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Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History

Author(s): Barbara Taylor

Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 3 (Jun., 2009), pp. 640-651
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30223926
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AHR Roundtable

Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History


IN JUNE 1795, THE PIONEER FEMINIST Mary Wollstonecraft traveled t

sort out some business matters for her lover, Gilbert Imlay. She w
by her one-year-old daughter, Fanny, and her maid Marguerite, b
northward, they were left behind to be gathered up on the return jo
wretched period in Wollstonecraft's life. Imlay, who prior to Fanny's
a devoted paramour, had been seeing other women since. She clu
perately, as if life itself were at stake-as it had been two months earl
with misery at his betrayals, she had attempted suicide. Now, jour
strange lands with neither lover nor child, she was wracked by th
donment. Yet, as always, the literary professional was on the qui vive
sibilities. Shortly after returning to London, Wollstonecraft broug
of letters addressed to an errant lover, but in fact written for public
sent to Imlay. Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden
best-received works, a favorite especially with the young Samuel T
and Robert Southey, who enjoyed her self-portrayal as a melanc
companionless voyager in a loveless world. The image of the lone w
all intimate ties, was touching but also pleasurably outr6, a startling c
familial, male-oriented feminine ideal of the late eighteenth centu
The "generality" of women, Wollstonecraft wrote in A Vindication
of Woman, "fly" from solitude as from a "fearful void."2 Trained
leached of inner resources, most women find aloneness intolerable. Ag
set her own profound responses to solitude, offering up a repertoire
divided-reactions to her Scandinavian sojourn. The agonies of a f
were set against the exaltations of a mind freed from constraint. "He
quite alone," she reported from Portor in Norway, after a hair-raisin

This article is based on a paper written for a conference celebrating the work of Cora
to Cora Kaplan and Sarah Knott for their helpful comments.
1 Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Nor
(1796), in Wollstonecraft, The Works ofMary Wollstonecraft, ed. Janet Todd and Ma
(London, 1989), vol. 6. For the young poets' reception of the book, and general Rom
for it, see Richard Holmes, "Introduction," in Mary Wollstonecraft and William God
idence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark: And Memoirs of the Author of "The Right
mondsworth, 1987), 36-42.
2 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in Wollstonec
5: 242, 190.


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Separations of Soul 641

"something more than gay, for which I want

in Tonsberg, she quailed at entering the room
eye-I dreaded the solitariness ... and wished
world where I was destined to wander alone."4 A farewell meal with some fellow
travelers on the final leg of the trip left her stricken with sorrow, and something more:
"I then supped with my companions, with whom I was soon after to part for ever-
always a most melancholy, death-like idea-a sort of separation of soul; for all the
regret which follows those from whom fate separates us, seems to be something torn
from ourselves."5 What are we left with, who do we become, when we are alone?

SOLITUDE HAS BEEN A KEY FEATURE Of human experience in all times and places. Yet
little of its story has been told. Can such a powerfully personal experience have a
history? If it can, then biography must surely be a chief route into it, just as a his-
torical understanding of the solitary self is likely to yield valuable insights into the
biographical subject.
Biography-it will be no news to readers of this roundtable-is a controversial
enterprise for historians. Some of the features that have made it controversial-its
belletristic character; its emphasis on individual agency at the expense of larger his-
torical forces; its flattening of complex causal connections to fit a linear life nar-
rative-are less pronounced today than in the past, or at any rate seem to generate
less anxiety. We now possess many historical biographies that do a superb job of
integrating their subjects into their historical contexts; life histories are no longer a
genre apart. At the same time, the wall that once divided history from literature has
been well and truly breached, with many historians incorporating life-writing and
even fictional narratives into their historical monographs. A new literary boldness
has entered the discipline, from which biography has been a chief beneficiary.
But there is one respect in which biography remains highly problematic for his-
torians, and that is its psychological dimension. The role of personal psychology in
history is possibly the most poorly developed field of modern historical discussion,
plagued by "commonsense" prejudices, on the one hand, and hard-line theoretical
diktats, on the other. All historians use psychology-it is impossible to write human
history without it-but the psychology that most historians deploy is of the pick-
and-mix variety, blending commonplace assumptions about human motivation with
bits of pop psychology, often Freudian in flavor. The exceptions to this are those
historians who embrace postmodernist anti-humanism, and thus assign no causal
role whatsoever to individual psychology. For these historians, the "death of the
subject" decreed by Foucault and his epigones has swept subjectivity off the historical
stage. The "individual coherent self"-that is, the biographical subject as tradition-
ally conceived-has been deconstructed and dismissed as a "bourgeois fiction." This
is a development that calls for closer scrutiny.
The Western self has been receiving a lot of attention recently. Studies with titles
like "Making the Self," "Constructing the Self," and "Inventing the Self" proliferate.

