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Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)/Chapter 11

< Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Pennell, 1885)

CHAPTER XI.

RETROSPECTIVE.

1794-1796.

Mary's 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 Imlay's promises, was entirely dependent upon her. Her exertions to maintain herself and her child obliged her to stifle at least the expression of misery.

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 o£ 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.

That she had discussed the question of her sister's 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 endeavour 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 favourably, 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 Mary's 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 Everina's joining her there; but in London, after her discovery of Imlay's 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, No. 26 Charlotte Street, Rathbone Place.

Yours sincerely,
Mary.

Two days later she wrote to this effect to Eliza. Both letters are almost word for word the same, so that it would be useless to give the second. It was too much for Eliza's 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 Mary's 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!

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 favour. 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 re-opened their doors to her were in the majority.