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RETROSPECTIVE.

1794-1796.

Marys torture of suspense was now over. The reaction from it would probably have been serious, if she had not had the distraction of work. Activity was, as it had often been before, the tonic which restored her to comparative health. She had no money, and Fanny, despite Imlays promises, was entirely dependent upon her. Her exertions to maintain herself and her child obliged her to stifle at least the expression of misery. One of her last outbursts of grief found utterance in a letter to Mr. Archibald Hamilton Rowan, who in France had been the witness of her happiness. Shortly after her final farewell to Imlay, she wrote to this friend:

LONDON, Ja, 1796.

MY DEAR SIR, Though I have not heard from you, I should have written to you, convinced of your friendship, could I have told you anything of myself that could have afforded you pleasure. I am unhappy. I have been treated with unkindness, and even cruelty, 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 leaned has pierced mine to the quick. I have not been used well, and live but for my child; for 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 would be glad to supply all my pecuniary wants; but unless he returns to himself, I would 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. I will not fail, I was going to say, when I have anything good to tell you. But for me there is nothing good in store. My heart is broken! I am yours, etc.,

MARY IMLAY.

Outwardly she became much calmer. She resumed her old tasks; Mr. Johnson now, as ever, practically befriending her by providing her with work. She had nothing so much at heart as her child’s interests, and these seemed to demand her abjuration of solitude and her return to social life. Her existence externally was, save for the presence of Fanny, exactly the same as it had been before her departure for France. Another minor change was that she was now known as Mrs. Imlay. Imlay had asked her to retain his name; and to prevent the awkwardness and misunderstandings that otherwise would have arisen, she consented to do so.

During this period she had held but little communication with her family. The coolness between her sisters and herself had, from no fault of hers, developed into positive anger. Their ill-will, which had begun some years previous, had been stimulated by her comparative silence during her residence abroad. She had really written to them often, but it was impossible at that time for letters not to miscarry. Those which she sent by private opportunities reached them, and they contain proofs of her unremitting and affectionate solicitude for them. Always accustomed to help them out of difficulties, she worried over what she heard of their circumstances, and while her hands were, so to speak, tied, she made plans to contribute to their future comforts. These letters were not given in the order of their date, that they might not interrupt the narrative of the Imlay episode. They may more appropriately be quoted here. The following was written to Everina about a month before Fannys birth:

HAVRE, March 10, 1794.

MY DEAR GIRL, It is extremely uncomfortable to write to you thus without expecting, or even daring to ask for an answer, lest I should involve others in my difficulties, and make them suffer for protecting me. The French are at present so full of suspicion that had a letter of James’s, imprudently sent to me, been opened, I would not have answered for the consequence. I have just sent off a great part of my manuscripts, which Miss Williams would fain have had me burn, following her example; and to tell you the truth, my life would not have been worth much had they been found. It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have witnessed have left on my mind. The climate of France is uncommonly fine, the country pleasant, and there is a degree of ease and even simplicity in the manners of the common people which attaches me to them. Still death and misery, in every shape of terror, haunt this devoted country. I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded, and I have met with some uncommon instances of friendship, which my heart will ever gratefully store up, and call to mind when the remembrance is keen of the anguish it has endured for its fellow-creatures at large, for the unfortunate beings cut off around me, and the still more unfortunate survivors. If any of the many letters I have written have come to your hands or Eliza’s, you know that I am safe, through the protection of an American, a most worthy man, who joins to uncommon tenderness of heart and 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. I am with him now at Havre, and shall remain there till circumstances point out what is necessary for me to do. Before I left Paris, I attempted to find the Laurents, whom I had several times previously sought for, but to no purpose. And I am apt to think that it was very prudent in them to leave a shop that had been the resort of the nobility.

Where is poor Eliza? From a letter I received many, many months after it was written, I suppose she is in Ireland. Will you write to tell her that I most affectionately remember her, and still have in my mind some places for her future comfort. Are you well? But why do I ask? you cannot reply to me. This thought throws a damp on my spirits whilst I write, and makes my letter rather an act of duty than a present satisfaction. God bless you! I will write by every opportunity, and am yours sincerely and affectionately,

MARY.

Another written from Paris, before Imlay had shown himself in his true colors, is full of kindness, containing a suggestion that Everina should join her in the spring:

PARIS, September, 1794.

As you must, my dear girl, have received several letters from me, especially one I sent to London by Mr. Imlay, I avail myself of this opportunity just to tell you that I am well and my child, and to request you to write by this occasion. I do, indeed, long to hear from you and Eliza. I have at last got some tidings of Charles, and as they must have reached you, I need not tell you what sincere satisfaction they afforded me. I have also heard from James; he too, talks of success, but in a querulous strain. What are you doing? Where is Eliza? You have perhaps answered these questions in answer to the letters I gave in charge to Mr. I.; but fearing that some fatality might have prevented their reaching you, let me repeat that I have written to you and to Eliza at least half a score of times, pointing out different ways for you to write to me, still have received no answers. I have again and again given you an account of my present situation, and introduced Mr. Imlay to you as a brother you would love and respect. I hope the time is not very distant when we shall all meet. Do be very particular in your account of yourself, and if you have not time to procure me a letter from Eliza, tell me all about her. Tell me, too, what is become of George, etc., etc. I only write to ask questions, and to assure you that I am most affectionately yours,

MARY IMLAY.

