clergyman of the name of Bishop, who held a curacy in the neighbourhood. His manners were plausible, even insinuating, his person pleasant and his stipend sufficient to provide a comfortable home. It was therefore with great relief that Mary and Everina saw their youngest sister, always the most difficult, delicate and capricious of the three, thus established. Though Mr. Bishop was a chance acquaintance and they knew but little of him, his gentle manners, obvious devotion to Eliza, the good character he bore in the neighbourhood for decorum and piety, relieved all their anxieties about Eliza's future.
Mary now found herself an inmate of Fanny Blood's home at Walham Green. Affairs here were much as they had been before Mary went to Bath. There were, however, a few added anxieties to Mr. Blood's drunkenness, George's wildness and the long hesitation of Hugh Skeys. The first of these was the conduct of Caroline, Fanny's younger sister, who, disheartened by the gloom of her sordid home, had fallen into bad company, and distressed her sister by behaviour that seemed to promise nothing but degradation and misery. Besides her struggles with this wilful young girl, Fanny had to combat George's gloom. He had fallen deeply in love with Everina, who was not in the least interested in him, and her persistent rejections of his suit caused him, too, to take up with idle and worthless companions and to compromise himself in many of their scrapes. Mr. Blood was as usual unemployed, Mrs. Blood, more incompetent with every month that passed, contributed only a few shillings earned by needlework to the family income, and the younger children as ever represented a problem and an anxiety.
Fanny's chief grief, however, was still the behaviour of Hugh Skeys. This young man continued to visit her, to speak in vague terms of their future together, to address her in lover-like terms, but he had not yet come forward as a suitor or proposed marriage. Mary observed with terror that these continual distresses had wrought further mischief on Fanny's health, always delicate; in particular she was exhausted by the alternate fits of hope and despair caused by her lover's behaviour. Anger, attacks of fever, a constant cough and bursts of tears as purposeless as they were painful showed the state of poor Fanny's mind and heart.
In order not to be a burden upon her friend, Mary also took in sewing, besides helping with the housework and the care of the children. She tried, too, to relieve Fanny's other burdens. She remonstrated with George when he came home fuddled or noisy, pleaded with Caroline when she wanted to slip out with her undesirable friends, soothed Mrs. Blood's railing lamentations and hid the Geneva bottle where Mr. Blood could not find it.
While she and Fanny sat opposite each other near the window in the best light the poor room afforded, Fanny drawing and sketching, Mary's nimble fingers flying over yards of ruffles and flounces, over shirts, bands and collars, over cravats and petticoats, the girl's energetic mind raced into the future.
The dame-school was still all her ambition. She recalled the school at Beverley where she and her sisters had been taught, and she visualised such another establishment where she and Fanny and Everina could live together in peace and respectability. She believed that she had considerable ability for teaching; she was well used to managing children. Fanny was accomplished both in music and in drawing, and surely Mrs. Blood, withdrawn from her impossible husband, could act as housekeeper. Mary saw the four of them taking in boarders. Perhaps some ladies, widowed or with husbands at the war, would care to live with them. They would, when they began, be content with a very cheap house. Furniture would not surely cost much. Mary's mind went round and round the problem how the little capital necessary for this enterprise might be obtained. But though she and Mrs. Blood stitched and stitched, often far into the night, though Fanny sat for hours curved over her drawing-board, the three of them could never earn more than enough for the barest necessaries of life. There was no question of saving even a few pence a week. Still, even the thoughts and the planning were pleasant, and Mary, though this home was as tragic as her own, tasted some austere happiness in the company of her friends, in her own constant work, and in her dearly cherished hopes for the future.
It was soon noticeable to the anxious Mary that her sister's hasty marriage was not successful. Eliza, though intelligent and with much that was naturally noble and honest in her disposition, was yet suspicious, violent, oversensitive and completely without pliability or tact. She had married, too, without either thought or affection and with the sole object of escaping from her father's company and of securing for herself some kind of a shelter and a maintenance. She did not know how to manage an orderly household or respectable servants, or how to adapt herself to her husband's humour. Worn out by the struggles of her childhood, she had hoped in this marriage for ease and peace, and found all duties and all restraints irksome. On the other hand, Mr. Bishop, who had seemed so gentle and agreeable, proved to be as violent, suspicious and difficult to live with as was his unhappy young wife. Although abroad the young clergyman appeared well-bred, dignified and amiable, at home he was rude, tyrannical and disagreeable, while his slovenly habits and frequent attacks of ill-health aroused in Eliza, already disgusted through her father with these human frailties, a passion of protest.
As frequently as their restricted means would allow, Mary and Fanny visited this disgusted household. The one male friend in whom they had even a little trust, Hugh Skeys, was asked by the two girls to remonstrate with Mr. Bishop and beg him to have more patience with his young wife, while Mary and Fanny tried to soothe and encourage Eliza to make yet another attempt at some kind of happiness.
The situation seemed, however, impossible; both husband and wife had complex characters. Mr. Bishop was by no means always unreasonable. He was, indeed, able to persuade even Mary, Fanny and Hugh Skeys that his wife was chiefly to blame in their continual domestic troubles. He could, when he chose, be very beguiling and insinuating, and the worst of his furies were seen by no one but Eliza herself. He was a sensual man and fond in his way of the young girl whom he was tormenting. Their stormy disputes would be followed by violent reconciliation, and Eliza was caressed one moment to be insulted the next.
After three years of this existence, Eliza being then but twenty years of age, while Mary was still living with Fanny at Walham Green and Everina continued her work as housekeeper to Edward, the prospect of a child seemed to offer a permanent reconciliation in the Bishop household. The wiseacres said that paternal responsibility and maternal solicitude would combine to save the wreckage of this marriage. At this period Mary and Fanny had, as the result of three years' work and with some help from Everina's economies and from George's savings, put together a tiny capital towards the school. It was no more than a few pounds, but it represented in the young women's eager estimation the nucleus of a fortune that would mean independence and ease. Fanny had now dismissed all hope of marriage with Hugh Skeys. He still remained an attentive friend, and she hoped for nothing more than this detached if occasionally tender devotion. She had fought down her frustrated desire, her desperate longing, and leant upon Mary's friendship with increased eagerness.
In the midst of the two girls' keen discussion of their future plans and schemes came the news that Eliza's affairs had reached a crisis. Her constant quarrels with her husband, her inability to create any kind of method in her life, her state of health, her nervous, excitable temperament, had all combined to produce in the unhappy creature a state of dementia. Mr. Bishop, who declared himself ill and distracted, appealed to his wife's sisters for help. It was impossible for Everina to leave the post she had accepted with Edward without offending the useful brother, and therefore it fell to Mary to abandon all her plans for the future and to devote herself to her sister. She, therefore, after a sojourn of three years, left the house of the Bloods in Walham Green and returned to Enfield where Eliza Bishop lived with her husband in a flat-fronted, red brick house with a white portico, three holystoned steps, muslin curtains at the window and a brass knocker on the door.
Mr. Bishop welcomed his sister-in-law with mingled tears, reproaches and lamentations, all the evidences of a weak, disordered mind. He blamed his wife, his circumstances, everybody and everything save himself for the failure of his affairs. Mary regarded him with a contempt that touched loathing. This was the third unhappy marriage that she had witnessed, and in each case she imputed the main fault to the man. She knew that Eliza was difficult and had married for no very worthy motive, but loyalty to her sex and to her sister kept her firmly to the opinion that Mr. Bishop was chiefly to blame for the horrors of a marriage that too closely resembled that of her own parents and that of the Bloods. Horrors was not too strong a word. When she entered her sister's presence Mary found herself confronting a creature violently deranged. The approach of her confinement added to her distress and to her danger as she tossed, half naked, in the curtained tester-bed. The ignorant ministrations of a frightened midwife only increased the poor girl's fears and whims. She recognised Mary, who, however, could not produce any relief in her spirits or any order in her intellect. Eliza's blanched cheeks, staring eyes, tangled hair and chattering speech were, to her sister, truly shocking.
She began to pour out a wild, incoherent tale of her wrongs and grievances, entreated Mary to keep Mr. Bishop out of her room, and presently began to tear her cap, hair and nightsmock in a frenzy. It was necessary to send for the apothecary to come and assist the agitated and incompetent midwife. A heavy dose of laudanum was administered after a struggle to Eliza Bishop, and Mary, when her sister was in a drugged calm, sat down and by the light of the candle wrote with a trembling hand to Everina. To add to the discomfort of the wretched household, the weather was intensely cold; the water froze in the basins and pails, a black frost made the streets almost impassable; it was difficult, even with a large fire, to warm the uncomfortable, draughty room.
Mary wished to go to Tower Hill and see her brother and sister, to consult what should be done for Eliza, but the severe weather made this impossible. She therefore remained with what patience she could muster in the Bishops' home, standing by Eliza during her raving fits or listening with a contempt that she could scarcely conceal to Mr. Bishop's alternate tearful excuses and violent reproaches. As a scandal was at all costs to be avoided, friends and neighbours were kept from the house, where Mary remained on guard, stern, exhausted but resolute. Her contempt detached her from the passions that surged round her nervous efficiency.
A sudden thaw made it possible for her to travel to Tower Hill. Her brother received her coldly. He seemed, as usual, merely desirous of washing his hands of all the family affairs, and quite indifferent to Eliza's fate. Everina was disturbed and anxious, but could offer no advice—and, penniless as she was, no help. Edward's housekeeping allowances were of the most meagre kind, and it was with difficulty that his sister could squeeze out of them sufficient to buy herself the barest necessaries for her own use, and it had been at the cost of food, soap and candle for herself that she had been able to contribute to the little hoard the three girls were making towards their proposed school. Mary therefore returned through the dirty, wet, dark streets to the Bishops' house without either help or comfort.
Urged by Fanny Blood, Hugh Skeys had visited the distracted establishment. He was of little use to Mary, and seemed indeed rather inclined to sympathise with the husband. Shortly after she had seen her sister, Mary wrote again to Everina. Things had been, the last few days, a little better. The apothecary's laudanum had kept Eliza more or less in a state of subjection, and Mary had even put on her mantle and hood, and taken her for a short drive in a hired coach that she might enjoy a little fresh air in the intervals between the snowstorms:
"I expected to have seen you before this, but the extreme coldness of the weather is a sufficient apology. I cannot yet give any certain account of Bess...She has not had a violent fit of frenzy, since I saw you, but her mind is in a most unsettled state and attending to the constant fluctuation of it is far more harassing than watching those raving fits that had not the least tincture of reason. Her ideas are all disjointed and a number of wild whims float on her imagination and fall from her unconnectedly, something like strange dreams when judgment sleeps and fancy sports at a fine rate. Don't smile at my language, for I am so constantly forced to observe her—lest she run into mischief—that my thoughts continually turn on the unaccountable wanderings of her mind. She seems to think she has been very ill-used, and, in short, till I see some more favourable symptoms, I shall only suppose that her malady has assumed a new and more distressing appearance."
All Mary's own affairs had to remain in suspense while she watched the fluctuations of her sister's desperate illness. As she was not able to work, she was obliged to use her slender savings in order to spare herself the mortification of going to her brother-in-law for daily pence. A dismal Christmas passed, and after a month of her harassing responsibilities Mary wrote this letter to Everina shortly after Eliza had given birth to a daughter during painful scenes of fear, agony, reproaches and passion that had upset midwife and apothecary and almost shaken Mary's high courage:
"I don't know what to do. Poor Eliza's situation almost turns my brain. I can't stay and see this continual misery, and to leave her to bear it by herself without any one to comfort her is still more distressing. I would do anything to rescue her from her present situation. My head is quite confused with thus being to so little purpose. In this case something desperate must be determined. Do you think Edward will receive her? Do speak to him, or if you imagine that I should have more influence on his mind, I will contrive to see you, but you must caution him against expostulating with or even mentioning the affair to Bishop, for it would only put him on his guard and we should have a storm to encounter that I tremble to think of. I am convinced that this is the only expedient to save Bess, and she declares she would rather be a teacher than stay here. I must again repeat it, you must be secret, nothing can be done till she leaves the house. For his friend Wood very justly said that he was 'either a lion or a spaniel.' I have been some time deliberating on this, for I can't help pitying B, but misery must be his portion at any rate till he alters himself, and that would be a miracle.
"To be at Edward's is not desirable; of the two evils she must choose the least. Write a line by the bearer or by the post to-morrow—don't fail. I need not urge you to use your endeavours; if I did not see that it was absolutely necessary I should not have fixed upon it. I tell you she will soon be deprived of reason. Bishop cannot behave properly and those who would attempt to reason with him must be mad or have very little observation. Those who would save Bess must act and not talk."
This letter was the outcome of a long and deeply anxious deliberation, which Mary, who had no one to consult with, had made in her own reeling mind.
The child, who had been at once baptized, had been named Maria in compliment to her distracted aunt. After this crisis had passed the young mother had become somewhat calmer and had told her sister with great emphasis that she could not endure to live any longer with her husband. He, on his part, had told Mary that he would not allow his wife under any conditions to leave him. All her experience, her own instinct and the circumstances of the present case combined to persuade Mary to take what was a very daring resolution. She decided that Eliza must leave her husband, her home and her baby and join Fanny, Everina and herself, in whatever common enterprises they undertook. Mary had for the moment nothing to offer Eliza; therefore she suggested that she should seek a temporary asylum with her brother Edward; but she was certain that she must at all costs leave her husband's house.
A more intimate acquaintance with Mr. Bishop had convinced Mary, already deeply prejudiced against him, that his was the main fault in these intolerable quarrels, and she had given up early any attempt to reason with him, seeing him equally rooted in his vices and his points of view. It was, however, impossible for Eliza to be moved until she had recovered some strength, and—on a Monday morning in January, 1784—Mary wrote again to Everina:
"I have nothing to tell you, my dear girl, that will give you pleasure. Yesterday was a dismal day, long and dreary. Bishop was very ill; he is much better today, but misery haunts this house in one shape or other. How sincerely do I join with you in saying that if a person has common sense, they cannot make one completely unhappy. To attempt to lead or to govern a weak mind is impossible; it will ever press forward to what it wishes, regardless of impediments, and, with a selfish eagerness, believe what it desires practicable, though the contrary is as clear as the noonday. My spirits are hurried with listening to pros and cons, my head is so confused that I sometimes say no when I ought to say yes. My heart is almost broken with listening to B while he reasons the case. I cannot insult him with advice, which he would never have wanted if he was capable of attending to it...Bishop has made a confidant of Skeys; and as I never speak to him in private I suppose his pity may cloud his judgment...I expect Fanny next Thursday, and she will stay with us for a few days. Bessie desires to give her love; she grows better, and, of course, is more sad."
Eliza had not recovered sufficient strength for Mary to venture to put her plan into action. She had well weighed all the consequences. She knew what a daring, desperate, almost immoral step it was considered for a wife to leave her husband under any circumstances. She realised that Mr. Bishop was exceedingly plausible and could make out a good case for himself; she knew that he was resolved not to lose his victim; she knew her own penniless, defenceless condition and the dark uncertainty of the future. But for all that, and after she had well counted the cost, she resolved to cut through all these emotional scenes of reproaches, recriminations, the pros and cons, as she termed them herself, of this wretched marriage, and to give her sister at any price some measure of peace and liberty.
The escape was arranged with Fanny Blood, who came on a brief visit. Eliza was unable to nurse her child, which had been taken from her and placed in the care of a woman who resided in another apartment. Mary's energy and courage were quite equal to taking the baby away with her sister, but it was impossible for her to obtain possession of it without arousing the suspicion of the nurse. She knew that Mr. Bishop would make capital of this point—that his wife had abandoned her young baby. She believed, too, that Eliza would grieve after the little girl, but she took all these risks, accepting the full responsibility of this bold action.
The girls made their plans and waited for their opportunity. It came when Mr. Bishop went abroad on a clerical errand that would, they knew, occupy him several hours. Eliza's personal belongings were then quickly packed and taken out of the house in boxes and parcels by Fanny Blood, who deposited them in the care of a humble friend, a Mr. Lear, who had a colourman's shop in the Strand next The White Horse, from whom she bought her paint brushes and drawing pens. As soon as Fanny had left the house and all was quiet, the grey winter morning clouds spreading a pall over the huddled village with the bare trees, the two sisters—Mary carrying a few necessaries in a bundle—slipped out of Mr. Bishop's respectable brick-fronted house, walked briskly with as casual an air as they could command through the winding street between the bare hedgerows to the next posting stage, where they took the afternoon mail to London.
Mary had carefully arranged the escape so as to cover up her tracks. Through Fanny and George Blood she had hired rooms at Hackney under an assumed name. Here, by tortuous stages, she proceeded, arriving at the mean refuge of the poor furnished apartment as the pallid dusk was falling. The adventure had required courage and good sense, for Eliza had shown neither. Everything had fallen upon Mary: the arranging the exchange of coaches, the hiring of carriages, the payments and the tales necessary to soothe the suspicions of strangers as to the reason for this hasty travelling on the part of two unprotected women. On every occasion during that dreadful day when the two sisters were alone in an inn parlour as they waited for a coach or in the musty interior of a hired carriage, Eliza had given way to violent bursts of hysteria, which terrified Mary, who thought they were signs of complete insanity. When, however, they were safe in the dingy, dusty lodging, Eliza fell almost at once into a sleep of profound exhaustion. Mary drew the darned curtains round her sister's bed, sat down at the rickety table by the window that looked on to the common inn with the crude sign of the fish-tailed woman, unpacked her quill, inkhorn, and a sheet of paper, and wrote to Everina as a nervous relief to her own fear and apprehension. Despite her courage and self-reliance, she was young and inexperienced enough to feel some quivering of the nerves at what she had undertaken. For all she knew, she had committed an illegal action in taking a wife from her husband, and both she and Eliza might in the outcome find themselves in Newgate.
"Here we are, Everina, but my trembling hands will scarce let me tell you so. Bess is much more composed than I expected her to be. To make my trial still more dreadful I was afraid in the coach that she was going to have one of her flights, for she bit her wedding ring to pieces. When I can recollect myself I will send you particulars; but at present my heart beats time with every carriage that rolls by and a knocking at the door almost throws me into a fit. I hope Bishop will not discover us, for I could sooner face a lion. The door never opens but I expect to see him panting for breath. Ask Ned how we are to behave if he should find us out, for Bess is determined not to return. Can he force her?—but I'll not suppose it, yet I can think of nothing else. She is sleepy and has gone to bed; my agitated mind will not permit me. Don't tell Charles or any creature. Oh! let me entreat you to be careful, for Bess does not dread him now as much as I do. Again, let me request you to write, as Bishop's behaviour may silence my fears. You will soon hear from me again. Fanny carried many things to Lear's, brushmaker, in the Strand, next door to The White Hart. Yours, Mary."
The names and address were added by Mary—"Miss Johnson, Mrs. Dodds, opposite The Mermaid, Church Street, Hackney."
"She looks now very wild. Heaven protect us!
"I almost wish for a husband, for I want some one to support me."
A few days later Mary again wrote from her hiding place, where the two girls were living in solitude and poverty:
"Your welcome letter arrived just now, and we thank you for sending it so soon. Your account of Bishop does not surprise me as I am convinced that to gratify the ruling passion he could command all the rest. The plea of the child occurred to me and it was the most rational thing he could complain of. I know he will tell a plausible tale and the generality will pity him and blame me, but, however, if we can snatch Bess from extreme wretchedness, what reason shall we have to rejoice. It was indeed a very disagreeable affair and if we had stayed a day or two longer I believe it would never have been effected, for Bess's mind was so harassed for fear of being discovered and by the thought of leaving the child that she could not have stood it long. I suppose Bishop told you how we escaped; there was as much good luck as good management in it. As for Bess, she was so terrified that she lost all presence of mind and would have done anything. I took a second coach to prevent him tracing us...Bess is tolerably well; she cannot help sighing about little Mary whom she tenderly loved; and on this score I both love and pity her. The poor brat! it had got a little hold on my affections, sometime or other I hope we shall get it. Yesterday we were two languid ladies and even now we have pains in all our limbs and are as jaded as if we had taken a long journey...Tell my brother that Bess is fixed in her resolution of never returning. But what will be the consequence? And if a separate maintenance is not to be obtained, she'll try to earn her own bread. We carried off almost all our clothes, but we have no linen. I wish you would contrive to send us a few changes at the first opportunity, it matters not whom they belong to. We have neither chemise, handkerchief, nor apron, so our necessities are pressing."
The affair turned out much as Mary had foreseen it would. Mr. Bishop posed as the injured party, complained to his wife's relatives of her desertion, demanded her return, and pointed out the heartless cruelty of leaving him with a child only a few weeks old. His manners impressed everyone in his favour, and it was generally felt by those who knew of the case that Mary had done a rash and unwarranted action in separating husband and wife. Even old friends of Mary's, like the Clares, were disposed to side with Mr. Bishop and to suggest a reconciliation with his Eliza. Only Fanny staunchly supported Mary's point of view.
Meanwhile the two young women remained in hiding at the Hackney lodgings, living meagrely on the remnants of Mary's savings, now dwindling so fast that the resolute girl was forced to look to the future and again to the prospect of the school. She wrote a long letter about this scheme to Everina:
"With economy we can live on a guinea a week, and that we can with ease earn. The lady who gave Fanny five guineas for two drawings will assist us and we shall be independent...If Ned makes us a little present of furniture it will be very acceptable, but if he is prudent we must try to do without it. I knew I should be the shameful incendiary in this shocking affair of a woman leaving her bedfellow, they thought the strong affection of a sister might apologise for my conduct, but that the scheme was by no means a good one. In short, 'tis contrary to all the rules of conduct that are published for the benefit of new married ladies, by whose advice Mrs. Brook was actuated when she in grief of heart gave up my friendship. Mrs. Clare, too, with cautious words disapproved of our conduct, and were she to see Bishop might advise a reconciliation."
Fanny Blood, however, who had not Mary's courage and confidence, was terrified at the idea of their living together without any outside support, and on February 18th, 1784, she wrote from Walham Green her doubts and fears to Everina Wollstonecraft, who was still living with Edward:
"My dear Everina, the situation of our two poor girls grows more and more desperate. My mind is tortured about them because I cannot see any possible resource they have for a maintenance. The letter I last night received from Mary disturbed me so much that I have never since closed my eyes and my head is this morning almost distracted. I find she wrote to her brother informing him that it was our intention to live all together and earn our bread by painting and needlework, which gives me great uneasiness as I am convinced that he will be displeased at his sisters being connected with me, and the forfeiting his favour at this time is of the utmost consequence...The very utmost I can earn one week from another, supposing I have uninterrupted health, is half a guinea a week, which would just pay for furnished lodgings for three people to pig together. As for needlework, it is utterly impossible they could earn more than half a guinea a week between them supposing they had constant employment, which is of all things the most uncertain...I own with sincere sorrow that I was greatly to blame for ever mentioning this plan..."
Fanny had her own anxious suggestion to make, and that was that Edward should advance the capital for them to take and stock a small haberdashery shop. The poor girl had it in her head that this important brother was regarding his sisters coldly because of their association with her, for Fanny considered herself disgraced by the behaviour of her sister Caroline, who had now thrown over all pretences of respectability, and was what gentlewomen were trained to call "a lost woman." Therefore Fanny, in her sorrow and humiliation, added:
"If your brother should be averse to assisting them from a notion that I should live with them, I wish you would take the earliest opportunity of assuring him from me that on no account whatever will I ever live with them unless fortune should make me quite independent, which I never expect..."
Edward Wollstonecraft showed no desire to rent and stock a haberdasher's shop for his sisters, or to help them in any practical way; on the contrary he, in common with all their friends and acquaintances, set his face against their conduct, which had caused a general outcry among their small circle of orthodox acquaintances.
Forced to remain in hiding as if they had committed some crime, with very little money and insufficient clothing, using assumed names and remaining indoors until after dark for fear of discovery, the two girls paid to the full the penalties for the unconventional gesture of independence.
There was a good deal of openly expressed sympathy for Bishop. Many of their acquaintances, and the Mrs. Brook whom Mary mentioned in her letter, entirely withdrew their countenance from the rebels. Even good Mrs. Clare was cautious. From no one was any financial assistance forthcoming. Mr. Bishop refused to contribute a farthing to the needs of Eliza till she returned to his home.
Affairs remained at a standstill for months, but Mary continued firm. Edward's legal knowledge was called upon, and he and Everina induced Mr. Bishop finally to agree to a legal separation from his wife. This news was hailed with the greatest joy by the two young women. Eliza was now free from her tyrant; that is, she was at liberty to support herself by whatever means she could find. She remained the wife of Mr. Bishop, bound for life to a man whom she hoped never to see again. As she was but twenty years of age, this might have seemed a dismal prospect. The two sisters were, however, for the moment completely happy, their only cause for regret being the little Mary whom her mother had been forced to abandon.
The teaching scheme was at last put to the test. Mary and Eliza moved to Islington, where the Bloods were then living, and opened a little dame-school for infants and children. No one came, and the girls moved to Newington Green, where the Clares could give them introductions. The burden of these classes, which were held in one of the rooms of the small house where all lived, and therefore required no capital beyond that sufficient to buy a few books, fell upon Mary, because Fanny herself became from day to day more sickly, and Eliza soon fell into her old moods and distractions. Much assistance was forthcoming from George, who had returned to London and taken a position with an attorney named Palmer. He lived at home and made Mary his confidante in his hopeless passion for Everina, while helping her in a practical fashion with her meagre accounts, debts and purchases.
After the little school had struggled on for a year Mary lost, under different circumstances, both brother and sister. Hugh Skeys suddenly took it in his head to offer his hand to Fanny, whose forlorn state and exemplary patience under his procrastination seemed of late to have roused his compassion. They were married, and the young merchant took his enraptured wife with him to Lisbon. Mary saw her friend depart with true rejoicings at her happiness, but with a continued contempt for the lover who had delayed perhaps too long.
Soon after Fanny Skeys had gone to Lisbon, George fell into serious trouble. This unhappy home had now been finally broken up. Caroline, who was considered to have disgraced her family, was leading a vicious life; Mr. Blood had been found meagre employment in a stocking business in London through the influence of Hugh Skeys. George was honest and respectable and kept steady by his passion for Everina, but he became, through no fault of his own, involved in sordid misfortunes. The rascally attorney who employed him had foolishly forged some documents for a client, a Mrs. Jones, whereby this lady was falsely represented to be a clergyman's widow and her son enabled to enter a charity school run for the orphans of the clergy. This fraud being discovered, Mr. Palmer was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. George, as his clerk, was implicated. His innocence was with some difficulty proved, but he was quickly in another trouble.
No sooner was the Palmer establishment broken up by the arrest of the master than one of the servant girls employed there falsely declared George Blood to be the father of her child. All these painful and sordid troubles fell upon Mary, whose health at this time was bad. George's father also added to her burdens by losing his job and beseeching her to find him another; he wanted to go to Ireland, where he had relatives. Constables hung about the little school watching for George, who, not knowing what he had to face, remained hidden.
Mary, however, was not daunted. George, acting on her advice and encouraged by her friendship, fled to Ireland, where he soon picked up a living, though in the humblest way. Soon after his hurried departure from England, a few months after Fanny's marriage, Mary wrote to George:
"The pleasure I felt at hearing of your safe arrival in Ireland was a good deal damped by the account you gave of the captain's brutality. By this time I hope all the effects of so disagreeable a voyage have gone off, except your being a little weatherbeaten or so, but you and I don't think that of much consequence...It would give me great pleasure to hear there was any chance of getting some employment. In the meantime, give way to hope, do your duty and leave the rest to Heaven. Forfeit not that sure support in the time of trouble, and though your want of experience and judgment may betray you into many errors, let not your heart be corrupted by bad example, and then, though it may be wounded by neglect and torn by anguish, you will not feel that most acute of all sorrows, a sense of having deserved the miseries that you undergo. Palmer has been respited, and of course will be pardoned. I have made many inquiries concerning the affair that alarmed us so much and find that Palmer's servant has sworn a child to you and it was on that account those men came to our house. The girl was waiting in a little ale-house near us, so that if you had stayed you would have been involved in a pretty piece of business that your innocence would not have extricated you out of...How troublesome fools are! Mrs. Campbell, who has all the constancy that attends on folly and in whose mind when any prejudice is fixed it remains for ever, has long disliked you, and this confined ill-humour has at length broken out and she has sufficiently railed at your vices and the encouragement I have given them...I have been very ill and have gone through the usual physical operations, have been bled and blistered, yet still am not well; my harassed mind will in time wear out my body. I have been so hunted down by cares and see so many that I must encounter that my spirits are quite depressed. I have lost all relish of life and my almost broken heart only cares for the prospect of death. I may be years dying tho', and so I ought to be patient, for at this time to wish myself away would be selfish...Adieu to the village delights. I almost hate the Green, for it seems the grave of all my comforts. Shall I ever again see your honest heart dancing in your eyes?"
Mary had taken over the little house, and was running the school at Newington Green with the help of Eliza and Everina, who had left her unpleasant position with Edward. Soon after George went to Ireland she took a larger house on the Green. She had, besides twenty day pupils, one or two boarders who had brought their children to the little establishment to be educated. Among these was the Mrs. Campbell referred to in the above letter who was a distant relation, a narrow-minded and disagreeable woman whom Mary found it hard to tolerate and who was continually quarrelling with the tactless Eliza.
In the same month—July, 1785—Mary wrote again to George Blood:
"It gives me sincerest satisfaction to find that you look for comfort where only it is to be met with, and that Being in whom you trust will not desert you. Be not cast down while we are struggling with care, life slips away, and through the assistance of divine grace, we are obtaining habits and virtues that will enable us to relish those joys which we cannot now form any idea of...I have no creatures to be unreserved to. Eliza and Everina are so different that I could as fly as open my heart to them. How my social comforts have dropped away. Fanny first, and then you went over the hills and far away. I am resigned to my fate, that gloomy kind of resignation tinged with despair. Your affectionate friend, Mary."
As the above letter hints, Mary's troubles were augmented by a growing coldness between herself and her sisters. Everina was austere and reserved, Eliza wilful and passionate. Both, without actually saying so, seemed to blame Mary for the break-up of the Bishop marriage. They considered her bold and independent to an unwomanly degree, and both of them resented her authority in the management of the affairs that they were so incapable of dealing with themselves. Mary's main pleasure during the tedium of these dull days consisted in the packets of letters that Fanny sent from Lisbon. On the receipt of one of these she wrote again to George in Ireland:
"My dear George, I have received the long expected packet. The account Fanny gives of her health is far from pleasing me...Skeys has received congratulatory letters from most of his friends and relations in Ireland, and he now regrets that he did not marry sooner. All his mighty fears had no foundation, so that if he had had courage to have braved the world's dread laugh and ventured to have acted for himself, he might have spared Fanny many griefs, part of which will never be obliterated. Nay, more. If she had gone a year or two ago her health might have been perfectly restored, which I do not think now will ever be the case. Before true passion I am convinced everything but a sense of duty moves. True love is warmest when the object is absent. How Hugh could let Fanny languish in England while he was throwing money away at Lisbon, is to me inexplicable if he had a passion that did not require the fuel of seeing the object..."
Before Mary wrote again to George, his sister had persuaded her husband to allow her brother to return to the Lisbon office. By the time Mary had heard this news, George had sailed for Portugal. Mary had also been informed that Fanny was expecting a child in the early part of the New Year, and she had promised herself the pleasure of nursing her friend on this occasion, though she was doubtful whether it was wise to leave the little school in the charge of Everina and Eliza, neither of whom showed much discretion or tact in dealing with pupils or teachers:
September 4th, 1785.
"By this time, my dear George, I suppose you have received Fanny's letter informing you that your fortune has at last taken a turn. I only heard of it yesterday and I most sincerely rejoice, and I earnestly wish to hear of your arrival at Lisbon on Fanny's account as well as your own. I hope to see you before the year is out, as I am determined to be with her on a certain occasion if I can possibly contrive it...Palmer has hatched up some stories to my discredit in order to be avenged on me for opening Mrs. D's eyes to his villainies. He is still in prison..."
Together with Fanny's letter entreating her Mary to come and stay with her was one from Mr. Skeys giving an alarming account of his wife's health. He desired, he said, to gratify her every wish, and she had none dearer to her heart than that of seeing Mary again.
The tender and devoted friend did not hesitate for a moment. She wrote to Lisbon, promising at the earliest possible moment to join Fanny. Few could realise the difficulties this promise involved her in. The little school had been far from successful. Her life at Newington Green, "the grave of all her hopes," as she described it, was miserably hard and drab. In the mornings and evenings she did housework and sewing—for the rest of the day she taught. Her expenses had proved higher than she had expected, her gain smaller. It had been a mistake to move from the small house into the larger one. She lost many of her little pupils, and others did not replace them; some of her boarders could not be induced to pay their bills; her creditors increased. She found herself being gradually involved in what she most detested—a network of petty debts. She had, too, been greatly troubled by the misfortunes of George Blood and the censorious conduct of Mrs. Campbell, who had accused her of encouraging an idle, vicious youth. Added to this was the burden of the Bloods. Again the old man had lost his work and was pestering to go to Ireland. Poor, helpless and incompetent, the wretched couple looked to Mary for support, and she spent what time she could snatch from her own labours in assisting them and trying to find some work for the old drunkard, who spent in gin the money sent by Fanny and Hugh Skeys. Mary had been drawn unpleasantly into the affairs of the scoundrel Palmer, because she had ventured to defend the innocent George, to protect him against the consequences of his employer's villainies and to open the eyes of the mother of the lying servant girl to the true facts of the case. Even her own good name had been tarnished by the rascally attorney. All these things combined to make Mary's life almost unendurably gloomy and sad. She lost what little of her natural gaiety had survived her home life, and the eagerness with which she had undertaken her new enterprise completely vanished.
The drudge at the dame-school conscientiously fulfilled her task of teaching the unruly and indifferent children sent to her, but neither her health nor her spirits were in a condition to fit her for this difficult and tiresome task. Often a common lassitude would fall over the little classes; children would be whispering or quarrelling on their benches or asleep with their books dropped in their laps, while the tall, pale-faced, auburn-haired girl, sunk in her own miseries, would sit motionless at the blackboard staring at the ground. In this state of affairs a journey to Lisbon seemed out of the question; it would have been considered under any circumstances a bold thing for a woman alone to undertake. Everina and Eliza at once protested that they could not contrive to manage the school by themselves. They pointed out that Mary had neither the money to pay for her fare, nor the clothes fit to visit a prosperous merchant's wife. It was winter time, the season bad, and the sea voyage known to be long and uncomfortable. Mary, however, refused to listen to anything except the call from Fanny. She made whatever arrangements were possible for the good running of the school in her absence. She closed her ears to the protests of her sisters, and she went from one acquaintance to another, endeavouring to borrow the money for her fare. It added to her disdain of Hugh Skeys that he had not sent her some money for her journey. He knew her circumstances, and though she, out of delicacy, would not ask, he, out of delicacy, might have offered.
Mrs. Bishop and the Misses Wollstonecraft had made some friends since they had been at Newington Green. This was no ordinary village; in it was situate one of the largest Dissenting Academies in the country, and near to this austere establishment had grown up a considerable colony of educated respectable people, retired Dissenting pastors, their wives or widows, superannuated schoolmasters, decorous pamphleteers, correctors of the press, publishers' readers and scholars engaged in unprofitable but to themselves delightful tasks of the translation and revision of the more decorous classic authors. These people were, according to Mary's standard, well off—they were certainly not pursued by the unseemly poverty that gnawed her; they were also free from the coarse vices that had so smirched her childhood and youth, and they were engaged in those intellectual pursuits that she so ardently wished to follow. As the attention of the grave men in their snuff-coloured, neat, worn clothes and the notice of their prim ladies in tabbinet or crape were attracted to the three girls struggling with the dame-school, they began to call at the modest establishment to inspect the bare room with the pair of globes, the shelves of dog-eared books, the benches and desks patched together by George Blood where the three young women taught their little pupils.
After sober consideration, Newington Green approved of the sad little enterprise. It was lamentable that Mrs. Bishop was separated from her husband, but not the most censorious could complain of her life. The three sisters were of the utmost respectability. Their drab lives, deprived of all gaiety, pleasure and diversion, satisfied the puritan instincts of these good people whose own piety was so grim, whose own existences were so colourless and monotonous, that it might have seemed as if, like a regiment at a pause, the entire colony of Newington Green was but marking time until the signal was given for them to march into Heaven.
Mary accepted these people, their rigid standard of conduct, their cut-and-dried ethics, their acrid theology and in particular the tenet, the more trouble on earth, the more joy in Heaven. In her talk and in her letters she adopted much of the jargon of "thorny paths" leading by mysterious ways and for mysterious reasons to perfect bliss.
She belonged nominally to the Church of England, but there was nothing in the creed of Dissent that displeased her, though she escaped wholly, by reason of a full, unimaginative mind, the taint of that "enthusiasm" which George Whitfield and the Wesleys had spread throughout the country.
This austere little world of Newington Green was much more to her liking than that wider brilliant world of Bath; and, for a good reason, here she was accepted—there she had been rejected.
She was pleased to be admitted to the insipid tea drinkings, the arid debates, the doleful self-pityings, the zestful relishings of future joys in Heaven, and she had neither the taste nor the experience to realise that here was pedantry without culture, piety without mysticism, good behaviour without grace or warmth, and that these worthies had succeeded in desiccating life until it had become like a last year's prune.
What she knew as respectability and what she thought was learning were still her objectives in life. She diligently "kept up appearances." No mention was made of the drunken father in Wales, of the lawless ragged brother, though hardly scraped up shillings were sent secretly to both, and nothing could have been more distressing than the constables' spying about The Green for George Blood; but even that had been lived down, and Mary, when the summons came from Lisbon, was respected by these censorious people whose good opinion was so hard to gain.
What she taught with the elements of learning, morals, religion was so sternly orthodox, her own conduct was so irreproachable, and there was something so gratifying to kindly bigotry in her person, clean but slovenly, wearing the cheapest clothes, despising the simplest aids to those charms that she did not appear to know she possessed, that even the most pious widow on the Green, Mrs. Burgh, accepted the young schoolmistress as one worthy of that long affliction which finally fits the soul for a place in the heavenly choirs.
