In early October 2011, I finally get around to reading Gilbert Imlay’s novel, The Emigrants, first published in 1793, the year that Mary became involved with him in France, the year she became pregnant. Mary most certainly read his novel. (In fact, some conspiracy-minded Imlay-haters have suggested that she wrote it!)
The Emigrants is an old-fashioned epistolary novel, a series of seventy-three letters exchanged by characters on both sides of the Atlantic. Several streams of story flow throughout, achieving their confluence at the end. The principal plot is a love story—lovers separated by misunderstanding and geography and deception and pride. One is a young Capt. Arl—ton (Imlay provides no full names); the other, the dazzlingly beautiful Miss Caroline T—n, who suffers a deception, pines for our hero captain (who runs off to the woods several times because he thinks she doesn’t like him), endures captivity by some admiring Indians (three guesses: Who rescues her?). Other plots involve Caroline’s disgraced uncle (who turns out to be … not guilty!), a wastrel brother (guess who eventually shapes up?), and various other characters who weave in and out of the story, mostly so they can write a letter to someone to let us know what’s going on with the folks we care about.
Along the way, Imlay offers a lot of local color about the area around Pittsburgh when it was an outpost in the western wilderness. But of predominant interest to Imlay’s radical friends, including Mary Wollstonecraft, were the commentaries that his fictional correspondents made on social and political issues.
The cause of human depravity is “our institutions,” says one writer.
Another declares: “Education has continued to fetter the human mind.”
There’s also a long passage in this novel by a former slave-trader (as Imlay himself had once been) about “the unfortunate African who is torn from his home—from his family—and from that independence … [and is ] now living in a state of captivity, suffering under the most tyrannic and inhuman sacrilege ….”
Another character says, “When laws or customs “interfere with the duty we owe either to God or to our fellow creatures, … we are constrained, from a principle of honour, to resist their influence.”
Still another observes that virtue “must consist in administering relief to the unfortunate, and protecting the innocent ….”
And: proscriptive and prescriptive religious teachings “laid the foundations for European depravity” because priests and their ilk were “in league to subjugate the human mind.”
There are also comments throughout about how men have subjugated women.
Love was on Imlay’s literary agenda, as well.
“Love is the food of the heart,” says one character.
The captain writes of Caroline to a confidante: “Her goodness is innate, and emanates from a soul which is as pure as the snow ….”
And as the lovers make their anfractuous ways toward each other, Mary Wollstonecraft, reading this novel, might well have been imagining herself and the dashing Imlay as the captain and his Caroline.
Scholar Janet Todd writes of Mary that The Emigrants “swelled her love” for Imlay. And we now know where it would lead … and how it would end.
And knowing Imlay’s shady character, we wonder: Was all of this radical rhetoric just another hustle? To make money? To impress Paine and Godwin? To seduce Mary Wollstonecraft?