Wollstonecraft & Imlay

April 27: Mary Wollstonecraft was born on this day in 1759. Wollstonecraft's most popular book in her lifetime was not the groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796). As a travel narrative, Letters offers colorful snapshots of Wollstonecraft's summer trip, but the book also reflects her philosophical beliefs, her independent spirit, and the turmoil of her relationship to the shady American businessman-adventurer, Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft gave birth to Imlay's child in May, 1794; a year later, having discovered his infidelity, she attempted suicide; a month later she was on her way to Scandinavia on his behalf, trying to salvage one of his business ventures and soothe her spirits:

The pine and fir woods, left entirely to nature, display an endless variety; and the paths in the woods are not entangled with fallen leaves, which are only interesting whilst they are fluttering between life and death. …I cannot tell why—but death, under every form, appears to me like something getting free—to expand in I know not what element…. The impetuous dashing of the rebounding torrent from the dark cavities which mocked the exploring eye, produced an equal activity in my mind: my thoughts darted from earth to heaven, and I asked myself why I was chained to life and its misery?

Though emotionally revealing, these Letters for public consumption cannot match the raw power of the private letters she sent Imlay throughout her trip. Alternately strong and pleading but always forthright, Wollstonecraft begs Imlay to also speak plainly, and from the heart: "But, for God's sake! spare me the anxiety of uncertainty!–I may sink under the trial; but I will not complain."


Sink she almost did. Discovering more infidelity upon her return to London, Wollstonecraft now writes Imlay to give instructions for the care of their child, to wish that he may "never know by experience what you have made me endure," and to give notice that she "shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek." Pulled from the water by fishermen, she went back to single parenting and writing, and on to William Godwin. She died two years later, of complications from giving birth to the future Mary Shelley.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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