To this lady Mary took her tale of distress—how was she to find the means to get to Portugal? The two women wept together in the drab parlour, darkened by the shadow of that grim academy founded by the redoubtable Charles Morton, who had finally migrated to America in disgust and discovered his true vocation in witch hunting.
It was impossible to live on The Green and escape the uncompromising outlines of this seminary where John Bunyan had preached, where Daniel Defoe had imbibed the milk of the Word, and where Samuel Wesley the elder, had begun his starveling progress to the blacking of boots and the attainment of learning in Exeter College, Oxford. Mrs. Burgh thought that something might be done. She sent Mary home across the twilight green, where some of her little pupils played at cricket, and her prim maid for Dr. Richard Price, who was not only a well-known figure among the inhabitants of The Green, but of some distinction in literary London.
This Dissenting minister, then over sixty years of age, had published in 1756 a book with a forbidding title, Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, that had brought him some fame and money. The book was a reply to another very popular in its day, The Moral Philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, who had upheld the principles of the third Earl of Shaftesbury against those of Hobbes and Mandeville.
Dr. Price had also more lively claims to attention: he was liberal in his views, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, a supporter of the Colonies that had so successfully revolted against George III, and had expressed his views so forcibly that Congress, in the first excitement of liberty achieved, had invited this enthusiastic supporter to accept a seat in the Senate of the United States. Dr. Price had preferred the chaste pleasures of Newington Green, but he continued to watch the affairs of the world with much interest, in particularly those of France. The writings of the Gallic philosophers attracted him in spite of their atheism. He flattered himself that he could extract the honey of their humanitarianism while rejecting the gall of their blasphemies.
Mary had often heard the good doctor express these views, and heartily agreed with them. His warm praise of America rearoused those gusts of admiration that she had felt in Bath when she had read of the war in Mrs. Dawson's newspapers. Dr. Price, on his side, liked the burdened, serious girl, and recognised, with some surprise, a strong intelligence in this shy, unschooled female. Mary was frequently a member of the sober congregation that gathered in the bare meeting-room to hear Richard Price discourse of the miseries that humanity must blindly endure, in the faith that these inflictions conferred some dazzling benefit beyond the grave.
The kindly minister consulted with Mrs. Burgh on Mary's problem. Mrs. Burgh was herself of some importance; her late husband, James Burgh, had been a scholar of St. Andrews, a press corrector, an usher, the head of a school at Stoke Newington, and author of various pamphlets including one, Political Disquisitions, that had been widely read. Between these two friends the matter was soon arranged. Mrs. Burgh waited on Mary and gave her the bare minimum for her journey to Portugal. In order to spare feminine delicacy, she declared that this loan came from herself; but in reality the money had been taken from Richard Price's modest capital.
Thus furnished with the means of reaching Fanny, Mary furbished up her poor stock of clothes and set out on the dreary and perilous voyage to Portugal, the first stage of which was a rough journey to the coast through November fogs and rains. Mary's first experience of leaving her own country was dismal. The root misery of her poverty made it appear as if she were especially destined for misfortune. She travelled as cheaply as possible, on a third-class ship and at the stormy season of the year. Mary had to share the rudest quarters with wretched fellow-travellers, many of whom were going south in the desperate hope of restoring diseased lungs. The coughings of consumptives were added to the retchings of the sick as the passengers huddled in the dark cabin of the tossing ship that was caught in a November gale. The sea was so high that the vessel was almost dismasted. Many of the passengers were very ill, and Mary had to nurse a dying man who was travelling by himself, for she alone among the female passengers seemed to preserve some presence of mind. Indeed, her thoughts were so fixed upon Fanny that she hardly noticed the discomforts of the journey and was not herself ill. The same obsession prevented her from noticing when the voyage ended at last the strange scene that the beautiful city presented, rising white and golden amid palms and olives in the Southern winter from the banks of the Tagus.
To her Portugal and Lisbon were but the background of the loved one. She hastened to Mr. Skeys's pleasant house, so different in every detail from anything she had seen before, yet she noticed nothing. She was later than she had intended to be; there had been delays in raising the money, getting together her meagre equipment and owing to the tempestuous voyage. Mary, exhausted, dishevelled, breathless, ran upstairs to find that doctor and midwife were already in attendance on Fanny. Mary entered her chamber only to witness her convulsions of agony. Four hours after Mary's arrival in Lisbon Fanny's child was born, and Mary, not herself recovered from the fatigues of her journey, was called upon to nurse her friend.
Child-birth had consumed the remnant of strength left to Fanny. As Mary looked upon the haggard aspect of her friend gasping her life out between her distorted smiles of welcome, she thought with a burning reproach of the dilatory and reluctant lover who, in her opinion, had murdered his Fanny by his delay.
In the first interval of leisure Mary had, she wrote to her sisters:
"My dear girls, I am beginning to awaken out of a terrifying dream. In that light do the transactions of these two or three last days appear. Before I say more, let me tell you that when I arrived here Fanny was in labour and that four hours afterwards she was delivered of a boy. The child was alive and well, and considering the very, very low state to which Fanny was reduced she is better than could be expected...I could not write to you on shipboard, the sea was so rough, and we had such hard gales and winds that the captain was afraid we should be dismasted. I cannot write to-night or collect my scattered thoughts, my mind is so unsettled. Fanny is so worn out, her recovery would be almost a resurrection, but my reason will scarcely allow me to think this possible..."
The letter was interrupted by desperate news of the invalid. Mary flew back to her friend's bedside, and only two days later was able to resume her letter:
"Fanny has been so alarmingly ill since I wrote the above I entirely gave her up, but yet I could not write and tell you so. It seemed like signing her death warrant. Yesterday afternoon some of the most alarming symptoms a little abated and she had a comfortable night, yet I rejoice with trembling lips and am afraid to indulge hope...We arrived last Monday and we were only thirteen days at sea. The wind was so high and the sea so boisterous the water came in at the cabin windows and the ship rolled about in such a manner it was dangerous to stir. The women were seasick the whole time and a poor invalid so oppressed by his complaints I never expected he would live to see Lisbon. I supported him for hours together gasping for breath, and at night, if I had been inclined for sleep, his dreadful cough would have kept me awake...Could I not look for comfort where only it is to be found, I should have been mad before this, but I feel that I am supported by that Being who alone can heal a wounded spirit. May He bless you both. Yours, Mary."
Before this letter was posted gentle Fanny Skeys had died, so worn out by past sorrows and privations as to be unable to enjoy happiness when at last she found it.
Mary's grief at this loss was extreme; she was more overwhelmed than she had been either by the long agony of her mother's last illness or by Eliza's dreadful fits of insanity. Her duty to her sisters and to the little school in Newington Green was, however, uppermost in her mind. She did not linger in Lisbon, where she hardly noticed either the people or the surroundings, and immediately after Fanny's burial in the English cemetery, where the palm and the olive shaded her grave, Mary returned to England. Fanny, who had never been able to command any of her husband's money, left her friend nothing. When Mary spoke to him of the needs of his wife's parents, he pleaded an embarrassment in his affairs. One of the reasons for Mary's hasty return was therefore her dislike of Hugh Skeys, whom she continued to blame for his wife's death.
Mary, for the sake of economy, had to travel in the roughest manner possible, and the ship on which she was embarked encountered severe storms. Neither her grief nor her discomforts were sufficient to weaken Mary's courage, always conspicuous in a crisis. The ship passed, when the gale was at its height, a dismasted French vessel. The foreign captain hailed the Englishman, declaring himself to be in danger of foundering; his stock of provisions was almost exhausted. He asked that he and his entire crew might be taken on board the other ship. The English captain hesitated for fear of overloading his own ship. The situation came to the ears of the passengers and was the subject of passionate discussion. Mary was startled out of her absorption in her own sorrow by sympathy for the wretched French crew. While everyone on board was hesitant, she was decided. Wrapping a shawl about her, she fought her way on deck, through the wind and rain, approached the captain and warmly urged him to succour the Frenchmen; then, seeing him still reluctant to do so, she added that if the foreign sailors were left to perish she would publish the story on her return to London. Before this threat the captain gave way; boats were put out and the French crew, after much difficulty, taken on board the English vessel.
When, exhausted and travel-worn, Mary again reached Newington Green she found nothing but trouble. As she had expected, Everina and Eliza had proved incapable of managing the school. The younger sister had finally quarrelled with the difficult Mrs. Campbell, who had withdrawn herself and her three boys from the establishment. Other pupils had left through the sisters' negligence or temper, debts had mounted higher, and creditors became more importunate.
The death of their daughter had left the Bloods in even deeper distress than before. Mary had in vain endeavoured to get some assistance for them from Hugh Skeys. The young merchant, however, had never approved of his wife's relatives, and had already done much to assist them. He refused to be burdened further, with the shiftless idle crew. Nor was any help forthcoming from George, for, unknown to his parents and Mary, he had quarrelled with his brother-in-law soon after his sister's death and left Lisbon for Ireland, where he was looking for work. As he did not wish to vex Mary with this new disaster, he did not write to her, and she was ignorant of his whereabouts.
The fortunes of Mr. Wollstonecraft also had fallen to a very low ebb. After a brief visit to the capital, he had been forced to retreat again to the Pembrokeshire farm, taking with him his second wife, an insignificant but good-hearted creature who had been foolish enough to accept him. With him had gone Charles. The three barely managed to make a poor living at Laugharne, and Mr. Wollstonecraft wrote continually to Mary, urging her to try to induce Edward, the one prosperous member of the family, to send him money.
To these bitter miseries of others which she tried to shoulder, Mary added her own troubles: a persistent illness and lowness of spirit made her see present and future through an unalterable gloom, and a grave failure in her health was brought about by anxiety and overwork. Nervous debility seriously affected her sight; she believed that she was going blind.
While she was still struggling to keep her school together and was considering desperately what she should do to help the many unfortunate creatures dependent upon her, George Blood wrote from Ireland, told her of the breach with Hugh Skeys, and asked her not to reveal this to his parents until he had found employment. This was yet another misfortune, but Mary regarded it with sympathy, if only for the reason that she liked George and disliked Mr. Skeys.
In February, 1786, she wrote to the young man the following letter:
"Things do not go well with me and my spirits seem forever flown. I was a month on my passage and the weather was so tempestuous we were several times in imminent danger that I did not expect ever to have reached land. If it had pleased Heaven to have called me then, what a world of care I should have missed. I have lost all relish for pleasure and life seems a burden almost too heavy to be endured. My head is stupid and my heart sick and exhausted. But why should I worry you? And yet, if I do not tell you my vexations, what can I write about?...The school dwindles to nothing and we shall soon lose our last boarder, Mrs. Disney. She and the girls quarrelled while I was away, which contributed to make the house very disagreeable. Her sons are to be whole boarders at Mrs. Cockburn's. Let me turn my eyes on which side I will, I can only anticipate misery...I have too many debts. I cannot think of remaining any longer in this house, the rent is so enormous. Where to go, without friends and money, who can point out? My eyes are very bad and my memory gone. I cannot think of any situation, and as for Eliza I don't know what will become of her. My constitution is impaired. I hope I shan't live long, yet I may be a tedious time dying—Mary Wollstonecraft."
Mary added to this letter:
"Well, I am too impatient. The Will of Heaven be done. I will labour to be resigned. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I scarce know what I write, yet my writing at all when my mind is so disturbed as it is proves to you that I can never be lost so entirely in business to forget those I love. I long to hear that you are settled. This is the only quarter from which I can reasonably expect any pleasure. I have received a very short, unsatisfactory letter from Lisbon. It was written to apologise for not sending the money to your father which he [Mr. Skeys] promised. It would have been particularly acceptable at this time; but he is prudent and will not run any hazards to serve a friend."
Mary, however, was not, as she knew, really without friends. There were still Dr. Price and Mrs. Burgh whom she could hardly hope to repay, there were the Clares and there was the Rev. John Hewlett, who was moved by the grave auburn haired girl who worked so hard and was so overburdened by the troubles of others. This gentleman called on the poor little school and suggested that she should write some little manual on education. He was a friend of Joseph Johnson, the celebrated bookseller, and might get it published. This advice seemed to offer a sparkle of hope. Mary felt that if she could earn money all her difficulties would vanish. Ill and harassed as she was, she at once sat down-and put together thoughts on the Education of Daughters. It was hackwork. Mary had much that was original to say on the subject of the education of women, but this was not the moment to say it. She kept to the safe lines of platitude and commonplace. The effort pleased Mr. Johnson, who paid her ten guineas for it. With this money Mary at once sent Mr. and Mrs. Blood to Dublin, where they had for long been pestering to go. This was Mary's tribute to the memory of her friend. She put the needs of Fanny's parents before those of her own besotted father or penniless brothers.
As for herself, Mary was indulging in the only luxury possible to the unfortunate—that of self-renunciation. She began to take a melancholy delight in sacrificing herself, in going without the meanest comforts, in stripping herself for the benefit of others, in counting on a reward in Heaven.
In making the acquaintance of Joseph Johnson, Mary had touched the fringe of the circle of London's most advanced intellectuals. The bookseller was a prosperous business man, a patron of literature, actively interested in the thought of the day, and in touch with all the finest minds of Europe. From his press in St. Paul's Churchyard he issued many famous works, including those by Priestley, Cowper, Horne Tooke, and Erasmus Darwin. He was, in common with most intellectuals, Liberal, even republican in sympathies, and gathered round him the boldest thinkers and the most daring writers. He was then nearly fifty years of age, genial, humane, shrewd and cool-headed.
This important man was interested in the grave and harassed young girl who had so quickly turned out a saleable work. He believed that he saw in her a potential writer, and he asked for further contributions to his publishing list; but Mary's wants were urgent; the school no longer existed, and she was encumbered with heavy debts. She very much wished to devote herself to writing, but the prospects that authorship offered were too precarious. It was decided that the school should be given up at once and that they should go out as companions or governesses. The situation at this time is described in a letter to George Blood, written from Newington Green on the 22nd May, 1787:
"By this time, my dear George, I hope your father and mother have reached Dublin...My affairs are hastening to a crisis. Some of my creditors cannot afford to wait for their money. As for leaving England in debt, I am determined not to do it. Everina and Eliza are both endeavouring to go out into the world, the one as a companion and the other as a teacher, and I believe I shall continue some time on the Green. I intend taking a little cheap lodging and living without a servant. The few scholars I have will maintain me. I have done with all worldly pursuits and wishes. I only wish to exist without being dependent on the caprices of our fellow creatures. I shall have many solitary hours, but I have not much to hope for in life so it would be absurd to give way to fear...Surely when I could determine to survive Fanny I can endure poverty and all the lesser ills of life. I dreaded, oh, how I dreaded this time, and now it is arrived I am calmer than I expected to be. I have been very unwell. My constitution is much impaired. The prison walls are decaying and the prisoner will ere long get free. Remember that I am your truly affectionate friend and sister, Mary Wollstonecraft."
Every house a den, every man bound; the shadows are
With spectres, and the windows woven over with curses of iron.
Over the doors 'Thou shalt not' and over the chimneys 'Fear' is written.
THE two younger sisters soon obtained ill-paid and uncomfortable posts as companions, and Mary was left alone in Newington Green. The scheme that she had mentioned to George Blood, however, of taking a little room and trying to earn her living by teaching fell through; but one of the friends whom she had made through her scholastic venture recommended her to a Mr. Prior, an assistant master at Eton College. This gentleman was shortly travelling with his wife to Dublin, and had been asked by Lady Kingsborough to find a governess for her children. This post was suggested to Mary. She sent in her credentials and prayed that she might be accepted. Much as she disliked the thought of entering another person's house in a dependent's position, this situation seemed her only way of escape from her present and incessant difficulties. While the affair was still undecided she wrote to George Blood, July 6th, 1787:
"Lady Kingsborough has written about me to Mrs. Prior and I wait for further particulars before I give my final answer. Forty pounds a year were the terms mentioned to me, and half of the sum I could spare to discharge my debts, and afterwards to assist Eliza. I by no means like the proposal of being a governess...Here we have no resting place nor any stable comforts, but what arises from our resignation and the Will of Heaven and our firm reliance on those precious promises delivered to us by Him who brought life and immortality to the world..."
She decided, however, although with reluctant misgivings, to accept the post of governess to Lady Kingsborough's children and to travel with Mr. and Mrs. Prior to Dublin. They were not ready for an immediate departure, and Mary went to stay with them at their house in Eton, the red mansion opposite the west doorway of the chapel.
Mr. Prior was an excellent scholar. The grandson of a former college porter, he had obtained a King's Scholarship at Eton and afterwards became a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.
Mary remained for some weeks in Eton, and had the worst possible impression of the school and the scholars. From what she could see of the boys, she thought them idle, vicious and irreligious. She strongly disliked the whole system of education as she saw it exemplified in Eton College, and she felt all her previous ideas as to the upbringing of the young confirmed. She was reading, too, some books lent her by Mr. Johnson. The heady and disturbing philosophy of J. J. Rousseau began to shake her narrow piety.
On October 9th, 1787, she wrote to Everina from Eton:
"The time I spend here appears lost. While I remain in England I would fain be near those I love...I could not live the life they lead at Eton; nothing but dress and ridicule going forward, and I really believe their fondness for ridicule tends to make them affected, the women in their manners and the men in their conversation. Witlings abound and puns fly about like crackers, though you scarcely guess they have any meaning in them if you did not hear the noise they create. So much company without any sociability would be to me an insupportable fatigue, yet I am, 'tis true, quite alone in a crowd; I cannot help reflecting on the scene around me, and my thoughts harass me. Vanity in one shape or another reigns triumphant. My thoughts and wishes tend to that land where the God of Love will wipe away all tears from our eyes, where sincerity and truth will flourish and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions which vanish like dreams when experience forces us to see things as they really are..."
The bitter tone of this letter is easily explained. Mary, poor and neglected, felt herself an outsider in the society of Eton as she had felt herself an outsider in the society of Bath. Nobody concerned himself with her, and she found herself watching as a detached spectator a life in which she could not have any part. At the same time she was conscious of personal attraction and considerable gifts, and knew that under favourable circumstances she could have held her own with all these witlings whom she affected to despise. It is easy to see the faults of those who do not in any way concern us, and Mary had a keen eye for all the weaknesses of these gay, independent people who never so much as cast a glance at the poor young woman who was living in sufferance in Mr. Prior's household, a mere nobody waiting to become a governess in Ireland. Mary was, besides, in very low health, still troubled about her sight, subject to attacks of fever at night and hampered by a distressing weakness that made the least exertion difficult. Had she been well and happy, Mary would not have noted with as much severity the hypocrisy of the boys who went to take the Sacrament for no other reason than to avoid a fine of half a guinea. As the misery of her worldly position was forced on her, she turned more and more to the luxury of self-sacrifice and to the prospect of that Heaven in which her friends the Nonconformists so firmly believed. This unnatural resignation, this forced piety, betrayed the honest Mary into hypocrisy. She had confessed to George Blood that she would never think of giving her confidence to her sisters, yet she wrote to Everina that only the prospect of being united to her in Heaven made her earthly toils tolerable.
Under this bitter self-abnegation Mary felt the thrills of a hardly suppressed ambition. She was alien in Eton as she had been alien in Bath, but in that circle which was presided over by Mr. Johnson she might be tolerated, even admired. The famous bookseller had actually promised to buy more of her work. For a few hours' labour she had earned ten golden coins. If she had but the courage, might she not make her living this way, pay her debts, help her relatives?
Mr. Prior's comfortable house was well stocked with books. While the schoolboys shouted without in the golden light of the autumn days, and the masters and their wives were busy with their games, cards and tea drinking, Mary took down book after book from the loaded shelves and, glancing over the polished tomes, found that the thought of man had stretched further than the most daring flights undertaken by the moralists of Newington Green.
Mary read Emile, and was entranced by ideas so like her own on the subject of education, and exasperated by Rousseau's estimate of woman, as low as that of Milton and expressed in terms of a sensuous hedonism that seemed to the austere young Englishwoman degrading to her sex. She despised novels; fiction and verse, song and legend, all that had not a useful or moral purpose was scorned by Mary. She regarded the devices of the romances as mere false tricks to blind women to their miseries and their duties and the poets she held little better. What was the use of escape through dreams? Far better realise the evils that rendered escape necessary and strive, by the aid of reason, to remove them; but, for all this, Mary read Clarissa Harlowe, and the equally famous novel that it had inspired, La Nouvelle Héloïse. She despised both these heroines, and the heroes, by all her standards, merited her contempt, but she was secretly stirred by these vital male figures and unacknowledged longings cast themselves round the figures of Robert Lovelace and Saint-Preux. These symbols of sex under its most seductive and refined form were not wholly powerless to stir the level-headed, gallant young woman who believed she had renounced all the lusts of the flesh. The reading of these books helped to increase her bitterness, and the more serious works that she hastily perused heightened her mental restlessness.
She was disorganised by her loneliness, and, watching the world through the lenses of poverty, saw everything out of focus.
She was of the type and in the circumstances that make the rebel. Her wider reading took from her some of her simple consolations as to the inscrutability and infallibility of Divine justice. Like all those who have nothing but what their own labours can procure for them, and who are at the same time bold and gifted, she began to question the right of fools and simpletons to what they were incapable of earning; hereditary honours, wealth, position, the luxury secured through corruption or luck by an intriguing male, or through marriage by an intriguing female, roused her disgust and scorn. She began to ask herself: "Have I not merits? Should they not be rewarded?" And she turned eagerly to the prospect of some possible changes in customs, traditions, even in law and government, that should give her and her equals their chance and consign to insignificance the swarms of chattering nonentities who had inherited the earth through no merits of their own.
Sick at heart and rebellious, then, Mary sailed for Ireland with the Priors, landed at Cork Harbour and made her way by carriage across the magnificent country to Mitchelstown, on the Tipperary borders. Her new situation proved as detestable as she had thought it would be, and the consolations of the Evangelical religion to which she clung proved but cold comfort against these grim realities, and the impalpable joys of that Heaven where, as she constantly said, "Everything will be changed," were but dim compared to the glitter of the triumphant vanity that she saw about her as she crossed Lord Kingsborough's handsome estate.
Mitchelstown Castle was finely situated above the small town. Behind were hills across which the clouds hung constantly in those hazy swathes of purple that dim the pale azure of an Irish sky with such melancholy charm. Trembling with nervousness, the shabby, tired young woman entered the massive building, passed the servants who condescended to take her poor luggage and found a large group of women gathered to inspect her in the formidable withdrawing-room. Everything was grave and dull, and Mary was so sick with agitation that she could scarcely command herself.
My lady, surrounded by sisters and friends, was handsome, hard and dashing. Her face was painted, her hair fashionably dressed, and she engaged in a loud conversation with a number of small spaniels who fawned on her brocade skirts. These animals seemed to be her principal interests. Calling up her children, she presented them to their future governess, who mentally noted that they were "wild Irish," and that the three girls were afraid of their overbearing mother. My lady's brother joined the party, asked Mary if his sisters were not fine girls, and added that they were just "going to market." My lord came in and made a jest no more refined. He was coarse, genial and stupid, and after a good-humoured welcome to the governess returned to his dogs and his gun.
Mary found the situation frightful. To add to her miseries, she learnt that Mr. Prior had exaggerated her abilities, and that she was expected to know far more French than she did. Her only consolation was that she was treated as a gentlewoman—i.e., not sent below stairs—and that she found Margaret, the plain eldest girl, soft and dutiful.
Within a few days of her arrival at the Castle the youngest children, whom Mary found "not very pleasing," were ill with "disagreeable fevers," and Lady Kingsborough was in bed with a sore throat. The sanitary arrangements of the pompous dwelling were primitive, and the pure air of the countryside was soon contaminated when it passed through my lord's pretentious chambers.
Mary, homesick, ill, made no pretence of disguising her misery. When she could escape to the dreary room assigned to her she wrote a letter to Everina, who, companion in another well-to-do home, was enduring the same kind of discomforts and mortifications:
"Well, my dear girl, I am at length arrived at my journey's end. I sigh when I say so, but it matters not. I must labour for content and try to reconcile myself to a state which is contrary to every feeling of my soul. I can scarcely persuade myself that I am awake. My whole life appears like a frightful vision, and equally disjointed. I have been so very low-spirited for some days past that I could not write. All the moments I could spend in solitude were lost in sorrow and unavailing tears. There was such an air of solemn stupidity about this place that froze my very blood. I entered the great gates with the same kind of feeling as I should have if I was going into the Bastille."
She then gave Everina a bitter account of the Castle's inhabitants. She admitted that Lady Kingsborough was shrewd and clever and trying to be kind, but she could not like this fine lady, "a new species of animal to me," who neglected her children and made herself an imbecile over dogs. As the governess sat apart, between her letter and her copy of Rousseau, she heard sounds of merrymaking below; even the servants had their fiddles and jigs—
"I only am melancholy and alone. To tell the truth I hope part of my misery arises from disordered nerves, as I would fain believe my mind is not so very weak."
The passage of time did not improve Mary's spirits. She felt herself unequal to what she had undertaken. Her dislike for Lady Kingsborough increased; she disapproved of the system on which the three girls were being educated; she found that she was expected to teach "a heap of rubbish called accomplishments," and she regretted the sacrifice of her eldest pupil, Margaret, a girl of fourteen years, to this fashionable folly; she was sickened, too, by the incessant chatter on the subject of lovers and husbands that these idle women enjoyed so much.
Who was ever to ask for the hand of Mary Wollstonecraft?
She still tried to be true to her policy of self-renunciation, but, withdrawn into herself, she would ponder over some ideal and heroic love, some man that a noble, high-minded woman might gratefully adore. When she had put her charges to bed, played with the dogs, listened to my lord's stale stories and was free at last, she would escape from "the converse of silly females" and from "the boisterous spirits and unmeaning laughter" that she found so exhausting, and brood over her unhappiness:
"I retire to my room, form figures in the fire, listen to the wind, or view the Gotties, a fine range of mountains near us. So the time wastes away in apathy or misery...I am drinking asses' milk, but do not find it of any service. I am very ill and so low spirited that my tears flow in torrents, almost insensibly. I struggle with myself, but I hope my Heavenly Father will not be extreme to mark my weakness, that He will have compassion on a poor bruised reed and pity a miserable wretch whose sorrows He only knows. I almost wish my warfare was over."
Mary's gloomy mood was not brightened by what she learnt of Lady Kingsborough, who had never been able to keep a governess for more than a few months and who had the reputation of being an idle, capricious woman of fashion, of the very type that Mary most despised, and who kept her house full of idlers like herself.
The governess brought little of either patience or good-humour to her trials: she was prepared to find the worst, and she found it. Everything was distasteful to her from the drawing-room to the kitchen, and in her letters to her sisters which continue her descriptions, full of disgust, of the Irish Castle and its inhabitants, and in her sour accounts of each it is easy to see that it was her circumstances and situation that were at fault as much as the people whom she criticised, who seem to have been ordinary, well-meaning human beings with some merits.
The news Mary received of her family increased the gloom of her low spirits. Mr. Wollstonecraft continued to importune his son Edward for money, and Edward refused to assist him. A small legacy had been left to the girls, and this was in Edward's hands, and they could not come at it. Besides, the young attorney had refused to receive Everina in his home as housekeeper again, and she was forced to accept any dismal position that she could find.
A lengthy correspondence continued between the three sisters. Mary's letters reveal that her health and spirits gradually, if slightly, improved. Though she continued to dislike the life led by these Irish aristocrats and to scorn both the Lord and Lady who employed her, she began to be fond of the children, especially the eldest girl, Margaret. She had found, too, an absorbing occupation for her leisure hours. Like many people who despise novels, she decided to write one herself. What time was left from writing home long letters full of domestic troubles was given to the composition of a romance, or rather a fragment of autobiography cast into this form. She gave it her own name, Mary, and it dwelt in introspective and gloomy fashion on her brief romantic friendship with Fanny Blood. Mary had also the diversion of reading several books that hitherto had been unknown to her. On the shelves of the library in Mitchelstown Castle she found further works by J. J. Rousseau, and Mrs. Catherine Macaulay's History of England. This considerably influenced the lonely governess. She was excited by the knowledge that the female intelligence could achieve so difficult a work, and stimulated by Mrs. Macaulay's lofty morality and stern republicanism—of such stuff did Mary feel herself to be made. Mrs. Macaulay became her ideal woman and her inspiration, in contrast to that "herd of novelists" and female poets who were perniciously employed in stimulating the senses and dulling the intellects of their sex.
It is true that Mary had been so disgusted by the matter-of-fact talk of matrimony and the jolly jests about sex in the Castle that she had wished that the ladies had been a little romantic and rather absorbed in the airy flights of the novelists than in such coarse realism, but the type of woman that was represented by Mrs. Macaulay—neither fanciful nor gross, most commanded her admiration.
The female historian certainly presented an admirable pattern. She had contrived to be a successful authoress without ever leaving the path of the strictest propriety; as the wife of a London physician, as an historian and politician, as the guest of George Washington, as a writer on education, government and society, Mrs. Macaulay had been "irreproachable and exemplary," and, in the words of a friend, had never "when exalted on the dangerous pinnacle of worldly prosperity" forgotten "the urbanity of a gentlewoman."
Unfortunately, while Mary Wollstonecraft was reading Mrs. Macaulay's "noble and benevolent" works in the handsome, dusty library of Mitchelstown Castle, that grave matron, recently widowed, had married a Mr. Graham, "who was so many years her junior as to expose her to much irreverent remark"; otherwise her conduct was as flawless as befitted "a patroness of liberty." But, despite her secret castles in the coals, the example of Mrs. Macaulay, the insidious, enervating philosophy of J. J. Rousseau, and her own novel, Mary felt herself wasted, neglected and thoroughly unhappy; there was nothing in her surroundings that really pleased her. She wrote to Everina in the spring of the New Year, 1788:
"I believe I told you before that as a nation I do not admire the Irish, and as for the great world and its frivolous ceremonies I cannot away with them. They fatigue one. I thank Heaven I was not so unfortunate as to be born a lady of quality."
This letter was written from Dublin. Mary had been among the large retinue that had accompanied the Kingsborough family in their cumbrous carriages and wagons along the two hundred miles or so of rough travelling from County Cork to the capital. Dublin was a fine, elegant city where splendid mansions decorated by the graceful, banal designs of Angelica Kauffmann were set in stately squares and terraces, where noble salons, adorned with the delicate marble inlay of Cosimo Rosselli were lit by candelabra of crystal that shone on some of the most polite and refined society in Europe.
That splendid Viceroy, the brilliant fourth Duke of Portland, had died in Phoenix Park from the miasma of foul drains the month that Mary had arrived in Ireland. A magnificent great lord, the young Duke had set an example of almost regal splendour at the Castle. Twice a week ships from England had brought fruit, vegetables, sweetmeats and wines for his table where he dispensed the most exquisite hospitality, and it had been commonly allowed that the Court held by His Grace in Dublin was, in every way, more sumptuous than that held by His Majesty in London.
The gorgeous Manners had been succeeded by the Marquess of Buckingham, Viceroy for the second time, even superior in abilities to his predecessor, and almost as elegant, generous and extravagant.
Installed in the Kingsboroughs' town house, Mary felt her loneliness, her poverty, her sad prospects emphasised by the careless, glittering life about her, every one indifferent to her, she interested in no one. She remembered with longing those few people in London who had taken some notice of her, and wrote to Joseph Johnson the bookseller:
"I am still an invalid and beginning to believe that I ought never expect to enjoy health. My mind preys on my body, and when I endeavour to be useful I grow too much interested for my own peace. Confined almost entirely to the society of children, I am anxiously solicitous for their future welfare and am mortified beyond measure when counteracted in my endeavours to improve them. I feel all a mother's fears for the swarms of little ones that surround me and observe disorders without having power to apply the proper remedies...Here alone, a poor solitary individual in a strange land, tied to one spot and subject to the caprice of another, can I be contented? I am desirous to convince you that I have some cause for sorrow and am not without reason detached from life."
One evening Lady Kingsborough, in a moment of caprice, called the governess from her charges and told her to make ready for a masquerade for which she had an odd ticket. Mary objected that she had no costume, but my lady casually bid her maid cast a black domino over the graceful figure and auburn hair of the governess, and Mary found herself one of a gay, noisy group of fashionables that went from house to house before they reached that magnificent Rotunda where the carnival was being held. Lady Kingsborough wore a dashing cockade, some of her friends were disguised "as females of the newly discovered islands," another was attired as a forsaken shepherdess.
At last Mary was part of the brilliant world that she had for so long viewed from outside. She became excited, almost light-headed, laughed, talked, amused the others by her satirical remarks. She was young, she was admired under the dazzling glitter of a thousand candles. Gaiety no longer seemed to Mary "vanity and vexation of spirit." She was happy for a brief time. But the masquerade was soon over; the governess returned to her modest bedroom and fell into a feverish sleep. When she awoke, the mask on the floor seemed to her a mockery; she felt very weak, and her spirits much sunk.
The next day she wrote an account of this unusual gaiety to Eliza, adding:
"I happened to be very melancholy in the morning as I am almost every morning, but at night my fever gives me false spirits. At night the lights, the novelty of the scene and all things together contributed to make me more than half mad. I gave full scope to a satirical vein."
The Kingsboroughs came to England, bringing Mary with them. They visited Bristol, and then Bath, and Mary continued to find the fashionable life that surrounded them most uncongenial. Lady Kingsborough had always disliked her, and now felt, or affected, a jealousy of the ascendancy she was obtaining over the children, particularly over the eldest, Margaret. Exercising her full prerogative as a capricious fine lady, Lady Kingsborough dismissed her governess at the end of a year of service, and in November, 1788, Mary travelled from Bath to London while the Kingsboroughs returned without her to Ireland, the child Margaret weeping passionately at thus being parted from her friend and pledging a promise for future cordialities that she afterwards redeemed.
Mary had cleared off some of the more pressing of her debts with the money that she had earned during the year with the Kingsboroughs. She had also corresponded with Mr. Johnson, the bookseller, who continually urged her to take up literary work and to improve her knowledge of French. The last part of this advice she had taken, and was now a tolerable French scholar. The first part she resolved to follow, and from a poor room in London wrote thus to Everina, still in a position as a companion:
"I am, my dear girl, once more thrown on the world. I have left Lord K.'s and they return next week to Mitchelstown. I long since imagined that my departure would be sudden. You can conceive how disagreeable pity and advice could be at this juncture...Mr. Johnson, whose uncommon kindness I believe has saved me from despair and vexation I should have shrank back from and feared to encounter, assures me that if I develop my talents in writing I may support myself in a comfortable way. I am, then, going to be the first of a new freedom. I tremble at the attempt, yet if I fail I only suffer. Should I succeed my dear girls will ever in sickness have a home and a refuge, where for a few months in the year they may forget their cares and turn to rest. I shall strain every nerve to obtain a situation for Eliza nearer town. In short I am once more involved in schemes, Heaven only knows whether they will answer, yet while they are pursued life slips away..."
Mary ran on with much eagerness, assuring her sister of her own inability "to tread the beaten track," of the value even of uncertain freedom, and that "the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on."
She had resolved to have no more of this servitude in its crudest aspect; her self-sacrifice would take another form: living the most austere of existences in London, she would slave at her writing and give every penny that she earned to her family.
She meant to stay with Eliza, who was governess in a family at Henley-on-Thames. She had been, as she said, "much harassed," but in the lovely, placid English landscape she found some peace of mind. In gratitude and hope she wrote to Mr. Johnson:
"My dear sir, since I saw you I have, literally speaking, enjoyed solitude...Were I to give you an account how I have spent my time, you would smile. I found an old English Bible here and amused myself comparing it with our French translation; then I would listen to the falling leaves or observe the various tints that autumn gave to them. At other times the singing of a robin or the noise of a water-mill engaged my attention—partial attention—I was at the same time perhaps discussing some knotty point or straying from this tiny world to new systems. After these excursions I returned to the family meal and told the children stories (they think me vastly agreeable) and my sister was amused..."
On Michaelmas Day of that year Mary, who had by now put together the book for young children that she mentions in her letter to her sister entitled Original Stories From Real Life, was established in rooms in George Street, Blackfriars. Not only had she her original work and translations to rely on, and a position as Mr. Johnson's reader, she was also engaged as a contributor to the Analytical Review, then just established. Mary wrote triumphantly to Everina:
"Mr. Johnson has now settled me in a little house in a street near Blackfriars Bridge. He assured me I can earn a comfortable maintenance if I exert myself. I have given him Mary and before your vacation I shall finish another book for young people which I think has some merit...Whenever I am tired of solitude I go to Mr. Johnson's and there I meet the kind of company that I find most pleasure in. I intend to try to get Bess a situation near me and hope to succeed before the summer vacation. At any rate, she shall spend the approaching one in my house. Mr. J. knows that next to obtaining the means of life I wish to mitigate her and your fate. I have done with the delusions of fancy. I only live to be useful—benevolence must fill every void in my heart. I have a room but not furniture. Johnson has offered you both a bed in his house, but that would not be pleasant. I believe I must try to purchase a bed, which I shall reserve for my poor girls while I have a house. If you pay any visits you will comply with my whim and not mention my place of abode or my mode of life. I shall have a spur to push me forward in the desire of rendering two months of the year a little unpleasanter than they would otherwise be for you and poor uncomfortable Bess."
There is nothing about God or the vague joys of Paradise in this letter. Mary was beginning to feel a revival of hope and courage that made her less reliant upon a gloomy piety. Her health, that had been very poor whilst she was in Ireland, improved; she saw before her not only the grateful prospect of independence and a power to help those dependent upon her, but, what was even more entrancing, an opportunity of doing the work that she liked. Nothing, indeed, could have better suited Mary Wollstonecraft's disposition than the proposal that Mr. Johnson made to her—that she should take a room, live in London, and support herself by her pen. She was to be his reader and to translate for him various works from the French, and afterwards, if she had the capacity, from the German. Much of what had been so tiresome to her was now eliminated from her existence; her affairs were now more fortunate and her prospects brighter than she had ever dared to hope they would be; she had found, in a manner that was almost miraculous, a mode of life suited to her temperament and her gifts. Released from the severest pinches of poverty and the sharpest anxieties about her dependents, she was now able to look about her and take some notice of the period in which she found herself and to observe what was happening in the world beyond that narrow and miserable circle of people which had hitherto absorbed her interests and her faculties.