3 Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence, 293.

4 Ibid., 298.
5 Ibid., 334.


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642 Barbara Taylor

As the active verbs make plain, virtually a

tural artifact or, in a variation on this,
unfolds that begins with a pre-modern, "e
life, lacking any sense of unique individ
naissance, or the Enlightenment, or the R
are multiple) to the modern Western self,
innate character and psychological inter
modern subject type is often called.6 The
tale of the rise of bourgeois individualism,
the individualist character type that is d
cialism, but human subjectivity in toto
psychic life-is also a historical invention,
social phenomena that produce the effects
puts it, "we are 'assembled' selves, in whom
interiority are constituted by our linka
niques and artefacts."' This socio-histori
raded as a first-order heresy, is now such
that alternative views tend to be rejected
of the Modem Self, where the "self wit
post-French Revolution "identity regim
once noticed with some embarrassment,
vinced critics, long after pronouncements
Biography, with its focus on the comple
deficiencies of this culturalist approach; b
psychological sterility. "Detached from
asked at the beginning of his Reveries of
object of my inquiry."9 The investigation
inner life, which is where any inquirer in


string of oppositions-self versus society, p
contemplation versus action-that stret
tended to favor sociality as more conduciv
of solitude as fit only for beasts or god
solitude of course was exempted, with t

6 The argument is made in scores of recent book

Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modem Self: Iden
Haven, Conn., 2004), xi-xviii; Nikolas Rose, "Assemb
Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (Lon
Individualist Self Autobiography and Self-Identity
7 Rose, "Assembling the Modern Self," 226. As Lo
table, postmodern practitioners of biography, such a
of subjectivity. Margadant, ed., The New Biography:
(Berkeley, Calif., 2000), 7.
8 Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self, 26
blatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to
9 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitar


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Separations of Soul 643

hillside in frozen meditation for a full day and ni

of the great sage. For ordinary citizens, however,
potentia. This division between a socially embedd
life reappeared in Christian thought as the dichot
the city of God, where a spiritual elite dedicated
withdraw into monasteries or other forms of r
mation, and its democratic leveling of access to
drawal gave way to a universal movement into
spiritual retreat which, unlike monasticism and er
by ordinary life. A righteous man, Daniel Defoe w
from the world" in the London Exchange as in
was the "essence of solitude," not "monkish cell
ness is to get a retired soul ... and then we ma
From the mid-seventeenth century, a new scienti
anatomists of human nature entered the debate. Hobbes's bleak account of man as
a lone pleasure-seeking machine was countered by defenders of natural sociability
who declared Hobbesian man "monstrous," a "wolf" in human dress." Latter-day
Stoics quoted Cicero on civic duty: "we are not born for ourselves alone, but...
mutually to help one another."'12 "We are made for the Cements of Society ...,"
a Ciceronian correspondent wrote to the Spectator, "and Solitude is an unnatural
Being to us."'13 Positions proliferated, as retirement poets hymned pastoral solitude
as an escape from worldly corruption while moral sentimentalists warned that with-
out social intercourse, men descended into egoist bestiality. Celebrations of solitude
as the "school of genius" were countered by medical warnings about the debilitating
effects of solitary cerebration.'4 In 1757, Rousseau-Enlightenment Europe's pre-
mier solitaire-took offense at words spoken by a character in one of his friend
Diderot's plays, "Only the wicked man lives alone," which he regarded, no doubt
rightly, as directed at him. His bitter protests were met with further provocation from
Diderot, who reassured him that as hermits go, Rousseau was definitely his favorite,
but "all the same, a hermit is a strange sort of a citizen.""'
Rousseau's fame as a solitaire irritated him, partly because he blamed others for
his isolation, but also because solitude was a true conundrum to him. "Detached from
the whole world, what am I?" What is solitude? The question, now as in Rousseau's
day, tends to stop people in their tracks. The commonsense definition of soli-

