In 1795, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, internationally known for her defense of women’s rights, went on a journey to Scandinavia that helped her pull herself from the depths of despair and produce one of her finest works.
By Victoria Martínez
Profoundly depressed and in despair over a relationship that had transformed “a clever and strong-willed woman… into a creature eager, dependent and trembling,” English writer and intellectual Mary Wollstonecraft embarked on a defining journey to Scandinavia in the summer of 1795. Bookended by suicide attempts, the temporary respite she experienced during parts of the trip ultimately became not only the instrument of her liberation, but also one of her greatest works.
On July 1, 1795, Mary wrote despondently from Sweden, “I labour in vain to calm my mind—my soul has been overwhelmed by sorrow and disappointment. Everything fatigues me—this is a life that cannot last long.”
She had only been in Sweden a few days, having sailed from England with her 1-year-old daughter, Fanny, and a maid. A little over a month earlier, she had attempted suicide. She would do so again in October. The source of her angst – and the reason she was in Scandinavia – was Gilbert Imlay, an adventurous and unscrupulous American with whom Mary had contracted a so-called “Republican” marriage.
Having already essentially abandoned Mary and their daughter – a fact Mary seemed aware of but was unwilling or unable to accept – Imlay had sent her to Scandinavia on a mission to recover a fortune in silver. Despite Mary having written to Imlay in December, “How I hate this crooked business!”, he had proposed – and she had agreed – that she undertake the journey as an answer to her suicide attempt. For Imlay, the extended journey also served another purpose: to get Mary out of his way and allow him to continue another relationship unhindered.
Even as she had waited for a ship to take her from Hull, England, to Gothenburg, Sweden, Mary struggled between her love for Imlay and her doubts about him and their relationship:
“I do not entirely like the aspect of your affairs, and still less your connections on either side of the water. Often do I sigh, when I think of your entanglements in business, and your extreme restlessness of mind.—Even now I am almost afraid to ask you, whether the pleasure of being free, does not overbalance the pain you felt at parting with me? Sometimes I indulge the hope that you will feel me necessary to you—or why should we meet again?—but, the moment after, despair damps my rising spirits…”
It was a far-cry from the woman who had written such powerful prose only a few years earlier that she had established herself as an internationally-known philosopher of the Enlightenment, eliciting both respect and controversy. In her great work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she had written words that still resonate today:
“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man. In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God?”
It was this spirit that Mary needed to find her way back to, and her time in Scandinavia – beginning in Sweden – turned out to be the catalyst that she needed. The despairing and pleading tone that characterized her private letters to Imlay began to dissipate as she made her way through Sweden to Norway. On July 3, she was showing the signs of an emotional pivot when she wrote from Gothenburg, Sweden:
“Love is a want of my heart. I have examined myself lately with more care than formerly, and find, that to deaden is not to calm the mind—Aiming at tranquility, I have almost destroyed all the energy of my soul—almost rooted out what renders it estimable—Yes, I have damped that enthusiasm of character, which converts the grossest materials into a fuel, that imperceptibly feeds hopes, which aspire above common enjoyment.”
The following day she wrote to Imlay that she felt better than she had in a year. She credited the change in her health and sense of vitality to “the purity of this air, and the being continually out in it,” and to the physical exertions of “climbing the rocks, that resembled the fond, credulous hopes of youth.” Her spirits flagged again when no letters came from Imlay, launching her into another wave of uncertainty and anguish; but her letters continued to show signs that she was beginning to pull herself from the abyss.
Her transformation continued as she traveled north through Sweden, stopping in the towns of Kvistrum and Strömstad, before crossing the Oslo Fjord to Norway. From Tønsberg, Norway, she wrote to Imlay on August 5 that, “Employment and exercise have been of great service to me… I have seldom been in better health; and my mind… is calmer… I have, it is true, enjoyed some tranquility, and more happiness here, than for a long-long time past.”