P. S. September 20. Should peace take place this winter, what say you to a voyage in the spring, if not to see your old acquaintance, to see Paris, which I think you did not do justice to. I want you to see my little girl, who is more like a boy. She is ready to fly away with spirits, and has eloquent health in her cheeks and eyes. She does not promise to be a beauty, but appears wonderfully intelligent, and though I am sure she has her father’s quick temper and feelings, her good-humor runs away with all the credit of my good nursing....

That she had discussed the question of her sisters prospects with Imlay seems probable from the fact that while he was in London alone, in November, 1794, he wrote very affectionately to Eliza, saying,

“... We shall both of us continue to cherish feelings of tenderness for you, and a recollection of your unpleasant situation, and we shall also endeavor to alleviate its distress by all the means in our power. The present state of our fortune is rather [word omitted]. However, you must know your sister too well, and I am sure you judge of that knowledge too favorably, to suppose that whenever she has it in her power she will not apply some specific aid to promote your happiness. I shall always be most happy to receive your letters; but as I shall most likely leave England the beginning of next week, I will thank you to let me hear from you as soon as convenient, and tell me ingenuously in what way I can serve you in any manner or respect....”

But all Marys efforts to be kind could not soften their resentment. On the contrary, it was still further increased by the step she took in their regard on her return to England in the same year. When in France she had gladly suggested Everinas joining her there; but in London, after her discovery of Imlays change of feeling, she naturally shrank from receiving her or Eliza into her house. Her sorrow was too sacred to be exposed to their gaze. She was brave enough to tell them not to come to her, a course of action that few in her place would have had the courage to pursue. In giving them her reasons for this new determination, she of course told them but half the truth. To Everina she wrote:

April 27, 1795.

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; for 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, but tell you that I put off writing because I was at a loss 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 could send her a trifle of this kind immediately, were a temporary assistance necessary. I believe I told you that Mr. Imlay had not a fortune when I first knew him; since that 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 realized, I know he will give me for you and Eliza five or six hundred pounds, or more if he can. In what way could this be of the most use to you? I am above concealing my sentiments, though I have boggled at uttering them. It would 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 in consequence 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 you would relieve me from considerable anxiety. Mrs. Imlay, N Charlotte Street, Rathbone Place.

Yours sincerely,
MARY.

Two days later she wrote to this effect to Mrs. Bishop. Both letters are almost word for word the same, so that it would be useless to give the second. It was too much for Elizas inflammable temper. All her worst feelings were stirred by what she considered an insult. The kindness of years was in a moment effaced from her memory. Her indignation was probably fanned into fiercer fury by her disappointment. From a few words she wrote to Everina it seems as if both had been relying upon Mary for the realization of certain goodly prospects. She returned Marys letter without a word, but to Everina she wrote;

“I have enclosed this famous letter to the author of the ’Rights of Women,’ without any reflection. She shall never hear from Poor Bess again. Remember, I am fixed as my misery, and nothing can change my present plan. This letter has so strangely agitated 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 [that is, to find her a situation in Ireland where she, Everina, then was], for I am positive I will never torture our amiable friend in Charlotte Street. Is not this a good spring, my dear girl? At least poor Bess can say it is a fruitful one. Alas, poor Bess!”

It seemed to be Mary’s fate to prove the truth of the saying, that if to him that hath, it shall be given, so also from him that hath not, shall it be taken away. Just as she realized that Imlay’s love was lost forever, Eliza’s cruel, silent answer to her letter came to tell her it would be useless to turn to her sisters for sympathy. They failed to do justice to her heart, but she bore them no resentment. In one of her last letters to Imlay, she reminds him that when she went to Sweden she had asked him to attend to the wants of her father and sisters, a request which he had ignored. The anger she excited in them, however, was never entirely appeased, and from that time until her death, she heard but little of them, and saw still less.

But, though deserted by those nearest to her, her friends rallied round her. She was joyfully re-welcomed to the literary society which she had before frequented. She was not treated as an outcast, because people resolutely refused to believe the truth about her connection with Imlay. She was far from encouraging them in this. Godwin says in her desire to be honest she went so far as to explain the true state of the case to a man whom she knew to be the most inveterate tale-bearer in London, and who would be sure to repeat what she told him. But it was of no avail. Her personal attractions and cleverness predisposed friends in her favor. In order to retain her society and also to silence any scruples that might arise, they held her to be an injured wife, as indeed she really was, and not a deserted mistress. A few turned from her coldly; but those who eagerly reopened their doors to her were in the majority. One old friend who failed at this time, when his friendship would have been most valued, was Fuseli. Knowles has published a note in which Mary reproaches the artist for his want of sympathy. It reads as follows:

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 to expostulate. I have long ceased to expect kindness or affection from any human creature, and would fain tear from my heart its treacherous sympathies. I am alone. The injustice, without alluding to hopes blasted in the bud, which I have endured, wounding my bosom, have set my thoughts adrift into an ocean of painful conjecture. I ask impatiently what and where is truth? I have been treated brutally, but I daily labor to remember that I still have the duty of a mother to fulfil.

I have written more than I intended, for I only meant to request
you to return my letters: I wish to have them, and it must be the
same to you. Adieu!

MARY.