10 Daniel Defoe, Serious Reflections during the Life and SurprisingAdventures ofRobinson Crusoe: With
His Vision of the Angelick World (1720; repr., London, 1741), 8-9.
11 Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions,
Times (1711; repr., Cambridge, 1999), 42; R. S. Crane, "Suggestions toward a Genealogy of the 'Man
of Feeling,' " English Literary History 1, no. 3 (1934): 242-244.
12 Cicero, On Obligations [De Officiis], Book I, 22. For the popularity of this text in early modern
England, see Brian Vickers, "Introduction," in Vickers, ed., Public and Private Life in the Seventeenth
Century: The Mackenzie-Evelyn Debate (Delmar, N.Y., 1986), xiv.
13 The Spectator 158 (August 31, 1711).
14 Raymond D. Havens, "Solitude and the Neoclassicists," English Literary History 21, no. 4 (1954):
251-273; Steven Shapin, "'The Mind Is Its Own Place': Science and Solitude in Seventeenth-Century
England," Science in Context 4, no. 1 (1980): 191-218; Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural
History of Masturbation (New York, 2003); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-
Century Self (Chicago, 2003).
15 P. N. Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography (London, 1992), 151.


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644 Barbara Taylor

tude-an absence of other people-clearly

be wrong about this: that is, be in the pre
(Rousseau tells a great story about this),
many people the most solitary conditio
gagement, withdrawal, inwardness: none
be preconditions for it. This is because
fantasy scenario, an imaginary staging of
dense, to be captured by any simple opp
In a 1572 essay, "On Solitude," Michel
inner space-a "room at the back of the
the soul retreated, not to hide itself but t
company of a unique sort. "We have a s
herself company..,. to attack, to defend, t
in such a solitude we shall be crouching
crowd unto yourself.' "17 The lone self is
tional attachments; solitude is an occup
Western thought, from Scipio's aphoris
twentieth-century psychoanalytic depic
unconscious sociality. The classic English
paper by the English analyst Donald Win
Psychological solitude, Winnicott argues
in infancy: first as the baby discovers alo
mother (or other caregiver) while in her c
internalizes mother as a "good object" to p
ego when he is alone. Solitude without suc
is psychically intolerable. Thus "the state
paradoxically) always implies that someo
of other selves, who facilitate-a favorite
Whatever one thinks of this argument, e
Western solitude shows it to be teeming
has been the key figure, but loved ones
locutors, and an animated Nature all fea
tradition were said to be in a condition of
of the entire Christian Church. Protestant
presence without clerical mediation: for
most popular solitaires, "the Deficiencies o
pensated by the direct "Communications o

16 Ibid., 118.
17 Michel de Montaigne, "On Solitude," in Monta
Screech (Harmondsworth, 1998), 100.
s18 Donald Winnicott, "The Capacity to Be Alone
and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the T
Percy Bysshe Shelley, who found solitude "most h
comes to self in solitude") in his essay "On Love
deserted state when we are surrounded by human be
"On Love" (1818), in Duncan Wu, ed., Romanticism
Shelley: The Pursuit (London, 1974), 64, 34.
19 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719; repr.,