Till Impatience no longer could bear
The hard bondage; rent, rent, the vast solid
With a crash from immense to immense.
Book of Los.
William Blake, 1795.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT found that she could easily do the work that she had undertaken. She gave Mr. Johnson satisfaction both as critic and as translator, and he very willingly published such original works as she chose to write.
With the most galling of her financial cares, then, taken off her shoulders, her health became rapidly re-established. The defect in her eyesight passed and she began to take a lively interest in questions of the moment. She viewed these from one point only—that of an advanced Radical and Rationalist. Joseph Johnson's tendencies were, indeed, considered by many of the orthodox to be revolutionary and atheistical, and Mary came much under this influence. She was also much impressed by the state of affairs in France that she learnt at first hand, as she had a large number of political pamphlets sent to her from Paris to translate.
As soon as Mary Wollstonecraft began her independent life in London she was welcomed into the cosmopolitan society that gathered in Mr. Johnson's drawing-room and round his supper-table that she found as much to her liking as that other society she had hitherto experienced had been to her distaste.
Although she was doing a very unusual thing in living alone in London and supporting herself by literary labours, it was not quite so remarkable as she seemed to think, and only the narrow-mindedness of the bourgeois circle in which she had been brought up and moved, had inspired her with the fear of being considered odd or indecorous. Among the people whom she met at Mr. Johnson's house her mode of life was regarded as quite natural. In this gay, careless and sometimes brilliant company she was received without question. A literary lady was indeed nothing very remarkable in the London of the 1790s. Fanny Burney, Anna Seward, Mrs. Inchbald, Amelia Opie, Catherine Macaulay, Hannah More were already well-known literary figures. Mrs. Inchbald received nearly a thousand pounds for one of her comedies, and Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu had translated Epictetus. None of these women, however, had perhaps given such a challenge to public opinion as did Mary Wollstonecraft when, of no family, handsome, young and unmarried, she began to make her own way by her own exertions, but there had hardly been an instance in which feminine talent or enterprise had been discouraged.
The trend of affairs at home and abroad was such as to arouse Mary's keenest sympathy. The American struggle for independence had resulted in the complete freedom of the colonies and their establishment as one of the great nations of the world under the name of the United States of America. Such time and attention as Mary could snatch from her own harassing affairs had always been given to figures like those of George Washington and General La Fayette, who had seemed to her paladins of freedom and champions of the rights of man. Now it seemed as if France was going to follow the American example and as if the proud, ancient formal Monarchy was to fall before the blasts of the trumpets that proclaimed the dawn of an era of freedom. The air was bright with glittering catchwords; it was a day of talk and of phrases—Liberty, Freedom, the Rights of Man were on the lips of all the intellectuals, who talked and scribbled on these themes with the greatest fluency. Their ideals were as noble as their experience was limited. J. J. Rousseau was quoted, not as an enthusiastic dreamer, but as a practical prophet. Men like Dr. Priestley and Thomas Paine, both of whom Mary met in Mr. Johnson's drawing-room, were confident that they had found a formula for a new Heaven and a new earth. It was believed that not only the betterment of mankind but the Millennium was round the corner, that it was only necessary to pull down all that was rotten and loathsome in the old fabric of society to find a new structure bright and shining beneath.
Very many of the English intellectuals had for long sympathised with the revolting American colonies. These people followed with the sharpest interest the affairs of the French nation. They hoped that in that country a glorious revolution was about to take place that would transform the whole of humanity. All the newspapers, gazettes, pamphlets and letters from Paris were most eagerly read and commented upon, and these ardent intellectuals, some of them fanatic ideologues, honestly believed that when France swept away all her domestic abuses she would point out the way to the whole of humanity to return to that Arcadian state of happiness which it was fondly believed man had once enjoyed.
Mary listened with the utmost eagerness to these stimulating abstract discussions. For the first time in her life she enjoyed the intoxicating delights of lively conversation with her intellectual equals and superiors. She agreed with all she heard. Not only did the radical and revolutionary tenets appeal to her intelligence—they aroused her sympathy. This was what she wanted to believe. She was quite ready to see the "triumphant vanity" of frivolous men and women that had so galled her in Bath, Dublin and Bristol humbled; she longed to think it might be possible that poverty, which had been the nightmare of her entire life, might be abolished; she wanted to see women, of the same type as herself, valued and respected above the painted dolls and simpering ninnies who seemed now to have the universal applause. She was not without a certain intellectual arrogance; she had done a difficult thing easily and brought herself at once by her own gifts and industry into the forefront of the most brilliant society of the moment; she was proud and pleased when these famous successful men and women admired and praised her; she was inclined to think that because she had done an unusual thing she had done a very clever one, and she adopted even the wildest revolutionary theories of Liberty, Independence, Equality of the Sexes, and so on, not only because she believed in them for their own sake, but because among their supporters she had found her own place. She was part of these people as she had never been part of any society before, and she exaggerated its talents and virtues as much as she had exaggerated the faults and vices of the fashionables among whom she had moved as a dependent. She began to show the clever woman's tendency to affectation and eccentricity. She speedily earned considerable sums of money, and though most of this money was applied to the wants of her family, particularly to those of her father and her younger brother Charles, she could have afforded to spend a reasonable amount on herself; but, even when all her debts were cleared off, when James had gone to sea on a merchantman, when Charles was bound apprentice to his brother Edward, when she had sent sufficient money to keep her miserable father quiet, when in brief there was no immediate call on her purse, she still lived in an ostentation of poverty. Her room was bare with mere table, chairs and truckle-bed, her crockery consisted of a few plates and cups, her dress the kind of drugget commonly worn by dairymaids, her hair was caught in a penny string, and when she went abroad, covered with an old beaver hat. She rather cultivated that slovenly appearance which was considered the hallmark of the philosophic woman or bluestocking and much disliked by the orthodox minded.
Among the celebrities whom Mary met at Mr. Johnson's house were John Bonnycastle, a professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, George Fordyce, the physician, William Blake, rapt and silent, Thomas Paine, silent, but not rapt, Henry Fuseli, impetuous and magnetic, Dr. Alexander Geddes, the Roman Catholic Biblical critic, dismissed from the Church for his rationalistic tendencies, and George Anderson, the classical scholar.
Among the women admitted to this learned and lively circle were the virtuous Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald, flat chested, sandy haired and beautiful, who earned thousands by her novels and plays, but who seldom wore a gown "worth above eightpence," Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld, an amiable lady who scribbled valiantly on the side of the angels, Mrs. Sarah Trimmer, who "had made a favourable impression on Dr. Samuel Johnson," had written The Economy of Charity, Story of the Robins, and Easy Introductions to the Knowledge of Nature, and who, having been graciously received by Queen Charlotte, was scrupulously matronly in her behaviour, but discreetly tolerant in her choice of friends. Mary found her "truly respectable," and she allowed Mary's fascinations without inquiring too closely into her opinions which were unlikely to be acceptable to one patronised by royalty, whose father had been clerk of the works at Kew Palace and had taught the rules of perspective to George III.
During her first year of independent work Mary, on Mr. Johnson's advice, did her best to disencumber the Pembroke property, so that her father and her step-mother might have sufficient whereon to live. On James's returning again from a sea voyage, she procured for him a post at Woolwich. This brother afterwards entered the Navy and was a midshipman on Lord Hood's ship. It was still her intention to send Charles to that land of her ideals—America—and with this object in view she placed him on a farm where he might obtain sound instruction in agriculture.
Eliza and Everina were continually changing their places, often through their own fault, for they were restless and dissatisfied. When they had nowhere else to go Mary would entertain them in her lodgings, procuring a room for them in the same house, but at her expense. Mr. Johnson afterwards estimated that during this period she spent over two hundred pounds on her family. She also worked diligently. She translated Necker on Religious Opinion, compiled a French Reader, rewrote Young Grandison, which had been translated from the Dutch, wrote many articles and criticisms in the Analytical Review, translated from the French a famous book, that monument of mistaken industry, the Physiognomy of Lavater, and worked on some little original pieces of her own.
Mary's letters to Joseph Johnson during this period show that her pleasure in her independence soon wore off and reveal much lassitude and even irritability, also a sensitive conscientiousness. She returned to the bookseller an Italian MS. that she felt herself unable to translate:
"I return you the Italian MS., but do not hastily imagine that I am indolent...I would not spare any labour to do my duty...I find I could not translate the MS. well. If it was not a MS. I should not be so easily intimidated, but the hand and errors in orthography or abbreviations are a stumbling block at the first setting out—I cannot bear to do anything I cannot do well."
In this same letter she refers to the pleasure she had received from a letter from Margaret, Lady Kingsborough's daughter, who afterwards became the Countess of Montcashel.
Mary also refused to alter her own work according to the ideas of Mr. Johnson, who feared that her prefaces to her books for children might be considered by parents a little dictatorial. She wrote:
"Believe me, the judicious parents who may peruse my book will not feel themselves hurt and the weak are too vain to mind what is said in a book intended for children."
Some of her letters refer to her account with her publisher, and one shows Mary's great sensitiveness and delicacy of feeling. She had quite inadvertently in general conversation mentioned that an acquaintance of hers had been left, as she supposed, a fortune. It afterwards came to her ears that this was not true, and that the tale, getting about, had done the man harm. She thereupon wrote to their common friend, Johnson, in these agitated terms:
"I am sick with vexation—and I wish I could knock my foolish head against the wall. Bodily pain might make me feel less anguish and self reproach!...You may recollect that I did not mention to you the circumstances of —— having a fortune left to him, nor did a hint of it drop from me when I conversed with my sister because I knew he had sufficient motives for concealing it. Last Sunday when his character was aspersed, as I thought unjustly, in the heat of this occasion I informed x-x-x-x that he was now independent, at the same time desired him not to repeat my information; yet last Tuesday he told him all and the boy at B——'s gave Mrs. —— an account of it. As Mr. —— knew he had only made a confidante of me (I blush to think of it!) he guessed the channel of intelligence, and this morning came (not to reproach me—I wish he had)—but to point out the injury I had done him. Let what will be the consequence, I will reimburse him if I deny myself the necessaries of life, and even then my folly will sting me. But perhaps you can scarcely conceive the misery I at this moment endure; that I, whose power of doing good is so limited, should do harm galls my very soul...My stomach being so suddenly and violently affected, I am unable to lean over the desk."
Several of Mary's letters had a tone of remorse and penitence for her being quick-tempered and difficult with her best friend, the stately bookseller:
"You made me very low-spirited last night by your manner of talking. You are my only friend, the only person I am intimate with. I never had a father or a brother. You have been both to me ever since I knew you, yet I have sometimes been very petulant. I have been thinking of those instances of ill-humour and quickness and they appeared like crimes."
Mary's nerves were indeed in a very disordered state at this time, and even hard work did not serve to soothe her vexations of soul and body. One letter that she wrote to Johnson, evidently after some disagreement between them, shows vividly her state of mind:
"Your note—I can scarcely tell why it hurt me—and produced a kind of wintry smile which diffuses a beam of despondent tranquillity over the features. I have been very ill—Heaven knows it was more than fancy—after a sleepless, wearisome night, towards the morning I had grown delirious...My nerves are in such a painful state of irritation I suffered more than I express. Society was necessary and might have diverted me till I gained more strength; but I blushed when I recollected how often I have fatigued you with childish complaints, the reveries of a distorted mind. I even imagined that I intruded on you because you never called on me, though you could see that I was not well:—I have nourished a sickly kind of delicacy which gives me many unnecessary pangs:—I acknowledge that life is but a jest and often a frightful dream—yet catch myself every day searching for something serious—and feel real misery from the disappointment...There is certainly a great defect in my mind—my wayward heart creates its own misery:—Why I am made thus, I cannot tell, and until I can form some idea of the whole of my existence I must be content to weep and dance like a child, long for a toy and be tired of it as soon as I get it. We must each of us wear a fool's cap, but mine, alas, has lost its bells and has grown so heavy I find it intolerably troublesome."
Mary tried to settle down to hard work:
"I really want a German grammar as I intend to attempt to learn that language, and I will tell you the reason why. While I live I am persuaded I must exert my understanding to procure an independence and render myself useful. To make the task easier I ought to store my mind with knowledge. The seed time is passing away..."
About this time a very painful episode occurred. A certain practical-minded gentleman who was little better than a marriage broker so far mistook Mary Wollstonecraft as to believe that he might be useful to her in securing her a husband. The lady was attractive, comely, capable of earning money and of gentle birth, and the busybody believed that he could find for her some reputable, well-to-do husband. Mary was at this time overworked and stung with poverty:
"I am ill. I stayed in bed this morning till eleven o'clock only thinking of getting money to extricate myself out of some of my difficulties."
The suggestion that she should, as it were, sell her person for financial consideration sickened her with disgust. She thus describes the matter in a most indignant, agitated letter to Mr. Johnson:
"Mr. —— called upon me just now. Pray did you know his motive for calling? I think him impertinently officious. He had left the house before it occurred to me in the strong light it does now or I should have told him so. My poverty makes me proud. I will not be insulted by a superficial puppy. His intimacy with Miss —— gave him a privilege that he should not have assumed with me. A proposal might be made to his cousin, a milliner's girl, but it should not have been mentioned to me. Pray tell him that I am offended and do not wish to see him again! When I meet him at your house I shall leave the room if I cannot pull him by the nose. I can force my spirit to leave my body, but it shall never bend to support that body. God of Heaven, save thy child from a living death! I scarcely know what I write and my hand trembles. I am very sick—sick at heart."
To the offender himself Mary wrote:
"Sir, when you left me this morning and I reflected a moment—your officious message, which at first appeared to me a joke—looked so very like an insult—I cannot forget it. To prevent, then, the necessity of forcing a smile—when I chance to meet you, I take the earliest opportunity of informing you of my real sentiments.
On the unhappy man's trying to explain himself, Mary replied:
"Sir, it is inexpressibly disagreeable to me to be obliged to enter again on a subject that has already raised a tumult of indignant emotions in my bosom, which I was labouring to suppress when I received your letter. I shall now condescend to answer your epistle, but let me first tell you that, in my unprotected situation, I make a point of never forgiving a deliberate insult, and in that light I consider your late officious conduct. It is not according to my nature to mince matters...as a mere acquaintance you were rude and cruel to set forth to insult a woman whose conduct and misfortune demands respect. If my friend Mr. Johnson had made the proposal I should have been severely hurt and thought him unkind and unfeeling, but not impertinent...I am, sir, poor and destitute, yet I have a spirit that will never bend or take indirect methods to obtain the consequence I despise. Nay, if to support life it is necessary to act contrary to my principles, my struggle will soon be over. I can bear anything but my own contempt. In a few words, what I call an insult is the bare supposition that I could for a moment think of prostituting my person for maintenance, and from that point of view does such a marriage appear to me..."
Some of Mary's letters to her publisher show that she was very weary of the hackwork she was employed on, and that the illusion of freedom had soon faded and the joys of self-renunciation soon withered:
"I send you all the books I had to review except Dr. James's Sermons, which I have begun. If you wish me to look over any more trash this month—you must send it directly...If you do not like the manner in which I have reviewed Dr. James's Sermons on his wife let it be known to you I will not do it any other way."
Then, when she was in a better mood:
"My dear sir, I send you a chapter which I am pleased with now I see it in one point of view. As I have made free with the author I hope you will not have often to say 'What does this mean?' You forget you were to make out my account—I am, of course, head over heels in debt; but I have not that kind of pride which makes some dislike to be obliged to those they respect."
The life of a literary lady living alone in a wretched room in the meanest fashion, spending all her earnings on others, did not, after all the bright expectations, prove much more satisfactory than the long, disgusting servitude that had preceded it. Mary was only a Grub Street hack, and, after the first curiosity aroused by her gesture of independence had worn off, regarded as little more.
She was unsatisfied because the passing years brought no harvest. She was thirty years of age, still unloved, lonely, unattached to any save her relatives, who gave her little affection in return for her continual gifts of money. Her God of the Dissenters, whom she had once looked to for consolation, had withered in His anaemic Heaven, and Mary did not know where to look for a substitute.
Intellectual interests might fill her head, but her heart was empty, and, though not romantic, she was, as she began uneasily to suspect, passionate, and she felt the need of an heroic affection, an overwhelming interest to absorb her emotions, her dreams, to give point and lustre to her barren days.
Her longing for womanly fulfilment began to wear thin her pride and delicacy that had withstood, with dainty arrogance, everything but the warmth of these natural ardours.
French affairs began to assume more and more importance in English eyes. It was Mary's great longing to go herself to Paris and study at first hand the events that seemed so glorious when viewed across the Channel. She could not, however, save sufficient money to do so, but she did send her sister Everina at the end of 1788 at her expense to Paris to learn French.
By July of the following year the States General had met at Versailles, and the condition of France had become what Taine described as "spontaneous anarchy." Necker fell, Camille Desmoulins was inciting to revolution in the Palais-Royal, the Bastille was taken, and the first émigrés crossed the French frontier.
In the autumn the National Assembly was meeting in the manège at the Tuileries, amid unparalleled scenes of disorder and excitement. "More than once," wrote Arthur Young, "a hundred members were on their legs at a time, and Mr. Bailly absolutely without power to keep order."
In 1791 the Assembly tried to put into practice the impossible ideals of the Contrat Social, and from his grave the Genevan philosopher ruled France. In September, 1791, the Committee that had been sitting since July, 1789, finished drawing up the new Constitution, and the 4th of August heard, amid delirious scenes of enthusiasm, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Mary followed all these events with the deepest interest. She was still employed in translating French pamphlets and articles from French newspapers, of which Mr. Johnson received a liberal supply, and she shared the extravagant hopes of the English intellectuals that this was the dawn of a new and glorious era not only for France but for the whole world.
In November, 1790, Edmund Burke published Reflections on the French Revolution, in which he showed himself a stern partisan of the old order. Mary was the first of the many champions of French democracy to rush into print in reply, and her Reply to Burke attracted attention, mostly unfavourable to the female pamphleteer, but her effort was soon ignored, by both friend and foe, in the excitement caused by the publication of the first part of Tom Paine's Rights of Man. Mary had a personal interest in taking up Burke's challenge, as his book had been stimulated by a sermon given by her old friend Dr. Richard Price on the anniversary of the landing of William III. Mary's enthusiasm was deeply stirred by this controversy, and she was encouraged by a sense of her own power and the applause of her friends. In what time she could spare from her other work she began to put together, in fiery haste and glowing sincerity, another book. Her mundane cares continued. George Blood had now succeeded in finding for himself a good position in Dublin. He had remained faithful to the memory of Everina, and wrote to Mary to know if there was any hope of success. She replied in this letter:
"Now, my dear George, let me more distinctly allude to our own affairs. I ought to have done so sooner, but there was an awkwardness in the business that made me shrink back. We have all, my good friend, a sisterly affection for you, and this very morning Everina declared to me that she had more affection for you than for either of her brothers. Accustomed to view you in that light, she cannot view you in any other. Let us, then, be on the old footing. Love us as we love you..."
Everina returned from France to take up positions at schools in Putney and in Ireland. Eliza Bishop moved from Henley to Market Harborough, then to Putney, and then to Pembrokeshire. On her way to this last post, which proved to be a permanent one, Eliza Bishop visited the old farm of Laugharne, where her father was living alone with his second wife. Eliza wrote to Everina an account of her stay:
"The sight of my father's ghastly visage haunts me night and day. He is really worn to a mere skeleton and has a dreadful cough that makes my blood run cold whenever I listen to it, and that is the greater part of the night, or else he groans most dreadfully, yet he declares he has good nights. There cannot be a more melancholy sight than to see him, unable to walk ten yards without panting for breath, and continually falling. Still, he is able to ride ten miles every day and eat and drink very hearty...I am harassed to the last degree how to advise him to act. If he gives up his horse now he is a dead man in a very short time. When I beg of him to be more careful in money matters, he declares he will go to London and force Ned, or when I tell him how Mary has been distressed in order to make him save in trifles, he is in a passion and exhausts himself. He is mad to be in London..."
Eliza Bishop had also melancholy news to tell of the younger brother, who had been taken by his father from the farm where Mary had placed him and brought home:
"Charles is half-naked and speaks to my father in the way that he deserves, for he is at him perpetually, he never even tried to get him into the Excise or anything else. He has actually altered rather for the better, drinks never anything but water and is much thinner, and all submission. He now talks of enlisting for a soldier; if he does there is an end of it. I am very cool at Charles and have said all I can to rouse him, but where can he go in his present plight?"
When she reached Upton Castle, Eliza wrote again to her sister:
"Were you to see my father's countenance! It is now I really think the most dreadful face I ever beheld. It appears constantly convulsed by ill-humour and every other evil feeling that can be expressed. His face is quite red, his hair grey and dirty, his beard long, and the clothes he wears not worth sixpence. In this plight he arrived at Upton the third night after my arrival, hearing my portmanteau was lost. I was strolling out with the girls and was surprised to meet Mr. Rees coming to meet us, and not less so when he stretched out his friendly hand to shake mine, saying, 'Who do you think has come to Upton? Your father, in his old clothes too, poor man. He thought you had lost your box.' The good man really thought I should be alarmed at my father's appearance and was anxious to see me first. After keeping me awake the whole night, he went to Laugharne in the morning, displeased, I believe, at not being asked to spend the day. If you had seen the good old man trying to behave so that I might think he was pleased with my father. He is in truth a most amiable man, though not a very pleasant, sensible one."
This Mr. Rees, who tried to soften the extreme unpleasantness of a visit from Mr. Wollstonecraft during Eliza Bishop's first two days in her new position, seems to have been the tutor who had married the waiting-maid—"from what motive, I cannot say," as Eliza remarked. A few days later she wrote another letter, which proved Upton Castle to have been as disagreeable from a governess's point of view as Mitchelstown had been:
"The only thing that here resembles man is a noble Newfoundland dog and a fine greyhound...The way to the house is through a fine wood, dreadfully neglected, so much so that one can hardly find a path in it surrounded by hills. Close to the castle is an old chapel and near it is a cross shaded by a yew tree and many a lofty ash at a distance...The library no one values, though it is a most excellent one...My room leads to a large drawing-room...it has a door at one end and opens and gives a full view of the woods. Here I often sit when all are fast asleep, as it is quite away from their roosting place...The girls have dozens of gowns, never worn, which they only look at. They have never even been permitted to walk on account of wearing out shoes. Send me a few wax tapers, for the farthing one often falls to my share and we go to bed very early."
Thus wrote Eliza Bishop, by the light of her rush dip, to Mary in her Blackfriars garret, with Europe bursting into flames for a background. Mary, who had never had any romantic attachment to a man, and who affected to scorn matrimony, began to feel profoundly affected by one of her fellow writers on the Analytical Review, a bizarre and attractive personality. This was Henry Fuseli, the Swiss scholar and painter, whom Mary had first met in the autumn of 1790 when she was most agitated, despondent and tired of her self-imposed life of sacrifice, poverty and drudgery. She had often declared, in defence of her spinsterhood, that if she could not find a man whose grandeur of intellect and nobility of soul she could wholeheartedly admire she was determined to live in celibacy.
Mary's person developed late. At this period she was better looking than she had been as a girl, and was, indeed, considered very attractive. Her shape had become rounded. As her health improved she lost her haggard look and her rich complexion became dazzlingly clear. Her small, rather babyish features retained their softness; neither fatigue nor illness nor anxiety had left any trace on them, and though she was clumsy in her attire she was very nice in her person. She talked too much and too fluently, indulging with zest most of the idealistic nonsense common to her circle; but her voice was low and pleasing, and most people felt a certain charm in her shy, melancholy manner. She had met at the houses of Mrs. Trimmer, Miss Hayes and Mr. Johnson many interesting and, perhaps, fascinating men—among them Bonnycastle, George Fordyce, George Anderson and Dr. Geddes. Mary admired all these, but with cold detachment. When, however, she gradually became intimate with Henry Fuseli, she felt her senses as well as her mind turn to admiration. This painter, an original and successful artist, was then nearly fifty years of age, and had recently married an Englishwoman, the young and attractive Sophia Rawlings of Bath.
Henry Fuseli had a dominant and brilliant personality, which made him conspicuous even among the extraordinary people who formed the literary society with which Mary Wollstonecraft mingled. He had always been fascinating to women, and in his youth had roused tender emotions in the breasts of two celebrated female painters, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. He was tall, well-formed, with fine classic features, a quantity of fair hair tossed on a broad brow, and was, in the prime of his life, full of enthusiasm and power. He had lately been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and was then living in Queen Anne Street and helping out his modest earnings as a painter with literary work of the same kind as that which Mary Wollstonecraft undertook. The year before he met her he had brought out a translation of his friend Lavater's Aphorisms on Man. It had been published by Johnson. In his preface Fuseli excused this work offhandedly by saying that if some of the maxims were truisms, so were the proverbs of Solomon, and that "if some are not new, they are recommended by an air of novelty." Lavater and Fuseli, "The Sage of the South," were both enthusiasts in the cause of what they termed "Liberty," and it was on account of a brush with authority that Fuseli had had to leave his own country.
Johann Kaspar Lavater, founder of the Helvetic Society and pastor of St. Peter's Church, Zurich, was a man who had a considerable influence in his own day. He wasted an immense amount of time and money on what he termed the science of Physiognomy. This mistaken zeal, however, brought him much fame, if financial ruin, and many learned people believed that the Swiss pastor had really discovered an infallible method of judging the character from the features. Mary translated Lavater's book on this subject. The Aphorisms on Man, which Fuseli put into English, is chiefly notable for serving as a model to William Blake for his "Proverbs." This artist also was employed by Johnson, and had made two woodcuts for Mary's second published work on education.
Henry Fuseli was then working for Johnson translating many of the French political pamphlets that found such a ready sale among the English public, writing also précis of them for the Analytical Review. He and Mary, therefore, had a great enthusiasm in common, and the painter, an impatient and impetuous talker who liked to have the field to himself, was gradually drawn into a friendship with Mary, who was a type of woman whom he did not care about. Not only had he no liking for learned ladies—"philosophical slovens," as he termed them—but he was shy, and found it difficult to make new acquaintances. Happy with his neat and pretty young wife, the fastidious artist marked with disapproval Mary Wollstonecraft's lank hair, black worsted stockings and drugget gown. She, however, was deeply impressed by the vital personality of this fascinating man. She declared him to be possessed of noble qualities, "grandeur of soul, quickness of comprehension and lively sympathy," and, without much encouragement on his part, she became a frequent visitor at his house, where he was engaged on his extraordinary drawings and paintings and held forth with a fluency that surpassed that of Mary herself on "Liberty" and "The Rights of Man." Mary Wollstonecraft had no interest in art. She had already some slight acquaintance with William Blake. He had already published his Lyric Poems and the early Prophecies; and in his rooms in Pole Street, overlooking Aspley Circus, he had drawn some beautiful illustrations for one of Mary's earliest works, but neither the man nor his genius had made any impression upon her. Nor did she give any attention to the remarkable creations of Henry Fuseli. This artist's productions show a rare and wild imagination. His most successful subject was entitled The Nightmare. He had painted many versions of this gloomy idea. The painting represented a woman tossed in an unnatural attitude upon a couch while a huge horse of a supernatural size trampled the air above. So popular was this subject that Fuseli was said to have made five hundred pounds by the sale of small prints, sold at a low price, taken from it. Other pictures that Fuseli had painted were The Weird Sisters, Lady Macbeth Walking in her Sleep, some subjects for Boydel's Shakespeare Gallery, the most successful of which was supposed to be that representing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and several other bold and startling conceptions based upon Shakespeare or Scripture.
The versatile Fuseli was also an elegant classical scholar, and had been asked by Mr. Johnson to revise William Cowper's translation of the Iliad, which he did without any payment. The poet of Olney, the foremost literary man of the day, confessed himself deeply indebted to the artist for his corrections, and described Fuseli as a "gentleman of exquisite taste and learning." Fuseli was considered by his intimates to be also a wit, as well as a brilliant talker. His conversation, however, was often like his pictures—wild and exasperating—and he would often so irritate Dr. Geddes that the Scot was obliged to leave Mr. Johnson's room and walk three or four times round St. Paul's Churchyard to cool his temper. Geddes thought Fuseli a fanatic, and sometimes, with his repetition of platitudes, a bore, and once hastily exclaimed: "I wonder that you, Mr. Fuseli, who have so much ready wit, should be uttering dogmas by the hour together"—a rebuke that Fuseli answered with surely the most atrocious pun that has ever been uttered: "You, Doctor, to find fault with dogma! You are the son of a dog-ma yourself." This sally sent the outraged doctor into the air to calm himself. It is unfortunate that this is the only specimen of Fuseli's reputed wit that has come down to us.
Mary Wollstonecraft, however, was not looking for wit or humour. She had no appreciation of either quality. It was Fuseli's character that she admired. Not only was she a frequent visitor at his house—she began to write him letters full of warm admiration. His brilliancy really dazzled her. Never before had she met a man with such knowledge of the classics, of literature, of the fine arts, with a retentive memory, lively imagination and a fascinating delivery.
"I always," she said, "catch something from the rich torrent of his conversation worth treasuring up in my memory to exercise my understanding."
Mary Wollstonecraft was now on the verge of making herself ridiculous and of gratifying the spite of those who condemned her manner of life. When past thirty years of age, she had discovered that she was not sexless, and, urged by those emotions that she herself had always scorned, she began to make herself conspicuous by her open admiration of Henry Fuseli. It was time, for her own happiness and self-fulfilment, that she was attached to someone, but Fuseli was an unfortunate choice; not only was he married, but he was entirely indifferent to Mary: indeed, he disliked her type. He was also well used to feminine admiration, and took but little notice of the numerous letters that she sent him, even thrusting many of them, that he knew but to be full of expressions of admiration, unread into his pocket.
Mary, however, was not easily rebuffed. She was confused herself by the vague, grand sentiments that she professed. Her affection for Fuseli, she declared, was based upon the loftiest motives, and she said to her acquaintances that she could not see why she should not have a place in Fuseli's heart, owing to their congeniality of sentiments and talents. She hoped, she admitted, "to unite herself to his mind." Deluded by this piece of sophistry, she did what she could to please the Swiss painter. Her poverty had been so ostentatious that when Talleyrand, the Bishop of Autun, called on her during his English visit she gave him tea and wine indifferently out of the same cup, thus attesting her severe republican simplicity. Now, anxious to gain the good opinion of Fuseli, she moved to pleasanter apartments in Store Street, which she furnished with some comfort, and paid more attention to her dress than she had hitherto done. She was now earning, if not much money, yet sufficient to be able to spend a little on becoming attire and fashionable hairdressing. These efforts made a great improvement in her charms. She was accounted very handsome and rather remarkable.
At this period of her life she shook off much of the lassitude and melancholy that hitherto had disfigured her manners. Insisting on the "rights" of her platonic friendship, she began to accuse Fuseli of neglect, and he, exasperated by this turn, avoided her as much as possible. Mary had, however, the great resource of her period. She wrote and wrote, covering up the fact that she had fallen in love with turgid phrases in which she at once declared the strength of her feelings and their complete purity—"unalloyed" by passion, as she claimed.
When Fuseli reasoned with her that this emotional friendship was getting beyond the bounds of decency and comfort, she replied:
"If I thought my passion criminal, I would conquer it or die in the attempt, but immodesty in my eyes is ugliness. My soul turns in disgust from the pleasure and the charms which swamp the light of Heaven."
While Mary was being agitated and harassed by this affair, by the conflict between a strong sexual attachment and an ardent desire to make her behaviour conform to lofty standards, she was occupied with her original work that deeply engaged her abilities and was inspired by the interest of the English intellectuals in the proceedings in France, which had increased to an extraordinary degree. Hardly anything else was discussed in their coterie but those exciting events the other side of the Channel that, from the day that the Bastille, symbol of ancient tyranny, had fallen to the hands of the Paris mob, seemed to be advancing gloriously towards the Millennium.
Mary was also still under the influence of Burke's famous pamphlet, and felt that her answer that was hastily put together and couched in violent language had been inadequate. Mary had been exasperated, not so much by Burke's horrified pity for the sufferings of the French royal family and the destitution of the French aristocrat refugees, who were then beginning to swarm in England, as by his class feeling. Hers was equally strong. She had spoken vehemently for those to whom she belonged, whose struggles she had seen close at hand, who had all her sympathies—the poor. While Burke argued that the rights of men were those that an aristocracy claimed from successful and powerful ancestors, Mary, with a good deal of bitterness, put forward the claim of the peasant and the slum town dweller, the underdog to whom no one had given a thought until now. Mary's view of the French Revolution was, at least at this time, that all the excesses of the French people might be attributed to the long-continued miseries and degradations the lower classes had endured at the hands of kings, the nobles, the clergy. She longed to enlarge on this theme, and she was indifferent to the fact that her fiery diatribe had not, save among a few Radicals, improved her reputation, either as a woman or as a writer.
Not only did her pamphlet show that the writer lacked all powers of calm reasoning and was not very well informed on the matters she was endeavouring to expound, but it was full of personal abuse and that vindictive railing supposed to sit peculiarly ill upon a woman. The bulk of the British nation felt as strongly as did Mary on the subject of the Revolution, but their sympathies were all on the other side. While the intellectual, the Radical, the Liberal, the journalist and the poet applauded every week more eagerly the successes of the Republicans, the great majority of the nation regarded with increasing horror the tumult in France. Therefore Mary, by her answer to Burke, became to the public unpleasantly conspicuous as a termagant, a virago, an unsexed female. They did not notice her warm sympathy, her ardent championship of the poor and oppressed; but they remarked that she showed only scorn for the French royal family, whose fate was arousing in England such profound horror.
Henry Fuseli approved of Mary's book. He was as much dazzled as any of his contemporaries with these brilliant catchwords—Liberty, Freedom, The Rights of Man—and planned a visit to Paris to congratulate the patriots in person.
Excited by the notice she had attracted, by the dangerous friendship with Fuseli, and perhaps a little losing her head, Mary finished her second work. This was entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was dedicated to Talleyrand, late Bishop of Autun, whose pamphlet on National Education Mary much admired, and whose sincerity she did not suspect.
Mary had never lost the enthusiasm with which she had heard of the American Declaration of Rights and of the Charter that the French had drawn up on that model entitled Declaration of the Rights of Man. It might have been supposed that the term "Man" in this case meant the whole of humanity, but Mary took it to mean that her own sex had been neglected, and felt that it was necessary to put forward "The Rights of Woman." She had also been exasperated by many contentious and, as she thought, dangerous books on female education, notably those by Dr. Gregory and Dr. Fordyce, and been stung by the attitude that Rousseau, the most discussed and most influential author of the moment, had taken up towards the education of women. Although the Genevan had had so much to say about the training of boys that Mary Wollstonecraft thoroughly approved, he had plainly stated his opinion that girls should be educated only to please and comfort men; indeed, he seemed to subscribe to that old doctrine which Mary so detested, that a woman should be either a goddess or a slave, and in either case subject to a man's caprice.
Mary had also her own experience burning in her mind and heart. The wrongs inflicted on her and those dear to her by unworthy males still rankled. Inflamed both by these remembrances and by the spirit of the time, Mary flung on paper in a somewhat slovenly fashion her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and in 1791 it was published by the approving Mr. Johnson.
The book brought her some fame and a good deal of notoriety. It was the challenging title and the uncommon personality and sex of the author that provoked opposition and gave offence.
Had the work appeared as yet another Advice to Daughters and been written by a divine, it would probably have passed almost unnoticed, for Mary, after all, had nothing very startling to say and certainly very little that was new. Her work was swollen with platitudes and padded with turgid rhetoric, and it was entirely on the side of virtue—as that word was understood in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
Mary's main plea was for equality of education between men and women, for training women for remunerative employment so that they should not be wholly dependent upon marriage as a means of support, for treating women with respect instead of either adoration or contempt, and for emphasising the intellectual instead of the physical aspect of sexual intercourse. Marriage, Mary argued, if intended for lasting happiness, should be based upon the mind, upon the reason, not upon the heart or the passions. She pleaded that a woman was degraded by masculine courtesies and flatteries that but hid self-interested contempt, and she wished women to stand on their own feet and meet men on terms of complete equality in every aspect of life. All this had been already expounded by Thomas Day in Sandford and Merton, and when it came from him had been listened to with approval; but from Mary Wollstonecraft it was not accepted. Some of the books that she most vigorously attacked, declaring that they were even indecent in their ideas of sex and of female education, and that their insinuations gave her a "sickly qualm," had long been mainstays of British domesticity, and Mary's abuse of the two influential divines, Dr. Gregory and Dr. Fordyce, was deeply resented. Her attacks on Rousseau might have been by many very well tolerated, but she shocked the majority of her countrypeople by insinuating that she did not believe in eternal punishment, and by showing an exhaustive knowledge of the uglier side of life.
Neither of these things could be forgiven. Mary boldly stated that she was aware of many social sores that women, even if they knew of them, never mentioned. She wrote with scorn of the vices and follies of fashionable men and women, as she had herself observed them. All the mental notes that she had made while she had been a companion in Bath, Bristol and Ireland served her now as material on which to base her pictures of modern society.
In conformity with the taste of her age, she adopted a sermonising tone, coloured too often with a railing, vindictive, almost abusive air that considerably damaged her cause. According to her there was little good in either man or woman; both were being educated on entirely wrong lines and with false ideals. She exposed with scorn all the sentimentalities, tender hypocrisies and intricate graces by which the most delicate and complex of human relationships had always been disguised. She would have all founded upon reason. She was by no means against marriage, but it must not be a marriage based upon finance, passion or caprice. She wanted boys and girls to be educated together. She believed that this reform would do away with many of the vices prevalent in schools that she mentioned with great plainness of speech. In various passages the book rose to genuine eloquence, but for the most part it was disfigured not only by the scolding tone that gave an unpleasant tinge to the whole composition, but by partiality, confusion of thought and prejudice.
