In 1795 the radical philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft journeyed to Scandinavia with her infant daughter in search of stolen treasure. In letters home she mused on diverse topics from the sublime scenery to the bloody turn the French Revolution had taken. Four months later she returned to London and put together this travelogue of her adventures — an extraordinary work full of impressions and reflections that demonstrate Wollstonecraft’s hallmark freedom of mind.
She had always admired the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the favourite philosopher of the leaders of the Revolution, but unlike Rousseau she believed that women should be properly educated, that they were entitled to the same political rights as men, and that they should articulate their points of view — as she brilliantly did in A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman (1792). “Let the practice of every duty” she wrote, “be subordinate to the grand one of improving our minds...”
In the same year that treatise was published she left London for Paris, where the Jacobin Terror was about to begin. Though she never lamented the passing of the monarchy, she was horrified at the savagery of the guillotine. Moving in a bohemian circle of radicals, she met Gilbert Imlay, a debonair American revolutionary soldier and commercial adventurer. By the summer of 1793 she was pregnant.
When Britain went to war with the Jacobin government, British nationals in France started getting locked up. To prevent this, Imlay registered her as his wife at the American embassy, then left on business. Sensing the relationship slipping away, she travelled to London to be with him. Imlay though did not want to invite her and their infant daughter into his life. Distraught, Wollstonecraft swallowed a suicidal dose of laudanum but survived.
A Norwegian captain had stolen some valuable silver cargo from one of Imlay’s ships. So, with great brazenness, Imlay asked Wollstonecraft to travel to Scandinavia, find out what had happened to the treasure, and seek compensation. She agreed — how much for love and how much for adventure is not known — and set off with her daughter and a maid. For the next four months, she bargained with officials, made risky sea voyages, absorbed sublime landscapes, fed wild strawberries to her daughter, and observed society through a critical eye: “The situation of the servants in every respect, particularly that of the women, shews how far the Swedes are from having a just conception of rational equality…”
When she returned to London she discovered that Imlay was living with a new woman, an actress. At this news she went to Putney Bridge and threw herself into the Thames. Two watermen dragged her unconscious from the river and found a doctor who managed to revive her. A few weeks later she retrieved the letters she had written to Imlay from Scandinavia and fused them with her journals to create Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). The book, which perhaps deserved a more exciting title, moved seamlessly from adventure story, to investigation of the self in nature, to reflection on the French Revolution:
An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alteration in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.
Contemporary readers enjoyed the descriptions of remote nature affecting a sensitive, perceptive mind. A young Robert Southey, the future poet laureate, wrote excitedly to his brother, “Have you ever met with Mary Wollstonecroft’s [sic] letters from Sweden and Norway? She has made me in love with a cold climate, and frost and snow, with a northern moonlight.” The book contains some wonderful descriptive passages. One is said to have been an inspiration for the sacred river in Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan". It depicts her impressions of a great waterfall outside Fredrikstad in Norway:
My soul was hurried by the falls into a new train of reflections. 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? Still the tumultuous emotions this sublime object excited, were pleasurable; and, viewing it, my soul rose, with renewed dignity, above its cares—grasping at immortality—it seemed as impossible to stop the current of my thoughts, as of the always varying, still the same, torrent before me—I stretched out my hand to eternity, bounding over the dark speck of life to come.
The radical English philosopher William Godwin decided: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” In London, Godwin and Wollstonecraft began a love affair. Within a year she was pregnant and, despite their notorious aversion to marriage, they decided to wed. “I think you the most extraordinary married pair in existence,” a friend commented. Wollstonecraft then gave birth to a daughter, the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818). She died shortly afterwards, aged thirty-eight.
May 30, 2018