From: Memoirs of Mary Wolstonecraft, Constable and Co. Limited. London 1928
In April 1795, Mary returned once more to London, being requested to do so by Mr. Imlay, who even sent a servant to Paris to wait upon her in the journey, before she could complete the necessary arrangements for her departure. But, notwithstanding these favourable appearances, she came to England with a heavy heart, not daring, after all the uncertainties and anguish she had endured, to trust to the suggestions of hope.
The gloomy forebodings of her mind, were but too faithfully verified. Mr. Imlay had already formed another connection; as it is said, with a young actress from a strolling company of players. His attentions therefore to Mary were formal and constrained, and she probably had but little of his society. This alteration could not escape her penetrating glance.1 He ascribed it to pressure of busi ness, and some pecuniary embarrassments which, at that time, pressed upon2 him; it was of little consequence to Mary what was the cause. She saw, but too well, though she strove not to see, that his affections were lost to her for ever.
It is impossible to imagine a period of greater pain and mortification than Mary passed, for about seven weeks, from the sixteenth of April to the sixth of June, in a furnished house that Mr. Imlay had provided for her. She had come over to England, a country for3 which she, at this time, expressed "a repugnance, that almost amounted to horror," in search of happiness. She feared that that happiness had altogether escaped her; but she was encouraged by the eagerness and impatience which Mr. Imlay at length seemed to manifest for her arrival. When she saw him, all her fears were confirmed. What a picture was she capable of forming to herself, of the overflowing kindness of a meeting, after an interval of so much anguish and apprehension! A thousand images of this sort were present to her burning imagination. It is in vain, on such occasions, for reserve and reproach to endeavour to curb in4 the emotions of an affectionate heart. But the hopes she nourished were speedily blasted. Her reception by Mr. Imlay was cold and embarrassed. Discussions ("explanations" they were called) followed; cruel explanations, that only added to the anguish of a heart already overwhelmed in grief! They had small pretensions indeed to explicitness; but they aufficiently told, that the case admitted not of remedy.
Mary was incapable of sustaining her equanimity in this pressing emergency. "Love, dear, delusive love!" as she expressed herself to a friend some time afterwards, "rigorous reason had forced her to resign; and now her rational prospects were blasted, just as she had learned to be contented with rational enjoyments." Thus situated life became an intolerable burthen. While she was absent from Mr. Imlay, she could talk of purposes of separation and independence. But, now that they were in the same house, she could not withhold herself from endeavours to revive their mutual cordiality; and unsuccessful endeavours continually added fuel to the fire that destroyed her. She formed a desperate purpose to die.
This part of the story of Mary is involved in considerable obscurity. I only know, that Mr. Imlay became acquainted with her purpose, at a moment when he was uncertain whether or no it were5 already executed, and that his feelings were roused by the intelligence. It was perhaps owing to his activity and representations, that her life, was, at this time, saved. She determined to continue to exist.6 Actuated by this purpose, she took a resolution, worthy both of the strength and affectionateness of her mind. Mr. Imlay was involved in a question of considerable difficulty, respecting a mercantile adventure in Norway. It seemed to require the presence of some very7 judicious agent, to conduct the business to its desired termination. Mary determined to make the voyage, and take the business into her own hands. Such a voyage seemed the most desireable thing8 to recruit her health, and, if possible, her spirits, in the present crisis. It was also gratifying to her feelings, to be employed in promoting the interest of a man, from whom she had experienced such severe unkindness, but to whom she ardently desired to be reconciled. The moment of desperation I have mentioned, occurred in the close of May, and, in about a week after, she set out upon this new expedition.
The narrative of this voyage is before the world, and perhaps a book of travels that so irresistably seizes on the heart, never, in any other instance, found its way from the press. The occasional harshness and ruggedness of character, that diversify her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, here totally disappear. If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration. Affliction had tempered her heart to a softness almost more than human; and the gentleness of her spirit seems precisely to accord with all the romance of unbounded attachment.9
Thus softened10 and improved, thus fraught with imagination and sensibility, with all, and more than all, "that youthful poets fancy, when they love,"11 she returned to England, and, if he had so pleased, to the arms of her lover.12 Her return was hastened by the ambiguity, to her apprehension, of Mr. Imlay's conduct. He had promised to meet her upon her return from Norway,13 probably at Hamburgh; and they were then to pass some time in Switzerland. The style however of his letters to her during her tour, was not such as to inspire confidence; and she wrote to him very urgently, to explain himself, relative to the footing upon which they were hereafter to stand to each other. In his answer, which reached her at Hamburgh, he treated her questions as "extraordinary and unnecessary," and desired her to be at the pains to decide for herself. Feeling herself unable to accept this as an explanation, she instantly determined to sail for London by the very first opportunity, that she might thus bring to a termination the suspense that preyed upon her soul.
