That Time Mary Wollstonecraft Traveled to Scandinavia Searching for a Treasure Ship (and Found a Manifesto Instead)
In the Nineteenth Letter of Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, she informs her unnamed recipient, “Do not forget that in my general observations, I do not pretend to sketch a national character; but merely to note the present state of morals and manners, as I trace the progress of the world’s improvement…my principal object has been to take such a dispassionate view of men as will lead me to form a just idea of the nature of man.”
The result is one of the most unorthodox eighteenth-century travel narratives, a mixture of vivid description, Romantic rhapsody, pointed social commentary, and veiled scorn for her long-time lover, Gilbert Imlay. Remarkably, these disparate threads cohere into a kind of field study of “the nature of man” in an area well off the beaten-path of the Grand Tour, which few men (and no women) had explored in print.
Like many travel narratives of her day (Montagu, Smollett, etc.), Wollstonecraft compiles a series of letters to a veiled confidant, in order to give the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity. Of course, like those famous writers, she carefully edited and arranged these letters, no doubt removing some of the more incriminating details, while keeping just enough in to hint at a narrative thread. Indeed, the hand of a practiced writer of fiction is evident in many letters, as well as one acquainted with the pathetic stamp of the Gothic novelists. Quite often, an account of Swedish hospitality will fade into a lament for “my babe [her child, Fanny] who may never experience father’s care or tenderness. The bosom that nurtured her, heaved with a pang at the thought which only an unhappy mother could feel.”
Though Wollstonecraft reveals little of her personal life beyond these asides, we now know the full story which prompted her journey to Scandinavia with only her infant and nursemaid in tow. In 1795, Wollstonecraft had attempted suicide after her lover, the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, had taken up with another woman. After nursing her back to health (more or less), Imlay came up with a proposition to either restore her spirits or spirit her conveniently out of the country: she would travel to Scandinavia to recover a treasure ship Imlay owned that had gone astray (with a total value of several thousand pounds).
As he pinned their financial future on the restoration of the vessel, Wollstonecraft must have hoped that recovering it would prove her worth to her straying lover; or perhaps she merely wanted to safeguard her own ‘treasure,’ her daughter, Fanny, then just over a year old. It was a dangerous time to travel, as in the summer of 1795 most of Europe was at war with France, making a young woman without a male chaperone particularly vulnerable. One wonders whether Imlay secretly hoped she wouldn’t survive the voyage.
Yet she not only survived, but used the experience to travel widely throughout Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, writing letter after letter to her lover, always with an eye toward publication. She must have known that whatever came of her mission, Imlay couldn’t be counted on to support her or her daughter; only a book could save her now, and one that would capture the imagination of a world teetering on the edge of Revolution and Romanticism. While much quieter than her earlier salvo, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the Letters pursue their own revolutionary agenda, attempting to ferret out the rights of men and women in a land which, for her, existed at the very edge of Western civilization.
Despite her open-mindedness, Wollstonecraft finds little to like in Scandinavian society, which reeks of the hidebound convention she had longed to escape in England. Like Smollett’s earlier Travels Through Italy and France (1766), Wollstonecraft could be savage in her dismissal of the national character — despite her later claim that she was taking a “dispassionate view of men.” She often complains that people so addicted to hospitality are in want of the finer virtues: “in other words, a fondness for social pleasures in which the mind not having its proportion of exercise, a bottle must be pushed about.” Though some of her male hosts praise her (with dismay, no doubt) for asking “men’s questions,” she fails to return the compliment:
“They have no university; and nothing that deserves the name of science is taught; nor do individuals, by pursuing any branch of knowledge, excite a degree of curiosity which is the forerunner of improvement.” In these countries, she discovers a land where “knowledge is not absolutely necessary to enable a considerable portion of the community to live,” and therefore, was tossed to the dogs as so many leftovers. If she had hoped to find men unspoiled by the vices of civilization, she finds instead a people too concerned with the whens and wheres of life to ever ask why.
Even more disturbing is what she perceives as a lack of sentiment among the women, who emerge as household drudges, unfailing polite but without life or imagination. Because of this, love is corrupted into a business, a mere bartering for sex and marriage: “the sensuality so prevalent appears to me to arise rather from indolence of mind, and dull senses, than from an exuberance of life.” And how could it be otherwise, when women have even less freedom than they enjoyed in England? She notes with displeasure how “there is a kind of interregnum between the reign of the father and the husband, which is the only period of freedom and pleasure the women enjoy.”
This echoes her views in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, when she argues, “if woman be allowed to have an immortal soul, she must have, as the employer of life, an understanding to improve.” A woman could never improve if she was eternally playing the host to some father-figure, and when even the men lacked universities and cultivation of mind, what hope was there for their wives and daughters?