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Separations of Soul 645

poets communed with their muses; scholars with t

lovers; readers with fictional characters. Like M
with a second self, an alter-self with whom he ma
capacity to divide oneself in this fashion, Lord Sh
the true sage, the wise man who, like Scipio, was "
or-as Hannah Arendt later described the reflec
out a partner and without company."21
For most of Western history, sacred presences
lievers converse with saints and angels, and receiv
physical presence: the feeling described by Will
ligious experience. The Varieties of Religious Ex
study in the psychology of solitude, but the bo
"purely interior" phenomenon, a mode of solitary
for us ... the feelings, acts and experiences of i
far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relat
the divine."22 Examining these "feelings, acts and
Protestant believers, what James found were re
by "a feeling of objective presence, a perceptio
there,' " which in its tangibility and intensity exce
works of empirical psychology.23 Searching for th
it in the intrusion into conscious mental life of em
what he called the "subconscious," a "darker, bli
hidden from the conscious self but existing in a c
it. "There is actually and literally more life in o
we are at any time aware of."24
Not all of this life was benign. While most of th
described by James's interlocutors involved profo
others were terrifying and disorienting. "In so
Adam Phillips comments in a reprise of Donald
vidual is attempting to find..,. that which is beyon
by virtue of being so, persecutory."25 But the i
this. History shows a catalogue of malign inner pr
dogs of melancholy. Seemingly holy visitations mi
in actual devils gave way to fear of the devil wi
tion" spreading its toxins through the soul. The im
in the eighteenth century. Widely revered as the
all creative genius, a mental pathway between m

20 Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 34.

21 Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinion
Condition (1958; repr., Chicago, 1998), 76. "Solitude," Arendt
I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about when I am
the two-in-one, without being able to keep myself company
1978), 185.
22 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902; repr., Harmondsworth, 1985), 31.
23 Ibid., 58.
24 Ibid., 501, 511.
25 Adam Phillips, "On Risk and Solitude," in Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (London,
1993), 25.


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646 Barbara Taylor

abhorred for its lawless excesses, its wild

particularly suspect, as conducive to an "in
igality of being"-the phrases are Samue
"enthusiasm": an ambiguous term which in
intense communion with the sacred-Ja
but used pejoratively referred to a delusio
were mistaken for the living God.26 So
tinguishing them was not always easy. "Th
in too solitary a Manner ... prey upon th
from their own Conceptions Beings and
Beware of being too much alone, moralists
"fantastic pleasures and images of perfect
no where but in God."28
Mary Wollstonecraft always saw herself as something of an enthusiast. A com-
pulsive fantasist, she simultaneously feared and cherished her "ardent imagination,"
regarding it both as dangerously "illusive" and as a gateway to heaven. In 1787 she
published a semi-autobiographical novel, Mary: A Fiction, featuring a young woman
of "enthusiastic devotional sentiments" who spends her solitary hours conversing
with God until He is "almost apparent to her senses."29 Like innumerable eigh-
teenth-century literary heroines, Mary is a sensitive, pensive soul, given to rumi-
nating in lonely places. Wollstonecraft later described the book as a "crude pro-
duction," and certainly it is very derivative, drenched in the influence of Edward
Young and James Thomson, two leading poets of the "moonlight and melancholy"
school whose hugely popular meditations on solitude the fictive Mary reads in a
secluded cavern (which she dubs the Temple of Solitude).30 But it also reflected
Wollstonecraft's own highly colored sense of religious interiority. Wollstonecraft was
born into the established church, but by the time she wrote her first novel, her views
were becoming increasingly heterodox, and she ended her days a Rousseauite natural
religionist.31 Behind this shift of credo, however, lay a continuous sense of divine
presence: a "constitutional attachment" to God, as her husband William Godwin
described it, that wavered during some dark moments in her life, but never wholly
left her.32 The divinely oriented imagination fosters an intimate bond with the sacred,
experienced most powerfully in solitude. A 1795 letter from Norway described wan-
dering alone on a mountainside, feeling an "ineffable pleasure" in God's proximity.33
"How solemn is the moment," she wrote in an essay on poetic solitude the following
year, "when all affections and remembrances fade before the sublime admiration

26 Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 89 (January 22, 1751).