It was not long after her arrival in London in the commencement of October, that she attained the certainty she sought. Mr. Imlay procured her a lodging. But the neglect she experienced from him after she entered it, flashed conviction upon her, in spite of his asseverations. She made further inquiries, and at length was informed by a servant, of the real state of the case. Under the immediate shock which the painful certainty gave her, her first impression was to repair to him at the ready-furnished house he had provided for his new mistress. [The characteristic of her mind upon all trying occasions, was energy; but it was a concentrated energy, active in resolution, and not the unresisting slave of feeling; disdaining to waste itself in the empty war of words; and never hurried into any thing incompatible with the elevation of her character.] What was the particular nature of their conference I am unable to relate. It is sufficient to say that the wretchedness of the night which succeeded this fatal discovery, impressed her with the feeling, that she would sooner suffer a thousand deaths, than pass another of equal misery.
The agony of her mind determined her; and that determination gave her a sort of14 desperate serenity. She resolved to plunge herself in the Thames; and, not being satisfied with any spot nearer to London, she took a boat, and rowed to Putney.15 Her first thought had led her to Battersea-bridge, but she found it too public, [and accordingly proceeded further up the river.] It was night when she arrived at Putney, and by that time it had begun to rain with great violence. The rain suggested to her the idea of walking up and down the bridge, till her clothes were thoroughly drenched and heavy with the wet, which she did for half an hour without meeting a human being. She then leaped16 from the top of the bridge, but still seemed to find a difficulty in sinking, which she endeavoured to counteract by pressing her clothes closely round her. After some time she became insensible; but she always spoke of the pain she underwent as such, that, though she could afterwards have determined upon almost any other species of voluntary death, it would have been impossible for her to resolve upon encountering the same sensations again. I am doubtful, whether this is to be ascribed to the mere nature of suffocation, or was not rather owing to the preternatural action of a desperate spirit.
[How strange is the condition of our nature! The whole scene of human life may at last be pronounced a delusion! Speculation for ever deceives us, and is the appropriate office of castle-builders; but the active concerns of life cheat us still more! Mary was in the first instance mistaken in the object of her attachment, imputing to him qualities which, in the trial, proved to be imaginary. By insensible degrees she proceeded to stake her life upon the consequences of her error: and, for the disappointment of this choice, for a consideration so foreign to the true end of her powers and cultivation, she was willing to consign those powers and that cultivation, pregnant as they were with pleasure to herself and gratification to others, formed to adorn society, and give a relish the most delicate and unrivalled to domestic life, as well as, through the medium of the press, to delight, instruct, and reform mankind - she was willing, I say, to consign all these to premature destruction! How often is the sagacity of our moral judgment reserved for the hour of meditation, and how little does it sometimes bestead us in the time of our greatest need!]
After having been for a considerable time insensible, Mary17 was recovered by the exertions of those by whom she was taken from the water.18 She had sought, with cool and deliberate firmness, to put a period to her existence, and yet she lived to have every prospect of a long possession of enjoyment and happiness. It is perhaps not an unfrequent case with suicides, that we find reason to suppose, if they had survived their gloomy purpose, that they would, at a subsequent period, have been considerably happy. It arises indeed, in some measure, out of the very nature of a spirit of self-destruction; which implies a degree of anguish, that the constitution of the human mind will not suffer to remain long undiminished. This is a serious reflection. Probably no man would destroy himself from an impatience of present pain, if he felt a moral certainty that there were years of enjoyment still in reserve for him. It is perhaps a futile attempt, to think of reasoning with a man in that state of mind which precedes suicide. Moral reasoning is nothing but the awakening of certain feelings; and the feelings by which he is actuated, is too strong to leave us much chance of impressing him with other feelings, that should have force enough to counter-balance it. But, if the prospect of future tranquillity and pleasure cannot be expected to have much weight with a man under an immediate purpose of suicide, it is so much the more to be wished, that men would impress their minds, in their sober moments, with a conception, which, being rendered habitual, seems to promise to act as a successful antidote in a paroxysm of desperation.
