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AHR Roundtable Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History BARBARA TAYLOR I N J UNE 1795, THE PIONEER FEMINIST Mary Wollstonecraft traveled to Scandinavia to sort out some business matters for her lover, Gilbert Imlay. She was accompanied by her one-year-old daughter, Fanny, and her maid Marguerite, but as she moved northward, they were left behind to be gathered up on the return journey. It was a wretched period in Wollstonecraft’s life. Imlay, who prior to Fanny’s birth had been a devoted paramour, had been seeing other women since. She clung to him des- perately, as if life itself were at stake—as it had been two months earlier when, wild with misery at his betrayals, she had attempted suicide. Now, journeying through strange lands with neither lover nor child, she was wracked by the grief of aban- donment. Yet, as always, the literary professional was on the qui vive , alert to pos- sibilities. Shortly after returning to London, Wollstonecraft brought out a volume of letters addressed to an errant lover, but in fact written for publication and never sent to Imlay. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden was one of her best-received works, a favorite especially with the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, who enjoyed her self-portrayal as a melancholy solitaire, a companionless voyager in a loveless world. The image of the lone woman, shorn of all intimate ties, was touching but also pleasurably outre´, a startling contrast to the familial, male-oriented feminine ideal of the late eighteenth century. 1 The “generality” of women, Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , “fly” from solitude as from a “fearful void.” 2 Trained to submission, leached of inner resources, most women find aloneness intolerable. Against this, she set her own profound responses to solitude, offering up a repertoire of intense—and divided—reactions to her Scandinavian sojourn. The agonies of a forsaken heart were set against the exaltations of a mind freed from constraint. “Here I am writing quite alone,” she reported from Portor in Norway, after a hair-raising sea journey, This article is based on a paper written for a conference celebrating the work of Cora Kaplan. My thanks to Cora Kaplan and Sarah Knott for their helpful comments. 1 Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), in Wollstonecraft, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft , ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler, 7 vols. (London, 1989), vol. 6. For the young poets’ reception of the book, and general Romantic enthusiasm for it, see Richard Holmes, “Introduction,” in Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, A Short Res- idence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark: And Memoirs of the Author of “The Rights of Woman” (Har- mondsworth, 1987), 36–42.
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