Her “employment” was her writing, which she had returned to while in Tønsberg. Writing had enabled Mary to live as a financially-independent woman, and she picked up her pen again to insure her financial independence from Imlay. In the process, she set off a catharsis that ultimately allowed her to regain her confidence and move on with her life.
It is truly poetic justice that the writing that became the source of her personal and spiritual emancipation was an account – intended for publication – of her physical and emotional journey through Scandinavia as told through letters written to a barely-disguised Imlay. As Wollstonecraft biographer, Lyndall Gordon, explained quite beautifully:
“Wollstonecraft’s Travels take the form of twenty-five letters to a friend, Imlay himself, unnamed but identified as the father of the traveler’s child. Her private drama erupts through the lulling sea, like volcanic heaves as the traveler calls up a look in her correspondent’s eyes. Can she revive his flush of ardour – through words, loyalty and far-flung business on his behalf, unprecedented for a woman in the eighteenth century to undertake alone? The ‘Mary’ who signs publishable letters to her one-time lover has obvious links with the Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote more challenging private letters to Gilbert Imlay.”
As Mary continued her journey through Scandinavia conducting business for Imlay and writing him letters for both private and public consumption, her relationship with him continued to deteriorate. After her return to England in early October, the realization that there was no longer any hope led Mary to attempt suicide once again. Though some may point to Mary’s suicide attempts as an inherent sign of weakness, Mary’s physical, mental and emotional strength – though all essentially at their breaking point during this extremely difficult period in her life – were, in fact, remarkable.
Physically, she had undertaken a journey that was arduous for any traveler, never mind a woman traveling without a male “protector,” and with the care and responsibility of a young child and a maid who seemed to hinder more than help. Mentally, she had conducted international business that she abhorred on Imlay’s behalf with men of varying degrees of importance and/or shadiness. All the while, she had been struggling to outwardly control and inwardly process her tormented emotions and cope with what would probably be classified now as clinical depression.
The writing she did throughout her travels and following her second suicide attempt, as published in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in January 1796, demonstrates that Mary Wollstonecraft was not only a great intellectual and philosopher – as her previous works had already proved – but also a woman of extraordinary depth of character and ability. With tremendous skill and apparent ease, she combined personal catharsis, poetic sensibility, and social criticism into a travelogue that was both a critical and popular success.
On her journey along the western coast of Sweden and into southern Norway, Mary seemed almost obsessed with the rocks, as if their jagged, insurmountable roughness symbolized the struggles she herself was dealing with. Nearing Kvistrum, Sweden, where she would spend the night, she wrote of how impressed she was with “the beauty of the situation.”
“The road was on the declivity of a rocky mountain, slightly covered with a mossy herbage and vagrant firs. At the bottom, a river, straggling amongst the recesses of stone, was hastening forward to the ocean and its grey rocks, of which we had a prospect on the left; whilst on the right it stole peacefully forward into the meadows, losing itself in a thickly-wooded rising ground.”
Almost always, there is a sense that beauty springs from this roughness. “The clouds caught their hue of the rocks that menaced them,” she wrote as she neared Strömstad, Sweden. “The rocks which tossed their fantastic heads so high were often covered with pines and firs, varied in the most picturesque manner,” she continued. Writing of a side trip to Frederikshald in Norway, she described how, passing through a gorge, “the closing chasm seemed to threaten us with instant destruction, when, turning quickly, verdant meadows and a beautiful lake relieved and charmed my eyes.”
It is interesting to note that these passages are from the portions of the book that were written retrospectively, which means that Mary wrote them following her return to England and her second suicide attempt. Perhaps they served as a reminder to herself that beauty could come from the figurative rocks that menaced her and the chasms that threatened to destroy her.