The present situation of Mary, of necessity produced some further intercourse between her and Mr. Imlay. He sent a physician to her; and Mrs. Christie, at his desire, prevailed on her to remove to her house in Finsbury square. In the mean time Mr. Imlay assured her that his present was merely a casual, sensual connection; and, of course, fostered in her mind the idea that it would be once more in her choice to live with him. With whatever intention the idea was suggested, it was certainly calculated to increase the agitation of her mind. In one respect however it produced an effect unlike that which might most obviously have been looked for. It roused within her the characteristic energy of mind, which she seemed partially to have forgotten. She saw the necessity of bringing the affair to a point, and not suffering months and years to roll on in uncertainty and suspence. This idea inspired her with an extraordinary resolution. The language she employed, was, in effect, as follows: "If we are ever to live together again, it must be now. We meet now, or we part for ever. You say, You cannot abruptly break off the connection you have formed. It is unworthy of my courage and character, to wait the uncertain issue of that connection. I am determined to come to a decision. I consent then, for the present, to live with you, and the woman to whom you have associated yourself. I think it important that you should learn habitually to feel for your child the affection of a father. But, if you reject this proposal, here we end. You are now free. We will correspond no more. We will have no inter course of any kind. I will be to you as a person that is dead."
The proposal she made, extraordinary and injudicious as it was, was at first accepted; and Mr. Imlay took her accordingly, to look at a house he was upon the point of hiring, that she might judge whether it was calculated to please her. Upon second thoughts however he retracted his concession.
In the following month, Mr. Imlay, and the woman with whom he was at present connected, went to Paris, where they remained three months. Mary had, previously to this, fixed herself in a lodging in Finsbury-place, where, for some time, she saw scarcely any one but Mrs. Christie, for the sake of whose neighbourhood she had chosen this situation; "existing," as she expressed it, "in a living tomb, and her life but an exercise of fortitude, continually on the stretch."
Thus circumstanced, it was unavoidable for her thoughts to brood upon a passion, which all that she had suffered had not yet been able to extinguish. Accordingly, as soon as Mr. Imlay returned to England, she could not restrain herself from making another effort, and desiring to see him once more. "During his absence, affection had led her to make numberless excuses for his conduct," and she probably wished to believe that his present connection was, as he represented it, purely of a casual nature. To this application, she observes, that "he returned no other answer, except declaring, with unjustifiable passion, that he would not see her."
This answer, though, at the moment, highly irritating to Mary, was not the ultimate end19 of the affair. Mr. Christie was connected in business with Mr. Imlay, at the same time that the house of Mr. Christie was the only one at which Mary habitually visited. The consequence of this was, that, when Mr. Imlay20 had been already more than a fortnight in town, Mary called at Mr. Christie's one evening, at a time when Mr. Imlay was in the parlour. The room was full of company. Mrs. Christie heard Mary's voice in the passage,21 and hastened to her, to intreat her not to make her appearance.22 Mary however was not to be controlled. She thought, as she afterwards told me, that it was not consistent with conscious rectitude, that she should shrink, as if abashed, from the presence of one by whom she deemed herself injured. Her child was with her. She entered; and, in a firm manner, immediately led up the child, now near two years of age, to the knees of its father. [While she sought relief for the anguish of her mind, the mother was still uppermost in her gestures and manner; and the appeal her action appeared to make, or rather the sentence it inforced, would, one would have thought, have proved irresistible.] Mr. Imlay23 retired with Mary into another apartment, and promised to dine with her at her lodging, I believe, the next day.
In the interview which took place in consequence of this appointment, he expressed himself to her in friendly terms, and in a manner calculated to sooth her despair. Though he could conduct himself,24 when absent from her, in a way which she censured as unfeeling; this species of sternness constantly expired when he came into her presence. Mary was prepared at this moment to catch at every phantom of happiness; and the gentleness of his carriage, was to her as a sun-beam, awakening the hope of returning day. For an instant she gave herself up to delusive visions; and, even after the period of delirium expired, she still dwelt, with an aching eye, upon the air-built and unsubstantial prospect of a reconciliation.