When the towns and cities fail her, Wollstonecraft retreats to the rivers and stones. These natural wonders provide a healing balm to her wrecked soul, ravaged not only from Imlay’s deceit but the horrors of the French Revolution, which she had witnessed first-hand. As she writes in the First Letter,
How silent and peaceful the scene. I gazed around with
rapture, and felt more of the spontaneous pleasure which
gives credibility to our expectation of happiness, than
I had felt for a long, long time before. I forgot the
horrors I had witnessed in France, which had cast a
gloom over all nature, and suffering the enthusiasm of
my character, too often, gracious God! damped by the
tears of disappointed affection, to be lighted up afresh,
care took wing while simple fellow feeling expanded my
This passage bears a strong resemblance to Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” (1797), which speaks of the restorative power of nature to heal a troubled soul. The passage must have irked Imlay, who alone understood what she meant by the “tears of disappointed affection,” and presumably only had eyes for the business at hand (perhaps the very reason she coyly omits it).
At a certain point, Imlay no longer seems to share her confidence at all, as Wollstonecraft writes increasingly to what sounds like a sympathetic female confidant. Her letters grow more rhapsodic, and passages of pure description push aside the more practical concerns of day-to-day travel. In this sense, she seems to be writing to her infant daughter, who would one day take up the book to enlarge her understanding. Passages of the sublimity of nature seem geared, in true Wordsworthian fashion, to keep her alive to the wonder of rainbows:
With what ineffable pleasure have I not gazed — and gazed
again, losing my breath through my eyes — my very soul
diffused itself in the scene — and, seeming to become all
senses, glided in the scarcely-agitated waves, melting
in the freshening breeze…more beautiful even than the
lovely slopes in the winding shore before me.
The contrast of the ‘living’ world with the ‘dead’ people who inhabit it is sometimes too strong for Wollstonecraft to bear. If she was searching for a “just idea of the nature of man,” she finds little to justify her optimism — or any hope for her daughter’s future. In one of the most prophetic moments of the book, she imagines a world where even these Northern wastes are inhabited by an ever-expanding humanity, surging to the breaking-point: “Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him. Where was he to fly from universal famine? Do not smile: I really became distressed for these fellow creatures, yet unborn. The images fastened on me, and the world appeared a vast prison.”
Though few could imagine the terrible legacy of the Industrial Revolution, then just beginning to chug away, Wollstonecraft knew that power is never satisfied with ruling a single spot of earth. The empire must be ever-expanded, tracts of sublime desolation made to serve more mercantile pursuits. Before long, children will have no green space to play in, and ultimately, no food to eat in the face of mankind’s mindless gluttony. She imagines this as a future “a million or two years” to come, an exaggeration which perhaps explains why she came north in the first place: to see a primal world before the fires of industry pollute it beyond recognition.
In some sense, the damage is already done. While nature still had its charms to offer, mankind was a portrait of blight. For even here, among the relative simplicity of Scandinavian society, people betrayed the cruelty which had swept across France and Europe. Observing the aftermath of a public execution, she remarks,
What a spectacle for humanity! The seeing such a flock
of gazers, plunged me into a train of reflections, on
the pernicious effects produced by false notions of
justice. And I am persuaded that till capital
punishments be entirely abolished, executions ought to
have every appearance of horror give to them; instead of
being, as they are now, a scene of amusement for the
gaping crowd, where sympathy is quickly effaced by
As someone keenly interested in the education of children, she is always alert to bad parenting and stifled childhoods. The child is father to the man, as Wordsworth would write, and Wollstonecraft saw too many children learn hatred at their parents’ side. When suffering becomes an idle amusement, who would willingly espouse compassion or mercy? Her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, would channel these ideas (and perhaps this very passage) in her famous novel, Frankenstein (1818) with the public execution of the innocent servant, Justine Moritz, which breaks the innocent soul of Elizabeth Frankenstein.
Whatever her motivations for the journey, Wollstonecraft never forgot that she was writing for two people now. The Letters not only stood to feed and clothe her daughter, but to educate her, particularly when she could no longer be at her side. The women of Scandinavia constantly reminded her of the difficulties Fanny would face as she came of age in a world of institutional misogyny. As she writes in Letter Six,
I feel more than a mother’s fondness and anxiety, when I
reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex.
I dread last she should be forced to sacrifice her heart
to her principles, or principles to her heart…I dread to
unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the
world she is to inhabit-Hapless woman! What a fate is
Again, her talent for prophecy bore uncanny fruit, as Fanny’s life would be a tragic one; she committed suicide at 22, shortly after her half-sister, Mary, ran off with the poet, Percy Shelley. Clearly Mary had committed her mother’s book to heart, as she was determined not to sacrifice her principles for anyone — especially not her domineering father and stepmother. She must have also known the passage in Letter Eleven when Wollstonecraft laments, “How few authors or artists have arrived at eminence who have not lived by their employment?” Mary was soon forced to do just that, and began her career by writing one of the most iconic works in the English language; a work, notably, that begins with a series of letters from a solitary traveler venturing deep into the frozen North.