27 Tatler, July 27, 1710, quoted in Lawrence E. Klein, "Sociability, Solitude and Enthusiasm," in
Lawrence E. Klein and Anthony J. La Vopa, eds., Enthusiasm and Enlightenment in Europe, 1650-1850
(San Marino, Calif., 1998), 174.
28 Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650; repr., London, 1930), 183.
29 Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Fiction (1788), in Wollstonecraft, The Works, 1: 16.
30 Ibid., 15.
31 For Wollstonecraft's religious views, see my Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination
(Cambridge, 2003), 95-142.
32 William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798; repr.,
London, 1987), 215.
33 Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence, 279.


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Separations of Soul 647

which the wisdom and goodness of God inspire

only the mind that formed, and the mind that c
Like all votaries of the solitary imagination,
of its dangers, especially for women. Women's im
susceptible than men's, more liable to corruption
erotic influences. Religious enthusiasm in women
induced rather than divinely inspired; clerics and
women of confusing eros with agape. In solitude,
fancies," whether in the form of devotional rapt
Laqueur's history of the eighteenth-century m
geting of lone female readers by anti-onanists
immerse themselves in the pulse-quickening fa
Wollstonecraft-to the dismay of some of her
discussion with zest, denouncing romantic nov
their female authors for encouraging "libertin
with an account of Mary's mother, an indolent se
in her boudoir reading novels, "those most deli
pation." She "dwelt on the love scenes..,. as she ac
arbours, and ... walk[ed] with them by the cl
thought while she read, her mind would have bee
whom she dislikes and neglects, is of course made
turned to heaven. But Mary's loneliness makes he
despite divine consolations-eventually succumb
with an invalid genius with whom she envisage
whose death leaves her truly solitary, right to he
a void that even..,. religion could not fill." Thus d
in poor health herself, Mary spends the rest of h
and reminding herself that "only an infinite bein
when other objects were followed as a means of
ery."38 Wollstonecraft was a virgin when she wr
did little to alleviate her pessimism.
"Could she have loved her father or mother,
Wollstonecraft wrote at one point of Mary's r
perhaps, have sought out a new world."'39 The in
The daughter of a brutish father and an unca
haunted by the loneliness of the unloved child. G
lationships regularly failed her. "With a heart fe
I have never met with one," she wrote to Imlay t
trip. "I once thought I had, but it was all a delusio

34 Mary Wollstonecraft, "On Poetry" (1797 and 1798), in

35 Laqueur, Solitary Sex, 311-358.
36 [Mary Wollstonecraft], "Review of Elizabeth Inchbald,A
stonecraft, The Works, 7: 370.
37 Wollstonecraft, Mary: A Fiction, 8-9.
38 Ibid., 16.
39 Ibid., 11.
40 Ralph M. Wardle, ed., The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (Ithaca, N.Y., 1979), 311.