The book was greatly disliked by those who did not read it. The mere title gave these people great offence. Horace Walpole, arbiter of elegant taste, considered the authoress a virago, "a hyena in petticoats," and Hannah More, a highly intelligent, very successful woman, who had achieved independence and recognition of her gifts without violating the strictest decorum, entirely repudiated Mary Wollstonecraft's championship of her sex. "Rights, indeed," she wrote. "I am sure that I have always had more rights than were good for me."
The book, in short, earned more notoriety than applause, though Mary's own circle admired the production warmly, and at once placed her in the forefront of the intelligentsia of the day. She became, in her way, a celebrity, was received as an equal by women like Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Inchbald and Mrs. Barbauld, while Mr. Johnson, proud of his successful young authoress, asked her to meet all the famous, interesting or influential people who passed through his rooms.
Among these was William Godwin, afterwards author of Political Justice (published 1793), a Radical philosopher, a follower of Rousseau, an atheist and a literary man of considerable gifts. His education had consisted of rather formidable studies at a dame-school and under Dr. Rees and that Dr. Kippis who had patronised Hannah More. At the Hoxton Academy Godwin learnt philosophy from the point of view of a dissenting minister—he was one himself for four years—but when Mary met him he was in the very forefront of English Radicalism, cold-hearted, rational, precise and methodical to an exasperating degree. He performed, however, with great exactitude and even with the semblance of affection all the natural duties of man, being kind to his mother, his sister and his friends, and scrupulously loyal to his own standards of honour and honesty. He was also pedantic, tiresome, a boring talker, a dry, humourless companion; nor was his appearance by any means attractive—an enormous nose spoilt what might have been the classic outline of his face, he had early lost his hair, and his eyes, though described by his admirers as noble, were large and goggling. He prided himself on the austere, or rather slovenly, bachelor establishment he kept. His clothes were, as befitted a philosopher, neglected.
Among Godwin's teachings was a plea for a complete break with convention. This, however, the philosopher did not exemplify in his own life. He admitted that the time had not yet come for his theories to be put into practice, and he was much against revolution or the hasty trying out of new experiments. Political Justice came out at the high price of three guineas, to his own satisfaction, and, he declared, by his own desire, for he wished to keep these startling thoughts and novel doctrines from the hands of the vulgar. It was supposed to be the high price that had prevented the Government from prosecuting Godwin for his daring doctrines. A book at three guineas, argued the Ministers, might as well have not been written, as far as the mob were concerned, and what did it matter what inflammable material was scattered about among a group of insignificant intellectuals? Godwin believed that all property, including women, should be in common, that every action should be undertaken by the light of reason, and that if there was perfect freedom there would be no vice or crime. He was much respected by his friends and acquaintances, and by a few, such as the faithful Marshall and Thomas Holcroft, warmly admired. He was always in financial difficulties, a circumstance rather hard to explain, for he earned considerable sums of money, and his large swarm of poor relatives did not seem to obtain much assistance from his purse. Somehow the money was muddled away by the plain living philosopher, and his life was from first to last a series of loans and complications that proved afterwards too much for the business capacities and honest goodwill of the famous Francis Place to disentangle. He had his fair share of vanity, and had quarrelled not only with the orthodox, but with men like Doctor Parr and Sir James Mackintosh, who had criticised his ethics. It was to his credit that Samuel Coleridge concerned himself with him, and even was successful in converting the philosopher to theism.
In order to earn money he wrote fiction and proved, strangely and unexpectedly, a brilliant novelist. His book, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, dramatised as The Iron Chest, published in 1795, was a singularly fine piece of work and at once successful.
The philosopher, who had an indulgent eye for a pretty woman and who had turned over in a placid fashion several projects of marriage with some of his charming acquaintances—projects not encouraged by the ladies concerned—was not immediately impressed by Mary Wollstonecraft. He had gone to Johnson's house to meet the famous Tom Paine. Paine was a man who spoke little, and Mary, also in the company, spoke too much. Godwin, who did not like the title A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and had not read the book, but who had glanced at some other works of Mary's and detected some grammatical errors in them, regarded the bold feminist coldly and merely endured her flow of conversation while he endeavoured to goad Paine into a philosophical discussion.
Mary began to think herself very exceptional, and it was no wonder, for she was surrounded with people who chose to regard her as the first to vindicate "the rights of women." With a little more wit and humour and a little less enthusiasm, both Mary and her supporters might have reflected for a moment on the enormous amount of female influence that had gone to shape the society both of England and of the Continent. They seemed to have entirely forgotten the ladies of Port Royal, the ladies of the hôtel de Rambouillet, the ladies of the eighteenth century salons, such as Julie de Lespinasse, and such lovers of political and social change as Madame de Maintenon and Madame de Pompadour, and English women like Lady Russell and Queen Mary II, who had set the tone for a whole generation, been forward in good works and raised high the standard of piety and charity; they had forgotten Queen Anne and Lady Marlborough. They were perhaps ignorant that Lord Burleigh, England's greatest statesman, had relied much during his long life on the advice of his wife, one of the famous Coke sisters. They were also possibly not aware that in Italy, within a few years of the publication of Mary's book, a learned lady had been buried in the robes of a Doctor in recognition of her gifts and attainments; and the learned and admired Mary Astell, who had written, not so long before, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, was quite forgotten.
Henry Fuseli's admirers—Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser—had found no difficulty in obtaining recognition of their talents. Indeed, it seemed rather as if, when a woman possessed a gift, she was more eagerly welcomed than her masculine counterpart.
All this was ignored by Mary's enthusiastic admirers. They all regarded Mary as the vague star of that dawn which was shortly to irradiate over the future of her sex. By those who thoroughly disapproved of the book without reading it Mary was represented as one who was entirely revolutionary in her ideas, atheistical, and an advocate for emancipation not only from custom, but from morality. Among those most deeply irritated and shocked by the publication of this book were the writer's own sisters. Eliza and Everina had for some while resented Mary's success. They accepted her help, her money and the shelter of her home and the introductions to her influential friends, but resented the means by which she was able to procure these benefits. They thought her independent mode of life unwomanly and viewed with jealousy, and perhaps envy, the ease with which she had passed into the literary circles of London while they remained poor governesses or companions. Even Charles, the ill-graced brother for whom she had done so much, was not above sneering at his sister's success. All three took the tone that, while Mary was pretending to toil for them, she was also doing very well for herself. They noticed, with mean sneers, her improved appearance, and watched without sympathy her struggles to reduce her admiration for Henry Fuseli to some formula consistent with her views.
Feeling against Mary Wollstonecraft's ideas was very strong, not only among men, but among intelligent women. Most people favoured the opinion that a decent obscurity best suited even the most brilliant females, and writers on the ethics of sex were apt to express themselves thus:
"The best woman, says Pericles, is she of whom least is said, either in the way of good or harm. The greatest ornament of woman is silence, and to remain at home her chief duty—owl, muzzle and reins were on the tombs of Greek housewives. Plato rejoiced that he was not a woman, Swift considered them as but a higher kind of monkey, Turks refused them souls."
No more than ten years after the publication of Mary's challenging book, a woman as wise and brilliant as herself, Sidney Owenson, Lady Morgan, wrote:
"The strongest point of my ambition is to be every inch a woman...I dropped the study of chemistry lest I should be thought less the woman...I have studied music as a sentiment rather than a science, and drawing as an amusement rather than an art, lest I should become a musical pedant or a masculine artist."
Mary was now known as Mrs. Wollstonecraft in consideration of the literary position she had attained, and this dignity also irritated her sisters. She was, however, still solicitous for their futures, and suggested that Eliza should go to France for a year to study the language so that she might on her return be able to command a higher salary or obtain a well-paid post in a school. She intended to go to France herself. Many of the English sympathisers with the Revolutionaries had already gone to Paris; some of them had adopted French nationality. Mary knew many of these people. Some of them had fled from England on a warning that their activities might be regarded as pernicious by the British Government. It was William Blake that had urged the only Englishman to wear the red cap in public, Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, to fly from London; in fact, the entire circle in which Mary moved was regarded with suspicion by authority. In Paris were established the Christies, who were well known to Mary, Madame Filiettaz, who had been Mlle. Bregantz, the daughter of a lady in whose school at Putney both Mrs. Bishop and Everina Wollstonecraft had been teachers. In Paris, too, was the English poetess Helen Maria Williams, to whom Mary had an introduction. She hoped also to meet those men who had inspired her warm admiration, the leaders of the Gironde, those ineffectual but sincere idealists who were then attempting the impossible task of governing France according to J. J. Rousseau. In Paris, too, were many English journalists, writers and artists. Mary herself hoped to write some account of the French Revolution, she had already studied French history with some thoroughness. Moreover at this time Mary was restless, discontented, tormented by her feelings for Henry Fuseli.
This artist was also eager to visit Paris, and so was Mr. Johnson. It was therefore agreed that the party of four (that included Mrs. Fuseli) should go to Paris in the summer of 1792. Mary did not take very much money with her, and she kept on her room in Store Street, for she did not intend to be away from England more than a few months. How her schemes were viewed by her relatives is shown by the letter that Eliza wrote to Everina from Upton Castle, where she was still in residence as a governess:
"Charles informs me that Mrs. Wollstonecraft is grown quite handsome; he adds likewise that being conscious that she is on the wrong side of thirty, she now endeavours to set off those charms she once despised to the best advantage...
"So the author of The Rights of Woman is going to France! I dare say her chief motive is to promote poor Bess's comfort or thine, my girl, at least, I think she will thus reason. Well, in spite of reason, when Mrs. W. reaches the Continent she will be but a woman. I cannot help painting her in the height of all her wishes, at the very summit of happiness, for will not ambition fill every chink of her great soul (such I really think hers) that is not occupied by love? After having drawn this sketch you can hardly suppose me so sanguine as to expect my pretty face will be thought of when matters of state are in agitation, yet I know you think such a miracle not impossible. I wish I could think it at all probable, but alas! it has so much the appearance of castle building that I think it will soon disappear like the 'baseless fabric of a vision that leaves not a wrack behind.'
"And you actually have the vanity to imagine that in the National Assembly personages like Mary and Fuseli will bestow a thought on two females whom nature meant to suckle fools and chronicle small beer."
Mary had not made her sisters her confidantes in her own emotional affairs, though they had heard gossip and rumours. She had written to Everina of the trip to Paris in guarded terms:
"I have been considering what you say respecting Eliza's residence in France. For some time past Mr. and Mrs. Fuseli, Mr. Johnson and myself have talked of a summer excursion to Paris. It is now determined on and we think of going in about six weeks. I shall be introduced to many people. My book has been translated and praised in some popular prints, and Mr. Fuseli of course is well known. It is then very probable that I shall hear of some situation for Eliza, and I shall be on the watch. We intend to be absent only six weeks; if then I fix on an eligible situation for her, she may avoid the Welsh winter. This journey will not lead me into any extraordinary expense, or I should put it off to a more convenient season. I am not, as you may suppose, very flush of money. Charles is wearing out the clothes that were provided for his voyage, still, I am glad he has acquired a little practical knowledge of farming."
One of the main attractions that the project of a trip to Paris possessed for Mary was the continual companionship of Henry Fuseli. They both were to write accounts of what they saw and to send their contributions to the Analytical Review. Fuseli was to introduce Mary to his many French friends, and they were to attend side by side the Assembly and watch the patriots who stood, as it were, at the very core of Liberty, and to hear at its first utterance the eloquence that was providing catchwords for all the enthusiasts in Europe.
Mary's hopes were, however, not realised. Her admiration for Henry Fuseli had not only attracted considerable attention among their friends, but roused the suspicion of the artist's wife. She was a good-natured woman and friendly herself with Mary, but being only a simple creature, she could not make the nice distinction that Mrs. Wollstonecraft did between intellectual and physical affection; in her view Mary was merely "in love" with Henry Fuseli, and she did not see herself playing the handmaiden to a man who spent most of his time with a fascinating Egeria. Mary, on the other hand, decided to put boldly into practice her own theory. She waited on Mrs. Fuseli and suggested that she should stay with her during the few days that were to elapse before they all started for Paris. She was, she declared, above deceit, and therefore did not hesitate to tell the alarmed wife: "The reason is the sincere affection which I have for your husband, for I cannot live without the satisfaction of seeing and conversing with him daily."
This candour brought a difficult situation to a climax. Mrs. Fuseli answered courage with courage, and said that, far from its being desirable for Mary to enter her establishment, it would be necessary for her never to see Henry Fuseli again save in public. On these terms they might all remain friends.
As the fascinating artist, with some emphasis, supported his wife, Mary was forced to endure this new distress with what strength she could muster. She behaved with considerable dignity. The journey with the Fuselis and Johnson to Paris was now impossible. She decided to go alone; restless, impatient and unhappy, she could not see herself returning to her lonely rooms in Store Street scribbling for a livelihood. It was considered a bold thing for a woman to go alone to Paris in the state that capital was then in, but Mary was never one to lack boldness. She wrote a letter to Henry Fuseli, asking him to forgive her "for having disturbed the quiet tenor of his life," and on the 8th December, 1792, departed for Paris.
When she found herself removed from Fuseli and considered the wide breach between them, her fortitude slightly gave way. She wrote to him, describing the condition of the French capital, and begged him to send her letters now and then; but, as there was no answer to this appeal, she did not write again.
With that considerable energy of which she was capable, the melancholy woman tried to throw herself into the tumultuous politics that were agitating France and to add, if possible, her quota to the struggle for that liberty and happiness which she saw no prospect of herself enjoying.
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But Desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT arrived in Paris soon after the elections to the National Convention, decreed by the Legislative Assembly in the previous August, had resulted in the election of the fanatic Republicans, Robespierre, Collot d'Herbois, Marat and Desmoulins as deputies for the capital.
Among the methods of terrorism employed by the extremists to assure success, had been the four days' massacres in the prisons of Paris that had accounted for 1400 victims, and the plan of a general massacre in the provinces. But these things were not definitely known in England, and Mary was but one of hundreds of ardent foreign Republicans who resided in Paris, waiting hopefully for Utopia to be established, and singularly oblivious of such incidents as the pillaging of Paris during the elections, when valuables to the worth of 24,000,000 livres had been stolen from the Garde-Meuble, including the Crown diamonds, and the severe, virtuous Roland's account of the atrocities at Châlons-sur-Marne.
On Sept. 21st the first meeting of the New Convention, consisting of 1782 members, was held in the spacious riding school of the Palace of the Tuileries. Some attempt to restore at least an outward order in Paris was made, and, for the moment, the ascendency in the senate of the New Republic might be ascribed to the moderate intellectuals, the Brissotins or Gironde, those idealists who had given the first shape to the Revolution. It was to members of this party that Mary had introductions, and she hoped to meet them at the houses of her English friends. These moderates were, however, engaged in a life and death struggle with the violent Mountain, or Commune. Mary arrived in Paris in time to hear of Louvet's vigorous denunciation of Robespierre (Oct. 29th), and to learn soon after that Valazé had introduced the report of a Girondist Committee on the royal papers seized on August 10th. The capital was full of rumours of the likelihood of the deposed king's being brought to trial. "Louis," declared Robespierre, "doit mourir parce qu'il faut que la patrie vive."
Added to these internecine troubles, Republican France was at war with the enemy not far from her frontiers, and had not a friend in Europe. A huge camp of armed men occupied the northern suburbs of Paris, and in the summer of 1792 it had been a fashionable amusement for men and women to dig fortifications. The building of ramparts had also been the excuse for the flocking of the rascal and the loafer to Paris, and even after the victory of Valmy the works continued to the alarm and peril of the capital.
Yet on the surface life seemed normal in Paris, and Mary's first impression was of the lightness and frivolity of the people. She found the theatres open, the shoeblacks busy on the Pont-Neuf, the shops full of fans, teacups, sashes and toys adorned with the grave symbols of Liberty and Justice, luxuriously dressed women wearing coquettish "revolutionary" bonnets and scarves, expensively dressed élégants in the cafés, voluptuous filles publiques parading under the bare trees of the Palais-Royal, and housewives cheapening provisions in the market.
She had intended to lodge with her friend Madame Filiettaz, but found the family away. Servants were, however, in charge of the establishment, a boarding school, and Mary took possession of one of the large dreary bedrooms in the spacious hôtel.
She set herself with desperate energy to learn French and to note down all she saw about her. On December 3rd it had been decreed that Louis XVI should be tried by the Convention. On Christmas Day, 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to Everina:
"To-morrow I expect to see Aline [Madame Filiettaz]. During her absence the servants endeavoured to render the house, a most excellent one, comfortable to me, but as I wish to acquire the language as fast as I can, I was sorry to be obliged to remain so much alone. I apply so closely to the language and labour so continually to understand what I hear that I never go to bed without a headache, and my spirits are fatigued with endeavouring to form a just opinion of public affairs. The day after to-morrow I expect to see the King at the Bar and the consequences that will follow I am almost afraid to anticipate. I have seen very little of Paris; the streets are so dirty and I wait till I can make myself understood before I call on Madame Laurent, etc. Miss Williams has behaved very civilly to me and I shall visit her frequently because I rather like her and I meet French company at her house. Her manners are affected, yet the simple goodness of her heart continually breaks through the varnish, so that one would be more inclined, at least I should, to love than admire her. Authorship is a heavy weight for female shoulders, especially in the sunshine of prosperity."
Two days later, on the date that the King appeared at the Bar to plead by his advocate Desèze, Mary wrote to Joseph Johnson:
"I should immediately on receipt of your letter, my dear friend, thank you for your punctuality, for it highly gratified me, had I not wished to wait till I could tell you that this day is not stained with blood. Indeed, the prudent precautions taken by the National Convention to prevent a tumult make me suppose that the dogs of faction would not dare to bark, much less bite, however true to their scent, and I was not mistaken. The citizens who were all called out are returning home with composed countenances, shouldering their arms. About nine o'clock this morning the king passed by my window, moving silently along—excepting now and then a few strokes on the drums, which rendered the stillness more awful—through empty streets surrounded by the National Guards who clustering round the carriage seemed to deserve their name. The inhabitants flocked to their windows, but the casements were all shut; not a voice was heard, nor did I see anything like an insulting gesture. For the first time since I entered France I bowed to the majesty of the people and respected the propriety of behaviour so perfectly in unison with my own feelings. I can scarcely tell you why, but an association of ideas made the tears flow from my eyes when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death where so many of his race have triumphed. My fancy instantly brought Louis XIV before me, entering the capital with all his pomp after one of the victories so flattering to his pride, only to see the sunshine of prosperity overshadowed by the sublime gloom. I have been alone ever since; and though my mind is calm, I cannot dismiss the lively images that have filled my imagination all the day. Nay do not smile, but pity me, for, once or twice lifting my eyes from the paper, I have seen eyes glare through a glass door opposite my chair and bloody hands shook at me. Not the distant sound of a footstep can I hear. My apartments are remote from those of the servants, the only persons who sleep with me in an immense hotel, one folding door opening after another. I wish I had even kept the cat with me. I want to see something alive. Death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy. I am going to bed, and for the first time in my life I cannot put out the candle."
These letters were the last that Mary's friends received for a long while, though she sent some manuscripts to Mr. Johnson.
Her sisters were irritated at this long silence. The only news they had of affairs in France was confused and scanty; their feelings were entirely anti-revolutionary. From the isolation of Upton Castle, Eliza wrote to Everina, January 20th, 1793:
"I can never get to see a paper and if any one of our Bears call, the whole family leaves the room when I say a word about politics, or else orders them to talk of something else, and of course the conversation turns on Murphy or Irish potatoes or Tommy Paine, whose effigy they burnt at Pembroke the other day. Ay, they talk of immortalising Miss Wollstonecraft in a like manner, but all end in Damning all Politics, and what good will they do men? and what right have men that three meals a day will not supply? So argues a Welshman. I heard a clergyman say he was sure there was no more harm in shooting a Frenchman than in lifting his piece at a bird..."
Mary lingered in Paris long past the six weeks she had prescribed for her visit. She had no reason to urge her return. She tried to force herself to take a deeper interest than she felt in what was passing around her, and she was possessed by a certain lassitude caused by disappointment and disillusion.
She intended to write a series of letters on the character of the French nation, but got no further than the Introduction, which she sent to Mr. Johnson in the February of 1793. Unfortunately, these notes do not seem to be those of a first-hand observer; they consist of generalisations, and Mary entirely omits to give any first hand details of what she actually saw, contenting herself with this kind of writing:
"It is not then useless or presumptuous to note that when I first entered Paris the sight and contrast of riches and poverty, elegance and slovenliness, vanity and deceit everywhere caught my eye and saddened my soul. The whole mode of life here tends indeed to render the people frivolous, and, to borrow their favourite epithet, amiable. Ever on the wing, they are always sipping with sparkling joy at the brim of the cup, leaving the dregs in the bottom for those who venture to drink deep..."
When Mary came to her darling subject of Liberty, she wrote with pessimism:
"I wish I could first inform you that, out of the chaos of vices and follies, prejudices and virtues rudely jumbled together, I saw the fair form of Liberty slowly rising and Virtue expanding her wings to shelter all her children. I should then bear the accounts of the barbarities that have rent the bosom of France patiently and bless the firm hand that lopped off the rotten limb. But if the aristocracy of birth be cast to the ground only to make room for that of riches, I am afraid the morals of the people will not be much improved by the change or the government rendered less venal. I am grieved, sorely grieved when I think of the blood that stained the cause of freedom at Paris...I also hear the same live stream cry aloud from the highways through which the retreating armies pass with famine and death in their rear...The perspective of the golden age, fading before the attentive eye of observation, almost eludes my sight, and losing thus in part my theory of a more perfect state, start not, my friend, if I bring forward an opinion which at the first glance seems to be levelled against the existence of God! I am not become an atheist, I assure you, by residing at Paris; yet I begin to fear that vice, or if you will, evil, is the grand mobile of action and that when the passions are justly poised we become harmless, in the same proportion useless."
Mary had travelled far from that period when she was able to console herself with an Evangelical piety and to endure the miseries of her existence for the reward she would one day receive in Heaven. She had no longer these vague and insipid comforts, of which reason had robbed her, and she had little to take their place. Her gloom increased with her conviction that no golden age was round the corner, and that chance and passion alone decide the lot of humanity. The National Assembly had rejected a demand for female suffrage, despite the support of Condorcet and other notables, and it could scarcely have been clear to Mary that the revolution was helping to establish "rights of women."
The superficial gaiety of the Parisians could not long blind Mary to the seething forces of disruption at work in France, nor could her instant liking for the members of the Gironde whom she met conceal from her the weakness both of their positions and of their characters. She continued to live secluded in the hotel de Filiettaz, to which the family did not return, and to visit the salons of the English and American families, still remaining hopefully in Paris. Foremost among these was the lady whom Mary had told her sister she "rather liked," the celebrated poetess and typical English enthusiast for the French Revolution, Helen Maria Williams, a woman younger than herself, who had been equally successful in the literary world—and without giving offence or causing scandal. Amiable, generous, Miss Williams had early been absorbed in a passion for the brilliant abstractions then turning the heads of most sensitive people. She had written, in prose and verse, on the all popular subject of Liberty, and two years before Mary arrived in Paris Helen Maria had established herself there in order to be present at that entrancing spectacle, "the dawn of freedom."
She and her sister became naturalised Frenchwomen. Helen Maria was a friend of Mirabeau, a constant and eager spectator at the sittings of the Constituent Assembly and entertained in her handsome salon in the rue Helevétius Madame Roland, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and the principal Brissotins or members of the Gironde. In 1790 she wrote one of the earliest accounts of the French Revolution. When Mary attended her parties the poetess was as enthusiastically Republican as ever, and "hoped to take part more closely in the triumphs of liberty."
Mary thus soon realised her ambition of meeting the men whose politics she so admired and of seeing for herself, and in close detail, the workings of a revolution.
Her life continued gloomy and lonely in the large deserted mansion—for still the Filiettaz family did not return to Paris—and she experienced what was so common with her—a sense of disillusion. Not all the ardent chatter over the teacups in Miss Williams's Sunday evening reunions could blind Mary's common sense to what she saw about her—the dirty, neglected streets, the cafés crowded with adventurers and loose women, the frivolous crowd attired in fantastic fashions who thronged the public walks and the theatres, the hideous stories beginning to be spread about of the attack on the Tuileries and the September massacres, the libels and lies of the hack journalists—none of this looked like the Millennium.
Besides, Mary was despondent about her own affairs. She found that her successful authorship was not sufficient to satisfy her nature. Her scarcely stifled passion for Henry Fuseli had taught her what she lacked. But where to find it?
She felt, too, uprooted. Her life seemed purposeless and disordered. Independence and the power to support herself did not attract her as they once had done. Was she forever to remain a Grub Street writer?
Already the fame brought her by The Rights of Woman seemed to be vanishing. She had had three years of forced labour, and felt the lassitude that routine toil brings. She was also conscious of the indignation the expression of her opinions had aroused in the public mind and among her own family. This deepened her always latent hostility to society. She was now cut off by her bold defiance of convention from most of her fellows, as she had formerly been cut off by her poverty.
In the untidy noisy city, full of tumult and menace, the lonely Englishwoman observed and brooded and got together her notes for a history of the French Revolution. She had written home regularly, but received no replies. The post between England and France became daily more unreliable, and by the spring of 1793 Mary found herself cut off both from the censure and from the appeals of her sisters.
For the first time, and with considerable relief, she found herself freed from her family. Charles had at last emigrated to America, Mr. Wollstonecraft was dying of delirium tremens at Laugharne, and since it was impossible for Mary to send him money it was useless for her to think of him. Eliza seemed permanently, if uncomfortably, established at Upton Castle, and Everina continued to find situations. George Blood was in good employment in Ireland, where his parents had finally settled.
Mary could, therefore, shake from her mind all these domestic miseries that had oppressed her so long and think only of her own affairs. The change of scene helped her to clarify her ideas; she became less fanatic, less violent in her opinions, and discarded many of the affectations that she had half-unconsciously adopted in her role of rebel and philosopher. Save to a few of her fellow countrypeople, she was unknown in Paris, a mere nobody ignored by the vast majority. This steadied a head that had become a little giddy and taught her to despise both her fame and her notoriety; it also showed her that she was appallingly lonely and desperately needed affection, protection and a place in society; her natural tastes asserted themselves; they were very womanly—she wanted a sweet domesticity, husband and children.
She began to be shaken by the spreading anarchy about her, alarmed at the silence from home, at rumours of a world war. She was shocked by the brutal murder of the King, the menace to the Queen and the Princess Elizabeth, by the increasing dismay and terror that she found among her acquaintances, the apostles of Liberty.
The political confusion into which the French nation was plunged after the execution of the King spread to every sphere of life. It was impossible to send letters home or to receive remittances from there; the Allies were advancing across the frontier; Paris seemed open to the invader. Mary found herself reduced to very straitened means and without any prospect of receiving supplies from London or even of leaving the country. Almost imperceptibly she found herself involved in the Parisian Reign of Terror which began with the fall of Toulon, and, as an Englishwoman, the object of suspicion and hatred. William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, was to the French at that moment the villain of the piece, and all his countrywomen shared something of the detestation that was evoked in the breasts of the French patriots.
When the Gironde, for long powerless, fell, May, 1793, even such enthusiastic Republicans as Helen Maria Williams were not safe. France and Britain being at war, the arrest of all British subjects was ordered. Mary applied in vain for a passport to Switzerland, and then, both to hoard her remaining stock of money and to be out of the alarms of the city, she left the large deserted mansion of Madame Filiettaz and found lodgings in a small cottage at Neuilly soon after Miss Williams and other foreign Republicans had been lodged in the Luxembourg. This cottage was inhabited by an old gardener and situated on the edge of the woods. The noble family that had once lived there had fled, their vast mansion was shut up, empty, and there remained only the old servant, unnoticed on the neglected estate. He was glad of the few sous that Mary could give him and gave her, in return, faithful service.
Mary lived at Neuilly in solitude, and as cheaply as possible. The old gardener was her sole attendant. Occasionally she went to Paris to visit the salons of Miss Williams or Mrs. Christie, and even more rarely some friend came to visit her. It was an odd existence, and for one of her temperament not without a melancholy charm.
The old man, who was without a family, became devoted to his lodger. He waited on her, even making her bed himself, and procured the humble fare that was becoming so difficult to obtain in Paris or the environs. "Du pain et du savon," was the cry of the Paris mob, and Mary was fortunate in being supplied even with the coarsest of bread and the most meagre supply of soap.
She had a pleasant room looking on to the peace of ancient woods, a desk, pen and ink, paper and a few books. She wrote, for several hours a day, carefully composing her well-informed and sober history of the revolution that was taking place about her, and letters home that were never answered. When she had eaten her crust and cheese, drunk her wine or coffee, she would walk under the heavy leafage of the Neuilly avenues, despite the old gardener's protest at her rashness, for the forest, he declared, was full of evil men, the scum of those disordered times; but Mary was unmolested save by her own disquietude.
An unloved, unmated woman of well past thirty, however proud, successful or comely, is likely to feel wasted and neglected, and to discover that reason is a dull companion and theories are no better than dust when offered to an empty heart.
Her personal bitterness was increased by the horror she felt at the failure of the French idealists, the pitiful fall of the Gironde, the danger of men whom she had known and admired; the triumph of ignorance and brutality shook her nerves. She could not go to Paris without seeing or hearing of some act of violence. She was sickened by the knowledge that the guillotine was set up in the Place de la Concorde, that the prisons were full of innocent people, that there were daily beheadings. The excesses of the Reign of Terror were, from the first, strongly dramatised. It is now doubted whether more people perished from the violence of the French Republicans than from the severity of the English law during the same period. While English people were working themselves into a frenzy over the bloodshed in Paris, their own countrymen were being "hanged in strings" for forging counterfeits of the new Bank of England notes and for offences such as picking pockets. The French victims were, no doubt, not criminals, but most of them were considered dangerous to a newly formed and desperately beset state; but, when all allowances were made, the period was full of alarm.
As France rapidly fell into anarchy, Mary and her friends did their best to procure for her a passport for England or Switzerland, but without success. Gradually the foreign colony in Paris diminished, the idealists went home or into hiding, and the paeans of joy raised at the era of liberty changed into wild laments against the rule of "monsters."
One of the last English families to remain in Paris was the Christies. Captain Christie had business with the Convention and was intimate with that circle of Americans so well received by the French as allies and fellow republicans. To these friendly people Mary would go when her solitude at Neuilly became unsupportable, and there she met Captain Gilbert Imlay, who attracted her so powerfully that at first she thought that she disliked him.
She was warmly predisposed in his favour by the fact that he was one of those heroes whose exploits she had applauded while she was in servitude in Bath—a soldier who had fought against the English in the War of Independence.
He was of good family, well educated, about Mary's own age, and extremely attractive in his person. A successful career in the army had given him self-confidence and an air of authority. When the war was over he had obtained a commission for laying out the virgin lands of America. As a result, he had written a book, declared by all to be "a model of its kind," entitled A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, that had been published in London and gone through many editions.
Gilbert Imlay was in Paris on business. He had for some time been engaged in speculations in timber and was now absorbed in schemes to buy wood in Norway and Sweden and sell it to the Convention for the purpose of shipbuilding. His opinions were republican, and he was a lively supporter of the experiments made by the Gironde in the name of Liberty. His views on all subjects were intelligent, restrained, yet tinged with a pleasing enthusiasm. His person was bold, manly and graceful, his manner bold yet courteous, he dressed with some attention to elegance, and lived comfortably in hired apartments.
His attention was first attracted to Mary by hearing from the Christies of her forlorn situation alone in Paris, cut off from her friends, and he offered help. They became friendly through discussion of her difficulties, and, busy as he was, Captain Imlay found time to ride out to Neuilly and share Mary's crust and dish of tea. He had read her famous book—doubtless with a half-smile—and admired her as a bold, intelligent woman, whose views on many subjects coincided with his own. Captain Imlay suavely agreed that society needed reforming, the relationship of the sexes adjusting and manners purging of hypocrisy and affectation.
He was averse to matrimony and knew by heart the glib arguments about love's being the only bond, and the mockery of the tie of mere ceremonies when love was absent. Mary was caught; she, too, had held the same tenets. They exchanged fluent philosophies, and the woman was soon headlong in love.
Imlay, flattered and touched by her joy in his company, told her of his youth, wild, dissipated, but not ungenerous, he hoped, and admitted his present loose way of life. He had casual mistresses and was not delicate in his choice of sensual pleasures. Mary had had a great deal to say on these matters, and had said it rather shrewishly. The lack of male chastity, she declared, was the cause of most of the troubles between the sexes, and a pair of virgin lovers, united by the bonds of reason and virtue, had always been her ideal.
Passion she had always despised, and love she had viewed with no more than tolerance. Men and women, she thought, should soon be done with these transient, common emotions and settle down to a life founded on respect and affection..."In order to fulfil the duties of life, a master and a mistress of a family ought to continue to love each other without passion." "Friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds to love," while only the foolish prefer "the sensual emotions of fondness" to the "confidence of respect."
All this philosophy did not help Mary when in her comely maturity and lonely state of spinsterhood she met a man who fascinated her senses and roused her tenderness.
With unconscious feminine duplicity she threw an air of grandeur over her need of physical love and of the caresses of this fascinating man. She would reform him, elevate him, rescue him from his sensual indulgences: in other words, she would snatch him from all other women and keep him for herself.
In scorning his dissipation she blinded herself to the fact that his faults were precisely what fascinated her. She did not love Imlay for his principles, for his intelligence or for his virtues, but for his personal attractions, the charm of his gay virility, the intoxicating pleasure of his attentions. The clever, independent woman, who had been so earnest in her denunciation of follies and frailties, was caught by just those qualities in the young soldier that satisfied the fille publique of the Palais Royal who had amused him for a few hours.
Eliza had truly, if meanly, predicted, that Mary in France would be "but a woman." But she would put a gloss over her feelings and, while indulging long frustrated nature, vex and confuse herself with moral axioms.
During that summer of the Terror in Paris the odd love affair fluctuated. Gilbert Imlay was not easily snared. Mary was starved of love, and he, satiated with it. While she had been sermonising about life he had been experiencing it. He was attractive and had money. The licence in Paris was extreme. The vicious drove a brisk trade in what the virtuous offered for nothing under the excuse that love—like everything else—was "free." Imlay had never found any difficulty with women, and there was none with Mary. The conquest of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was almost too easy.
But the woman's outburst of fresh, sincere passion touched, amused, then roused the jaded man. He was, too, a little flattered at her preference, for she was famous and supposed to be difficult, and was also attracted by her person that she now adorned with every device possible to her means.
For him—her late come lover—Mary bloomed like an autumn rose, and gained that lustre and sparkle that she had hitherto lacked. The plain dress affected by the Republicans suited her long-limbed graceful figure, the rich hair showed handsome under the cheap straw hat, and the classic features and brilliant brown eyes became beautiful when animated with joy. When she forgot her roles of teacher and of critic she was charming with her pretty childish delight in little things, her eagerness to please, her quick interest in all subjects; the true woman, revealed at last, truly shone.
She gave herself entirely to her love. Her history, the result of much labour, was left untouched on her desk; she wrote no more. When Imlay did not visit her she went on solitary but no longer sad walks in the woods or made excursions to other suburbs of Paris, that she might, alone with her delight, dream of the future. Her senses and her imagination became exquisitely quickened, and she was profoundly impressed by the decaying grandeur of the huge château of Versailles, then abandoned, the vast corridors where the damp was ruining the grandiose stucco ornaments, the succession of mirrors in which she saw her own lonely figure reflected, the great empty staircases and the gigantic figures sprawling in the frescoes that seemed to turn and snatch at her as she passed.
Mary Wollstonecraft wandered in the deserted gardens that had so recently formed the background for Marie Antoinette's gorgeous merrymaking, paused by the melancholy temples and the trickling cascades and contrasted the sadness of these relics of fallen grandeur with her own brilliant hopes. She and Imlay became lovers without pact or bargain. He expected a complete surrender as a result of his attentions to any woman, and Mary was past making terms. Modesty, she had always declared, "was the most charming of the virtues," and as attractive as necessary in a woman, but all reserves vanished before passion.
When Imlay could not come to Neuilly she used to meet him outside the great Barrière or Gate of Paris, erected by Charles-Alexandre Calonne, the Controller-General to Louis XVI, outside the Tuileries, as part of his scheme for an octroi. They would dine together at one of the pleasant hôtels that lined the elegant boulevards and afterwards meet as lovers in the private room that Imlay hired. Mary indulged in that sophistry so often employed by women in her situation—her lover was her "husband" in the eyes of God, and she, therefore, chaste. Merely because she loved him and intended to be faithful to him, she was, she argued, "doing no wrong, because she was doing right in her own eyes." She persuaded herself that her connection with Imlay was not only honourable, but sublime.
In the first month of her love affair Mary Wollstonecraft was happy, with a happiness that she had not hitherto dreamed possible. She lost her affectation and her interest in everything, save her own circumstances. Even the tumults and miseries and excitements of Paris during the autumn of 1793 became but a mere background to her love affair. She lavished on Gilbert Imlay an ardour and a tenderness that involved him further than he had meant to go. He found his mind as well as his senses seduced by this lovely intelligent woman who so exalted him in his own eyes by her admiration and her deference. Mary cast from her all the dreary memories of the dismal past; her brothers, her sisters, her father, George Blood—none of these people existed for her. She had, through her connections with Imlay, begun, in every sense of the word, a new life. Now that she was satisfied in herself, she no longer criticised those about her with such acrid bitterness. She was no longer a spectator of society, but had become part of the social fabric, a loved woman—no longer lonely, neglected, or frustrated. Everything to her looked beautiful, even in the dusty and disordered city. Her expeditions to the little hôtel beyond the grandiose arch of the barrier were full of the most exquisite delights. She noted with sensations of acute pleasure the long boulevards with the handsome trees, the best of flowers, the people, gay and frivolous despite their privations, their uncertainties of the future. She was unspied upon, unreproved; she had that delicious liberty so necessary to the successful conduct of a love affair. Yet there were some of the poignant joys of stolen fruit in those half-secret meetings, in those caresses and smiles that Imlay gave her when they were concealed from the outer world. Weeks passed and she continued to live in her cottage at Neuilly and to hold Gilbert Imlay's passion and affection by her charms, her intelligence, her sincere love and the hundred unrehearsed arts that passion taught her inexperience.