Some of the most poetic and beautiful passages in the book involve Mary’s time in Tønsberg, where she had found tranquility and new purpose:
“With what ineffable pleasure have I not gazed—and gazed again, losing my breath through my eyes—my very soul diffused itself in the scene… I pause, again breathless, to trace, with renewed delight, sentiments which entranced me, when, turning my humid eyes from the expanse below to the vault above, my sight pierced the fleecy clouds that softened the azure brightness; and imperceptibly recalling the reveries of childhood, I bowed before the awful throne of my Creator, whilst I rested on its footstool.”
In another part of the book written retrospectively, Mary even championed the cause of her sex, such as when she wrote:
“You know that, as a female, I am particularly attached to her [her daughter]; I feel more than a mother’s fondness and anxiety when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility and cherish delicacy of sentiment, lest, whilst I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard; I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit. Hapless woman! what a fate is thine!”
The publication of Letters written during a short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark saw the beginning of a new and happier life for Mary. She was reintroduced to English writer and philosopher William Godwin, who admired her latest work. After her death, he wrote of it, “…perhaps a book of travels that so irresistibly seizes on the heart, never, in any other instance, found its way from the press.” The two became romantically involved and, when Mary became pregnant, they married. Tragically, Mary died on September 10, 1797, less than two weeks after giving birth to the couple’s child.
Godwin, who had loved and accepted Mary Wollstonecraft and all that she had done and experienced in her short life, shortsightedly laid bare all those experiences to the world in Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1798. The result was a catastrophe for Mary’s reputation and legacy that has persistently overshadowed much of her brilliant writing ever since.
For a time, however, Mary had found peace and happiness in her life that had their origins in her Scandinavian journey. Just as she had done in Frederikshald, she had passed through the closing chasm that threatened her with destruction and had discovered a verdant meadow in which to pass the remainder of her short life.
Main image: Detail from an 1809 map of Scandinavia by John Pinkerton; edited image of Mary Wollstonecraft circa 1797 by John Opie.
 Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. 1974. New York: New American Library, 1976. 146.
 Wollstonecraft, Mary. Letter to Gilbert Imlay. 1 July 1795. “Letter LIV” in The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay. Ed. Roger Ingpen. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1908. 123.
 Meaning they weren’t legally married, but were presenting themselves as a married couple. Not to be confused with a French method of execution that went by a similar name.
 Wollstonecraft. Letter to Gilbert Imlay. 29 Dec. 1794. Love Letters. 66.
 Wollstonecraft. Letter to Gilbert Imlay. 14 June 1795. Love Letters. 109.
 Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. 1792. Reprinted in The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 2013.
 Wollstonecraft. Letter to Gilbert Imlay. 3 July 1795. Love Letters. 127.
 Ibid, 4 July 1795, 129-130.
 Ibid, 7 Aug. 1795, 138-139.
 Referring to Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
 Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Harper Collins e-Books, 2005.
 Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Letter V.” Letters written during a short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. 1796.
 Now known as Halden.
 Wollstonecraft. Letters. “Letter V.”
 Lyndall Gordon wrote in Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft: “Although the Travels are presented as flowing instantaneously from her experience, the first six episodes were, in fact, composed retrospectively…”.
 Wollstonecraft. Letters. “Letter VIII.”
 Wollstonecraft. Letters. “Letter VI.”
 Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: J. Johnston, 1798.
 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, better known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Thanks for this interesting post. I have read about Mary Wollstonecraft in the past, but mostly because she was the mother of Mary Shelley (the baby born a month before her death whom you mention near the end of your post. You shed light on a side of Wollstonecraft I was not aware of. I started reading “Vindication of the Rights of Women” a few years ago, but became distracted and never went back to it. I’ll have to put it back on my reading list. Thanks again for an illuminating post.
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Thank you for the feedback! I hope you will pick it up again. Although the 18th century style makes it a bit challenging at times, it is well worth it, in my opinion. For me, that style makes me read some passages several times, which I feel gives me a deeper and better understanding of the meaning and the depth of the statements. I also recommend her Scandinavian Letters, it really is a beautiful book. Thanks again!
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