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648 Barbara Taylor

cut off from ordinary emotional ties. "I me

together by affection..,. and I am ready
abandoned?'"41 Her response was to crea
love into which she tried to corral those aro
"There is certainly a great defect in my
misery," she wrote wretchedly to her publ
collapse of her romance with the painter
liness plus fantasy seemed inexorably to lea
Fiction was published, the dilemmas we
female solitaire, The Wrongs of Woman; or
Maria, which Wollstonecraft wrote in the
unfinished at her death, is a tale of enforc
ter of wealthy parents who care so little fo
the first cad who comes along, persuading
of deception and exploitation finally see
lunatic asylum, which is where the novel o
thoughts, she allows her imagination to tak
with which she then adorns a fellow prison
clone. Aided by a friendly warder, she an
and solitude all conspired to soften her min
stonecraft writes forebodingly. "Maria n
of celestial mould-was happy."43 But M
endings that Wollstonecraft drafted for th
it [is] for women to avoid growing romant
poor Maria reflects, but what is a woma
doned to predatory men and her own lon
Like the fictive Mary before her, Maria i
eighteenth-century female imagination was
ing any real creative power or moral gra
his friend d'Alembert, had none of that "c
to the soul"; their fantasies might be "pret
craft's fictional heroines were a direct rejo
a fierce rebuttal of the dogmas of femal
agogical novel Emile. Yet it was Rousseau
was famous, who provided Wollstonecraft w
the figure of Julie, the heroine of his w
Hiloise. Julie is an Augustinian solitaire,
who seeks privacy to commune with God a
illicit affair with her tutor, St Preux-a liai
hearts throbbing across Europe, and influe

41 Ibid., 173, 311.

42 Wollstonecraft, letter to Joseph Johnson, ca. l
43 Mary Wollstonecraft, The Wrongs of Woman; o
44 Ibid., 94.
45 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre (1758; repr.,
Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), 103.


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Separations of Soul 649

Wollstonecraft's Maria. Darnford lends Maria a

Rousseau's spell that their affair is conducted. Ma
Darnford as St Preux, and, for a time, at leas
bloomed around them ... Love, the grand ench
every sense was harmonised to joy and social e
Wollstonecraft first encountered Rousseau in
reading and reviewing his works for the Analyti
most ardent, if critical, disciples. It was his "o
"extend[ed] to women," she wrote in the Rights o
gument with him that occupies so much of the te
him," she told Imlay.48 Reading his personal w
a fellow "Solitary Walker," as she dubbed herse
the Solitary Walker, a maverick mind that "ramble
I have too often wandered, and draws the usua
vexation of spirit."49 His celebrity image as a rec
openly erotic aspects. Reviewing his Confession
account of the genesis of La Nouvelle Heloise.
had "felt himself alone, his heart having no real
... Then the fancy seized him of describing some
the flighty desire of loving, which he had never
he felt himself devoured."50
Transfixed by these fantasies, Rousseau, she wrote, "had directed all the warmth
of his heart to one imaginary object" and created his lovely Julie, the "idol of his
heart.""' Intoxicated with Julie's perfections, Rousseau then proceeded to transfer
these onto a married woman, the Comtesse d'Houdetot, with whom he fell madly
in love, with dire consequences. In her review, Wollstonecraft retold the story dis-
approvingly, as an example of a lascivious imagination working overtime; yet in the
Rights of Woman and elsewhere, she celebrated the grandeur of Rousseau's erotic
fantasies, pointing to their "noble origin" in his "sublime imagination" and remind-
ing her readers that the "delusions of passion" give "strong proof of the immortality
of the soul."52 After all, as Rousseau himself wrote in La Nouvelle Hdloise, in the
strongly platonic vein that runs through the text, what else is romantic love but a
fantasy of perfection, nowhere truly to be found but in God? "Love is but illusion;
it fashions for itself..,. another Universe ... It perceive its object as perfect; makes
it into its idol; places it in Heaven."53 "Solitary Folk" like Julie and St Preux-or
Wollstonecraft's Mary and Maria-demonstrate the profound creativity of the sol-
itary mind, as it fashions an ideal world to inhabit.54 But the price of such creativity

46 Wollstonecraft, The Wrongs of Woman, 106.

47 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 90.
48 Wardle, The Collected Letters, 263.
49 Ibid., 145.
50 [Mary Wollstonecraft], "Review of JJ Rousseau, Seconde Partie des Confessions" (1790),Analytical
Review 6 (April 1790), in Wollstonecraft, Works, 7: 232-233.
51 Ibid., 233.
52 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 5: 143.
53 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie; or, The New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town
at the Foot of the Alps (Hanover, N.H., 1997), 10.
54 Ibid., 9.