When the first grapes ripened in the garden of her cottage the old man made a gift of them to his fair visitor, and with the purple fruit piled in a little basket on her arm she would go out along the dusty road to watch for the handsome horseman who was then not only all the world to her, but more than she had ever thought all the world might be worth in those cool days when she had declared sex to be unimportant.
Mary's position became towards the end of the year extremely difficult. She was almost at the end of her little hoard of money, and had been scrupulous about accepting any money from her lover, or even mentioning her distress to him. She was utterly cut off from England, and it was more than a year since she had heard from any of her friends. How long ago now seemed those days when she had frequented the literary circle of London and listened to the brilliant talk of Henry Fuseli, the arguments of Priestley, Aiken and Wakefield, or attended the gatherings in Mrs. Trimmer's drawing-room!
How little Mary cared for any of them, or for any of the abstractions to which she had given so much time. But her material circumstances demanded some attention; she had to snatch herself and her passion from a world in ruins.
The gazettes told her of the levée en masse in August, the setting up of the Committee of Public Safety in September, the trial and execution of the Queen in October, the Feast of Reason and the rising in La Vendée, but none of these things were real to her; she existed for her lover's caresses, for their delicious meetings and exquisite companionship. More important to her than the politics of Pitt or the victories of Hood were the details of the little room in the hôtel beyond the majestic Barrière, the table set with two glasses, two services, a bowl of roses, a dish of fruit—his dark face behind the candlelight, his laughter as he held her in his arms. Yet she was aware that this enchantment might be rudely broken—perhaps by the knife of the guillotine.
For the moment Mary was unnoticed, but many of her friends, including Helen Maria Williams, were still in prison, where, in the boarded-up rooms of a Luxembourg palace hastily changed into jails, they might meditate at leisure on their enthusiasm for Liberty. Nor was her well-known Republicanism likely to save Mary Wollstonecraft; the followers of Marat and Robespierre had no tenderness for the friends of the Gironde.
Mary's first known letter to Gilbert Imlay addresses him as "My dear love," and says: "I shall leave the key in the door and hope to find you at my fireside on my return about eight o'clock."
Soon after she wrote this he had agreed to help her out of her difficulties, and perhaps save her from her perils by allowing her to pass as his wife. It would have been difficult for Mary to be married in Paris without disclosing her nationality; that might have caused her to be cast into prison. It is, however, difficult to believe that Imlay, an American, could not have contrived this ceremony without danger to an intended wife. Both he and Mary had some friends and some influence in Paris, and the French Government was disposed to make everything easy for an American. Under the excuse that it would be difficult for them to get married, but really because Gilbert Imlay did not care about matrimony and Mary dare not press the question, they decided that she should have the protection of his name and the comfort of living openly with him. This at least gave their love the dignity of a public avowal, and Mary accepted the proposal with eager gratitude. It was some time taking shape. In August she had written:
"You can scarcely imagine with what pleasure I anticipate the day when we are to begin almost to live together. You would smile to hear how many plans and employments I have in my head now that I am confident my heart has found peace in your bosom. Cherish me with that dignified tenderness which I have only found in you. Your own dear girl will try to keep under the quickness of feeling that sometimes gives you pain. Yes, I will be good, that I may deserve to be happy, and whilst you love me I cannot again fall into the miserable state which has rendered my burden almost too heavy to be borne. I shall be at the barrier a little after ten o'clock to-morrow."
By the autumn they were living together in Gilbert Imlay's apartment. She was using his name, and he had procured a statement from the American Consul that she was his wife. This gave her, in the eyes of the French authorities, the right to American citizenship, and she was unmolested while every other British subject was either lodged in prison or forced to fly the country. Such of Mary's friends as remained in Paris accepted her as Imlay's wife without inquiring too closely into the matter. News of the supposed marriage reached her brother Charles in Philadelphia, who wrote home to his sisters that he had heard Mary was married "to a Captain Gilbert Imlay of this country."
And as the seed waits eagerly watching for its flower and
Anxious its little soul looks out into the clear expanse
To see if hungry winds are abroad with their invisible array.
The Four Zoas.
William Blake, 1797.
DURING the first rapture of their life together, for rapture it was to her, Mary persuaded her lover to acquiesce in plans that were contrary to his nature and his intentions. They would, she decided, abandon a society that she was no longer interested in reforming, and a Europe whose affairs no longer concerned her, and live together on a farm in America, where, like some couple imagined by Rousseau, he would till the fields and she would keep the hearth, and their days would pass in perfect companionship and unblemished love.
Imlay agreed to these schemes, but declared it would be impossible to leave France at the moment, and that he must have at least a thousand pounds with which to retire from business.
His affairs continued to occupy him; he was much away from his home, in which he did not find that satisfaction which Mary discovered. He was naturally gay and indifferent to those deep emotions that his partner so valued. He often reproved her for her fits of melancholy, for she had them even now, and for the quickness with which she resented what she considered neglect on his part.
After they had been living together for a few months, business called Imlay to Havre, then called Havre-Marat. During his absence Mary, who was left in his lodgings in Paris, sent him numerous letters, of which thirteen survived the writer. Even in the first, written while Imlay was yet on the road, there was a tinge of reproach, a shadow of fear. Mary, left alone in the distracted city, could not feel at ease:
"...How are you? I have been following you all along the road in this comfortless weather, for, when I am absent from those I love, my imagination is as lively as if my senses had never been gratified by their presence—I was going to say caresses—and why should I not? I have found out that I have more mind than you in one respect; because I can, without any violent effort of reason, find food for love in the same objects much longer than you can. The way to my senses is through my heart, but forgive me! if I think there is sometimes a shorter cut to yours...these continual separations seem necessary to warm your affection; of late we are always separated. Crack!—crack—! and away you go...Pardon...the vagaries of a mind that has been almost 'crazed by care' as well as 'crossed in hapless love,' and bear with me a little longer. When we are settled in the country together more duties will open before me, and my heart, which, now trembling into peace, is agitated by every emotion that awakens the remembrance of old grief, will learn to rest on yours, with that dignity your character, not to talk of my own, demands."
By November Mary was expecting a child, and this knowledge increased both her joy and her apprehension. Her mind, she wrote to Imlay, was sincere as her heart was affectionate, and the knowledge of her condition had produced an overflowing tenderness for her lover. Yet she was anxious and felt his absence. She began to realise with some uneasiness, despite her trust in him, that she had hazarded on this affair much more than she need have, and the remembrance of her past rapturous joys made her loneliness the harder to bear:
"Write to me, my best love, and bid me be patient kindly. The expressions of kindness will again beguile the time, as quickly as they have done to-night. Tell me also, over and over again, that your happiness, and you deserve to be happy, is closely connected with mine, and I will try to dissipate as they rise the fumes of former discontent. God bless you. Take care of yourself. Remember with tenderness Mary. I am going to rest very happy, and you have made me so. This is the kindest good-night I can offer."
The winter of 1794 was hard in Paris; the bare necessaries of life were difficult to get. Mary did not find it easy to come by fuel and food, soap and candles. None of her own friends were left in the capital, and she was not familiar with her husband's business associates, who sometimes visited his apartment. Her books were her sole company, and her entire occupation, apart from a little scribbling, was thinking of her lover. She considered herself his wife in every sense of the word, yet she was not sure of him, though she tried to disguise her doubts from herself. She wrote:
"I think that you must love me, for, in the sincerity of my heart I believe I deserve your tenderness because I am true, I have a degree of sensibility that you can see and relish."
Imlay had said that his visit to Havre would take him but a few days; however, at the end of the year he had not returned, and Mary was growing impatient.
"You seem to have taken up your abode at Havre. Pray, sir, when do you think of coming home, or to write very considerately, when will business permit you? I shall expect, as the country people say in England, that you will make a power of money to indemnify me for your absence. Well, back, my love, to the old story—am I to see you this week or this month? I do not know what you are about."
She disguised her reproaches with a playful air, saying that a sigh escaped her every time she saw Imlay's worn slippers outside his door, from which post she would not, however, remove them, though they were not "the handsomest of their kind," and she finished with:
"Be not anxious to get money, for nothing worth having is to be purchased."
On December 30th she wrote again, informing him that she had at last heard from her family. One letter, from Eliza, was as usual a melancholy affair, which had harassed Mary with its stirring up of old miseries, but Charles from America had written in an independent and manly strain of good luck at last, and Mary wrote gallantly to her lover:
"You shall see it (the letter) when we are once more over the fire together—I think that you would hail him as a brother, with one of your tender looks, when your heart not only gives a lustre to your eyes but a dance of playfulness, that he would meet with a glow half made up of bashfulness, a desire to please. Where shall I find a word to express the relationship which subsists between us?"
Mary could not indeed give herself a name: "wife" seemed to smack of hypocrisy, "mistress" of degradation. She wondered, with a sad playfulness, what the unborn child would name her, and said:
"I have dropt half the sentence that was to tell you how much my brother would be inclined to love the man loved by his sister. I have been fancying myself sitting between you ever since I began to write, and my heart has leaped at the thought! You see how I chat to you...There was so much considerate tenderness in your epistle to-night that, if it has not made you dearer to me, it has made me forcibly see how very dear you are to me by charming away half my cares."
The New Year did not bring Imlay back to Paris. Mary beguiled herself with hope. She kept a parcel of books that had been sent her until she and her lover might read them together—"whilst I mend my stockings." She counted on the future, she struggled to be calm, but when three days went by and she received no letter, she wrote and admitted for the first time that she was hurt and disappointed:
"...Why should I, by concealing it, affect a heroism I do not feel? I hate commerce...You will tell me that exertions are necessary. I am weary of them! The face of things, public and private, vexes me. The 'peace' and clemency which seemed to be drawing near a few days ago, disappear again...Life is but a labour of patience: it is always rolling a great stone up a hill; before the person can find a resting place, imagining it is lodged, down it comes again and all the work has to be done anew. Should I attempt to write any more, I could not change the strain. My head aches and my heart is heavy...If you do not return soon...I will throw your slippers out of the window and be off—nobody knows where."
She began to think much of the unborn child. She had made no attempt to conceal her condition from two female acquaintances, and told her lover as much, adding: "And let them stare, and all the world may know it, for all I care." But she added that she wished to avoid "coarse jokes." She became more and more low spirited. She was hurt by her lover's "cheerful temper, which makes absence easy to you...And why should I mince the matter? I was offended at your not even mentioning it (their separation). I do not want to be loved like a goddess, but I wish to be necessary to you."
But if one kind letter came from her lover, she was overflowing with gratitude:
"I have just received your kind and rational letter and would fain hide my face glowing with shame from my folly—I would hide it in your bosom if you would again open it to me and nestle closely till you bade my fluttering heart be still by saying that you forgave me. With eyes overflowing with tears and in the humblest attitude I entreat you, do not turn from me, for indeed I love you fondly and have been very wretched since the night I was so cruelly hurt by thinking you had no confidence in me—Ah, do not continue to be angry with me—You can see that I am already smiling through my tears. You have lightened my heart and my frozen spirits are melting with playfulness. Write the moment you receive this. I shall count the minutes. But drop not an angry word—I cannot now bear it..."
Mary's health began to suffer. Sickness of mind produced sickness of body. She passed her days not only in privation, for Imlay kept her short of money and she had no means of earning any for herself, but in great agitation. Her natural melancholy returned with redoubled force. This was the reaction from her unlooked for and, as it now seemed, incredible happiness. She was afflicted with constant sickness, headaches and trembling fits of weakness.
Imlay answered her complaints sternly, chiding her uneasiness, her lack of faith and her depression. This severity so alarmed the faithful woman that she could not bring herself to open the letters from Havre when they did arrive lest they should contain some reproof:
"Yesterday, my love, I could not open your letter for some time, and though it was not half as severe as I merited, it threw me into such a fit of trembling as seriously alarmed me...This morning I am better. Will you not be glad to hear it?...Let me, in the sincerity of my heart, assure you there is nothing I would not suffer to make you happy. My own happiness depends wholly on you, and knowing you—and my reason is not clouded—I look forward to a rational prospect of as much felicity as the earth affords, with a little dash of rapture into the bargain if you will look at me when we meet again as you have sometimes greeted your humble yet most affectionate Mary."
The following day she wrote again:
"I have been wishing the time away, my kind love, unable to rest until I knew that my penitential letter had reached your hand, and this afternoon when your tender epistle of Tuesday gave such exquisite pleasure to your poor sick girl her heart smote her to think you were still to receive another cold one—Burn it also, my dearest, yet do not forget that even those letters were full of love, and I shall ever recollect that you did not wait to be mollified by my penitence before you took me again to your heart. I have been unwell, and would not, now I am recovering, take the journey because I have been seriously alarmed and angry with myself, fearing continually the fatal consequences of my folly. But should you think it right to remain at Havre I should make some opportunity to come to you in the course of a fortnight, or less perhaps, and before then I shall be strong again."
The letters from her lover became affectionate; he even suggested that she should join him at Havre, a proposal that Mary thought he might have made three months before. She would, she declared, trust him:
"To hasten to your love when you've obtained (or lost sight of) the object of your journey."
Imlay's tenderness had encouraged her to indulge in some entrancing prospects for the future:
"What a picture have you sketched of our fireside! Yes, my love, my fancy was instantly at work and I found my head on your shoulder while my eyes were fixed on the little creatures that were clinging about your knees. I did not absolutely determine that there should be six, but if you have not set your heart on this round number..."
She wrote warmly of the coming child, adding:
"I am afraid to read over this prattle, but it is only for your eye."
She urged Imlay not to become absorbed in his business speculations, nor avid for wealth:
"If you can make your plans answer, it is well. I do not think a little money an inconvenience, but should they fail we will struggle cheerfully together, drawn closer by the pinching blasts of poverty."
Mary had no hope of happiness or interest save in her relations with Gilbert Imlay and her prospect of a domestic life with him on an American farm. She had given up all expectation of fame or fortune for herself, and the progress of the French Revolution disillusioned her as profoundly as it had her fellow enthusiasts. When, for the sake of her unborn child, she forced herself to go abroad amid "the cold and dirt" of Paris and to subdue her "querulous humours," she saw much to sadden, horrify and disgust her in Paris.
In her nervous, forlorn state the terrible scenes that she could not avoid witnessing shook her to the soul. Once she unexpectedly came upon a group of people standing close to some pools of blood brilliant in the gleams of the setting sun. Some public beheadings had just taken place. Mary, now able to speak fluent French, turned on these uneasy idlers and indignantly asked them why they permitted these daily murders. A good-natured citizen took her by the arm and hurried her away before some fanatic or Jacobin government spy should hear her protest.
In February Mary at last received her lover's permission to join him in Havre. She wrote to him on the eve of her departure:
"You may smile me to sleep, for I have not caught much rest since we parted."
After a joyous reunion of a fortnight, Imlay found that business called him to the capital, which Mary had just left. She was then in no condition to travel, so was forced to remain behind at the dreary port, bearing as best she could this second separation. She wrote to him immediately:
"We are such creatures of habit, my love, that, though I cannot say I was sorry, childishly so, for your going, when I knew that you would stay for a short time and I had a plan of employment, yet I could not sleep—I turned to your side of the bed and tried to make the most of the comfort of the pillow which you used to tell me I was churlish about; but all would not do—I took, nevertheless, my walk before breakfast, though the weather was not inviting, and here I am wishing you a finer day, and seeing you peep over my shoulder as I write with one of your kindest looks."
She was still deeply, painfully in love; nothing but Gilbert Imlay and his child was ever in her mind. She was willing to endure the worst that life could offer if she might be with him continually. All her gifts, her charms, her hopes, were flung at the feet of this errant lover, who sometimes laughed and stayed and sometimes scolded and went away, who was always incredibly precious to Mary Wollstonecraft.
At the end of April Mary gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Fanny in memory of her romantic friendship with Frances Blood. Imlay returned to Havre to be with her, and treated her with every consideration. The happiness of this reunion, and a constitution naturally sound, saw her through her confinement, which was brief. She treated herself on stern principles, and had no assistance save that of a midwife. At the end of a few days she was about, well and happy, with her baby daughter in her arms.
Imlay remained with her until August, when he again returned to Paris under the excuse of business. Mary's letters sent to him from Havre show that her affection—nay, her passion—was as strong as ever. She had set all her hopes of happiness on this man, and though she had as yet nothing to complain of in his conduct, she feared that he did not love her with that intensity with which she loved him. She told him with dangerous candour that his affection was necessary to her happiness:
"Still, I do not think it false delicacy or foolish pride to wish that your attention to my happiness should rise as much from love, which is always rather a selfish passion, as reason. That is, I want you to promote my felicity by seeking your own."
She tried to bind him to her by telling him how fond she was of—
"our little girl, who has got into my heart and imagination...When I walk out without her, her little figure is ever dancing before me. Do not, however, suppose that I am melancholy, for when you are from me, I not only wonder how I can find fault with you, but how I can doubt your affection."
Mary Wollstonecraft had truly one grave cause to doubt Gilbert Imlay's affection, and that was that there was still no mention on his part of a marriage between them. There was now no excuse for his not making her his wife in fact, as she was by pretence. He was free, she was free, both were of age, and there could have been no difficulty in their being married either in Havre or in Paris, or even in London. Conditions had improved, and it was possible, if not easy, to travel from one capital to the other.
Mary had never declared herself averse to marriage. She intended to be faithful to this man all her life and to use her utmost endeavours to keep him faithful to her. She had had one child, and hoped to have others. She had her family and friends to face, and she knew that many even of the most broad-minded of these would consider her illicit union a disgrace. Therefore she had every reason to wish to be married to Gilbert Imlay. She must, indeed, always have been ready to be his wife; there could have been no obstacle in her mind nor any hesitation in her heart. Circumstances had hurried her into becoming Imlay's mistress. She had done what most women would have done under her circumstances—snatched such an unlooked for happiness when it was offered her. Now she had every reason to endeavour to consolidate that happiness by a legal union. That Imlay did not suggest it might have warned her of the disaster ahead. She was, however, prepared to accept second best, and to return with him to London using his name and living with him on the same terms as those she had accepted in Paris. She was, however, tormented by his growing indifference. He was neither harsh nor cold, but, when he saw her, kind and cheerful; yet he was quite content to be absent from her for long periods; he showed little interest in their child; he became more and more immersed in business, and, as she feared, some of those loose pleasures from which she thought that she had won him, and he spoke no more of the farm in America where he and she would sit looking into the fire with six children between them.
After they had been a month together in Paris, Imlay went to London under the excuse of business. Mary was supposed to join him when he had straightened out his affairs and found a pleasant house for her. She watched him go with misgivings. She was completely in his power.
Eliza, still at Upton Castle, about the time that Gilbert Imlay came to London, wrote to Everina on receipt of a letter from Charles in Philadelphia saying that Mary was married:
"Can this be a dream, my heart's best friend? I would I could fancy these things matter-of-fact. I mean the poor fellow, Charles's wonderful good luck in so short a time. I own I want faith, nay, doubt my senses, as I have sent you word for word, to spell and put together...If Mary is actually married to Mr. Imlay, it might not be impossible but she might settle there (America) too. Yet Mary cannot be married! It is natural to conclude her protector is her husband. Nay, on reading Charles's letter, I for an instant believed it true. I would, my Everina, we were out of suspense, for all at present is uncertainty and the most cruel suspense; still, Johnson does not speak things at random, and that the very same tale should have crossed the Atlantic makes me almost believe that the once Mary is now Mrs. Imlay and a mother. Are we ever to see this mother and her babe?"
Mary did not send any news of herself either to her relations or to her faithful friend Joseph Johnson, who had, however, as it appears from the above letter of Eliza Bishop, heard some rumours of her supposed marriage. She was indeed still entirely absorbed in her love, and was writing anxiously from Paris to Imlay in London, trying to interest him in the child:
"Besides looking at me there are three other things which delight her—to ride in a coach, to look at a scarlet waistcoat, to hear loud music. There is nothing picturesque in your present pursuit; my imagination, then, rather chooses to ramble back to the barrier with you or to see you coming to meet me and my basket of grapes. With what pleasure do I recollect your looks and words when I have been sitting on the window regarding the waving corn! Bring me back, then, your barrier face, or you shall have nothing to say to my barrier girl, and I shall fly from you to cherish the remembrances that ever will be dear to me."
Then a few days later:
"I have been playing and laughing with the little girl so long that I cannot take up my pen to address you without emotion. Pressing her to my bosom she looks so like you—entre nous your best looks, for I do not admire your commercial face; every nerve seemed to vibrate to the touch and I began to think there was something in the assertion of man and wife being one, for you seemed to pervade my whole frame..."
In another letter:
"I hope you take care of your health...I have got a habit of restlessness at night, which arises I believe from anxiety of mind, for when I am alone, that is, not near one to whom I can open my heart, I sink into reveries..."
"I slept at St. Germain's in the very room that you have not forgot, in which you pressed me very tenderly to your heart—I did not forget to fold my darling to mine, with sensations that are almost too sacred to be alluded to. Adieu, my love!"
On October 1st:
"I have just now stumbled on one of the kind letters that you wrote during your last absence. You are, then, a dear, affectionate creature and I will not plague you...I feel that I love you, and if I cannot be happy with you I will see that no one else is. My little darling grows every day more dear to me and she often has a kiss when we are alone together, which I give her from you with all my heart."
October passed, and Imlay did not return to Paris or send for Mary from London. She was exercising a desperate patience:
"My heart longs for your return, my love, and only looks for and seeks happiness with you. Yet do not imagine that I childishly wish for you to come back before you have arranged things in such a manner that it will not be necessary for you to leave us again soon."
Then, two days after Christmas Day:
"I have been, my love, for some days together tormented by fears that I would not allow to assume a form. I have been expecting you daily and I heard that many vessels have been driven on shore during the late gale. I want to be sure that you are safe and not separated from me by a sea that must be passed. For, feeling that I am happier than I ever was, do you wonder at my sometimes dreading that fate has not done persecuting me? Come to me, my dearest friend, husband, father of my child! All these fond ties glow at my heart at this moment and dim my eyes..."
Imlay wrote letters full of excuses. He could not make a home for Mary in London, nor would his business allow him to return to Paris. He had been disappointed in his speculations and had become checked in his affairs. All these evasions of her passionate desires fell bitterly on the heart of the woman in love. She wrote to him:
"It seems absurd to waste life in preparing to live...Having suffered so much in life, do not wonder that I sometimes, when left to myself, grow gloomy and suppose that it is all a dream, that my happiness is not to last..."
She wrote other letters in the same tone. The refrain was:
"Tell me when I may expect to see you, and let me not be always vainly looking for you till I grow sick at heart. Adieu, I am a little hurt, I must take my darling to my bosom to comfort me."
Then her native independence and boldness of spirit began to reassert themselves. She wrote to her lover that she would try to earn money for herself and her child, that he might not have the excuse that he was absorbed in making money for their sakes. She had begun to debate at last, after putting off the dreadful subject as long as possible, the question of his constancy. What was keeping him? Could this be the true love on which she had so counted?
"...for, if a wandering of the heart, or even a caprice of the imagination detains you, there is an end of all my hopes of happiness—I could not forgive it if I would."
Her melancholy, her distrust of the world had returned. She was sorry that her child was a girl, as she remembered that men were always tyrants. She regretted that she had a tie to a world that "for me is ever sown with thorns."
She reminded her lover:
"I have ever declared that two people who meet and live together ought not to be long separated. If certain things are more necessary to you than me, search for them. Say but one word and you shall never hear of me more. If not, for God's sake let us struggle with poverty—with any evil but these continual inquietudes of business which I have been told would last but a few months, though every day the end appears more distant! This is the first letter in this strain that I have determined to forward you; the rest lie by, because I was unwilling to give you pain, and I should not write now if I did not think that there would be no conclusion to schemes which demand, I am told, your presence."
Letters written during January and February showed an increasing agitation of spirit, a hurry of doubt, and now and then a touch of despair. She received nothing from Imlay but hasty notes and random excuses. Once he was at Ramsgate, ready to embark for France, but business recalled him to London. Mary began to realise that his affection for her had been of another quality than hers for him, and that though he felt a sense of obligation towards the mother of his child, his passion was dead and his tenderness chilled. Mary was startled and bewildered by her own unhappiness. She wrote:
"Fatigued during my youth by the most arduous struggles, not only to obtain independence but to render myself useful; not merely pleasure, for which I had the most lively taste (I mean the simple pleasures that flow from passion and affection) escaped me, but the most melancholy views of life were impressed by a disappointed heart on my mind. Since I knew you I have been endeavouring to go back to my former nature and have allowed some time to glide away, tinged by the delights which only spontaneous enjoyment can give. Why have you so soon dissolved the charm? The present misery—I cannot find a softer word to do justice to my feelings—appears to me unnecessary. Therefore I have not firmness to support it, as you may think I ought. I should have been content, and still wish to retire with you to a farm—my God, anything but these continual anxieties...I do not mean to complain of insubordinate inconveniences, yet I will simply observe that, led to expect you every week, I did not make the arrangements required by the present circumstances to procure the necessaries of life. The want of wood has made me catch the most violent cold I ever had. My head is so disturbed by continual coughing that I am unable to write without stopping frequently to recollect myself."
On an impulse of pride, the unhappy woman added:
"I do not choose to be a secondary object. If your feelings were in unison with mine you would not sacrifice so much for visionary prospects of future advantage."
She tried to assert her independence. She and the "little woman" would go away and seek their fortune together. Yet when Imlay wrote kindly, if not affectionately, she was again all submission, and wrote: "It is pleasant to forgive those we love." She wrote tenderly of her child:
"My animal is well. I have not yet taught her to eat, but nature is doing the business. I gave her a crust to assist cutting her teeth, but now she has two she makes good use of them, to gnaw crusts, biscuit, etc. You would laugh to see her. She is just like a little squirrel, she will guard a crust for two hours, and after fixing her eye on an object for some time, darts on it by name as sure as a bird of prey. Nothing can equal her lively spirits. I suffer from a cold, but it does not affect her. Adieu. Do not forget to love us, and come soon and tell us that you do."
In another fortnight she was writing indignantly, wounded by vague and casual letters from her absent lover. She was stung by his small regard for her comfort. She was nursing her child, had no servant, and was living very roughly on the small amount of money that he sent her. She said:
"I should be ashamed to mention these inconveniences if they had been unavoidable."
But while she was living this hard life in Paris, Imlay was writing from London that "the secondary pleasures of life" were "very necessary to my comfort," and spending, Mary suspected, all that he earned upon himself. To add to the trouble between the lovers, some of their letters went astray. Mary's neglected cold settled on her chest. She became very weak, and was forced to wean the child. Her misery was acute. Her heart told her it was impossible that her happiness was over, but her reason made her realise that it was. She was far too intelligent not to see that Imlay's behaviour was not that of a man in love, and she was as amazed as horrified at his inconstancy, on which she had never for a moment reckoned.
She knew that she had done nothing to deserve his neglect. She had been faithful, tender, passionate, willing to support any hardships for his sake, to agree to all his plans, to forgo anything else the world might offer her for the sake of his companionship and affection; and none of this had been enough. He was absorbed in his money-making, in his—as she feared—casual pleasures; she had become to him but a burden and a regret. Had she had more experience she might have expected such a result from the nature of their connection, from her lover's character and her own. In despair she wrote:
"I mean not, however, to complain, yet so many feelings are struggling for utterance and agitating a heart almost bursting with anguish that I find it very difficult to write with any degree of coherence...God preserve this poor child and make her happier than her mother! But I am wandering from my subject; indeed, my head turns giddy when I think that all the confidence I have had in the affection of others should come to this. I did not expect this blow from you. I have done my duty to you and my child, and if I have not had any return of affection to reward me, I have the sad consolation of knowing that I deserved a better fate. My soul is weary, I am sick at heart, and but for this little darling I would soon cease to care about a life that is now stripped of every charm. You see how stupid I am, muttering declamations when I mean simply to tell you that I consider your request for me to come to you is merely dictated by honour. Indeed, I scarcely understand you. You request me to come and then tell me you have not given up all thought of returning to this place. When I determined to live with you, I was only governed by affection. I would share poverty with you, but I turn with affright from the sea of troubles on which you are entering. I can still exert myself to obtain the necessaries of life for my child. She does not want more than that at present. I have one or two or three plans in my head to earn our subsistence. Do not suppose that, neglected by you, I will lie under obligations of a pecuniary kind to you. No, I would sooner submit to menial service. I wanted the support of your affection. That gone, all is over. I cannot write. I enclose a fragment of a letter written soon after your departure, and another which tenderness made me keep back until you had written. You will see then the sentiments of a calmer, though not more determined moment. Perhaps this is the last letter you will ever receive from me."
Yet next day the unfortunate woman was writing again. Imlay's cool letters, dwelling formally on his obligations to her and the child, with dry plans for the future, had stung her to the quick.
"You talk of 'permanent views and future comfort'—not for me, for I am dead to hope. The inquietudes of the last winter have finished the business, and my heart is not only broken, but my constitution destroyed. I conceive myself in a galloping consumption, and the continual anxiety I feel at the thought of leaving my child feeds the fever that nightly devours me."
She then went into practical detail: the child might be brought up by a German lady, who was a common acquaintance, and who had a daughter of the same age as Fanny. Mary had had three thousand livres from Imlay's bankers. She would take a thousand more to clear off her expenses, and then earn her own living; she also would entirely give up the acquaintance of her lover.
She then dwelt with unutterable anguish on vanished hopes:
"When you first entered into these plans you bounded your views to the gaining of a thousand pounds. It was sufficient to procure the farm in America, which would have been an independence. You find now that you did not know yourself and that a certain situation in life is more necessary to you than you imagined, more necessary than an uncorrupted heart. In a year or two you may procure yourself what you call pleasure, eating, drinking, women, but in the solitude of declining life I shall be remembered with regret. I was going to say with remorse, but checked my pen. As I have ever concealed the nature of my connection with you, your reputation will not suffer. I shall never have a confidant. I am content with the approbation of my own mind, and if there be a searcher of hearts mine will not be despised..."
She could not be content with this, but must add a desperate postscript:
"This has been such a period of barbarity and misery I ought not to complain of having my share. I wish one moment that I had never heard of the cruelties that have been practised here and the next envy the mothers who have been killed with their children. Surely I have suffered enough in life not to be cursed with a fondness that burns up the vital stream I am imparting. You will think me mad. I would I were so, that I could forget my miseries—so that my heart or head would be still..."
Gilbert Imlay hedged. He was not equal to the situation; he could not feign an affection that he no longer felt; he could not bring himself to cast off utterly the woman who had grown so inconveniently fond of him; he made excuses, uttered protestations that Mary at once saw were false, and still took refuge in the cares of business, putting off his return to Paris for an indefinite period.
On February 19th Mary wrote to say that her cough was worse, that she was weaning her child, that her harassed mind was undermining her health. She returned to the bitterness that had ruined her youth—how tenderly other women were treated, and how roughly fortune had dealt with her.
"I have not found a guardian angel in Heaven or on earth to ward off sorrow or care from my bosom."
She added with keen irony:
"What sacrifices have you not made for a woman you did not respect! But I will not go over this ground. I want to tell you that I do not understand you."
Imlay had assured her that it was not necessary for him to return to Paris, but she knew that for business reasons alone it was. She could not grasp why he should wish her to come to London, a place so full of sorrowful memories to her that she did not wish to see it again. She had no desire to face her family, her friends or acquaintances. She wished to go with Imlay to America, as they had at first planned, or to remain with him in France.
"What, is our life then only to be made up of separations? Am I only to return to a country that has not merely lost all charm for me, but for which I have a feeling of repugnance that almost amounts to horror?..."
Her financial dependence on Imlay now began to gall her wretchedly. She found it a horrible effort to go to his friend to ask for money.
"Till I can earn money I shall endeavour to borrow some, for I want to avoid asking him continually for the sum necessary to maintain me. Do not mistake me. I have never been refused, yet I have gone half a dozen times to the house and come away without speaking. You can guess why."
Finally Imlay wrote a guarded letter saying that he had taken a furnished house for Mary in London, that he wished her to join him as soon as possible, but that he could make no settled plans for the future, owing to pecuniary embarrassments. Mary, snatching at straws, read some hope into this concession, and wrote from Havre on her way to her lover:
"I have indeed been so unhappy this winter that I find it is difficult to acquire fresh hope with which to regain tranquillity...But for the little girl I could almost wish that it should cease to beat, to be no more alive to the anguish of disappointment."
From Brighton she wrote to him again three days later:
"Here we are, my love, and mean to set out early in the morning, and if I can find you I hope to dine with you to-morrow. But why do I write about trifles, or anything? Are we not to meet soon? What does your heart say?"
Sick with mingled hope and apprehension, Mary returned to that London she had left in such tranquillity of spirit four years before, a child on her knee and nothing but thoughts of Gilbert Imlay in her heart.
This Cloudy God seated on Waters
Now seen, now obscur'd, King of Sorrows.
Book of Ahaniah.
William Blake, 1795.
MARY viewed with a sickly sensation of despondency the familiar London streets, sober, monotonous in the pallid light of the April day. All her happiness and pleasure were associated with Paris, and London brought to her mind nothing but miseries. Trying frantically to control her apprehension, she arrived at the furnished apartments that Imlay had prepared for her in a street in Marylebone—always hired lodgings for Mary, and never a home.
She had travelled alone, not being able to afford a servant, and was therefore burdened with carrying her child and looking after her own baggage. A maid had, however, been provided by Imlay, and Mary was able to give the sleepy, irritable little girl into this woman's charge.
Gilbert Imlay was there to meet her, but his greeting was such as destroyed her lingering hopes. He endeavoured to be cool and matter of fact, but both his natural warmth of disposition and his genuine courtesy made him confused and embarrassed. Mary, silent before her supreme misfortune, understood that he was prepared to allow her the protection of his name and to pay her expenses. He would even pretend to live with her; but he had rooms with his business partner in the Strand, and would be able to give her but little of his time. He declared that his pecuniary affairs were in a bad state, and that he could make no plans whatever for the future. From these awkward excuses Mary learnt that love and affection were dead, and even respect was dying.
The truth was that she had, perhaps without knowing it, spoilt the affair from the beginning. Gilbert Imlay was not one of those few men who appreciate an intellectual mistress. He found it both difficult and tiresome to raise what was, after all, to him but an ordinary love affair to those heights of grandeur and sublimity where Mary would place it; nor had he any real taste for that domesticity which she had contrived to persuade him he liked so well. Had she been his wife they might have patched up some arrangement that would have served to keep Mary at least fairly satisfied; but, however much Gilbert Imlay might think he was bitten with novel notions, he could not give Mary all that respect which she nervously demanded. He tried to be tolerant and just, to admit that he owed her and the child an obligation; but she was not to him more than a mistress, somebody to be taken up, set aside and forgotten.
He was truly immersed in speculation. Though he had the handling of considerable sums of money, he was embarrassed as to the future. Large bills were owing to him, but his expenses were heavy. His business associates, hard, worldly men, told him that he had done a stupid thing in involving himself with the authoress of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Neither she nor her family nor her friends were likely to suit his mode of life; she was over anxious, and always pressed her point home with too tenacious a resolution to please a man of Gilbert Imlay's type. She had made the profound mistake of allowing him to see how much she cared, and this anxious, grasping affection first fatigued, then irritated him. Mary had herself inveighed against this mistake in her famous book. She had declared that it was foolish of women to try to keep love alive after it had died, that they should be content with a placid friendship. She found it impossible to put her own advice into practice. She was headlong in love, and all her hopes were bound up in this man. Besides, she liked a domestic life; she relished the prospect of being attached to Gilbert Imlay's fortunes; she wanted his constant companionship, as Lady Russell wanted that of her husband—"to eat with, to walk with, to talk with, to sleep with." Nothing she had ever experienced compared in delight and pleasure to her life with Gilbert Imlay. Without him existence appeared intolerable.
She had written from Paris to Mr. Johnson that the manuscript of the first volume of a history of the French Revolution lay in her trunk. She knew that her bookseller friend would publish this work, and that she could with him resume her position as reader, translator and hackwriter. But how dreary did this prospect appear! She understood now how arid and unsatisfying her former existence had been. She was so stunned by the realisation of her loss that she seemed almost to acquiesce in it. Imlay tried to reassure her that he would look after her and the child, at least in a pecuniary sense, and made his escape. His vanished passion had not been reawakened by her presence. Anxiety, fatigue and poverty, the nursing of the child and a heavy cough had blemished Mary's charm. She was no longer the shining woman of the barrier, or of the cottage at Neuilly, but a pale creature with sunken cheeks, dimmed eyes and a flurried manner on the verge of tears. Imlay had experienced the truth of the axiom pronounced by a French wit: "It is only after one has loved an intellectual woman that one appreciates the affection of a fool." He hastened back to his own friends and cruder and less exacting pleasures than those offered by Mary's passion that she decked out in embarrassingly noble and lofty terms.
As soon as her lover had left her, a sense of her desolation came over the unfortunate woman. She sat down at once and wrote to him. He replied at once in friendly terms, but complained that her importunities were unsettling his mind when he was absorbed in difficult business. He came, however, to see her, and they entered on several of those disastrous explanations, that "talking of things out" which never occurs when matters go right and never succeeds in putting straight matters that have gone wrong.