At his particular request, she retained the name of Imlay, which, a short time before, he had seemed to dispute with her. "It was not, "as she expresses herself in a letter to a friend," for the world that she did so--not in the least--but she was unwilling to cut the Gordian knot, or tear herself away in appearance, when she could not in reality."
The day after this interview, she set out upon a visit to the country, 25 where she spent nearly the whole of the month of March. It was, I believe, while she was upon this visit, that some epistolary communication with Mr. Imlay, induced her resolutely to expel from her mind, all remaining doubt as to the issue of the affair.
Mary was now aware that every demand of forbearance towards him, of duty to her child, and even of indulgence to her own deep-rooted predilection, was discharged. She determined to rouse herself, and cast off for ever an attachment, which to her had been a spring of inexhaustible bitterness. Her present residence among the scenes of nature, was favourable to this purpose. She was at the house of an old and intimate friend, a lady of the name of Cotton, whose partiality for her was strong and sincere. Mrs. Cotton's nearest neighbour was Sir William East, baronet; and, from the joint effect of the kindness of her friend, and the hospitable and distinguishing attentions of this respectable family, she derived considerable benefit.26 She had been amused and interested in her journey to Norway; but with this difference, that, at that time, her mind perpetually returned with trembling anxiety to conjectures respecting Mr. Imlay's future conduct, whereas now, with a lofty and undaunted spirit, she threw aside every thought that recurred to him, while she felt herself called upon to make one more effort for life and happiness.
Once after this, to my knowledge, she saw Mr. Imlay; probably, not long after her return to town. They met by accident upon the New Road; he alighted from his horse, and walked with her for some time; and the rencounter passed, as she assured me, without producing in her any oppressive emotion.
Be it observed, by the way, and I may be supposed best to have known the real state of the case, she never spoke of Mr. Imlay27 with acrimony, and was displeased when any person,28 in her hearing, expressed contempt of him. She was characterised by a strong sense of indignation; but her emotions of this sort, [however great might be the pro vocation that roused them,] were short-lived and in no long time subsided into a dignified sereneness and equanimity.
The question of her connection with Mr. Imlay,29 as we have seen, was not completely dismissed, till March 1796. But it is worthy to be observed, that she did not, like ordinary persons under extreme anguish of mind, suffer her understanding, in the mean time, to sink into littleness and debility. The most inapprehensive reader may conceive what was the mental torture she endured, when he considers, that she was twice, with an interval of four months, from the end of May to the beginning of October, prompted by it to purposes of suicide. Yet in this period she wrote her Letters from Norway. Shortly after its expiration she prepared them for the press, and they were published in the close of that year. In January 1796, she finished the sketch30 of a comedy, which turns, in the serious scenes, upon the incidents of her own story. It was offered to both the winter managers, and31 remained among her papers at the period of her decease; but it appeared to me to be in so crude and imperfect a state, that I judged it most respectful to her memory to commit it to the flames. To understand this extraordinary degree of activity, we must recollect however the entire solitude, in which most of her hours at that time were consumed.
1 penetrating glance del.
2 pressed upon] occurred to 1st ed.
3 for] to.
4 in del.
5 or DO it were] it was.
6 exist] live.
7 very] particularly.
8 the most desireable thing] well calculated.
9 Affliction had tempered . . . attachment del.
10 softened] awakened,
11 with all, and more . . . they love," del,
12 and, if he . . . lover. del.
13 return from Norway] journey home.
14 sort of del.
15 and, not being satisfied . . . rowed to Putney.] and took a boat for that purpose.
16 leaped] threw herself.
17 Mary] she Ist ed.
18 she was taken from the water.] the body was found. Ist ed.
19 end] close.
20 Mr. Imlay] he.
21 passage] hall.
22 intreat her not to make her appearance.] prevent her from entering.
23 Mr. Imlay] he Ist ed.
24 conduct himself.] act.
25 the country] Berkshire.
26 She was at the house . . . considerable benefit. del.
27 Mr. Imlay] this person.
28 person] one.
29 her connection with Mr. Imlay] their connection.
30 sketch] draught.
31 was offered to both the winter-managers, and del.
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