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650 Barbara Taylor

can be high. "Mistaken in the object of h

which, in the trial, proved to be imaginary
lationship with Imlay, Mary "proceeded t
her error"-which returns us to Wollston
Whether Imlay would have proposed th
she not recently attempted suicide is impos
been a relief to him to get her out of his ha
full of bleak thoughts and fearful for the f
to him as her ship set sail from Hull, "you
be, some time or other, independent in e
bend this weak heart."56 The trip itself, wit
a replay of old losses and a rehearsal for
ancholy hovers around my footsteps," sh
er-an aged pine wood, a mountain water
thoughts of mortality, "the only thing o
misery stalked her. "Why am I forced th
have never suffered in my life so much
Yet as the journey proceeded, solitude gra
ing along mountain paths, rowing across fj
from the world's "gaudy bustle," she felt he
and gloried in the sensation. "I am more
long time," she wrote to Imlay after a day
Thrilling to the dramatic countryside, she
a series of vivid landscape sketches that del
poets of her circle. "How often do my feel
origin of many poetical fictions," she wrot
wegian pine forest. "In solitude the imagi
strained, and stops enraptured to adore the
of renewal drew her thoughts gratefully up
inward, as "turn[ing] over in this solitude a
she read what she found on it.61 The intro
as she struggled to imagine a life apart fro
object once of his love and desire, now o
diated this: "I am not, I will not be, mere
you." "I am content to be wretched, but I w
loved, she mused, was a fiction, an "imag
she fought to free herself from the "delus
could not let go. "I cannot tear my affectio

55 Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication

56 Wardle, The Collected Letters, 299.
57 Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short R
58 Wardle, The Collected Letters, 296-297.
59 Ibid., 303.
60 Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence, 286.
61 Ibid., 289.
62 Wardle, The Collected Letters, 310, 313.
63 Ibid., 304, 311.


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Separations of Soul 651

stings me to the soul."64 Being in the comp

dependence. "I cannot live without ... a pass
society, than in solitude."65 As the journey ne
bearable. "I am unable to tear up by the roots
been the torment of my life," she wrote to Im
end!"66 No thoughts of God rose to sustain
saster. Back in London, she found Imlay living
to kill herself, this time very nearly succeedi
written to him from Norway; "now," she w

Solitude is border country, the boundary zon

possession of what Wollstonecraft would hav
ney, reflecting on her love for her child-t
mind-Wollstonecraft brooded on the "imp
life. "I have ... considered myself as a partic
mankind..,. alone, till some involuntary sympa
adhesion, made me feel that I was still part of
not sever myself... [even] by snapping the
self adheres to others in an involuntary re
sometimes depleting, always risky. Wollstonec
ago was strongly marked by her times, in mo
here. But to understand it, we need more than
as a protean cultural construct. We need a biog
as outward, to focus on the constitutive eleme
external determinants: we need to become stu
of psychology-as well as analysts of contex
64 Ibid., 303.
65 Ibid., 308.
66 Ibid., 316.
67 Ibid., 317.
68 Wollstonecraft, Letters Written during a Short Residence, 248-249.

Barbara Taylor teaches history at the University of East London. Her most
recent book is On Kindness (co-written with Adam Phillips; Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2009). Her previous publications include Eve and the New Jerusalem
(Virago, 1983; Harvard University Press, 1992), Mary Wollstonecraft and the
Feminist Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Women, Gender
and Enlightenment (co-edited with Sarah Knott; Palgrave, 2005). She is currently
writing a history of solitude in Enlightenment Britain.


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