Mary perceived that she was humiliating herself by clinging to a man who had done with her, but she could not bring herself to face this intolerable truth. After she had been a month in London, in the May, she was writing to him about her distressing nights:
"I have laboured to calm my mind since you left me. Still I find that tranquillity is not to be obtained by diversion, a feeling so different from resignation and despair. I am, however, no longer angry with you, nor will I ever utter another complaint. There are arguments which convince the reason while they carry death to the heart—We have had too many cruel explanations, that not only cloud every future prospect but embitter the remembrance which alone gives life to affection—Let the subject never be revived! It seems to me that I have not only lost the hope but the power of being happy—Every emotion is now sharpened by anguish—My soul has been shook and my tone of feelings destroyed—I have gone out—and sought for dissipation, if not amusement, merely to fatigue still more I find my irritable nerves—My friend, my dear friend, examine yourself well—I am out of the question, for alas! I am nothing—and discover what you wish to do, what will render you most comfortable—or, to be more explicit, whether you desire to live with me or part forever. When you can once ascertain it, tell me frankly, I conjure you, for, believe me, I have very involuntarily interrupted your peace. I shall expect you to dinner on Monday and will endeavour to assume a cheerful face to please you."
A few days later, in forwarding him a letter that had been sent to her address, she wrote:
"I am tempted very laconically to wish you a good-morning—not because I am angry or have nothing to say, but to keep down a wounded spirit—I shall make every effort to calm my mind, yet a strong conviction seems to whirl round in the very centre of my brain, which, like the fiat of fate, emphatically assures me that grief has a firm hold of my heart. God bless you!"
Mary's miseries were added to by family complications. Charles was safely in America, though he was by no means doing as well for himself as he had boasted to his sisters, Everina was in a situation, but Eliza, who had heard from Mr. Johnson of Mary's return to London, decided to leave Upton Park and come to the capital with the intention of residing with Mary, whom she thought, or pretended to think, a woman comfortably married to a wealthy American who would be able to spend large sums on his sister-in-law.
Mary had not improved her delicate relations with Gilbert Imlay by asking him, when he came to London, to get in touch with her sisters and help them if possible. He had, after the usual excuses of pressure of business, written to Eliza Bishop in the preceding November, in which he had referred to Mary as "Mrs. Imlay," and, in well-rounded terms, excused himself with many expressions of regard from seeing either of his "dear Mary's" sisters. He had promised, however, to alleviate Mrs. Bishop's distress "by all the means in our power," although his fortune was not, he added at once, in a very good way.
Eliza, therefore, had had strong hopes raised in her mind that "the Imlays," as she thought of them, would be able to do something for her. Surely at the worst she could be taken into their household as companion to her sister and nurse or governess for the child. Mary had always promised such a shelter. Eliza sent to Mr. Johnson to know Mary's address, and gave her own. The bookseller, who had seen clearly Mary's painful situation, told her of her sister's request; but Mary was too unhappy to do anything, and allowed at least a fortnight to go by before she wrote to Eliza.
To Everina she had written from Havre and Paris two letters, full merely of generalisations about the state of France, describing how she had nursed Fanny through an attack of smallpox, and mentioning Imlay in the following terms:
"You know I am safe through the protection of an American, a most worthy man who joins to uncommon tenderness of heart a quickness of feeling, a soundness of understanding and reasonableness of temper rarely to be met with. Having been brought up in the interior parts of America, he is a most natural, unaffected creature."
This was all the communication that had passed between the sisters until Mary sent two letters in the April of 1795. The friendliness of Mary's first letter would naturally cause at least the susceptible Eliza to believe that she would receive a very warm welcome from her sister. Mary had described in eager terms her pleasant life with Gilbert Imlay and her love for her child. Eliza, though full of curiosity, did not therefore question that everything was well.
Mary wrote from the Marylebone lodging to Everina in these terms:
"When you hear, my dear Everina, that I have been in London near a fortnight without writing to you or Eliza, you will perhaps accuse me of insensibility, but I shall not lay any stress on my not being well in consequence of a violent cold I caught during the time I was nursing, to tell you that I put off writing because I was at a loss to know what I could do to render Eliza's situation more comfortable. I instantly gave Jones ten pounds to send, for a very obvious reason in his own name, to my father, and I could send her a trifle of this kind immediately were temporary assistance necessary. I believe I told you that Mr. Imlay had not a fortune when I first met him; since he has entered into very extensive plans, which promise a degree of success though not equal to the first prospect. When a sufficient sum is actually realised I know he will give to you and Eliza five or six hundred pounds, or more if he can. In what way can this be of the most use to you? I am above concealing my sentiments though I have boggled at uttering them. It will give me sincere pleasure to be situated near you both. I cannot yet say where I shall determine to spend the rest of my life, but I do not wish to have a third person in the house with me. My domestic happiness would perhaps be interrupted without my being of much use to Eliza. This is not a hastily formed opinion, nor is it consequent of my present attachment, yet I am obliged now to express it because it appears to me that you have formed some such expectation for Eliza. You may wound me by remarking on my determination; still, I know on what principle I act and therefore you can only judge for yourself. I have not heard from Charles for a great while. By writing to me immediately he would relieve me from considerable anxiety."
Mary still allowed Everina to think that she was married by giving her name and address as "Mrs. Imlay, No. 26 Charlotte Street, Rathbone Place." Mary wrote to the same purpose to Eliza, though the words were slightly different.
These letters were not very skilful attempts on Mary's part, and certainly not very tactful ones, to conceal from her sisters her real situation. They also held out delusive hopes. She must have known that there was no likelihood that she would be able to obtain from Gilbert Imlay six hundred pounds to give to her sisters; she could hardly obtain her own expenses from her lover. Everina was displeased by her letter, and Eliza furious at hers that she enclosed to her elder sister with the bitter comments:
"This I have just received. My Everina, what I felt, I shall forever feel! It is childish to talk of. After lingering above a fortnight in such cruel suspense. Good God! what a letter! How have I merited such pointed cruelty? When did I wish to live with her? At what time wish for a moment to interrupt their domestic happiness! Was ever a present offered in so humiliating a style? Ought the poorest domestics be thus insulted? Are your eyes opened at last, Everina? What do you say now to our goodly prospects? I have such a mist before my lovely eyes that I cannot now see what I write. Instantly get me a situation in Ireland, I care not where. Dear Everina, delay not, but tell me you can procure bread; with what hogs I eat it, I care not—nay if exactly the Uptonian breed. Remember I am serious. If you disappoint me my misery will be complete. I have enclosed this famous letter to the author of the Rights of Woman without any reflection. She shall never hear from poor Bess again. Remember I am as fixed as my misery and nothing can change my present plan. This letter so strongly agitates me that I know not what I say; but this I feel and know, that if you value my existence you will comply with my requisition, for I am positive I will never torment our amiable friend in Charlotte Street. Is not this a good street, my dear girl? At least, poor Bess can say it is a fruitful one. Alas, poor Bess!"
Eliza had heard grim tales of the French Revolution from refugees who had landed at Haverfordwest, and had been staying for over a year in Pembroke; some of them were French priests, and one of them, M. Graux, a bishop. A year before, in a letter to Everina, Eliza had described the arrival of this unfortunate man, who declared that he had been worse used by the Welsh peasantry than he would have been if he had been in Paris.
"This good creature was compelled to walk three miles, and was nearly fainting at every step he took surrounded by men, women and children, gazing not at his pale face, but at a handkerchief that supplied the place of a wig that the waves had stolen. The moment he was housed in Pembroke, all the children were admitted to the room, where he sat for many hours, his head sunk on the table, and at last he was allowed to go to bed."
It is to this priest, with whom she had become intimate, that Eliza refers in the second letter which she wrote in a hot indignation to Everina:
"I am so eager for you to say you have procured a situation for me in Dublin. I have now only ten days to spend at Pembroke, yet quite uncertain what poor Bess's future fate is to be. I mean to stay with my father a week, or a little more, so write and tell me the price of the new stage from Waterford to the capital. Also inform me from what inn it sets off, not forgetting the hour. There is no vessel now that can sail for Ireland, so I must send my box to London and from hence to our mother country. What say you to Mrs. Imlay's friendly epistle? I told you I returned it with only these words—'Mrs. Bishop has never received any money from America...' Can you blame me for returning Mrs. I's letter?...Recollect I value not what situation you get me—agreeable or disagreeable will be equally acceptable to the sister of the author of the Rights of Woman...for I am sick to death of arguing and accounting for the unaccountable events of this wretched life, and am thoroughly tired of the lingering existence that I have dragged on year after year, for spring after spring. To receive aught now from your Mary appears to me to be the height of meanness. Would to God we were both in America with Charles. Do you think it would be possible for us to go from Dublin to Philadelphia in an American ship? It is my only hope, yet I am afraid to indulge it. I beseech you to write to Charles immediately. I am sure our sister would be delighted with this plan, and our new brother would of course display all his energy and character to render it practicable. Was it greatness of mind or heart which dictated the ever memorable letter which has so stupefied me that I know not what I write, for I have incessant headaches to such a degree that it is a torture for me to take up a pen. Alas, at the end of four long years, could despair itself have dreamed of such studied cruelty. No inquiries after my present wants, etc., no wish to see us. Mr. Imlay's silence was a bad omen, and that she could remain in London a fortnight and then send poor Bess such a cordial!...The last month the good and amiable Graux has been dreadfully embittered; he is now very ill and thoroughly hurt with my sublime sister. He sends his love to Everina, whom he is much more anxious to see than the famous Mrs. Wollstonecraft...Is not this a goodly spring and is not Bess a lucky girl? The amiable Mary pined in poverty, while Mrs. Imlay enjoys all her heart can sigh for."
Eliza believed that Mary, having made a wealthy marriage, wished to discard her sisters, and the intense bitterness of her letters shows not only how deeply she was disappointed, but the emptiness of her own life and her envy of what she considered her sister's more brilliant lot. So spiteful was her attitude towards Mary that it seems doubtful whether even if she had known of that unhappy woman's wretched situation she would have offered her any sympathy.
Imlay had moved his faux ménange, Mary, Fanny, a couple of servants, to furnished rooms in Charlotte Street, a sombre row of flat-fronted houses that stretched towards the fields and heights of Hampstead. It was a respectable lodging, but drab and cheerless, with a shabby genteel air. Mary was very straitened for money. The one volume of the French Revolution that she had completed did not bring in more than a few pounds, and she had not the heart to carry out any of her other schemes. She tried to take up again old friends and acquaintances, but found no distraction in company, in the theatre or in reading. She was homeless, uncertain of the future, and more dependent on Gilbert Imlay's affection as she found this vanishing.
She exerted herself to please him, to give the dingy lodgings the air of a home, to dress herself carefully, to set off the merry child with clean frocks and ribbons, to be good company when her reluctant lover could be beguiled to her dinners or suppers.
But Gilbert Imlay did not want a home, and Mary's charms, however attired, meant nothing to him; the child only reminded him of a tiresome obligation, and Mary's nervous gaiety, broken by passionate complaints and desperate appeals for renewed love, was a poor substitute for those easy, congenial companions with whom he spent most of his leisure.
The child had been a mistake. A wife, secure in her legal rights, may indulge in maternity; but it is dangerous for a mistress to become a mother if she hopes to keep her lover's interest. Only a very chivalrous high-minded man can endure the discomforts, inconveniences and interruptions that children mean, without fatigue and disgust.
Mary, blooming, shining with love, coming to meet him with her basket of grapes along the Neuilly road, Mary, the delicious mistress of the Barrière Hotel, was very different from Mary, the burdened, anxious mother, worn out by nursing, occupied with petty cares. Gilbert Imlay felt an obligation towards Mary, but he believed that it could be met with money, and he studied, in his easy, good-humoured way, how to be rid of this woman who had not known how to treat a love affair lightly and who would confuse with lofty issues what had been to him, at most, a merely pleasant episode.
Mary's social position was ambiguous. She refused, much to the embarrassment of her friends, to keep up the convenient pretences, and with a gesture of independence and unconventionality took pains to inform every one that she was not Captain Gilbert Imlay's wife. This seemed, while she was using his name and had not told the truth of her relations to her sisters, somewhat inconsistent. Mary was indeed at this time distracted and scarcely knew what she was doing. Even among the broad-minded liberal set who formed Mr. Johnson's circle it would not have been easy for her to be received as Imlay's mistress, and her acquaintances kept up among themselves the polite fiction that she was really married, though the ceremony was no doubt secret and possibly doubtful; but, while her friends succeeded in saving her reputation despite herself, that her domestic relations, whether illicit or not, were unhappy, was clear enough. Gilbert Imlay was seldom at the apartments in Charlotte Street, and it soon became impossible for Mary even to pretend that there was concord between them.
Her health became bad again. She wasted as she pined and found it impossible to take up her old work. She remembered, with a sigh of sick regret, the brilliant, the impetuous Henry Fuseli, who had so dangerously roused her admiration. She hoped now to obtain some sympathy and kindness from this brilliant friend.
She called on him, but he would not see her, and though the wife was kind, she was a little reserved. Mary felt slighted. She was much alone in London. Many of her former acquaintances were pleasant, but not very much interested in her troubles. Her famous book, in the flood of works that had appeared during the French Revolution, was almost forgotten. The Rights of Woman and the Rights of Man had become somewhat stale cries. There was an air of profound disillusionment among the intellectuals of London in the spring of 1795. Not only was the much vaunted French Revolution a failure from the point of view of the idealists, it had involved Europe in a war that appeared endless, and everyone who had been of republican sympathies or even of liberal tendencies was regarded with horror by most people as an accomplice of the Jacobins, murderers and monsters. There was no audience now for Mary's theories concerning the equality of the sexes, nor had she the spirit to deliver them. She had found out for herself how and why men have power over women.
She kept her intelligence in abeyance while she fed herself with false hopes—of that farm in America and Imlay's children at her knee. Imlay had found time to publish a book, The Emigrant. He gave it, in the hopes of better sales, the form of a novel, but it had no pretences to be a romance, and was merely an American's candid views of the faults of the mother country, and in particular of the institution of marriage as practised in England. It did not have much success.
Mary was detached from her family and old friends. George Blood was comfortably established in Dublin, but Mary did not write to him, and after Eliza had returned her letter she communicated no more with her sisters, relieved, perhaps, that this burden at least had gone. She was indeed fast reaching a point where she cared nothing for anything but her own misery. Her nights were sleepless, her days passed in continual agitation. Suspense became her worst torture. Imlay would neither completely leave her nor permanently join his life to hers. For days together she did not see him. Sometimes when he came it was but an hour's visit. He tried to argue with her that they were but tormenting each other, and that it would be better for them to part; yet he conceded reluctantly her right to claim him if she wished. He had made her no promises, was bound to her by no ties save that of the child, and Mary had always declared that it was an indecent thing for a man and woman to live together when love was dead.
Yet she would not, could not, let him go. She would not realise that obvious truism that nothing can revive dead passion. She had, indeed, but little to offer Gilbert Imlay. Her comeliness was impaired, her temper embittered, and though she made continual promises to avoid perilous subjects, yet their interviews were filled with her complaints and protestations.
Such a state of desperate agitation could not long continue. She had not been in London more than a few months before one dark morning after a night of torment she sent out the maid to buy some laudanum to ease the neuralgic pains in her head, and Imlay, calling unexpectedly at her lodgings, found her about to drink a large quantity of the poison the unsuspecting apothecary had sent.
Mary, beside herself, plainly declared her intention of suicide. He was startled, shocked and moved, and persuaded her to accept life and continue to struggle for happiness. In his desperation, in order to be rid of her and yet not have her on his conscience, he suggested that she should travel in Norway and Sweden, taking the child and a maid with her. The excuse was that she might collect some back debts owing to him and get some contracts signed, for he was doing a considerable business in Scandinavia. He argued, using all his arts that Mary found so fascinating to persuade her, that if she was away from him several months they might both be able to look at the situation in a clearer light, and even yet find some peace. He used caresses to persuade her, and Mary was induced to live.
Free from these continual meetings, these recriminations, protestations and arguments, they might become less emotional, Imlay argued, and they would be able to decide what was best for the future. In the meanwhile she might not only re-establish her health, but procure some sums of money that would be useful both to them and to the child.
Mary, exhausted, unable to resist the man whom she loved, and snatching at some faint hope of a revival of his affection during her absence, accepted. In June, with the French nurse and the child, she journeyed from London to Hull. From there she wrote to Imlay in terms that showed that her anguish was by no means stilled or her agitation soothed.
"We arrived here about an hour ago. I am extremely fatigued with the child, who would not rest quiet with anyone but me during the night. Now we are here in a comfortless, damp room in a sort of tomb-like house. This, however, I shall quickly remedy, for when I have finished this letter—which I must do immediately because the post goes out early—I shall sally forth and inquire about a vessel and an inn. I will not depress you by talking of the depression of my spirits or the struggle I had to keep alive my dying heart. It is even now too full to allow me to write with composure. Imlay, dear Imlay, am I always to be tossed about like this? Shall I never find an asylum to rest content in? How can you love to fly about continually, dropping down as it were in a new world cold and strange every day? Why do you not attach those tender emotions round the idea of home, which even now dim my eyes? Fanny is playing near me in high spirits. She was so pleased by the noise of the mail horn that she has been continually imitating it. Adieu!"
The following day she wrote to tell him that a lady had offered to take her in a private coach to Beverley, where Mary had had a brief gleam of happiness as a child. The journey would be tedious and uncomfortable, but Mary added:
"Why talk of such inconveniences, which are in fact trifling when compared to the sinking of the heart I have felt? I did not intend to touch this painful string."
Mary remained in Hull waiting first for a boat, then for a wind, until the end of June. This dreary period was broken only by the visit to Beverley, which she found sorely disappointing. It was her lost childhood she was in search of, the days when she had so eagerly tripped to the little day school confident in her own powers to learn, to succeed. Now the place looked poor and mean. She could not understand why she had remembered it as a splendid town with wide streets and noble buildings.
Imlay wrote to her a long letter on what he termed "the state of his own mind." He made general observations, which, as Mary quickly noticed, did not help the situation. She replied:
"I shall always consider it as one of the most serious misfortunes of my life that I did not meet you before satiety had rendered your senses so fastidious to almost close up every tender avenue of sentiment and affection that leads to your sympathetic heart."
She followed these remarks with some sad reasoning referring to Imlay's strong health and gross appetite, and warning him that he did not know the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure that arises from a union of affection and desire:
"...and the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous."
She instantly added:
"Well! you will ask what is the result of all this reasoning? Why, I cannot help thinking that it is possible for you, having great strength of mind, to return to nature, to gain a sanity of constitution, a purity of feeling which would open your heart to me—I would fain rest there! Yet, convinced more than ever of the sincerity and tenderness in my attachment for you, the involuntary hopes which a determination to live has revived are not sufficiently strong to dissipate the cloud that despair has spread over futurity. I have looked at the sea and at my child, hardly daring to own to myself the secret wish that it might become our tomb, that the heart, still so alive with anguish, might be quieted in death. Are we ever to meet again? Will you endeavour to render that meeting happier than the last?...I cannot indeed without agony think of your bosom being continually contaminated, and bitter are the tears which exhaust my eyes when I recollect why my child and I are forced to stray from an asylum, where after so many storms I had hoped to rest, smiling at any fate. These are not common sorrows, or can you perhaps conceive how much active fortitude it requires to labour perpetually to blunt the shafts of disappointments. Examine now yourself and ascertain whether you can live in something like a settled style. Let our confidence in future be unbounded. Consider whether you find it necessary to sacrifice what you term 'the zest of life.' When you have once a clear view of your own motives, your own incentive to action, do not deceive me! The train of thought which the writing of this epistle woke makes me so restless that I must take a walk to rouse and calm my mind. But first let me tell you that if you really wish to promote my happiness, you will endeavour to give me as much as you can of yourself..."
Gilbert Imlay found much ease of mind in a return to that "zest of life" which he had declared to Mary was necessary to him; but he was tormented by her letters and disturbed, when he went to close up the Charlotte Street apartment, at finding some papers that Mary had written when she had intended to commit suicide. He believed that some of these cast reflections upon himself, and was startled to think of the bad effect they might have had on the public had they been published. At the same time some of the expressions were ambiguous and the documents had been partly destroyed.
He wrote a protest and demanded an explanation, and Mary answered from Hull:
"You were certainly wrong in supposing that I did not mention you with respect, though without my being conscious of it some sparks of resentment may have animated the gloom of despair. Yes, with less affection I should have been more respectful. However, the regard which I had for you is so unequivocal to myself that I imagined it must be sufficiently obvious to everyone else. Besides, the only letter I intended for the public eye was to —— and that I destroyed from delicacy before you saw it, because it was only written (of course warmly in your praise) to prevent any odium being thrown on you..."
A postscript anxiously urged his continued writing:
"Do write by every occasion. I am anxious to know how your affairs go on. Still more be convinced that you are not separating yourself from us. My little darling is calling for papa and adding her parrot word, 'Come, come.' Will you not come...?"
Mary's next letter spoke of her ill health:
"I am not quite well. If I have any good sleep or not I wake in the morning with violent fits of trembling, and in spite of all my efforts, the child—everything—fatigues me which I seek for solace or amusement."
She then revealed one of the causes of contention between herself and her lover when she remarked that she had a letter of introduction to a doctor of the place.
"His wife is a pretty woman. I can admire, you know, a pretty woman when I am alone...The wind does not appear inclined to change, so I am forced to linger. When do you think you shall be able to set out for France? I do not entirely like the aspect of your affairs and still less your connections on either side of the water. Even now I am almost afraid to ask you whether the pleasure of being free does not overbalance the pain you felt at parting with me..."
She again urged him not to be so keen on money making, and added:
"I should not much mind having to struggle with the world again. Accuse me not of pride, yet sometimes when nature has opened my heart to its author, I have wondered that you have not set a higher value on my heart."
When the captain sent to inform her that she must be on board in the course of a few hours, as the wind had suddenly changed, Mary sat down in the inn parlour and wrote again and with an increase of trepidation:
"My spirits are agitated, I scarcely know why—In quitting England, it seems to be a fresh parting—Surely you will not forget me—A thousand weak forebodings assault my soul and the state of my health renders me sensible to everything...The child is perfectly well. My hand seems unwilling to add adieu. I know not why this inexpressible sadness has taken possession of me—It is not a presentiment of ill, yet having been so perpetually the sport of disappointment—having a heart that has been as it were a mark for misery, I dread to meet wretchedness in some new shape—Well, let it come—I care not! What have I to dread, who have so little to hope for?"
When she was on board, the following morning she wrote again:
"I was hurried on board yesterday about three o'clock, the wind having changed. But before evening it veered round to the old point, and here we are in the midst of mists of water, only taking advantage of the tide to advance a few miles. You will scarcely suppose that I left the town with reluctance, yet it is even so, for I wished to receive another letter from you...The vessel is very commodious and the captain a civil, open-hearted kind of man. There being no other passengers I have the cabin to myself, which is pleasant...Fanny begins to play with the cabin boy and is as gay as a lark. I will labour to be tranquil and am in every mood."
While the ship was still riding at anchor waiting for a favourable wind the pilot brought out some letters, among which was one for Mary from Imlay; but it had no consolation for her. She wrote:
"I have a violent headache, yet I am obliged to take care of the child, who is a little tormented by the sea, because Marguerite is unable to do anything, she is rendered so sick by the motion of the ship as we ride at anchor. These are, however, trifling inconveniences compared with anguish of mind, compared to the sinking of a broken heart. To tell you the truth I never suffered in my life so much from depression of spirit—from despair. I do not sleep, or, if I close my eyes, it is to have the most terrifying dream, in which I often meet you with different casts of countenance...One thing let me tell you. When we meet again—surely we are to meet—it must be to part no more. I mean not to have the sea between us; it is more than I can support. The pilot is hurrying me. God bless you."
The ship rode at anchor for five dreary days—"imprisoned by the wind."
"I am now going on shore with the captain, though the weather be rough, to seek for milk, etc., at a little village, and to take a walk, after which I hope to sleep...confined here, surrounded by disagreeable smells, I have lost what little appetite I had, and I lie awake till thinking almost drives me to the brink of madness—only to the brink, I never forget, even in the feverish slumbers I sometimes fall into, the misery I am labouring to blunt the sense of by every exertion in my power."
She added what she must have known to be the bitter truth:
"Are you not tired of this lingering adieu?"
Yet she must write one more letter on the Sunday morning, June 21st:
"The captain last night, after I had written my letter to you intended to be left at the little village, promised to go to Hull to pass the day. He had a troublesome sail, and now I must hurry on board again for the wind has changed. I half expected to find a letter from you here. Had you written one haphazard it would have been kind and considerate. You might have known, if you had thought, that the wind would not permit me to depart. These are the attentions more grateful to the heart than offers of service—But why do I foolishly continue to look for them? Adieu! adieu! My friend—your friendship is very cold—you see I am hurt. God bless you! I may perhaps be, some time or other, independent in every sense of the word...I will break or bend this weak heart; yet even now it is full. Yours sincerely, Mary. The child is well. I did not leave her on board."
After a stormy, troublesome voyage Mary arrived at Gothenburg on June 27th. The distracted woman, who could soothe her nerves only by doses of laudanum, had been very ill while on board ship. From her inn she wrote again to Imlay:
"I arrived in Gothenburgh this afternoon after vainly attempting to land at Arendall. I have now but a moment before the post goes out to inform you we have got here, though not without considerable difficulties. We were sent ashore in a boat about twenty miles below. What I suffered in the vessel I will not now descant upon nor mention the pleasure I received from the sight of the rocky coast. This morning, however, walking to join the carriage that would transport us to this place, I fell, without any previous warning, senseless on the rocks, and how I escaped with life I can scarcely guess. I was in a stupor for a quarter of an hour; the suffusion of blood at last restored me to my senses. The concussion is great and my brain confused, but the child is well. The twenty miles ride in the rain after my accident sufficiently deranged me—and here I could not get a fire to warm me or anything warm to eat—The inns are mere stables, but I must nevertheless go to bed. For God's sake let me hear from you immediately, my friend. I am not well, and yet you see I cannot die."
The Northern climate seemed, however, to suit Mary, and her health soon recovered. She went from place to place in Sweden and Norway doing Imlay's business efficiently. She was received everywhere as his wife. He had, indeed, given her a power of attorney, and in this paper distinctly referred to her as "Mary Imlay, my wife." And, though Mary had thought it, owing to her pride, advisable to let her London friends know what her real relations with Imlay were, she did not think it necessary to shock the propriety of the Norwegian and Swedish merchants who introduced her to their families.
The change of scene also restored her to some tranquillity. She began to write a series of letters on Norway and Sweden for publication, intending, with her usual industry, to turn this journey to some financial account. She was extremely anxious to earn money and to be independent of Imlay, and she foresaw the time approaching when she would have to spend something more than the cost of milk and crusts on Fanny. Through these long letters, descriptive of the scenes and people among whom she found herself, Mary continued her personal narrative. These parts were deleted before her letters were published by Mr. Johnson. Her letters to Imlay—and she must have known this, but was too distracted to listen to the dictates of her own common sense—were not likely to please, amuse or touch a man already weary of her love.
They indeed consisted of accounts of her discomfort and misery, and reproaches, however delicately disguised. She appeared to ask for nothing, yet the exasperated Imlay must have read between the lines and seen that she was in truth demanding everything—the whole of his life, attention, affection and passion forever. Every misery that occurred to her was detailed to him—her fall, her fatigue, the badness of the inn, the chatter of the people to whom she had introductions and who in vain tried to amuse her, the illness of Marguerite and the difficulty little Fanny had with her teeth.
"My friend, my friend, I am not well. The deadly weight of sorrow lies heavily on my heart. How flat, dull and unprofitable appears to me all the bustle in which I see people here so eagerly enter. I long every night to go to bed, to hide my melancholy face in my pillow. There is a canker worm in my bosom that never sleeps."
Imlay had told her that business would take him to France, and perhaps to Switzerland, and in one of his letters beguiled her with the hope that he might meet her at Basle or Paris.
She answered this in the same melancholy strain:
"Everything fatigues me. This is a life that cannot last long. You must determine in respect to futurity, and when you have I will act accordingly. I mean we must either resolve to live together or part forever...You can only contribute to my comfort (it is the consolation I am in need of) by being with me, and if the tenderest friendship is of any value why will you not look to me for a degree of satisfaction that heartless affection cannot bestow? Tell me then, will you determine to meet me at Basle? I shall, I should imagine, be at Hamburg before the close of August, and after you have settled your affairs in Paris, could we not meet there?"
She knew, in the secret anguish of her distracted soul, that Gilbert Imlay did not wish to meet her either at Hamburg or anywhere else; but, though she appeared to offer him so generously and candidly his freedom, she was clinging to him with every art and all the strength in her power.
"There was a gloominess diffused through your last letter, the impression of which still rests on my mind. Believe me, there is nothing I would not endure in the way of privation rather than disturb your tranquillity...I grow more and more attached to my little girl and I cherish this affection without fear...Love is a want of my heart. I have examined myself lately with more care than formerly and find that to deaden is not to calm the mind...Despair, since the birth of my child has rendered me stupid—Soul and body seemed to be fading away before the withering touch of disappointment...Still, when we meet again I will not torment you, I promise you. I blush when I recollect my former conduct and will not in future confound myself with the beings whom I feel to be my inferiors I will listen to delicacy or pride."
In other words Mary, desperately and passionately regarding herself as Imlay's wife before God, would not conduct herself as she had hitherto done with the furious jealousy of one of those casual mistresses whom she so disdained and detested.
She, in a pitiful attempt to rouse his interest, wrote to him of the purity of the air, and how being continually out in it—for she slept in the country every night—had altered her appearance. Her cheeks were rosy, her eyes bright and her step sprightly, and again the unhappy woman tried to cast her lures for her lover:
"Do not tell me that you are happier without me. Will you not come to us in Switzerland? Ah, why do you not love us with more sentiment? Why are you a creature of such sympathy that the warmth of your feelings rather than the quickness of your senses hardens your heart? It is my misfortune that my imagination is perpetually shading your defects and lending you charms, while the grossness of your senses makes you (call me not vain) overlook graces in me that only dignity of mind and a sensibility of an expanding heart can give."
When she failed to receive an expected letter from him, she wrote:
"Believe me, there is such a thing as a broken heart! I have endeavoured to fly from myself and launched into all the dissipation that is possible here, only to feel keener anguish when alone with my child. Still, could anything please me, had not disappointment cut me off from life, this romantic country, these fine evenings would interest me. My God! can anything? and am I ever to feel alive again, or only this painful sensation which cannot, will not, last long...?"
Mary began to shudder for the future of her child, whom she had, with the thoughtlessness of passion, brought into a world in which she could herself find no place.
"Poor lamb! It may run very well in a tale that 'God will temper the wind to the shorn lamb!' but how can I expect that she will find protection when my naked bosom has had to brave continually the pitiless storm...? All is not right somewhere! When you first knew me I was not thus lost. I could still confide—for I opened my heart to you; of this only comfort you have deprived me, while my happiness, you tell me, was your first object...Your not writing is cruel and my reason is perhaps disturbed by constant wretchedness."
Convinced that all hope of reconciliation was over between herself and Gilbert Imlay, she wrote to tell him that she had begun literary work, that she might be quite independent; then in a reaction of despair again came her complaints forced from her agony of mind, her appeal for letters and her struggle for composure.
At length the tormented Imlay laid the onus of the future on her; she was to decide whether they were to live together or to separate. Forgetting delicacy, dignity, common sense and wisdom, Mary at once wrote:
"I wish for us to live together, because I want you to acquire an habitual tenderness for my poor girl. I cannot bear to think of leaving her alone in the world or that she should be only protected by your sense of duty. Next to preserving her my most earnest wish is not to disturb your peace. I have nothing to expect and little to fear in life. There are wounds which can never be healed, but they may be allowed to fester in silence without wincing. When we meet again you shall be convinced that I have more resolution than you give me credit for—I will not torment you."
She signed this letter "Mary Imlay," and then wrote:
"I have been subscribing other letters so I mechanically did the same to yours."
Though Mary doubtless did wish to secure Imlay's protection for her child, to give the little girl at least a semblance of a home, this letter, in which she decided to live once more with a man who she knew was inconstant and indifferent, was a piteous surrender of pride, vanity and womanly honour. It meant that she would endure his infidelities, his absences, his absorption in his business—everything—that she might at least have some of his time and attention, a little of his company, some chance caresses, and continue to call herself by his name.
Even this prospect of a very limited chance of happiness consoled her. She regained some vigour of mind and complete health of body. She promised Imlay that when she rejoined him she would restrain all those violences that exasperated him, all those questionings and reproaches that he found unendurable, though she warned him that she could not live without affection or passion. She had, she said, snatched some "moments of exquisite delight" wandering through the woods and resting on the rocks. She wrote again emphasising her wish to settle the future, for when she had said that she wished Imlay to continue to live with her he had not answered positively that he accepted her decision.
"This state of suspense, my friend, is intolerable. We must determine on something, and soon. We must meet shortly or part forever. I was sensible that I acted foolishly—but I was wretched—when we were together—Expecting too much I let the pleasure I might have caught slip from me. I cannot live with you—I ought not—if you form another attachment, but I promise you mine shall not be intruded upon you."
She said that she would provide for her child herself, that she would be as obedient as a spaniel to Gilbert Imlay's every whim if only he would not cast her off forever, yet, if he intended doing so, she could not endure to correspond with him.
Through postal delay she received together, after a long silence, five letters from Imlay, all written in a stern and reproachful tone that at length roused her long-slumbering pride.
"Five of your letters have been sent after me from Stromstad. One, dated 14th July, is written in a style which I may have merited, but did not expect from you. However, this is not a time to reply to it, except to assure you that you shall not be tormented with any more of these complaints. I am disgusted with myself for having so long importuned you with my affection. My child is very well."
Before the month of August was over she was writing:
"You tell me that my letters torture you. I will not describe the effect yours have on me. I received three this morning, the last dated the 7th of this month. I may not give vent to the emotions they produce. Certainly you are right, our minds are not congenial. I have lived in an ideal world and fostered sentiments that you do not comprehend, or you would not treat me thus. I am not, I will not be merely an object of compassion, a clog, however light, to tease you. Forget that I exist. I will never remind you. Be free—I will not torment when I cannot please. I can take care of my child.
"You need not continually tell me that our fortune is inseparable, that you will try to cherish tenderness for me. Do no violence to yourself. When we are separated our interests—since you give so much weight to pecuniary considerations—will be entirely divided. I want not protection without affection, and support I need not while my faculties are undisturbed. Be not alarmed, I shall not force myself on you any more. Adieu. I am agitated, my whole frame is convulsed, my lips tremble as if shook by cold or fire seems to be circulating in my veins. God bless you."
On September 6th:
"Gracious God, is it impossible for me to stifle something like resentment when I receive fresh proof of your indifference? What I have suffered this last year is not to be forgotten. I have not that happy substitute for wisdom, insensibility, and the lively sympathies which bind me to my fellow-creatures are all of a painful kind. They are agonies of a broken heart. Pleasure and I have shaken hands. I am weary of travelling, yet seem to have no home, no resting place to look to—I am strangely cast off—How often passing through these rocks I have thought, 'But for this child I would lay my head on one of them and never open my eyes again.'"
On September 25th Mary was at Hamburg, from where she sent two letters, still in agonised terms, bidding Imlay come to a decision. She ran over all the old arguments, as if arguments were of any use in this case—why could he not abandon his gross pleasures, his frantic money making for what she could offer? All her love, affection, interest, loyalty and devotion were at this man's service, all her charms and gifts were offered to him, like a cluster of flowers held in the hand, and he dashed them aside with shamefaced excuses.
The force of this tragedy was more than Mary could support; she dwelt continually on her misfortunes, which seemed to her incredible. She had wanted so little—the love of an ordinary man, his children, a modest home. All her ambitions had flickered down to the light on Gilbert Imlay's hearth.
She had been, in her unhappy childhood and youth, sickened and resentful of poverty, but she had been willing to face even that with her lover, to act as his housekeeper, his servant, to deny herself everything but his love.
The rude life on a farm in the backwoods of America, the continual ordeal of child bearing, an exile from her friends, her interests, her country—all this had spelt bliss to her. Her few poor gifts she only valued if they might earn money for him, her scrap of fame was cast aside. All her plans and projects for the future had vanished; she was content to live with Gilbert Imlay on sufferance, not his wife, not his lover, merely a woman to whom he had an obligation. But she had impulses of pride. When preparing to return to England, she wrote to Imlay:
"I will write to Mr. Johnson to procure me an obscure lodging and not to inform anybody of my arrival. There I will endeavour in a few months to obtain the sum necessary to take me to France...From you I will not receive any more. I am not yet sufficiently humbled to depend on your beneficence...Some people whom my unhappiness has interested, though they know not the extent of it, will assist me to obtain the object I have in view—the education of my child. Should a peace take place ready money will go a long way in France and I will borrow a sum, which my industry shall enable me to pay at my leisure, to purchase a small estate for my girl. The assistance I shall find necessary to complete her education I can get at an easy rate in Paris."
All this practical, sensible stuff was very well, but the last lines of the letter cancelled it:
"It is needless to say that I am not in a state of mind to bear suspense, but I wish to see you, though it be for the last time."
Mary landed at Dover after an unexpectedly short passage. She experienced to the full the dreariness of returning to her own country without any one to meet her, and finding herself once more in an inn, friendless among strangers. She did not dare to go to London, for she feared to surprise Imlay with another woman—by now she strongly suspected some permanent rival—so she wrote to him from Dover on October 1st, reminding him again that he had told her she must decide for herself, and that she had decided that, for the sake of the child, they should continue to live together.
Her plea was still for an interview—even if she had a rival—even if she and her lover should meet for the last time. She repeatedly assured him that he need not concern himself with her or with the child if only he would see her once again.
So ended the letter she wrote from Dover:
"Should you come here (a few months ago I could not have doubted it) you will find me at —— [she gave the name of the inn]. If you prefer meeting me on the road tell me where."
So with the most piteous, baseless hopes the unhappy creature tried to deceive herself. Imlay compromised. Mary's absence had not solved his problem. He still felt himself under an obligation to her and the child without having the least desire for her company or the least interest in Fanny, and he was, without caring to admit as much, heartily sick of the whole affair, to which Mary seemed to him to have given a most exaggerated importance.
