Although Gilbert Imlay had decided he could not love Mary, he was very worried about her. He thought that activity would restore her spirits. So he asked if she would be his business agent and travel to Scandinavia to investigate what had gone wrong with one of his investments. He had purchased a ship loaded with valuables, but the vessel had not arrived where it was supposed to. Her job was to find the ship and to try to negotiate its return—or to arrange some other settlement that would keep Imlay from losing all of his investment.
In June 1795—with one-year-old Fanny and a French maid—Mary left for Norway. For the following weeks she kept notes and wrote detailed letters to Imlay about her progress. With many changes, Joseph Johnson published twenty-five of these letters as a book, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796).
This book—perhaps her best—contains some of her most beautiful and thoughtful writing. Godwin, in fact, wrote later about the effect it had on him: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Mary writes with passion and courage about all her travels through the wild and unknown region—about the spectacular mountain scenery she saw and explored, the people she met, the villages and towns she visited. All of it glows in the bright flame of her intelligence.
By September, Mary and Fanny were back in London. No one knows for sure how well Mary succeeded in her task (she does not discuss her mission specifically in her book), but that fall the so-called “treasure ship” was located, so perhaps she did succeed.
But she had not regained Imlay’s love. She knew he had found other interests (land investments)—and another woman (an actress). She could not bear it.
In October, on a dark and rainy evening, she wrote a suicide note to Imlay. She put on her heaviest clothing, walked down to the Thames River, and hired a boatman. He rowed her to the Battersea Bridge. But there were too many people around.
So she told the boatman to take her a little farther west to Putney Bridge. She figured there would be light traffic, especially on a rainy night. She walked back and forth on the bridge, soaking her clothing. She did not want her dry clothes to keep her from sinking.
And then she jumped into the dark water. But her heavy clothing, even saturated with rainwater, did not immediately pull her down. Instead, her dress billowed out around her. Desperately, she tried to wrap her arms around the uncooperative cloth. And slowly she began to sink. By then, the current had carried her several hundred yards downstream.
But one of the watermen had seen her jump, and he and some companions rowed frantically to her and were able to haul her into one of the boats. Quickly, they took her to a nearby inn, where rescue workers restored her. She would live to thank them. The Times said the cause was “the brutal behaviour of her husband.” This is something Mary herself must have told the newspaper.
In better spirits, she threw herself into her work for Joseph Johnson. She had an idea for another novel. She began, too, to socialize a bit more, mostly with men and women who shared her political views. She even seems to have handled well a chance encounter with Gilbert Imlay in March 1796. Out walking, she encountered him on horseback. He dismounted, walked a bit with her. They talked. Godwin later reported she had said she’d felt “no oppressive emotion” during the conversation. But we wonder.