Read CHAPTER VII of Mary Wollstonecraft , free online book, by Elizabeth Robins Pennell, on ReadCentral.com.

VISIT TO PARIS.

1792-1793.

The “Vindication of the Rights of Women” made Mary still more generally known. Its fame spread far and wide, not only at home but abroad, where it was translated into German and French. Like Paine’s “Rights of Man,” or Malthus’ “Essay on the Theory of Population,” it advanced new doctrines which threatened to overturn existing social relations, and it consequently struck men with fear and wonder, and evoked more censure than praise. To-day, after many years’ agitation, the question of women’s rights still creates contention. The excitement caused by the first word in its favor may, therefore, be easily imagined. If one of the bondsmen helping to drag stones for the pyramids, or one of the many thousand slaves in Athens, had claimed independence, Egyptians or Greeks could not have been more surprised than Englishmen were at a woman’s assertion that, mentally, she was man’s equal. Some were disgusted with such a bold breaking of conventional chains; a few were startled into admiration. Much of the public amazement was due not only to the principles of the book, but to its warmth and earnestness. As Miss Thackeray says, the English authoresses of those days “kept their readers carefully at pen’s length, and seemed for the most part to be so conscious of their surprising achievement in the way of literature, as never to forget for a single minute that they were in print.” But here was a woman who wrote eloquently from her heart, who told people boldly what she thought upon subjects of which her sex, as a rule, pretended to know nothing, and who forgot herself in her interest in her work. It was natural that curiosity was felt as to what manner of being she was, and that curiosity changed into surprise when, instead of the virago expected, she was found to be, to use Godwin’s words, “lovely in her person, and, in the best and most engaging sense, feminine in her manners.” The fable was in this case reversed. It was the sheep who had appeared in wolf’s clothing.

In her own circle of friends and acquaintances she was lionized. Some of her readers were converted into enthusiasts. One of these a Mr. John Henry Colls a few years later addressed a poem to her. However, his admiration unfortunately did not teach him justly to appreciate its object, nor to write good poetry, and his verses have been deservedly forgotten. The reputation she had won by her answer to Burke was now firmly established. She was respected as an independent thinker and a bold dealer with social problems. The “Analytical Review” praised her in a long and leading criticism.

“The lesser wits,” her critic writes, “will probably affect to make themselves merry at the title and apparent object of this publication; but we have no doubt, if even her contemporaries should fail to do her justice, posterity will compensate the defect; and have no hesitation in declaring that if the bulk of the great truths which this publication contains were reduced to practice, the nation would be better, wiser, and happier than it is upon the wretched, trifling, useless, and absurd system of education which is now prevalent.”

But the conservative avoided her and her book as moral plagues. Many people would not even look at what she had written. Satisfied with the old-fashioned way of treating the subjects therein discussed, they would not run the risk of finding out that they were wrong. Their attitude in this respect was much the same as that of Cowper when he refused to read Paine’s “Rights of Man.” “No man,” he said, “shall convince me that I am improperly governed, while I feel the contrary.”

Women then, even the cleverest and most liberal, bowed to the decrees of custom with a submission as servile as that of the Hindu to the laws of caste. Like the latter, they were contented with their lot and had no desire to change it. They dreaded the increase of knowledge which would bring with it greater sorrow. Mrs. Barbauld, eloquent in her defence of men’s rights, could conceive no higher aim for women than the attainment of sufficient knowledge to make them agreeable companions to their husbands and brothers. Should there be any deviation from the methods of education which insured this end, they would, she feared, become like the Precieuses or Femmes Savantes of Moliere. Marys vigorous appeal for improvement could, therefore, have no meaning for her. Hannah More, enthusiastic in her denunciations of slavery, but unconscious that her liberty was in the least restricted, did not hesitate to form an opinion of the Rights of Women without examining it, thus necessarily missing its true significance. In this she doubtless represented a large majority of her sex. She wrote to Horace Walpole in 1793:

I have been much pestered to read the Rights of Women, but am invincibly resolved not to do it. Of all jargon, I hate metaphysical jargon; beside, there is something fantastic and absurd in the very title. How many ways there are of being ridiculous! I am sure I have as much liberty as I can make a good use of, now I am an old maid; and when I was a young one I had, I dare say, more than was good for me. If I were still young, perhaps I should not make this confession; but so many women are fond of government, I suppose, because they are not fit for it. To be unstable and capricious, I really think, is but too characteristic of our sex; and there is, perhaps, no animal so much indebted to subordination for its good behavior as woman. I have soberly and uniformly maintained this doctrine ever since I have been capable of observation, and I used horridly to provoke some of my female friends maîtresses femmes by it, especially such heroic spirits as poor Mrs. Walsingham.”

Men, on the other hand, thought Mary was unsexing herself by her arguments, which seemed to interfere with their rights, an interference they could not brook. To the Tories the fact that she sympathized with the Reformers was enough to damn her. Walpole, when he answered the letter from which the above extract is taken, wrote with warmth:

“... It is better to thank Providence for the tranquillity and happiness we enjoy in this country, in spite of the philosophizing serpents we have in our bosom, the Paines, the Tookes, and the Wollstonecrafts. I am glad you have not read the tract of the last-mentioned writer. I would not look at it, though assured it contains neither metaphysics nor politics; but as she entered the lists of the latter, and borrowed her title from the demon’s book which aimed at spreading the wrongs of men, she is excommunicated from the pale of my library. We have had enough of new systems, and the world a great deal too much already.”

Walpole may be accepted as the typical Tory, and to all his party Mary probably appeared as the philosophizing serpent. She seems always to have incurred his deepest scorn and wrath. He could not speak of her without calling her names. A year or two later, when she had published her book on the French Revolution, writing again to Hannah More, he thus concludes his letter:

“Adieu, thou excellent woman! thou reverse of that hyena in petticoats, Mrs. Wollstonecraft, who to this day discharges her ink and gall on Marie Antoinette, whose unparalleled sufferings have not yet stanched that Alecto’s blazing ferocity.”

There was at least one man in London whose opinion was worth having who, it is known, treated the book with indifference, and he, by a strange caprice of fate, was William Godwin. It was at this time, when she was in the fulness of her fame, that Mary first met him. She was dining at Johnson’s with Paine and Shovet, and Godwin had come purposely to meet the American philosopher and to hear him talk. But Paine was at best a silent man; and Mary, it seems, monopolized the conversation. Godwin was disappointed, and consequently the impression she made upon him was not pleasing. He afterwards wrote an account of this first meeting, which is interesting because of the closer relationship to which an acquaintance so unpropitiously begun was to lead.

“The interview was not fortunate,” he says. “Mary and myself parted mutually displeased with each other. I had not read her ’Rights of Women.’ I had barely looked into her answer to Burke, and been displeased, as literary men are apt to be, with a few offences against grammar and other minute points of composition. I had therefore little curiosity to see Mrs. Wollstonecraft, and a very great curiosity to see Thomas Paine. Paine, in his general habits, is no great talker; and, though he threw in occasionally some shrewd and striking remarks, the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence, heard her very frequently when I wished to hear Paine.

“We touched on a considerable variety of topics and particularly on the character and habits of certain eminent men. Mary, as has already been observed, had acquired, in a very blamable degree, the practice of seeing everything on the gloomy side, and bestowing censure with a plentiful hand, where circumstances were in any degree doubtful. I, on the contrary, had a strong propensity to favorable construction, and, particularly where I found unequivocal marks of genius, strongly to incline to the supposition of generous and manly virtue. We ventilated in this way the character of Voltaire and others, who have obtained from some individuals an ardent admiration, while the greater number have treated them with extreme moral severity. Mary was at last provoked to tell me that praise, lavished in the way that I lavished it, could do no credit either to the commended or the commender. We discussed some questions on the subject of religion, in which her opinions approached much nearer to the received ones than mine. As the conversation proceeded, I became dissatisfied with the tone of my own share in it. We touched upon all topics without treating forcibly and connectedly upon any. Meanwhile, I did her the justice, in giving an account of the conversation to a party in which I supped, though I was not sparing of my blame, to yield her the praise of a person of active and independent thinking. On her side, she did me no part of what perhaps I considered as justice.

“We met two or three times in the course of the following year, but
made a very small degree of progress towards a cordial
acquaintance.”

Not until Mary had lived through the tragedy of her life were they destined to become more to each other than mere fellow mortals. There was much to be learned, and much to be forgotten, before the time came for her to give herself into his keeping.

Her family were naturally interested in her book from personal motives; but Eliza and Everina heartily disapproved of it, and their feelings for their eldest sister became, from this period, less and less friendly. However, as Kegan Paul says, their small spite points to envy and jealousy rather than to honest indignation.

Both were now in good situations. Mary felt free, therefore, to consider her own comforts a little. Besides, she had attained a position which it became her to sustain with dignity. She was now known as Mrs. Wollstonecraft, and was a prominent figure in the literary world. Shortly after the publication of the Rights of Women she moved from the modest lodgings on George Street, to larger, finer rooms on Store Street, Bedford Square, and these she furnished comfortably. Necessity was no longer her only standard. She also gave more care to her dress. Her stern apprenticeship was over. She had so successfully trampled upon the thorns in her path that she could pause to enjoy the flowers. To modern readers her new furniture and gowns are welcome signs of the awakening of the springtime in her cold and wintry life. But her sisters resented them, particularly because, while they, needing less, received less from her bounty, Charles, waiting for a good opening in America, was living at her expense. He, with thoughtless ingratitude, sent them semi-satirical accounts of her new mode of living, and thus unconsciously kindled their jealousy into a fierce flame. When the extent of Marys kindness and self-sacrifice in their regard is remembered, the petty ill-nature of brother and sisters, as expressed in the following letter from Mrs. Bishop to Everina, is unpardonable:

UPTON CASTLE, July 3, 1792.

... He [Charles] informs me too that Mrs. Wollstonecraft is grown quite handsome; he adds likewise that, being conscious she is on the wrong side of thirty, she now endeavors to set off those charms she once despised, to the best advantage. This, entre nous, for he is delighted with her affection and kindness to him.

So the author of “The Rights of Women” is going to France! I dare say her chief motive is to promote poor Bess’s comfort, or thine, my girl, or at least I think she will so 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 (for 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, and leave not a wrack behind.”

And you actually have the vanity to imagine that in the National Assembly, personages like M. and F.[useli] will bestow a thought on two females whom nature meant to “suckle fools and chronicle small beer.”

But a few days before Mary had written to Everina to discuss with her a matter relative to Mrs. Bishops prospects. This letter explains the allusions of the latter to Marys proposed trip to France, and shows how little reason she had for her ill-natured conclusions:

LONDON, June 20, 1792.

... 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, for I am not, as you may suppose, very flush of money, and Charles is wearing out the clothes which were provided for his voyage. Still, I am glad he has acquired a little practical knowledge of farming....

The French trip was, however, put off until the following December; and when the time came for her departure, neither Mr. Johnson nor the Fuselis accompanied her. Since the disaffection of the latter has been construed in a way which reflects upon her character, it is necessary to pause here to consider the nature of the friendship which existed between them. The slightest shadow unfairly cast upon her reputation must be dissipated.

Mary valued Fuseli as one of her dearest friends. He, like her, was an enthusiast. He was a warm partisan of justice and a rebel against established institutions. He would take any steps to see that the rights of the individual were respected. His interference in a case where men in subordinate positions were defrauded by those in authority, but which did not affect him personally, was the cause of his being compelled to leave Zurich, his home, and thus eventually of his coming to England. Besides their unity of thought and feeling, their work often lay in the same direction. Fuseli, as well as Mary, translated for Johnson, and contributed to the “Analytical Review.” He was an intimate friend of Lavater, whose work on Physiognomy Mary had translated with the liveliest interest. There was thus a strong bond of sympathy between them, and many ways in which they could help and consult with each other in their literary tasks. Mary was devoid of the coquetry which is so strong with some women that they carry it even into their friendships. She never attempted to conceal her liking for Fuseli. His sex was no drawback. Why should it be? It had not interfered with her warm feelings for George Blood and Mr. Johnson. She was the last person in the world to be deterred from what she thought was right for the sake of appearances.

However, another construction was given to her friendly demonstrations. The story told both by Knowles, the biographer of Fuseli, and by Godwin, is that Mary was in love with the artist; and that the necessity of suppressing, even if she could not destroy, her passion hopeless since its object was a married man was the immediate reason of her going to France alone. But they interpret the circumstances very differently. The incidents, as given by Godwin, are in nowise to Marys discredit, though his account of them was later twisted and distorted by Dr. Beloe in his Sexagenarian. The latter, however, is so prejudiced a writer that his words have but little value. Godwin, in his Memoirs, after demonstrating the strength of the intimacy between Mary and Fuseli, says:

“Notwithstanding the inequality of their years, Mary was not of a temper to live upon terms of so much intimacy with a man of merit and genius without loving him. The delight she enjoyed in his society, she transferred by association to his person. What she experienced in this respect was no doubt heightened by the state of celibacy and restraint in which she had hitherto lived, and to which the rules of polished society condemn an unmarried woman. She conceived a personal and ardent affection for him. Mr. Fuseli was a married man, and his wife the acquaintance of Mary. She readily perceived the restrictions which this circumstance seemed to impose upon her; but she made light of any difficulty that might arise out of them. Not that she was insensible to the value of domestic endearments between persons of an opposite sex, but that she scorned to suppose that she could feel a struggle in conforming to the laws she should lay down to her conduct.

“... There is no reason to doubt that if Mr. Fuseli had been
disengaged at the period of their acquaintance, he would have been
the man of her choice.

“... One of her principal inducements to this step, [her visit to France] related, I believe, to Mr. Fuseli. She had at first considered it as reasonable and judicious to cultivate what I may be permitted to call a platonic affection for him; but she did not, in the sequel, find all the satisfaction in this plan which she had originally expected from it. It was in vain that she enjoyed much pleasure in his society, and that she enjoyed it frequently. Her ardent imagination was continually conjuring up pictures of the happiness she should have found if fortune had favored their more intimate union. She felt herself formed for domestic affection, and all those tender charities which men of sensibility have constantly treated as the dearest bond of human society. General conversation and society could not satisfy her. She felt herself alone, as it were, in the great mass of her species, and she repined when she reflected that the best years of her life were spent in this comfortless solitude. These ideas made the cordial intercourse of Mr. Fuseli, which had at first been one of her greatest pleasures, a source of perpetual torment to her. She conceived it necessary to snap the chain of this association in her mind; and, for that purpose, determined to seek a new climate, and mingle in different scenes.”

Knowles, on the other hand, represents her as importunate with her love as a Phaedra, as consumed with passion as a Faustina. He states as a fact that it was for Fuseli’s sake that she changed her mode of life and adopted a new elegance in dress and manners. He declares that when the latter made no return to her advances, she pursued him so persistently that on receiving her letters, he thrust them unopened out of sight, so sure was he that they contained nothing but protestations of regard and complaints of neglect; that, finally, she became so ill and miserable and unfitted for work that, despite Fuseli’s arguments against such a step, she went boldly to Mrs. Fuseli and asked to be admitted into her house as a member of the family, declaring that she could not live without daily seeing the man she loved; and that, thereupon, Mrs. Fuseli grew righteously wrathful and forbade her ever to cross her threshold again. He furthermore affirms that she considered her love for Fuseli strictly within the bounds of modesty and reason, that she encouraged it without scruple, and that she made every effort to win his heart. These proving futile, he concludes: “No resource was now left for Mrs. Wollstonecraft but to fly from the object which she regarded; her determination was instantly fixed; she wrote a letter to Fuseli, in which she begged pardon ‘for having disturbed the quiet tenor of his life,’ and on the 8th of December left London for France.”

An anonymous writer who in 1803 published a “Defence of the Character of the Late Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin,” repeats the story, but a little more kindly, declaring that Mary’s discovery of an unconsciously nurtured passion for a married man, and her determination to flee temptation, were the cause of her leaving England. That there was during her life-time some idle gossip about her relations to Fuseli is shown in the references to it in Eliza’s ill-natured letter. This counts for little, however. It was simply impossible for the woman who had written in defiance of social laws and restrictions, to escape having scandals attached to her name.

Kegan Paul, Marys able defender of modern times, denies the whole story. He writes in his Prefatory Memoir to her Letters to Imlay:

“... Godwin knew extremely little of his wife’s earlier life, nor was this a subject on which he had sought enlightenment from herself. I can only here say that I fail to find any confirmation whatever of this preposterous story, as told in Knowles’s ’Life of Fuseli,’ or in any other form, while I find much which makes directly against it, the strongest fact being that Mary remained to the end the correspondent and close friend of Mrs. Fuseli.”

Her character is the best refutation of Knowles’s charges. She was too proud to demean herself to any man. She was too sensitive to slights to risk the repulses he says she accepted. And since always before and after this period she had nothing more at heart than the happiness of others, it is not likely that she would have deliberately tried to step in between Fuseli and his wife, and gain at the latter’s expense her own ends. She could not have changed her character in a day. She never played fast and loose with her principles. These were in many ways contrary to the standard of the rest of mankind, but they were also equally opposed to the conduct imputed to her. The testimony of her actions is her acquittal. That she did not for a year produce any work of importance is no argument against her. It was only after three years of uninterrupted industry that she found time to write the “Rights of Women.” On account of the urgency of her every-day needs, she had no leisure for work whose financial success was uncertain. Knowles’s story is too absurdly out of keeping with her character to be believed for a moment.

The other version of this affair is not so inconceivable. That her affection may in the end have developed into a warmer feeling, and that she would have married Fuseli had he been free, is just possible. Allusions in her first letters to Imlay to a late “hapless love,” and to trouble, seem to confirm Godwin’s statement. But it is quite as likely that Fuseli, whose heart was, as his biographer admits, very susceptible, felt for her a passion which as a married man he had no right to give, and that she fled to France for his sake rather than for her own. In either of these cases, she would deserve admiration and respect. But the insufficiency of evidence reduces everything except the fact of her friendship for him to mere surmise.

However this may have been, it is certain that Mr. Johnson and the Fuselis decided to remain at home when Mary in December started for Paris.

The excitement in the French capital was then at fever heat. But the outside world hardly comprehended how serious the troubles were. Princes and their adherents trembled at the blow given to royalty in the person of Louis XVI. Liberals rejoiced at the successful revolt against monarchical tyranny. But neither one party nor the other for a moment foresaw what a terrible weapon reform was to become in the hands of the excitable French people. If, in the city where the tragedy was being enacted, the customary baking and brewing, the promenading under the trees, and the dog-dancing and the shoe-blacking on the Pont-Neuf could still continue, it is not strange that those who watched it from afar mistook its real weight.

The terrible night of the 10th of August had come and gone. The September massacres, the details of which had not yet reached England, were over. The Girondists were in the ascendency and had restored order. There were fierce contentions in the National Convention, but, on the whole, its attitude was one to inspire confidence. The English, who saw in the arrest of the king, and in the popular feeling against him, just such a crisis as their nation had passed through once or twice, were not deterred from visiting the country by its unsettled state. The French prejudice against England, it is true, was strong. Lafayette had some time before publicly expressed his belief that she was secretly conspiring against the peace of France. But his imputation had been vigorously denied, and nominally the two governments were friendly. English citizens had no reason to suppose they would not be safe in Paris, and those among them whose opinions brought them en rapport with the French Republicans felt doubly secure. Consequently Mary’s departure for that capital, alone and unprotected, did not seem so hazardous then as it does now that the true condition of affairs is better understood.

She knew in Paris a Madame Filiettaz, daughter of the Madame Bregantz at whose school in Putney Eliza and Everina had been teachers, and to her house she went, by invitation. Monsieur and Madame Filiettaz were absent, and she was for some little time its sole occupant save the servants. The object of her visit was twofold. She wished to study French, for though she could read and translate this language fluently, from want of practice she could neither speak nor understand it when it was spoken; and she also desired to watch for herself the development of the cause of freedom. Their love of liberty had made the French, as a nation, peculiarly attractive to her. She had long since openly avowed her sympathy by her indignant reply to Burke’s outcry against them. It was now a great satisfaction to be where she could follow day by day the progress of their struggle. She had excellent opportunities not only to see what was on the surface of society, which is all visitors to a strange land can usually do, but to study the actual forces at work in the movement. Thomas Paine was then in Paris. He was a member of the National Convention, and was on terms of intimacy with Condorcet, Brissot, Madame Roland, and other Republican leaders. Mary had known him well in London. She now renewed the acquaintance, and was always welcomed to his house near the Rue de Richelieu. Later, when, worn out by his numerous visitors, he retired to the Faubourg St. Denis, to a hotel where Madame de Pompadour had once lived, and allowed it to be generally believed that he had gone into the country for his health, Mary was one of the few favored friends who knew of his whereabouts. She thus, through him, was brought into close contact with the leading spirits of the day. She also saw much of Helen Maria Williams, the poetess, already notorious for her extreme liberalism, and who had numerous friends and acquaintances among the Revolutionary party in Paris. Mrs. Christie was still another friend of this period. Her husband’s business having kept them in France, they had become thoroughly nationalized. At their house many Americans congregated, among others a Captain Gilbert Imlay, of whom more hereafter. In addition to these English friends, Mary had letters of introduction to several prominent French citizens.

She arrived in Paris just before Louis XVI.’s trial. The city was comparatively quiet, but there was in the air an oppression which betokened the coming storm. She felt the people’s suspense as if she too had been personally interested. Between her studies and her efforts to obtain the proper clew by which she could in her own mind reduce the present political chaos to order, she found more than enough wherewith to fill her days. As always happened with her, the mental strain reacted upon her physical health, and her old enemies, depression of spirits and headaches, returned to harass her.

She wrote to Everina on the 24th of December:

To-morrow I expect to see Aline [Madame Filiettaz]. During her absence the servants endeavored 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 labor so continually to understand what I hear, that I never go to bed without a headache, and my spirits are fatigued with endeavoring 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 upon 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. Of the French I will not speak till I know more of them. They seem the people of all others for a stranger to come amongst, yet sometimes when I have given a commission, which was eagerly asked for, it has not been executed, and when I ask for an explanation, I allude to the servant-maid, a quick girl, who, an’t please you, has been a teacher in an English boarding-school, dust is thrown up with a self-sufficient air, and I am obliged to appear to see her meaning clearly, though she puzzles herself, that I may not make her feel her ignorance; but you must have experienced the same thing. I will write to you soon again. Meantime, let me hear from you, and believe me yours sincerely and affectionately,

M. W.

When the dreaded 26th came, there was no one in Paris more excited and interested than Mary. From her window she saw the King as, seemingly forgetting the history he was making for future historians to discuss, he rode by with calm dignity to his trial. Throughout the entire day she waited anxiously, uncertain as to what would be the effects of the morning’s proceedings. Then, when evening came, and all continued quiet and the danger was over, she grew nervous and fearful, as she had that other memorable night when she kept her vigil in the little room at Hackney. She was absolutely alone with her thoughts, and it was a relief to write to Mr. Johnson. It gave her a sense of companionship. This “hyena in petticoats,” this “philosophizing serpent,” was at heart as feminine as Hannah More or any other “excellent woman.”

PARIS, De, 1792.

I should immediately on the receipt of your letter, my dear friend, have thanked you for your punctuality, for it highly gratified me, had I not wished to wait till I could tell you that this day was not stained with blood. Indeed, the prudent precautions taken by the National Convention to prevent a tumult made me suppose that the dogs of faction would not dare to bark, much less to bite, however true to their scent; and I was not mistaken; for 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 drum 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 behavior, so perfectly in unison with my own feelings. I can scarcely tell you why, but an association of ideas made the tears flow insensibly 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 most flattering to his pride, only to see the sunshine of prosperity overshadowed by the sublime gloom of misery. 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.

M. W.

These imaginary terrors gave way to real ones soon enough. The execution of Louis was followed by the declaration of war between France and England and the complete demoralization of the French people, especially of the Parisians. The feeling against England grew daily more bitter, and the position of English residents in Paris more precarious. It was next to impossible for them to send letters home, and therefore their danger was not realized by their countrymen on the other side of the Channel. Mrs. Bishop, in the faraway Welsh castle, grew impatient at Mary’s silence. Politics was a subject dear to her heart, but one tabooed at Upton. At her first word upon the topic the family, her employers, left the room, and she was consequently obliged to ignore it when she was with them. But when, some months later on, two or three French refugees came to Pembroke, she was quick to go to them, ostensibly for French lessons, but in reality to hear their accounts of the scenes through which they had passed. Forced to live in quiet, remote places, she longed for the excitement only to be had in the large centres of action, and at one time, in her discontent, began to make plans to join her sister in France. While Eliza was thus contemplating a journey to Paris, Mary was wondering how it would be possible either to continue living there or to leave the country. It was equally out of the question to obtain fresh supplies of money from England or a passport to carry her safely back. She had, when she left London, only intended to be absent for a few weeks, and had not even given up her rooms in George Street. But the weeks had lengthened into months, and now her return was an impossibility.

For motives of economy she left the large Filiettaz mansion. At first she thought of making a trip to Switzerland, but this plan had to be abandoned because of the difficulty in procuring a passport. She therefore went to Neuilly, where, her ready money wellnigh exhausted, she lived as simply as she could. Economy was doubly necessary at a time when heavy taxes were sending a hungry multitude into the streets, clamoring for bread. She was now more alone than ever. Her sole attendant was an old man, a gardener. He became her warm friend, succumbing completely to her power of attraction. With the gallantry of his race he could not do enough for Madame. He waited upon her with unremitting attention; he even disputed for the honor of making her bed. He served up at her table, unasked, the grapes from his garden which he absolutely refused to give to her guests. He objected to her English independence; her lonely walks through the woods of Neuilly met with his serious disapproval, and he besought her to allow him the privilege of accompanying her, painting in awful colors the robbers and other dangers with which the place abounded. But Mary persisted in going alone; and when, evening after evening, she returned unharmed, it must have seemed to him as if she bore a charmed life. Such incidents as these show, better than volumes of praise, the true kindliness of her nature which was not influenced by distinctions of rank.

Those who knew her but by name, however, dealt with her in less gentle fashion. Her fame had been carried even into Pembroke; and while she was living her solitary and inoffensive life in Paris, Mrs. Bishop was writing to Everina: “The conversation [at Upton Castle] turns on Murphy, on Irish potatoes, or Tommy Paine, whose effigy they burnt at Pembroke the other day. Nay, they talk of immortalizing Miss Wollstonecraft in like manner, but all end in damning all politics: What good will they do men? and what rights have men that three meals a day will not supply?” After all, perhaps they were wise, these Welshmen. Were not their brethren in France purchasing their rights literally at the price of their three meals a day?

Sometimes, perhaps to please her friend, the gardener, instead of her rambles through the woods, Mary walked towards and even into Paris, and then she saw sights which made Pembroke logic seem true wisdom, and freedom a farce. Once, in so doing, she passed by chance a place of execution, just at the close of one of its too frequent tragic scenes. The blood was still fresh upon the pavement; the crowd of lookers-on not yet dispersed. She heard them as they stood there rehearsing the day’s horror, and she chafed against the cruelty and inhumanity of the deed. In a moment her French so improved that she could make herself understood she was telling the people near her something of what she thought of their new tyrants. Those were dangerous times for freedom of speech. So far the champions of liberty had proved themselves more inexorable masters than the Bourbons. Some of the bystanders, who, though they dared not speak their minds, sympathized with Mary’s indignation, warned her of her danger and hurried her away from the spot. Horror at the ferocity of men’s passions, wrath at injustices committed in the name of freedom, and impatience at her own helplessness to right the evils by which she was surrounded, no doubt inspired her, as saddened and sobered she walked back alone to Neuilly.

During all this time she continued her literary work. She proposed to write a series of letters upon the present character of the French nation, and with this end in view she silently studied the people and the course of political action. She was quick and observant, and nothing escaped her notice. She came to Paris prepared to continue a firm partisan of the French Revolution; but she could not be blind to the national defects. She saw the frivolity and sensuality of the people, their hunger for all things sweet, and the unrestrained passions of the greater number of the Republican leaders, which made them love liberty more than law itself. She valued their cause, but she despised the means by which they sought to gain it. Thus, in laboring to grasp the meaning of the movement, not as it appeared to petty factions, but as it was as a whole, she was confronted by the greatest of all mysteries, the relation of good and evil. Again, as when she had analyzed the rights of women, she recognized evil to be a power which eventually works for righteousness, thereby proving the clearness of her mental vision. Only one of these letters, however, was written and published. It is dated Fe, 1793, so that the opinions therein expressed were not hastily formed. As its style is that of a familiar letter, and as it gives a good idea of the thoroughness with which she had applied herself to her task, it may appropriately be quoted here.

“... The whole mode of life here,” she writes, “tends indeed to render the people frivolous, and, to borrow their favorite epithet, amiable. Ever on the wing, they are always sipping the sparkling joy on the brim of the cup, leaving satiety in the bottom for those who venture to drink deep. On all sides they trip along, buoyed up by animal spirits, and seemingly so void of care that often, when I am walking on the Boulevards, it occurs to me that they alone understand the full import of the term leisure; and they trifle their time away with such an air of contentment, I know not how to wish them wiser at the expense of gayety. They play before me like motes in a sunbeam, enjoying the passing ray; whilst an English head, searching for more solid happiness, loses in the analysis of pleasure the volatile sweets of the moment. Their chief enjoyment, it is true, rises from vanity; but it is not the vanity that engenders vexation of spirit: on the contrary, it lightens the heavy burden of life, which reason too often weighs, merely to shift from one shoulder to the other....

“I would 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 hear the account of the barbarities that have rent the bosom of France patiently, and bless the firm hand that lopt off the rotten limbs. But if the aristocracy of birth is levelled with the ground, only to make room for that of riches, I am afraid that the morals of the people will not be much improved by the change, or the government rendered less venial. Still it is not just to dwell on the misery produced by the present struggle without adverting to the standing evils of the old system. I am grieved, sorely grieved, when I think of the blood that has stained the cause of freedom at Paris; but I also hear the same live stream cry aloud from the highways through which the retreating armies passed with famine and death in their rear, and I hide my face with awe before the inscrutable ways of Providence, sweeping in such various directions the besom of destruction over the sons of men.

“Before I came to France, I cherished, you know, an opinion that strong virtues might exist with the polished manners produced by the progress of civilization; and I even anticipated the epoch, when, in the course of improvement, men would labor to become virtuous, without being goaded on by misery. But now 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, and in the same proportion useless....

“You may think it too soon to form an opinion of the future government, yet it is impossible to avoid hazarding some conjectures, when everything whispers me that names, not principles, are changed, and when I see that the turn of the tide has left the dregs of the old system to corrupt the new. For the same pride of office, the same desire of power, are still visible; with this aggravation, that, fearing to return to obscurity after having but just acquired a relish for distinction, each hero or philosopher, for all are dubbed with these new titles, endeavors to make hay while the sun shines; and every petty municipal officer, become the idol, or rather the tyrant of the day, stalks like a cock on a dunghill.”

The letters were discontinued, probably because Mary thought letter-writing too easy and familiar a style in which to treat so weighty a subject. She only gave up the one work, however, to undertake another still more ambitious. At Neuilly she began, and wrote almost all that was ever finished, of her “Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution.”

While she was thus living the quiet life of a student in the midst of excitement, her own affairs, as well as those of France, were hastening to a crisis.