Fearful that she would again attempt to commit suicide, and hoping perhaps that she would gradually detach herself from him, he still kept her in suspense, provided her again with a furnished lodging and servants. He visited her, but not as a lover. Mary was in that state of misery which was bound to force her to bring matters to a tragic climax. Imlay had been imprudent enough to engage for her service the women whom he had employed in the hired rooms that he used as a bachelor establishment. One of these, the cook, noticed Mary's extreme agitation, and the situation between the supposed man and wife was eagerly gossiped over in the kitchen. This stage of affairs lasted for a month. Mary made a listless attempt to go about her life as before. She delivered to the sadly sympathetic Joseph Johnson the manuscript for her Letters from Norway, her best work. She called on other old friends. Among these was Henry Fuseli, whose brilliant companionship she recalled with a pang. Again he refused to see her, fearing with masculine timidity an emotional scene, for the state of Mary's affairs was well known in literary London.
Sophia Fuseli was, as before, kind; she understood and she was sorry for what she understood. If she drew any moral lessons from the other woman's misery, she did not deliver them, and while guarding the sanctity of her own orthodox establishment she did not censure the rebel who had made such a failure of revolt.
Mary then remembered, and with bitterness, the letters that she had written to Fuseli, and wrote to ask for them back in a communication that made no attempt to hide her present wretched circumstances:
"When I returned from France I visited you, sir, but finding myself after my late journey in a very different situation I vainly imagined you would have called upon me. I simply tell you what I thought, yet I write not at present to comment on your conduct or expostulate. I have long ceased to expect kindness or affection from any human creature. I am alone. I have been treated brutally, but I daily labour to remember that I have still the duty of a mother to fulfil. I have written more than I intended, as I only meant to request you to return my letters. I wish to have them. Adieu.—Mary."
Henry Fuseli was at this time absorbed in his Milton Gallery, a companion to his Shakespeare Gallery, which was to consist of forty pictures of different sizes on such subjects as Satan Risen from the Flood, Satan Calling Up his Legions, The Lapland Witch and Satan Rising from Chaos. With such important matters on his mind, Henry Fuseli was not to be vexed with a woman whom he dismissed as a lovesick bluestocking. Her letters were not returned to her. Some of them were destroyed and some of them left carelessly among the painter's papers, and published, including this last one she ever wrote to him, by his executor, John Knowles, in 1831.
Mary had now lost all control, restraint and dignity. She was almost in the condition that Eliza Bishop had been in when, in the hired hackney coach, she had bitten her wedding ring and fallen from one fit of frenzy into another. Her passion had become an obsession. She became absorbed in trying to find out if she had a definite rival in Gilbert Imlay's fickle heart or if he had been merely won from her by casual grossnesses.
Her agony was sharpened by his charm when he did come to visit her. He could still hold her in his arms, caress her, laugh with the child—raise his glass to her health, cast a knot of flowers into her lap—and leave her to lonely nights and distracted days.
The doses of laudanum that she took lessened her power of self-control. She noticed the cook's half-sympathetic curiosity, remembered that this woman had been, whilst she, Mary, was in Norway, in Imlay's employ, and began to question her about the life that Gilbert Imlay had led when he had been alone.
Half fearful of the consequences, yet unable to resist the drama of this poignant piece of scandal, the woman, after a show of reluctance, informed Mary that Gilbert Imlay had an establishment where he kept another mistress, an actress whom he had picked up at one of the smaller theatres on the outskirts of London—a strolling player whose uneducated vivacity and vulgar charm the young American preferred to Mary's fastidious overwrought passion and delicate intellectualism.
The servant told Mary where this house was, and assured her that when Mr. Imlay declared that he was absent on business he was really enjoying the company of this new mistress. This revelation of her lover's complete perfidy was what Mary had been prepared for. She had suspected it; she had asked him to his face again and again if she had a rival. He had contrived to evade her, and she had contrived to stifle her doubts. It still seemed to her incredible that she should be thus insulted. Her deepest pang was that while she had been starved for love, affection, companionship, this man, her beloved, had been lavishing his time and caresses on a hired wanton.
Without pausing for advice or reflection, and completely forgetting all she had said and written about the ethics of love, passion and the proper behaviour for women, Mary, hatless and cloakless, left her frightened servants and her whimpering child and ran out in the November gloom of the narrow London street. Panting, she arrived at the house revealed to her by the cook, rang the bell and demanded to see Mr. Gilbert Imlay. The unsuspecting maid admitted her. Her lover was there, and so too was her gay and insolent rival. Mary flung open the parlour door and faced them.
Gilbert Imlay now paid to the full the penalties for his inconstancy and deceit. Mary's hysteric outburst had the force of insanity. She reproached the cornered man for his vices and his defects, his faults and errors, forgetting that it was the very qualities she now so abused that had first attracted her towards him. Had he been cold, austere, precise or difficult he would not have formed the connection with her that now gave her this claim on him. It often happens that a lofty-minded woman becomes hopelessly enamoured of a sensualist entirely for those physical attractions, for that easy amorousness and charming ardour which she afterwards abuses when the man, following his nature, has tired of her exacting passion.
Mary's position was atrociously false. Not only was she not this man's wife, he had made her no promises of fidelity, and he had reasoned with her often enough that it would be wiser for them to break their connection before it ended in disaster. That disaster had now occurred. Mary forgot that she had written several times she would give her lover up, torment him no more, once he ceased to care. She forgot that, according to her own ideas, she had no claim on him. Had she not scornfully said that there should be no union without love?
It was no fault of hers and no fault of Gilbert Imlay's that he had ceased to love her—it was something entirely beyond his control. According to his own standards, the man had behaved to her with some consideration and tenderness, though he was not disposed to forgo for her sake what he termed "the zest of life."
Now he was outraged and disgusted by her violence. His sole thought was to get her out of the house; and the authoress of the Rights of Woman found herself turned into a darkening street as if she had been a virago shouting in a tavern. She was in no condition to be left alone; but Gilbert Imlay, exhausted and indignant, did not follow her, but returned to her alarmed and insolent rival.
Mary arrived alone at her lodgings, staggering in her walk, her brain on fire, her legs trembling beneath her, shuddering from physical nausea. She was in a state of abject despair, and after a night in which she was tortured by the torments of insanity she resolved for the second time to destroy herself.
It was some hours, however, before she could find the strength to leave the house. She was left alone in the company of the servants, who, terrified at the result of their treachery, crept about with downcast looks. She made no effort to see the child, whom she left to the care of the hired nurse.
A light fog lay over the city when Mary at length dragged herself off her bed, put on the gown she had bought to please Imlay, and, sinking on her knees before a chair, drew towards her writing materials and wrote what she believed was her last letter:
"I write to you now on my knees; imploring you to send my child and the maid with —— to Paris, to be consigned to the care of Madame ——, rue ——, section —— Should they be removed —— can give their direction. Let the maid have all my clothes without distinction. Pray pay the cook her wages and do not mention the confession which I forced from her; a little sooner or later is of no consequence. Nothing but my extreme stupidity could have made me blind so long. Yet, whilst you assured me that you had no attachment, I thought we might still have lived together. I shall make no comments on your conduct or any appeal to the world. Let my wrongs sleep with me. Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this my burning head will be cold. I would encounter a thousand deaths rather than a night like the last. Your treatment has thrown my mind into a state of chaos, yet I am serene, free. I go to find comfort and my only fear is that my poor body will be insulted by an endeavour to recall my hated existence. But I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart, and in the midst of business and sensual pleasures I shall appear before you as the victim of your deviation from rectitude."
Leaving this letter with the frightened nurse to be given to Captain Imlay when he should call, or to be sent to him if he did not call, Mary flung on her hat and cloak and went out into the November afternoon. It was cold, the pavements dirty and greasy, the fog low over the fronts of the prim, flat houses, over the roads where the filth lay and the rubbish of straw and paper that choked the gutters.
She intended to drown herself. The river seemed to offer a more complete escape than the bottle of laudanum. She did not want Imlay to see her corpse. Frantic as she was, she imagined herself disappearing, body and soul, for ever into the Thames and being gazed at no more by any one. She greedily desired oblivion, to disappear beneath deep waters.
Making her way through the casual crowds to the quieter streets, she walked, not noticing her own exhaustion, to Battersea Bridge; but here there were a number of people about, and she was impatient—she did not wish to wait until the dark fell.
She went down the river steps and hired a boat. The waterman looked with some curiosity at the solitary woman whose expression was so strange, whose voice was so muffled and who stepped in the boat and rowed herself through the wet mist towards Putney. There she tied up the boat to some wharf steps, landed, and went on to Putney Bridge, the stone arches of which showed a glimmering grey in the thickening twilight. The fog had dissolved in a heavy rain that eclipsed the last murky gleams of daylight. Mary looked eagerly about; there was no one in sight. A few bent willows, a few bare poplars alone broke the monotony of the river bank; the outline of the village was blotted out by the shadows of the approaching night. Mary gazed down into the water as eagerly as one in acute physical agony will gaze at opium. It occurred to her that she might not at once sink—she had heard of women's being kept afloat by their skirts—so she walked up and down, up and down the bridge until her garments were completely soaked.
"So," she thought, "I shall sink at once, and it will immediately be over."
Up and down, up and down Putney Bridge in the straight rain and the thickening fog, hatless, cloakless, her hair like a dark stain on her brow, the broken mechanism of her mind racing, stopping, jolting on—stopping. That incredible happiness! The cornfields, the ancient woods, the cottage, the grapes at Neuilly, the hotel at the Barrier, those raptures of love! All come to this—that cruel childhood, that starved youth, those desperate attempts at work, at self-improvement, that frantic struggle to earn money to help the helpless, that glow of ambition, those glimpses of lofty ideals—all come to this—up and down Putney Bridge in the November chill and dark.
She had looked on death twice, her mother dying in poverty and anguish in the London slum, Fanny dying in childbirth in the white Lisbon house—women dying of the weights of women's burdens. She had seen Eliza frantic with misery, she had herself passed through the pangs of childbirth. How foolish now seemed her poor little challenge, her "rights of woman," her scribblings about education, about morals.
This was what life could do to a defeated woman: up and down Putney Bridge, alone in the city-tainted mists, in the river fog, with the rain beating down until her rigid face was stained by soiled drops, like tears.
When her hair clung in wet strands to her face, when she was chilled by the rain, and her full skirts were so wet that they almost impeded the movements of her limbs, she staggered to the low parapet and climbed over into what she hoped would be a cessation at least of all suffering. She fell from the bridge, and the drab, filthy water sucked at her soaked clothes. Her agony was at first indescribable, being partly that of delirium and partly the sensation of physical choking; then she fell into that darkness, that peace which she had so long sought in vain.
She revived to find herself on her own bed in her lodgings, a doctor and a nurse in attendance and the kind, anxious faces of friends looking at her beyond the bed curtains. She learnt that two boatmen, rowing through the fog, had seen her in the water, rescued her, taken her to the bank and done what they could to revive her. Gilbert Imlay had found her note, advised Mr. Johnson, and her friends had at once started in her pursuit. Therefore, not long after her attempt at suicide, she had been discovered and brought to her poor pretence of a home.
Mary found this resurrection an unspeakable ignominy; this was what she termed "the insult to her poor body" that she had most dreaded. She fell into a fever, and as her temperature mounted, reiterated her passionate determination to destroy herself. She had intervals of reason, in which she learnt that Gilbert Imlay sent constant inquiries as to her health and peace of mind. Her feelings towards the inconstant lover had not changed; she dragged herself up in bed, demanded pen and ink and scribbled on her knees.
"I have only to lament that, when the bitterness of death was passed, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointments, nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, by other circumstances I should be dishonoured.
"You say 'that you know not how to extricate ourselves out of the wretchedness into which we have been plunged.' You are extricated long since. But I forbear to comment. If I am condemned to live longer it is a living death...Since your new attachment is the only sacred thing in your eyes I am silent—Be happy. My complaints shall never damp your enjoyment. Perhaps I am mistaken in supposing that even my death could for more than a moment...I never wanted but your heart. That gone, you've nothing more to give, for if I had only poverty to fear I should not shrink from life. I write with difficulty. Probably I shall never write again to you. Adieu. God bless you."
In this letter Mary passionately refused "as an insult" any pecuniary help from her faithless lover. During her illness Mary wrote several other letters to Imlay, some of them incoherent. She accused him of treating her ungenerously; she repeated that she feared neither poverty nor infamy; she told him she was hurt by his indirect inquiries:
"...which appear to me not to be dictated by any tenderness. You ask if I am well or tranquil? They who think me so must want a heart to estimate my feelings by."
She repeated again and again that she was very much mortified by Imlay's continual offers of money or protection; yet when he had then entirely withdrawn from her lodgings and taken up his residence at the establishment where he kept his other mistress, Mary was still capable of being wounded by this, and wrote:
"I consider your going to the new house an open avowal that you abandon me."
Mary's friends, fearing for her life or her reason, persuaded Imlay to visit her. But she was not deceived when he did so; she saw that his kindness was forced, that it was but a mere gloss over weariness and even disgust, and the very day that she had seen him she wrote:
"Have but a little patience and I will remove myself where it will not be necessary for you to talk, and, of course, not think of me, and let me see written by yourself—for I will not receive it through any other medium—that the affair is finished. It is an insult to me to suppose that I could be reconciled or recover my spirits, but if you hear nothing of me it will be the same thing for you. Even your seeing me is to oblige other people and not to soothe my distracted mind."
Mary's tragic state had roused a good deal of sympathy and indignation among her friends, most of whom were still doubtful whether she was really Imlay's wife or not, and the young American began to feel himself in an awkward position. He feared a public scandal, and wished to save his face and his reputation.
Despite everything, and incredible as it might seem, Mary was still clinging to the hope of being reconciled with her lover, and when, forced by her friends' opinion, he came to her bedside and told her that his present attachment was but a passing one, she at once made the suggestion that probably came from a clouded brain that she should share his new establishment with his new mistress and wait in the role of patient and dignified wife until his passing fancy was over. To soothe her, Gilbert Imlay gave some half assent to this unlikely plan, but soon after he had returned to his own lodgings wrote and told Mary that he considered this arrangement impossible.
Mr. Johnson, who had always been able to wield a powerful influence over Mary, now took vigorous measures to persuade her that it was her duty to live, not only for her friends' sake, not only because she was gifted, talented and had much to give to the world, but for the sake of her child. Under this encouragement Mary recovered something of her strength, and as soon as she was able to leave her bed her friends moved her to another lodging. She was scarcely established there when she wrote to Imlay:
"Mr. Johnson, having forgotten to desire you to send the things of mine which were left at the house, I have to request you to let Marguerite bring them to me. I shall go this evening to the lodgings, so you need not be restrained from coming here to transact your business. And, whatever I may think or feel, you need not fear that I shall publicly complain. No! If I have any criterion to judge of right or wrong, I have been most ungenerously treated, but wishing now only to hide myself, I shall be silent as the grave in which I long to forget myself. I shall protect and provide for my child. I only mean by this to say that you have nothing to fear from my desperation. Farewell."
A few days after this Imlay sent back to Mary her letters to him, at least what he had of them—some of them had been destroyed—and with them was a note of farewell. This she found after some time.
"The letter, without an address, which you have put up with the letters you returned, did not meet my eyes till just now. I have thrown the letters aside. I did not wish to look over a register of sorrow. My not having seen it will account for my having written to you with anger under the impression your departure, without even a line left for me, made on me, even after your late conduct which could not lead me to expect much attention to my suffering. In fact, 'the decided conduct which appears to me so unfeeling' has almost overturned my reason. My mind is injured. I scarcely know where I am or what I do. The grief I cannot conquer (for some cruel recollection never quits me, banishing almost every other), I labour to conceal in total solitude. My life therefore is but an exercise of fortitude, continually on the stretch and hope never gleams in this tomb. I am buried alive. I meant to reason with you and not to complain. You tell me that I shall judge more coolly of your mode of action some time hence. Is it possible that passion clouds your reason as much as it does mine? My affection for you is rooted in my heart. I know you are not what you now seem nor will you always act and feel as you now do, though I may never be comforted by the change. Even at Paris my image will haunt you, you will see my pale face, and sometimes the tears of anguish will drop on your heart which you have forced from mine. I cannot write. I thought I could quickly refute all your ingenious arguments, but my head is confused. Right or wrong, I am miserable...I have loved with my whole soul, only to discover that I have no chance of a return and that existence is a burden without it. I do not perfectly understand you. If by the offer of your friendship you will only mean pecuniary support I must again reject it. Trifling are the ills of poverty in the scale of my misfortunes. God bless you!"
Mary could not leave her letter, and added:
"I have been treated ungenerously as I understand what is generosity. You seem to me only to have been anxious to shake me off, regardless of whether you dashed me to atoms by the fall. In truth, I have been rudely handled."
Though she had promised her lover to be silent about this tragic termination of their connection and to live in solitude, Mary was by no means reticent about her misfortunes, which indeed she could scarcely have concealed, her second attempt at suicide having been so public. Imlay, anxious to escape from a very disagreeable situation, took his new mistress to Paris in December. Mary's passion and fury had now died down; she was in a state of intense melancholy and thought of her lover with tenderness. She wrote to him in December, 1795:
"Resentment, and even anger, are momentary emotions to me, and I wish to tell you so that if you ever think of me it may not be in the light of an enemy. That I have not been used well I must ever feel, perhaps not always with the keen anguish I do at present, for I begin even now to write calmly and I cannot restrain my tears. I am stunned! Your late conduct still appears to be a frightful dream..."
Mary concluded this letter with a dignified reproach. She had said again and again that she would not accept money from Imlay, but she was stung by his lack of delicacy on this important point:
"When I went to Sweden I requested you, if you could conveniently, not to forget my father, sisters and some others whom I was interested about. Money was lavished away, yet not only my requests were neglected, but trifling debts were not discharged and now come on me. Was this friendship or generosity? Will you not grant you have forgotten yourself? Still, I have an affection for you. God bless you."
A few days later Mary wrote:
"As the parting from you for ever is the most serious event in my life I will once more expostulate with you...You tell me 'that I torment you.' Why do I? Because you cannot estrange your heart entirely from me and you feel that justice is on my side...Even before I returned to England you took great pains to convince me that all my uneasiness was occasioned by the effect of a worn-out constitution, and you concluded your letter with these words: 'Business alone has kept me from you. Come to any port and I will fly down to my two dear girls with a heart all their own.' With these assurances is it extraordinary that I should believe what I wished? Imlay, believe me, this is not romance, you have acknowledged to me feelings of this kind. You could restore me to life and hope and the satisfaction you would feel would amply repay you. Tearing myself from you it is my own heart I pierce, but the time will come when you will lament that you have thrown away a heart that even in the moment of passion you cannot despise. I would owe everything to your generosity, but for God's sake keep me no longer in suspense and let me see you once more!"
Imlay's reply to this last appeal was full of harshness, self-justification and unfeeling reasoning. Mary then sent the last of her love letters:
"You must do as you please with respect to the child. I could wish that it might be done soon that my name may be no more mentioned to you. It is now finished. Convinced that you have neither regard nor friendship I disdain to utter a reproach, though I have reason to think that the forbearance talked of has not been very delicate. It is, however, of no consequence. I am glad you are satisfied with your own conduct. I now solemnly assure you that this is an eternal farewell, yet I flinch not from the duties that tie me to life...For my part it has not been a question of words; yet your understanding or mine must be strangely warped, for what you term delicacy appears to me to be exactly the contrary. I part with you in peace."
Mary had now resolved to take up her old life, and with Mr. Johnson's aid earn her living as a hack writer. He had encouraged her to attempt a novel, and she had already mapped out the design of a story that was to be bitterly entitled The Wrongs of Woman, and was to combine all the grimmest incidents of her own life and that of her sisters. She proceeded with this task, however, but languidly. She was still in a state of despair. Only her little girl and the support and sympathy of a few friends bound her to life. She was not young as her period considered youth, and her comeliness had largely disappeared. She retained, however, the soft charm of her manners, and that wistful melancholy which had always been considered so touching was greatly increased. Her friends and acquaintances considered her deeply wronged; they also still chose to consider her Imlay's wife; nor did she now violently contradict them.
In the month following Imlay's desertion she wrote to Alexander Hamilton Rowan a letter that shows she was not reticent about her deep misfortune:
"...I am unhappy. I have been treated unkindly, even cruelly by the person from whom I had every reason to expect affection. I write to you with an agitated hand. I cannot be more explicit. I value your good opinion and you know how to feel for me. I looked for something like happiness in the discharge of my relative duties and the heart on which I leant has pierced mine to the quick. I have not been well used and I live but for my child. I am weary of myself. I still think of settling in France because I wish to leave my little girl there. I have been very ill, have taken some desperate steps, but I am now writing for independence. I wish I had no other evil to complain of than the necessity of providing for myself and my child. Do not mistake me. Mr. Imlay will be glad to supply all my pecuniary wants, but unless he returns to himself I will perish first. Pardon the incoherence of my style. I have put off writing to you from time to time because I could not write calmly. Pray write to me...My heart is broken."
Mary signed this letter "Mary Imlay," and the child, whom she now took with her everywhere, was called "Fanny Imlay." Her love story was told and with it all that there was to tell of joy and pleasure for Mary Wollstonecraft.
The fool shall not enter into Heaven, be he never so holy.
Holiness is not the price of entrance into Heaven. Those who are cast out are
all those who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have
spent their lives in curbing and governing other people's by the various acts
of poverty and cruelty of all kinds...in Hell all is self-righteousness.
A Vision of a Last Judgment.
William Blake, 1804.
AMONG the old acquaintanceships that Mary renewed when she languidly took up again her struggle for existence was that of William Godwin. The philosopher, who had been so unfavourably impressed by Mary at their first meeting and who had had so much fault to find with the grammar of her earlier works, who had disdained to read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was now extremely interested in the heroine of a love affair so dramatic and distressing as to impress even his cold heart.
The philosopher was by no means averse to the company of charming women. He numbered the beautiful Mrs. Inchbald, the attractive Mrs. Opie and the delicious Mrs. Reveley among his friends, and continually, in a sober fashion, paid court to them, and even reflected on the chances of matrimony with one or the other. And matrimony it would have to be with any of these extremely respectable ladies, though Godwin had long preached the doctrine that marriage was a pernicious institution, and one that, with the Laws of Property, he would like to see entirely abolished. An intellectual appeal, he avowed, was the only one that should be considered seriously between the sexes. If he could have his mistress's mind, he declared, it mattered not how many other admirers enjoyed her person.
William Godwin, however, had not found it easy to form either a platonic or a physical connection with any of the fair ladies who so pleased him. In person he was extremely unattractive; his lean face, with a profile like that on a Roman coin and an enormously elongated nose, had not improved with the years that had thinned the locks on his high forehead and bent his shoulders; his legs were inclined to be spindly, his garments were neglected, his appearance slovenly, and, worse than all, he was a boring conversationalist without wit, humour or warmth. His god was reason, and all his tastes were pedantic. He had now in the general disillusionment a little outlived the fame brought him by Political Justice (1793) and had become rather an accepted, slightly tiresome figure of literary London; though to some he remained a very great man indeed. He enjoyed doddering about from one drawing-room to another, and in that of Miss Hayes continually met Mrs. Imlay, as she was still called.
Pie now liked her as much as he had formerly disliked her; her femininity, her delicate softness, her charm greatly appealed to the cold philosopher. He knew that she was utterly depressed by the desertion of a lover whom she had used every endeavour to retain, that she was, in sober fact, Gilbert Imlay's discarded mistress. This, however, by no means lowered the authoress of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the eyes of the rationalist philosopher. He considered Mary Wollstonecraft one who had gravely and seriously, and from the loftiest motives, put into practice her own principles of free love, who had made with Gilbert Imlay a sacred pact and was by no means degraded by the fact that he had broken it. William Godwin was indeed able to put a gloss of dignity and nobility over most of the vicissitudes of humanity. He and Mary became extremely intimate; she called at his house and he at hers; they exchanged ideas.
The philosopher found Mary rather pessimistic, but allowed that she had had a bitter experience. Because of his kindness, sympathy, and because she was longing for company, she endured his boring expositions on philosophy and reason, and while her thoughts were racing to Imlay with his tawdry mistress in Paris, she tried to beguile herself with Godwin's encouragement and admiration, and his mood began to take on a tender cast.
Mary was the first attractive woman that had taken any notice of the philosopher save coldly to accept him as a friend. His ideas, atheistical and anti-social, offended many, especially members of that sex who have most to gain from belief in the existence of a God and by adhering to rules and conventions. Even those ladies who were most pleased to welcome the philosopher in their drawing-rooms drew back from accepting his principles. They passed these over by affecting to consider him a little eccentric.
But with Mary the case was different. If he had written against marriage, she had proved that she disdained that institution—or at least so it seemed—and Godwin could sympathise with what they decided between them had been a noble failure—the experiment with Imlay.
It was very pleasant to the philosopher to have the personal attention of this famous and comely woman. Never before had he enjoyed such charming, intimate feminine company, and he would scarcely have enjoyed it now, at least not from Mary Wollstonecraft, had she not been utterly exhausted and depressed. The shock of the separation from Imlay had fixed her mood for the rest of her life—she could never know anything but resignation.
When the philosopher, emboldened by her indulgence, ventured to express a reasoned admiration and a lofty affection, Mary encouraged him. She wanted company, she wanted protection, she wanted someone to help her look after Fanny—and the man was honest and kind, and, after a lifetime of celibacy, pathetically bewitched with that person and those charms that Gilbert Imlay had thrown aside. The forsaken woman's pride was salved by this masculine attention.
But what persuaded Mary more than anything else to encourage Godwin's advances was her desperate desire for at least an imitation of that domestic happiness which she had promised herself with Imlay, and which, with that inconstant lover, she had so briefly enjoyed. Here a chance presented itself to her to raise once more a picture of a peaceful hearth, with herself, a man, a child or children about it; she saw herself shielded from the most desperate business and financial worries and from the neglect or scorn of her acquaintances.
She knew that she could not pretend to succeed in filling the hideous gap left in her life by the departure of Imlay except by some kind of a marriage, by the fresh interests that such a marriage would bring, and she knew, too, that it would be very difficult to find a husband—and here was a man of sufficient reputation and presence to save her dignity by the offer of his affection and respect.
The middle-aged bachelor, who had theorised so much and who understood so little of the world, really believed that this charming woman was slowly falling in love with him, and really conceived it possible that one so devastated by an overwhelming passion as Mary had been could, in a few months, forget the object of that passion and put another in its place, and he took Mary's sad acquiescence in his attentions as a proof that she was returning his deep affection.
Afterwards, with great self-satisfaction, the philosopher thus described this episode in his life:
"The partiality we conceived for each other was in that mode which I have always considered as the purest and most refined kind of love. It grew with equal advances in the minds of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long established custom has awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which it so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either party can assume to have been the agent or the patient, the toil spreader or the prey in the affair. When in the course of things the disclosure came there was nothing in the matter for either party to disclose to the other. There was no period of throes and resolute explanations attendant upon the tale. It was friendship melting into love."
Put in less lofty, high-flown language, the situation was that Mary allowed herself to drift, through lassitude and despair, into an acceptance of that second best with which so many women have had to try to content empty hearts. She had had some experience in the handling of masculine character; she knew how to persuade Godwin that she loved him truly and on the loftiest possible plane.
Godwin, for his part, was fascinated with the prospect of the possession of this delightful woman especially since every other delightful woman he had ever known had looked askance at him.
All the high talk and philosophy of this strange couple had a very ordinary conclusion. Mary was very jealous of her delicacy and modesty, Godwin had chattered and scribbled a great deal about the marriage of true minds and the importance of reason in all the relations of the sexes; but the outcome of the matter was that a few months after she had been deserted by Imlay, Mary was standing in the same relation to Godwin as she had stood to him; she had become the philosopher's mistress, though they did not live together.
Godwin was delighted with this new relationship, and Mary endured it, even drawing from it a certain amount of consolation. She had told her second lover all her story, and even given him the packet of letters that Imlay had returned to her. It was pleasant for her to have this sympathetic comfort and to be able to describe all the episodes of her life to one who blamed her for nothing.
She was genuinely pleased, too, for the sake of little Fanny, who had now a father to look after her interests; the deserted woman's pride was resigned and her vanity touched by the knowledge that she should be the object of the affection and admiration of a famous and respected man.
Although William Godwin had not one of the attractions that had endeared Gilbert Imlay to her, she believed that she could rely on him and that his integrity was immaculate, and she did not allow herself the reflection that she could be always sure of William Godwin because no other woman wanted him.
Twice during this period of her life she met Gilbert Imlay, once when she was visiting the Christies with her child she saw him in the window seat. Mrs. Christie would have withdrawn her, fearing a violent scene like those that had taken place after her second attempt at suicide, but Mary advanced, holding little Fanny's hand, and greeted her former lover coolly. They withdrew into another room and had a short interview. The next day Imlay came to dine with Mary at her lodgings, then in Somers Town.
Mary had not issued this invitation without a wild hope that it might be the prelude to a reconciliation. Imlay escaped the snare, if snare it was, and they parted without any promises of another meeting.
Shortly afterwards she met him again. She was walking along the New Road when Imlay cantered past her. On seeing her, he pulled up his horse, dismounted, and, leading the animal, walked beside her for a little way. They talked of indifferent matters, then Imlay, with a gay salute, mounted and rode away. They never met again.
It was at this time of her life that Robert Southey met Mary Wollstonecraft at William Godwin's house. Southey regarded the philosopher and the authoress as two of the most interesting literary celebrities of the moment. His impression of Mary was favourable. In March of 1797 she was still called Mary Imlay. Southey found that she had "infinitely the best countenance of any of the literary people" whom he had met; he found that her brown eyes, "although the lid of one of them is affected by a little paralysis, the most meaning I ever saw." But he fancied her expression to be indicative of superiority—"not haughtiness, nor sarcasm, but still it is unpleasant."
Southey had not much good to say of Godwin. The poet found that the philosopher had large, noble eyes, but that his enormous nose turned his face into a caricature.
After Mary had been, for about seven months, in the ambiguous position of Godwin's secret mistress while she allowed herself to pass for the deserted wife of Gilbert Imlay, she discovered that she was about to have another child. She then exacted a final proof of devotion from William Godwin. She was tired of defying the conventions; she did not wish to become a social outcast, or support the sneers, innuendoes, sarcasm and coarse jests of the general public; she was, above all, weary, and she shrunk from the responsibility of bringing another illegitimate child into the world. She therefore allowed the question of marriage to arise between her and the philosopher, and insensibly, with woman's tact, let him see that she wished to be his wife.
William Godwin had publicly declaimed against marriage, and was more or less pledged to a considerable set of people to uphold his principles. He was more willing, however, to vex these followers than offend Mary. He argued, with a good deal of generosity, that he could not bring himself to wound again an already smitten heart for the sake of an abstraction, and he declared that he had now realised that, however objectionable the theory of marriage might be, in individual cases it was very necessary, and he did not wish Mary, after all her suffering, to endure more troubles on his behalf. They were, therefore, very quietly married at Old St. Pancras Church on March 29th, 1797, Godwin's faithful friend, Marshall, and the clerk of the church being the only witnesses.
The couple continued to live apart in their separate lodgings, and Godwin, in the arid, minute diary that he kept, made no mention of the ceremony that he affected to regard as of the least possible importance. What William Godwin disliked so much about marriage was what he termed "co-habitation"—that is, the living together of two people in one house, "so that there is neither peace nor privacy for either party." Mary was not so enamoured of her new lord that she could not endure to be for hours and even days together out of his sight, so she acquiesced in this arrangement.
She gave up the tour of Italy or Switzerland that she had planned when her courage had revived a little after Imlay's desertion, and moving her furniture out of store, she took rooms in Somers Town.
Godwin had an apartment in the same district, and between them, as a common residence, was the house called the Polygon, their joint home. Under this arrangement the husband and wife seldom met until the evening, and often did not see each other for days together, for Godwin would keep to his room, and Mary went about among her friends as if she were an unmarried, unattached woman.
This was Godwin's arrangement, and one that he considered infinitely reasonable, and to which Mary agreed out of lassitude and indifference. But Godwin's sentiments were aroused; his heart as well as his head was involved in this strange marriage, that he disclosed on the 6th of April, 1797, and he accepted with equanimity the reproofs of some of his free-thinking friends. From the generous and devoted friend, Thomas Wedgewood, he obtained a loan of fifty pounds with which to extricate Mary from some of her little debts. He soon after asked for another loan of the same amount, and somewhat pompously endeavoured to explain away the seeming inconsistency of his marriage.
"The doctrine of my political justice is, that an attachment that is in some degree permanent between two persons of opposite sexes is right, that marriage as practised in European countries is wrong. I still adhere to that opinion and nothing but a regard for the happiness of the individual, which I have no right to injure, would have induced me to submit to an institution which I wish to see abolished and which I would recommend to my fellow men never to practise but with the greatest caution. Having done what I thought necessary for the respectability of the individual I hold myself no otherwise bound than I was before the ceremony took place."
The philosopher, who was accomplished in extorting money from his friends and acquaintances, added:
"I can see no reason to doubt, that as we are both successful authors, we shall be able by our literary exertions, though with no other fortune, to sustain ourselves separately, or, which is more desirable, jointly. The loan I requested from you was rendered necessary by some complication in her pecuniary affairs consequent on a former connection, the particulars of which you have probably heard. Now that we have entered into a new mode of living, which will probably be permanent, I find a further supply of fifty pounds will enable us to start fair."
Some of Godwin's friends received the news of his strange lapse from his own principles with disgust; others were friendly and sent warm congratulations.
From Wood Dalling in Norfolk, where old Mrs. Godwin, the widow of the severe Nonconformist minister, lived, came an ill-spelt, rambling letter of congratulation:
"Your broken resolution in regard to matrimony encourages me to hope that you will ere long embrace the Gospel, that sure word of promise to all believers, and not only you but your other half, whose souls should be both one...I shall be glad to see you and your wife in Norfolk if I be spared. You must not expect great exactness as I have a young servant and myself able to do nothing at all. I hope you are good walkers, for I have no horse and have not entered my cart so can go nowhere but to meeting with it. I have for many days had the cramp, I call, rather than ye rheumatism. I can't put on my own stockings and am obliged to stand to eat my victuals and to get up and walk about perhaps forty times while I write this letter. I intend sending you a few eggs with this in Hannah's box. Could you send a small feather bed, would do for the servant, by waggon, if acceptable...My dears, whatever you do, do not make invitations and entertainments...live comfortable with one another. The Hart of her husband safely trusts in her. I can give you no better advice than out of Proverbs, the Prophets and the New Testament—My best affections tend you both. From your mother, A. Godwin. I am informed Mr. Harwood's mother is dead. That's all I know. Your eggs will spoil soon if you don't pack them up in sawdust bran or something of the kind and turn them often. It's a pity to pay carriage for them if they don't keep."
The chief problem of the Godwins was Fanny, Imlay's gay, brown-eyed child. The philosopher had never contemplated a wife and family; now he had made himself responsible not only for Mary, but for her child. His means were extremely limited, and he had an extraordinary way of confusing his affairs that were always most intricately complicated. Mary, too, was in debt; Imlay left her with some of the expenses of her establishment when she was living with him. Even the hundred pounds borrowed from Wedgewood would not go very far when there were so many creditors to be kept quiet. There was still old Mr. Wollstonecraft wanting money, and Charles to think of; he had, after all, not been successful in America.
The newly married man and wife therefore started in a very quiet way, and Mary began to miss the devoted friendship of Mr. Johnson, who had hitherto looked after her accounts, managed her creditors and advanced her money; she began to complain rather peevishly that she was left with too many tiresome details on her hands. Godwin was not a practical man; he could not manage his own affairs, much less those of his wife.
There was another trouble confronting Mary. She had hoped that by her marriage she would achieve that respectability which hitherto she had scorned and be received as a decorous matron. The reverse was the case, as she might have foreseen. No glosses over her former connection with Imlay were now possible, but a few months had passed since she had lived openly with him, he was now in Paris with another woman, and she had married Godwin. She could not, therefore, ever have been Mrs. Imlay. Many doors were closed to her, and she found herself regarded in many quarters as a social outcast. Two famous ladies, whose friendship both she and Godwin highly valued, excluded her from their "circle," as they put it. One was Mrs. Inchbald, and the other Mrs. Siddons.
The breach with the first lady, who was a Roman Catholic and extremely virtuous, took place under unpleasant circumstances. She had asked Mary and Godwin to share a box at a theatre with her, before they announced their marriage. When Godwin wrote to her that Mary was now his wife, Mrs. Inchbald in a cool note withdrew her invitation under the excuse that the newly married couple would not wish to be troubled with such ordinary amusements as the drama. Godwin, however, scenting a slight to Mary, insisted that they should be given the tickets to the box; but the evening was not a success. Mrs. Inchbald, though she had to appear in her capacity of hostess, contrived to insult Mary in a way that Godwin, who had long admired the beautiful sandy-haired authoress of A Simple Story, deeply resented.
Mary received this same kind of behaviour from several of her female friends; her position was, indeed from every point of view, difficult. It was hard for her to obtain sympathy, at least from women, on the score of desertion, when she had so soon filled the inconstant lover's place, and it was difficult to justify her much vaunted principles of sex equality that on one occasion allowed her to be a man's mistress and on another occasion induced her to be a man's wife. Still, Mary affronted her difficulties and, falling into a half-apathetic lassitude, scribbled and read in the Polygon, to which abode she had now moved, went to theatres and concerts, superintended the education of Fanny—in which she took a deep interest—and mused over the coming child. She had had enough of women, their rights and wrongs, and it was decided that the child should be a boy, and named William. Living so oddly apart from her husband, she was under the necessity of frequently sending him little notes, that Godwin, quite new to this sort of coquetry, found entrancing.
From the Polygon to the lodgings in Evesham Place came these little epistles that the philosopher thought delightful:
"I am very glad you were not with me last night, for I could not rouse myself. To tell the truth I was unwell and out of spirits. I am better today."
"I am better this morning, but it snows so incessantly that I do not know how I shall be able to keep my appointment this evening. What say you? But you have no petticoats to dangle in the snow. Poor women, how they are beset with plagues, within and without."
"I am not well this morning. It is very tormenting to be thus, neither sick nor well, especially as you can scarcely imagine me indisposed. Women are certainly great fools, but nature made them so."
"Did I not see you, friend Godwin, at the theatre last night? I thought I met a smile, but you went out without looking round."
Before the marriage was declared, or Mary's relations with Godwin known, her sister Everina had stayed with her for a short while, having patched up some kind of a reconciliation. She still affected to believe that Mary had been married to Imlay. Godwin had procured her a situation in the Wedgewood family at Etruria. One of the family had married Miss Allen, an old friend of the Wollstonecrafts, but in spite of this obligation both Everina and Eliza took bitter offence when Mary's marriage was acknowledged, and cut off all connection with their unhappy sister.
The little notes went on, referring to petty domestic details, to the cat's going mad and running up the chimney and having to be destroyed, to the beef for dinner, to Fanny's having too many cakes, to Mary's asking for books and indiarubber, for tickets for the theatre and other trivialities. Mary had her moods and caprices, even her outbursts of despair. After one of these Godwin wrote:
"I am pained by the recollection of our conversation last night. The sole principle of conduct of which I am conscious in my behaviour to you has been in everything to study your happiness. I found a wounded heart, and if that heart casts itself on me it is my ambition to heal it. Do not let me be wholly disappointed, let me have the relief of seeing you this morning. If I do not call before you go out, call on me."
In the summer Godwin left London with a friend, Mr. Basil Montagu. They intended to be away for a fortnight, and, hiring a one-horse carriage, set out for the Wedgewood establishment at Etruria. They were away from the 3rd to the 20th of June. Godwin wrote his wife long letters, mostly of the gossiping, traveller's-tale kind, but with inquiries after Mary's health and happiness that she herself termed kind and considerate. "Take care of yourself and take care of William," was his constant theme—William being his unborn child.
He was to buy a little mug for Fanny, specially made for her at the Wedgewood potteries, and it was all very homely and agreeable, but what Mary would have termed "a sickly qualm" stirred her heart when she thought of Imlay in Paris, and realised what a sham all this so-called domestic felicity was: the second best can gall more than emptiness; a dull substitute for love is worse than loneliness. Mary wrote, however, her kind and pleasant letters, discussing Master William, and such details as:
"My dinner is ready and it is washing day. I am putting everything in order for your return."
"I am not fatigued with solitude, yet I have not relished my solitary dinner. A husband is a convenient part of the furniture of a house, unless he is a clumsy fixture. I wish, too, from my soul to be riveted to your heart, but I do not desire to have you always at my elbow, though at this moment I should not care if you were."
Then, in an outburst of gratitude to this man who had saved her from humiliation and torment:
"You are a kind and affectionate creature. I feel it thrilling through my frame, giving a promising pleasure."
Godwin by this time was as much in love as it was in his nature to be. He wrote, on the 10th June:
"You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections as perfectly as you do, and after all one's philosophy it must be confessed that the knowledge that there is some one that takes an interest in one's happiness, something like that which each man feels for his own, is extremely gratifying. Tell Fanny we have chosen a mug for her, another for Lucas. There is an F on hers and an L on his shaped in an island of flowers of green, orange, and tawny alternately. With respect to their beauty, you will set it forth with such eloquence as your imagination will supply."
At Etruria Godwin met Everina, who treated him with the greatest haughtiness, and even, on the first evening after his arrival, refused to come down and see him. Mary was not much grieved at this news; she had long since put both her sisters out of her life, and they continued to show a marked hostility to her, even declaring that her erratic behaviour made it very difficult for them to obtain positions in respectable households.
When Godwin delayed his return, Mary became petulant. At the end of a letter of reproaches she wrote:
"In short, your being so late to-night and a chance of your not coming show so little consideration that unless you suppose me to be a stick or a stone you must have forgot to think as well as to feel since you have been on the wing. I am afraid to add what I feel. Good-night."
But a contrite letter from her husband and his speedy return soon effaced Mary's ill-humour. She repeated that he was the kindest, most reliable creature in the world—yes, that was it, kindness and reliability.
The weary woman welcomed back the ugly philosopher with a fair pretence of happiness. For his part Godwin was in a sincere state of felicity. He had now his wife and the prospect of his child. He was very fond of little Fanny, who looked up to him as her father. He was the type of man that did not dislike, indeed rather relished, intellectual gifts in a female companion.
Mary's influence had softened some of the asperity in his character; he began to find, and with a sense of deep satisfaction, that there was something after all in those intimate human relationships that hitherto he had regarded with the cold, slightly hostile eye of reason. He found a great charm in Mary's society; she could now affect, if she did not feel, gaiety, and she had that delicious interest in everyday things which makes the commonplace delightful and interesting. While with his Mary, William Godwin found that much that he had hitherto ignored was capable of affording the greatest pleasure and excitement. A modest day's trip in the country with his wife and Fanny was productive of great satisfaction for both of them, and Mary's company at a play, at a concert, at a friend's house gilded the entertainments for the philosopher. He could scarcely believe that in undertaking, partly out of principle, partly out of sentiment, the task of calling back to life a broken-hearted woman he had secured such extraordinary happiness for himself.
Mary was expecting her child, her William of whom she so constantly talked, in August. She was in good health and in what seemed to be good spirits. Her first confinement had been without any difficulty, and she expected none now. Her ideas on the subject of maternity were very modern: she thought that a woman should bear children as naturally as a tree bears apples and that most women made far too much fuss and pother on these occasions. She detested, too, the attendance of doctors at confinements, and therefore merely engaged Mrs. Blenkinsop, matron and midwife of the Westminster Lying-in Hospital. As her husband put it:
"She was influenced by ideas of decorum which certainly ought to have no place, at least in cases of danger, and determined to have a woman to attend her in the capacity of midwife."
On August 30th, 1797, this good woman took up her residence in the Polygon, and William Godwin, as his wife desired, retired to his lodgings in Evesham Buildings. No sooner had he left her—he had promised to be away till the child was born—than she wrote to him three little notes, all dated August 30th:
"I have no doubt of seeing the animal today, but must wait for Mrs. Blenkinsop to guess the hour. I have sent for her. Pray send me the newspaper. I wish I had a novel or some book of sheer amusement to excite curiosity and while away the time. Have you anything of the kind?"
A little later:
"Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me that everything is in a fair way and there is no fear of the event being put off till another day. For the present she thinks I shall not be immediately free from my load. I am very well. Call before dinner time unless you receive another message from me."
At three o'clock another letter was sent from the Polygon:
"Mrs. Blenkinsop tells me I am in the most natural state that promises me a safe delivery, but I must have a little patience."
The child was not born till nearly half-past eleven at night. The infant was not the eagerly expected and carefully planned-for William, but another girl, another Mary. When Godwin heard this news he was disappointed for his wife's sake, and hurried to her house. But he was not allowed to see her. She had requested that he should remain out of her room until she was perfectly recovered. The midwife assured him that his wife was doing extremely well. Soon afterwards, however, the state of her patient seemed to Mrs. Blenkinsop unnatural, and on her telling her fears to the anxious philosopher two doctors were sent for, one an old friend of Mary's, Dr. Fordyce, and the other, Dr. Poignard, from the Westminster Lying-in Hospital. These two physicians remained with Mary during the night. By eight o'clock in the morning she was supposed to be out of danger. This was a Thursday, and during the Friday and Saturday Mary lay in a state of lassitude that was supposed to be quite proper to her condition, nursing the child and taking very little notice of what was going on about her. The house was full of friends; the Fenwicks, Miss Hayes, Mrs. Reveley, Mr. Montagu were constantly calling.
On Sunday she seemed so much better that Godwin, who had spent most of his time anxiously sitting with his friends in the parlour below her room, went to visit friends at Kensington and did not return until the evening. He was met with the news that there had been a sudden increase in Mary's illness, and that she had been worried to think that he was absent. She had had shivering fits, and Dr. Fordyce had called twice. Godwin, shocked and alarmed, hastened to her bedside, which he scarcely left again until she occupied the bed no more.
Through the clumsiness and ignorance of the midwife and the limitation of medical skill, Mary had suffered a mischance at the birth of her child that now had produced internal poisoning. Her symptoms were alarming, and the two physicians ordered the weaning of the infant. Puppies were put to her breast to relieve her. Godwin, seated below, noted this in his diary with—Pichegru averted. Godwin had many friends, and so had Mary. These rallied round, and everything was done that human kindness and skill could suggest. A distinguished surgeon, Mr. Anthony Carlisle, came on the Wednesday, and remained in the bedroom at the Polygon for the hour together; a nurse was called in to help Mrs. Blenkinsop; Dr. Poignard visited Mary continually. Godwin showed the most touching devotion, the most unremitting tenderness and care. Mary's first bout of agony on the Sunday after her confinement had been so severe that she told him only the sight of his grief had induced her to support it. Yet even during his anguish Godwin would not forfeit his principles. The doctor had given his tortured wife some laudanum, and when she, feeling thereupon a cessation of pain, exclaimed, "Oh, Godwin, I am in Heaven," the philosopher answered, "You mean, my dear, that your physical sensations are somewhat easier."
Mrs. Fenwick and Miss Paine, two old and close friends, took charge of the sick-room, while the faithful Marshall, Basil Montagu, Mr. Fenwick and Mr. Dyson sat in the parlour below, waiting to be sent on errands or to do any service asked of them. It was a martyrdom; medical science then knew no way of allaying such suffering as Mary had to endure; all the doctors could do was to suggest to Godwin that he kept his wife constantly supplied with wine in view of what she had to go through before the end. On Wednesday, he noted in that careful diary, "Carlisle calls. Wine diet."
Under these dreadful circumstances his fortitude broke down; his cold heart melted to tears and expostulations. He entreated her to recover, "dwelt with trembling fondness on every favourable circumstance." She smiled at him, pressed his hands and tried to reassure him as far as possible. It was obvious that she was deeply touched by his emotion and kindness. To please him she tried to sleep when begged to do so, though pain made it impossible for her to obtain any repose.
When the nurse began to argue with her about what she should do for her own good, Mary's utter fatigue showed itself in the murmur: "Pray, pray, do not let her reason with me."
Mary lay in the curtained bed through the warm September days and nights, apart from the subdued agitation and hushed comings and goings of a household always odd and casual. She was in continuous pain. When the laudanum failed to take effect, Godwin, obeying the doctors, gave her wine; this bemused and sickened her, without deadening the pain. She passed from one fainting fit to another, and in the intervals of sensibility she was so weak that she could not move head or hand. She declared that she "had never known before what bodily pain was."
Before this torture even the thought of Imlay faded; she was not able to console herself with memories of that brilliant summer of the Terror, the baskets of grapes, the fields of waving corn—the Barrier Hotel; all her faculties were fixed on endurance; her shivering fits were so violent that her teeth chattered and the bed shook under her for five minutes together; she whispered to Godwin that "it was a struggle between life and death," and that "she had been on the point of expiring." The doctors knew that the symptoms were those "of a decided mortification," and they told the agonised husband the cause of Mary's trouble and their fading hopes.
Miss Godwin had been asked to dinner, with other friends, and Mary breathed a request that the cloth should not be laid, as usual, in the parlour under her chamber, but in a distant room. She desired silence. Those who came in and out of her room, tiptoed; the child was with a wet nurse in a distant part of the house; Mary never spoke of her or of Fanny.
Mr. Johnson, her truest friend, called for news. He was deeply moved by the waste of this brilliant woman, who might have given off so much light and been herself so radiant, but who had been quenched by her need for love, by her acceptance of maternity. Godwin tried to follow those stoic principles that he had always preached and until now found no difficulty in practising; the diary was precisely kept—who called, who slept in that house of watchers.
In the evenings he stole from her room with the shaded candles to his untidy library, where the unpaid bills were thrown down with the unfinished work, where the pages of Mary's Wrongs of Women lay in the drawer with the bundle of her letters to Imlay and the sketch for her Management of Infants.
There he would turn over the daily papers—the world was spinning along outside the Polygon. September 4th, when the puppies had been laid to Mary's breast, had seen the coup d'état of the 18 Fructidor; events were moving towards the Battle of Camperdown, the peace of Campo Formio, General Bonaparte's plans for the invasion of England...The papers dropped from Godwin's hand. He knew mental pain, as she knew physical, for the first time.
Mary's friend, Dr. George Fordyce, a Scots physician who held a post at St. Thomas's Hospital, and who had published several important medical works, and Mr. Anthony Carlisle, had now charge of the case, Dr. Poignard having left it in their hands.
Godwin sat, on Wednesday, 6th Sept., for three hours holding the glasses of wine to Mary's lips. A servant creeping into the room with fresh linen, the exhausted man asked: "What do you think of your mistress?"
The woman answered, "Sir, in my judgment she is going as fast as possible."
Godwin felt question and reply to be absurd, yet they increased his distraction almost to madness. He entreated the faithful Basil Montagu to go for Mr. Carlisle. The young surgeon was then four miles out of London, dining at Brixton; yet, after three quarters of an hour, Montagu returned with the surgeon, whose presence gave Godwin more hope than he had believed it possible to feel. The kindness and affectionate attention of Mr. Carlisle deeply touched the philosopher, who felt a sentiment like adoration for the grave, tender figure seated patiently by the bed, "ever on the watch, observing every symptom and eager to improve every favourable appearance."
In the parlour below sat Montagu, Marshall, Dyson, Fenwick, waiting "to be dispatched, on any errand, to any part of the metropolis, at a moment's warning."
On the Thursday morning Mary was better; the agony was dulled, the convulsions had ceased; she contrived to smile, to whisper thanks to those grouped by her bed. Mrs. Fenwick changed her cap, wet with sweat, and folded the tangled red hair in clean cambric. The window was opened to admit a slant of autumn sun. Godwin refused to admit hope—it was, he said, "too mighty a thought to be trifled with."
Mary, drugged with opium and alcohol, was confused in her reason. She was gentle, passive, and smiled at whoever approached her shadowed pillow.
She did not at first, great as her suffering was, expect that she was going to die. She lived much longer than the doctors had expected from the nature of her disease, but on that Thursday Mr. Carlisle told the husband in the evening to prepare himself, for the fatal event might be expected any moment; he suggested that she should be asked if she had any directions to leave with regard to the two children; he added that it was merciful that she did not know that she was dying, for he said: "There is no more pitiable object than a sick man that knows he is dying."
When Godwin began to ask her what her wishes were about the future of the children during her possible convalescence, she interrupted him by faintly saying: "I know what you are thinking of..." She whispered that she had nothing to say, and explained this by her muttered: "He is the kindest, best man in the world."
Godwin could endure no more; he stumbled out of the room to write in his precise diary: "...dying in the evening."
On the following day the entry was "idea of death solemn communication."
Mary still seemed unconscious of her condition, death was not in her thoughts, yet "she occasionally spoke as if she expected it." Godwin noted that "her faculties were in too decayed a state to be able to follow any train of ideas with force or any accuracy of connection." Also that "during her whole illness, not one word of a religious cast fell from her lips." The God of the Dissenters of Newington Green towards whom Mary had once turned in desperate hopes of future ease and peace, meant nothing to her now; she had come to the point where her worn-out mother had been: "A little patience, and all will be over."
On the Saturday morning, "every hope being extinct," Godwin talked to her again of the two little "animals," shut away in a distant room, but she only had to say—she trusted him.
She lingered so long that Mr. Carlisle began to watch for favourable symptoms, remarking "that one in a million of persons in her state might recover." Godwin replied, "that not one person in a million had her good constitution of mind and body."
He felt, however, that these speculations "were but the amusements of persons in the gulf of despair." Mr. Carlisle persuaded the philosopher at one o'clock to take a little rest. He stumbled down to his neglected room—wrote in his diary: "Sat. 9th. Talk to her of Fanny and Mary," and dozed in a chair until at six o'clock the sobbing servant came with a message from Mr. Carlisle.
Godwin had asked that he might be brought yet once more to her bedside; he could not endure that they should tell him, "All is over." So he went slowly up the dark stairs of the Polygon, and into her room, shadowed and arranged for death. She was then almost insensible, but recognised him and tried to smile. He remained on his knees by her bedside for over an hour and a half, then his Mary died, resigning her struggle for life as she had some while since resigned her struggle for happiness.
The philosopher, clinging to his principles in an effort to stay his anguish, crept downstairs, went to his desk, and filled in the entry in his diary; he had never missed a day—he would not miss this. He could not, however, bring himself to write down that she was dead, and the only blank in the diary follows the date of Sunday, September 10th, 1797:
"10. Su. —— 20 minutes before 8 —— —— —"
The Stoic controlled his agony—she had shone so brightly in his life and for so brief a while! While they were preparing her upstairs for the grave, he wrote to the faithful Holcroft:
"I firmly believe that there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again."
The old insult in the theatre-box from Mrs. Inchbald rankled in his mind at this desperate moment. He wrote to her:
"My wife died at eight this morning. I always thought that you used her ill, but I forgive you. You told me that you did not know her. You have a thousand good and great qualities. She had a very deep-rooted admiration for you."
Mrs. Inchbald replied, defending herself, the same day. The unhappy correspondence continued in five letters which concluded with Mrs. Inchbald's writing: "With the most sincere sympathy in all that you have suffered—with the most perfect forgiveness of all you have said to me, there must, nevertheless, be an end of our acquaintance forever."
To another friend, Mrs. Cotton, Godwin declared: "I have half destroyed myself by writing."
Yet with all his self-control Godwin was incapable of making the funeral arrangements. These were undertaken by Basil Montagu and Mr. Marshall. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was buried in the churchyard of Old St. Pancras Church, where she had been married a few months before.
Godwin could not bring himself to attend the funeral. On the Friday morning that she was being buried he shut himself up in Marshall's house and scribbled desperately to his friends, pouring his feelings, roused at last, out on paper. He had already written sternly to Mr. Tuthill, the atheist, who did not feel that he could attend a Christian funeral. He now wrote to Mr. Carlisle:
"My dear Carlisle—I am here, sitting alone in Mr. Marshall's lodgings during my wife's funeral. My mind is extremely sunk and languid. But I husband my thoughts and shall do very well...one of my wife's books now lies near me, but I avoid opening it..."
Miss Hayes sent the news to Hugh Skeys, who was not, perhaps, very much interested; it was some years since his Fanny had been laid in her Lisbon grave. Mrs. Fenwick, "the authoress of Secrecy and the best nurse that Mr. Anthony Carlisle ever saw," wrote to the estranged Everina:
"I am a stranger to you, Miss Wollstonecraft, and at present greatly enfeebled both in mind and body; but when Mr. Godwin desired that I should inform you of the death of his most beloved and most excellent wife I was willing to undertake the task because it is some consolation to render him the slightest service and because my thoughts perpetually dwell upon her virtues and her loss. Mr. Godwin himself cannot upon this occasion write to you. Mrs. Godwin died on Sunday, September 10th, about eight in the morning. I was with her at the time of her delivery and with very little intermission until the moment of her death. Every skilful effort that medical science of the highest class could make was exerted to save her. It is not possible to describe the unremitting and devoted attentions of her husband. Nor is it easy to give you an adequate idea of the affectionate zeal of many of her friends, who were on the watch day and night to seize on an opportunity of contributing towards her recovery and to lessen her sufferings. No woman was ever more happy in marriage than Mrs. Godwin; whoever endured more anguish than Mr. Godwin endured? Her description of him in the very last moment of her recollection was 'He is the kindest, best man in the world.' I know of no consolation for myself but remembering how happy she lately had been and how much she was admired, almost idolised, by some of the most eminent and best of human beings. The children are both well, the infant in particular. It is the finest baby I ever saw—Wishing you peace and prosperity, I remain your humble servant, Eliza Fenwick.
"Mr. Godwin requests that you will make Mrs. Bishop acquainted with this afflicting event. He tells me that Mrs. Godwin entertained a sincere and earnest affection for Mrs. Bishop."
Mary's friends and acquaintances were shocked and startled when they heard of her death, which at this juncture had been entirely unexpected; she had seemed, as Mrs. Inchbald wrote, in such brilliant vigour of mind and body.
Henry Fuseli, the object of her first tremblings of passion, who had dined once or twice at her table when she was Mrs. Godwin and who had lately regarded her kindly, though with a touch of that contempt some men feel for a woman who has been deserted by another man and sunk beneath the event, made a brief comment on her tragedy. After sending the news to a friend, he added: "Poor Mary."
How can the Bird that is born for Joy
Sit in a Cage and Sing?
Songs of Experience.
William Blake, 1794.
IN the summer of 1814 a fair girl waited beneath a luxuriant willow tree that shook tresses of narrow leaves over a stone inscribed:
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Born XVII April, MDCCLIX<<br> Died X September, MDCCXCVII
The slight, sensitive creature in the mended gown and worn slippers bore the same name. The tracing of light over her fine features, delicate locks of pale hair and thin white dress, made her look like some sylph hovering above the grave where passion lay buried and re-risen was transformed into ethereal loveliness.
This was the child for whom Mary had died, daughter of a cold philosopher and a heart-broken woman. Her thoughts were all of love, and all the feminine rights she cared about were freedom in this love.
The graveyard of Old St. Pancras Church was full in the brightness of the setting sun that glittered on the windows of the squat grey building and softened the cold outlines of the tombs. A breeze, sweet from neighbouring hayfields, stirred the shadows of the willow boughs over the thick, daisied grass. On Mary's grave lay her daughter's books and satchel, a straw hat and a shawl.
The philosopher had married again, a few years after his Mary's death, and his daughter detested her stepmother, who tried to keep her to the sordid drudgery of the wretched household. The second Mary knew as much about poverty, the shifts and intrigues of genteel insolvency, the harshness of creditors, the difficulty of raising loans as ever her mother had experienced at her age. This grave was her refuge; on these tufts of grass, in this swaying shade, she retreated into those day dreams that were her refuge from a harsh reality, and pondered over the books that Mrs. Godwin, ill-tempered and harassed, forbade her to read at home, while there were dishes to be washed or clothes to be patched.
Mary Godwin adored the memory of her mother, of whom she had heard nothing but what pleased her, and now, with the utmost tenderness, she bent, and with a caressing finger traced the name on the stone; then she peered through the willow tresses, drew them apart and shyly calling, "Shelley!" sped down the grassy slopes where another creature, as bright and fine as herself, was coming eagerly towards her. They embraced in the solitude of the flowering grasses, among the graves, then the girl flew back to where her mother's tomb glimmered in the willow shade, snatched up her belongings and returned to her lover. At the lich-gate Jane Clairmont, her half-sister, was waiting for them. The three stole away together, and the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft remained solitary in the intolerable loneliness of an English summer afternoon.
Mary was away with her lover, and Jane, the half-brothers, Charles Clairmont and William Godwin, had found some intermittent work and some desultory interests, Fanny remained at home to help in the long struggle with genteel poverty; she was now the only one to visit the willow-shaded grave.
This was Gilbert Imlay's daughter, the "barrier girl," child of those hours of secret joy and passion, spent in the shuttered room of the discreet little hotel overlooking the sunny boulevard planted with noble trees and parterres of flowers, this was "my little animal," whom Mary had suckled, given crusts to, fondled and wept over, in whose face she had seen a likeness to her faithless lover.
For Fanny Mary had resolved to live, for Fanny she had planned manuals of education, for Fanny she had begun a little handbook in order that the baby might learn to read on a new system; these lessons were inscribed: "The first book of a series which I intended to have written for my unfortunate girl," and written in October, 1795. "Come to me, my little girl. Are you tired of playing? Yes. Sit down and rest yourself while I talk to you..."
Fanny had read over the little volume of her mother's posthumous works that contained these sad scraps of advice intended for her, but Godwin's memoir of his wife had been kept from her; she believed that the name under which she passed—Godwin—was her own.
Fanny was gentle, lovable, pleasant to look at, vivacious in conversation and a neat housewife. Godwin had done his best by her, and had in every way treated her as if she had been his own daughter. But to say this is not to say much; the philosopher's house in Skinner Street was a wretched place, and Fanny was well used not only to the grind of sordid penury, but to the constant bitterness of family quarrels, and to the rule of Mrs. Godwin, "whom I cannot like," as she wrote to Mary.
Now Mary and Jane had escaped, Mary with Shelley, Jane to Italy, and an amorous interlude with the brilliant Byron. Only Fanny remained among the dreary shifts of Skinner Street, to toil without relief or pleasure, to listen to Godwin's platitudes that time had made a little querulous, to Mrs. Godwin's quick railings.
In the September of 1816 Fanny saw much of her maternal aunts, Everina Wollstonecraft and Eliza Bishop, who had a little school in Ireland, founded not without help from their sister's friends and money.
Fanny hoped to join them. They invited her for a visit, but put obstacles in the way of her becoming a teacher in their establishment. A few trivial questions from the girl, and the embittered women told her what these obstacles were; Fanny learnt that she was not Godwin's daughter, but the illegitimate child of Gilbert Imlay, of whom no one had heard anything for twenty years; she learnt, too, how the philosopher's affairs looked to the orthodox world.
The delicate romantic poet who was living with Mary was married and had children by his wife; Mary, already a mother, was to him what her mother had been to Gilbert Imlay. Jane Clairmont's company had but added to the scandal of her elopement. Godwin was heavily in debt to Shelley, and though he profoundly disapproved of his daughter's behaviour, continued to importune him for money.
The brutal version of the story current in literary London was that the stony-hearted philosopher had sold the two girls to the eccentric young libertine for seven hundred pounds.
Then Jane—Clare, as she called herself—had shamelessly forced sufficient attention from the cynical, notorious Lord Byron for her, too, to be burdened with a base born child. Everina and Eliza were vehement in their condemnation of these disgraceful results of an atheistical, radical training—the rights of woman! The two ageing schoolmistresses could see nothing in this type of feminine freedom but the licence claimed by the street walker.
They declared that it was very difficult for them, with such connections, to find pupils; the names of Godwin and Wollstonecraft stank in the nostrils of the respectable. Fanny was no doubt a good girl, but she could be only a brief, smuggled visitor in her aunts' school.
Gilbert Imlay's daughter returned to the drab monotony of Skinner Street in deep despondency; she was given to fits of melancholy, and now she felt tainted, set apart, despised.
She was really alone. Her father had never inquired after her. She was dependent on the charity of the harassed philosopher, an unpaid servant in the miserable household. She escaped, as Mary had escaped before her, to the willow-shaded grave and pondered over the rights of women, over love and over her mother's two attempts at suicide of which she had lately learnt; she was lonely without the two other girls, and she had been dazzled by the radiance of Shelley—all gone!
Fanny visited Mary's grave for the last time on October 7th, 1816. She was about to leave London to join her aunts in Pembrokeshire, where they still had a little property. She was to cross to Ireland with them by Bristol.
It was a cool, yet gold-powdered day—like those of twenty-two years before, when Mary Wollstonecraft had gone out along the dusty Neuilly road, a basket of grapes in her hand, to welcome her lover. The willow leaves were golden, too; Fanny stripped some of them off the fine boughs and cast them, like a golden coronal, on her mother's grave.
Then Fanny returned home to fetch her luggage. On the way she visited a chemist's shop. On the 10th of October she was at Bristol. From there she wrote to Mary, then at Bath, a sad, distracted letter that sent Shelley to meet her. But she had continued her journey; the poet missed her and returned to Bath.
On Wednesday night Fanny arrived at the Mackworth Arms, Swansea, by the Cambrian coach. She asked for a room and a cup of tea, and went early upstairs. She told the chambermaid that she was very much fatigued and would put out her own candle.
Her appearance was noted as being very genteel. She wore a blue striped skirt with a white bodice under a brown pelisse, this, like her brown beaver hat, was lined with white silk. She wore a little necklace of brown berries, she had her long, hazel-coloured hair arranged in curls, her complexion was warm, her eyes dark. As she did not appear in the morning, her locked door was forced. She was stretched on the floor, by the untouched bed, fully dressed save for her hat. Nothing was found on her body but a small French gold watch, a reticule containing a red silk handkerchief and a clasped purse that contained a 3/- and a 5/6 piece. On the table was a bottle of laudanum and this letter:
"I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as X X X."
The name had been written, then torn off and burnt at the candle. How was she to sign herself? She was neither registered nor baptised anywhere. "My poor animal" was nameless.
On Oct. 19th an inquest was held on "the wretched object," as the Cambrian termed Fanny, and the verdict was: "Found dead."
No one had come forward to claim Fanny's body that remained unidentified. A "G" had been found on her hose and "M.W." on her stays, but the Swansea authorities could not trace her relatives.
These kept themselves carefully concealed; Shelley had gone again to Bristol, satisfied himself who the suicide was and had returned to Bath without disclosing himself; Mary bought mourning and told Godwin the news. The philosopher went secretly to Swansea, learnt the truth and returned to London secretly; his one anxiety was that yet another scandal should not attach to his name; he concealed the tragedy from everyone, and the love-child of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay was buried, as an "unknown female," in a pauper's grave.
She was supposed to have gone to Ireland and for months Godwin hid her suicide, gradually and vaguely allowing it to be supposed that she had died of typhus in Ireland.
A month after Fanny drank the laudanum in her hired room, Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine, and Mary Wollstonecraft's younger daughter, to the great satisfaction of the philosopher, was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, on Dec. 30th, 1816, at St. Mildred's Church, Bread Street; she had been living with him for nearly five years, but Godwin announced the marriage to his brother, Hall, with pride; after saying that his "tall girl" was married, he added: "her husband is the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, of Field Place, in the County of Sussex, Baronet...you will wonder, I daresay, how a girl without a penny of fortune should meet with so good a match. But such are the ups and downs of this world. For my part, I care but little, comparatively, about wealth, so that it should be her destiny in life to be respectable, virtuous and contented...I have to thank you this Christmas for a ham and a turkey, which, exclusive of their intrinsic value, gave me much satisfaction as marks of your remembrance."
So Mary went to Italy, to her six years of marriage and her long widowhood, and Fanny mouldered in Welsh earth, wearing her necklet of berries and her blue striped dress, and the coroner had for his fee the little French watch that Gilbert Imlay had given Mary Wollstonecraft a generation before and the bare willow tree cast wintry drops on the neglected grave of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
WILLIAM GODWIN was buried beside his first wife in 1836. The Midland Railway Co., bought the old Church of Saint Pancras and demolished it, erecting in place of it a tasteless, gloomy pile by Sir John Soane; the ancient graveyard was turned into a pleasure garden that the railway passed through, then built over.
Sir Percy Shelley removed in 1851 the bodies of his grandparents to Bournemouth where they rest beside that of Mary Shelley who died that same year.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was much abused after her death and brutally handled by the considerable number of writers who discussed her work and life in public prints; she paid to the full the penalty of having broken the rules. In order to clear away the calumnies that clustered round her memory, Godwin wrote his short life of his wife. This did not mend the matter; Godwin's lofty view of his Mary's conduct was considered heartless and indecent and many people found it shocking that the bereaved husband should—and with zest—print the story of his dead wife's illicit connection with another man then living, and publish the love letters that revealed a woman's passion and despair. Godwin's scrupulous attitude of impartiality towards Imlay made his conduct, to the sensitive and romantic, appear disgusting, and it was considered one of Mary's worst misfortunes that she was mourned by "Godwin with a heart of stone."
It may be doubted whether what Mary termed "a register of sorrow"—her letters to her lover—were ever intended by her for publication; she had destroyed all those that she had received from Imlay, so the tale revealed in her letters is one-sided at best. Gilbert Imlay had at least the dignity of silence; it is not difficult to imagine his opinion of the tact and taste of publishing what was indeed his concern and his property; though Godwin suppressed some of the passages.
It is remarkable that Godwin came into possession of the frantic letters written before Mary's second attempt at suicide, and those sent to Imlay during her following illness. Imlay must have returned these to his forsaken mistress, and she have kept them; it might have been thought that either one or the other would have destroyed these sad documents.
Godwin thought highly of the literary value of these love letters that he considered bore "a striking resemblance to the celebrated romance of Werther," he found them—what they decidedly are not—"the offspring of a glowing imagination," and declared that they were "superior to the fiction of Goethe." It is notable that, at that date, very few collections of love letters had been published; the correspondence of Dorothea Sophia of Zell and Philip von Koenigsmarck, of William Temple and Dorothy Osborne, of Julie de Lespinasse still lay locked away in archives or private chests. Godwin's life of his wife, though much less formal and stilted than his more ponderous works, is dry, cold and meagre as to facts; his description of his affection—"I never loved before" and so on, seems artificial and his misunderstanding of Mary, his complacency in thinking that "this heart withered by despair" could have soon conceived a steady passion for himself, is pathetic in its futility.
Only when he comes to describe Mary's death is he moving, and even there he leaves out almost all of those details that would have made his account vivid.
The philosopher was not inconsolable; even while preparing Mary's literary remains for the press, he was wooing Harriet Lee, a severe lady novelist of orthodox views, who kept a school at Bath; after a long correspondence with Miss Lee and a very decided refusal from her, Godwin proposed to Mrs. Reveley, then recently widowed, to whom he addressed various passionate and didactic letters; but Mrs. Reveley married Mr. Gisborne and Godwin fell to the bold advances of Mrs. Clairmont, who made his acquaintance by exclaiming—"Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?"
They were married in 1801 and the second Mrs. Godwin survived her husband.
Jane Clairmont, "Clare," died in 1879.
The bibliography given after these notes shows the source of the bulk of the materials used in this study of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; it should be explained that, the form of a connected narrative having been adopted, some suppositions have been used where certainties were unprocurable, so as not to embarrass the story with pro and contra on small points.
It is not, for instance, positively known that Gilbert Imlay was a timber merchant, only assumed that he must have been, nor absolutely certain how Mary first attempted to destroy herself; such details make no difference to the characters or actions of the persons dealt with, and where these little puzzles or difficulties have arisen they have been dealt with by the adoption of the most likely solution.
The study is not, however, "a romantic biography;" every care has been taken to ensure an accuracy not seriously impaired by filling in the gaps where some minute particulars are missing from the records. On any doubtful point the interested reader may consult easily available authorities.
There is one episode in Mary Wollstonecraft's story the treatment of which requires explanation. Both John Knowles and William Godwin declare her to have felt a passion for Henry Fuseli that she honourably suppressed.
Her subsequent biographers, Mr. Kegan Paul and Mrs. Pennell, indignantly declare these statements to be false and that Mary had no more than a cool friendship for the painter.
Knowles was Fuseli's executor and had access to his papers, among which were found several of Mary's letters; Knowles quotes fragments of these and one—the last—in entirety. These certainly confirm his story; he was a witness of the friendship, as was Godwin, who relates it coolly as a thing well known. Mrs. Pennell and Mr. Kegan Paul have nothing to oppose to this contemporary evidence but their faith in the nobility of their heroine and the fact that she retained the friendship of Mrs. Fuseli.
The first argument is useless; Mary when she met Fuseli was restless, unhappy, looking for love, eager for self-surrender, as her subsequent easiness with Imlay shows, and the painter was very attractive to women; our knowledge of human nature and of Mary—her age, circumstances and temperament—all serve to confirm the truth of the story as given by Knowles and Godwin.
As to Mrs. Fuseli—Mary lived so short a while after this incident—was abroad for most of this time and deeply implicated with other men for the rest, that Sophia Fuseli may easily have been tolerant. She and Fuseli were both alive when Godwin wrote his account of the business and neither contradicted it. Mrs. Fuseli survived to see Knowles' book published and still made no protest; it is possible that she gave Mary's letters to Fuseli's executor.
After weighing the above considerations the present author decided to follow Knowles and Godwin rather than Mrs. Pennell and Mr. Kegan Paul.
There is one other small point; Godwin declares that, after her second attempt at suicide, Mary offered to live with Imlay and his new mistress. Mrs. Pennell dismisses this statement as quite incredible; to her Mary's frenzy of jealousy would have made such a proposal on her part impossible. To the present writer this is not so; a woman in the state in which Mary then was is capable of the wildest expedients to keep her lover, and the same despair that prompted the attempt at suicide might easily have prompted an even greater humiliation.
Besides, Godwin is scarcely likely to have invented such a story; he was probably relating something well known to Mary's circle.
For these reasons Godwin's statement has been used in the present narrative; the point of view of Mary Wollstonecraft's Victorian admirers is so lofty that it must be suspected of being a little in the clouds.
Life of the Author of "A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman."
William Godwin. London, 1798.
William Godwin, His Friends and
C. Kegan Paul. London. 2 vols. 1876.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell. London, 1885.
Ford K. Brown. London, 1926.
Osbert Burdett. London, 1926.
Diaries and Memoirs.
Mary Shelley. London, var. ed.
Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli.
John Knowles. London, 1831.
Articles in Dictionary of National Biography.
Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. 1787, London.
Letter to Edmund Burke. 1789, London.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792, London.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman (edited with an introduction by Millicent Fawcett). 1891, London.
History of the French Revolution, Vol 1. 1794, London.
Letters from Norway. 1796, London.
Posthumous Works. 4 vols. 1798, London.
THE last book—a collection of all the papers that William Godwin found among his wife's possessions—was by him edited; it contained the Letters to Imlay that M. Kegan Paul republished with a memoir of the writer: Letters to Imlay, edited C, Kegan Paid. 1879, London. This collection also contains the fragmentary novel—in parts no more than a draft—The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, that Mary Godwin was engaged upon shortly before her death. The other scraps so piously garnered by the devoted widower are of little value.
Save for the Letters to Imlay none of this material appears to have been ever reprinted; the early novel Mary was published, but every copy seems to have been lost.
All Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's works were published by her loyal friend, Joseph Johnson, who also printed her husband's biography. The publisher's imprint on the Posthumous Works reads: London, printed for J. Johnson, No. 72, St. Paul's Churchyard; and G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster Row, 1798.
The author is indebted to Mr. Osbert Burdett's William Blake for the quotations used from the works of that poet.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia