ARCHIBALD HAMILTON ROWAN |
Rowan was feeling the separation from his wife and family very acutely. He eagerly awaited Sarah’s letters and was alarmed if they failed to arrive. He felt he had lost his wife’s affections and he blamed himself and his ‘ill usage and neglect’ of his family. Personal loneliness and political disillusionment weighed heavily on Rowan at this period. Just when he was most in need of a friend with whom to share his sorrows, fears and disappointments, he found one in the person of the remarkable Mary Wollstonecraft.
Along with some friends, Rowan attended a post-Terror festival in Paris in honour of the moderate revolutionary leader, Mirabeau who had been a great favourite of the Irish and English radicals before his death from natural causes in April 1791. Strolling amongst the crowd was a woman who spoke English and who was followed by a maid who held an infant in her arms. One of his friends told Rowan that the woman was Mary Wollstonecraft. Rowan was both surprised and shocked:
What?.....this is Mary Wollstonecraft, parading about with a child at her heels, with as little ceremony as if it were a watch she had just bought at the jeweller’s. So much for the rights of women thought I.
Wollstonecraft was thirty five and by this time, one of the best known English radicals of her generation. She had already established herself as a professional writer of distinction. Rowan almost certainly had read most of her better-known political works, some of which had been reprinted in the Northern Star, the newspaper of the Belfast United Irishmen. When Edmund Burke had attacked Wollstonecraft’s old friend, Rev. Dr Richard Price in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Mary Wollstonecraft was the first into print with a Vindication of the Rights of Men in defence of Price in 1790.
Barbara Taylor tells us of Mary’s rapid rise to fame:
(Her defence of Dr Price) was well received and she began to get a reputation. Two years later she followed up with a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her name ‘was bracketed’ with Tom Paine’s whose own Rights of Man appeared in 1791; she was commended in France and America, and fêted by fellow radicals in England (and Ireland).
Wollstonecraft’s publisher, Joe Johnson had his home and bookshop at 72 St. Paul’s Churchyard in London. In 1787, Johnson had brought the novice female writer into a formidable circle of Unitarian intellectuals, writers and artists. Dr Price, Dr Joseph Priestley, Thomas Christie and Erasmus Darwin were like Johnson, committed Unitarians who combined a theology they referred to as Rational Dissent with a social radicalism which led them all to be great supporters of the American and later the French Revolutions. Rowan’s old teacher, John Jebb had been a leading light in the circle but he had passed away in 1786, the year before Wollstonecraft came amongst them. William Godwin the philosopher (Wollstonecraft’s future husband) and Tom Paine the great propagandist of the American Revolution were also part of Johnson’s circle. William Blake was semi-detached from the circle, for although he shared their radical politics, his mysticism kept him at a distance from these scientific rationalists.
Wollstonecraft had come to Paris in 1792 to observe the progress of the French Revolution at first hand. Johnson had agreed that she could write her impressions of the situation in France for his magazine, The Analytical Review which he had founded with Thomas Christie. Christie had himself joined the battle against Burke on behalf of Dr Price when he published Letters on the Revolution in France in 1791. Christie had relocated to Paris and Wollstonecraft lodged in his house there and was on very friendly terms with his wife. Amongst the English speaking radicals who hung about Christie’s house was an American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay.
In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft had suggested that marriage, which denied women independence, was a form of prostitution. She seemed to put her radical theory of sexual politics into action when she fell in love with Imlay. Mary could support herself in Paris while Imlay was scratching a living, either as a businessman or perhaps as a spy. When she realised that she was pregnant with Imlay’s child, she changed her name to Mary Imlay and moved into his house.
Rowan believed that Mary had contracted this ‘republican marriage’ to avoid the internment that was introduced for English citizens in France in October 1793. Certainly some of Mary’s English friends were arrested, including Tom Paine, Helena Williams and her lover John Hurtford Stone.
Rowan never betrayed a friend or a confidence.
Mary’s daughter, Fanny Imlay was born in at Le Havre on 10th May 1794 just about the time Rowan was sampling the delights of his bed of straw at Roscoff. Fanny’s father was not displaying much enthusiasm for the joys of family life. By the time Rowan first caught sight of mother and baby, Wollstonecraft was beginning to suspect that Imlay’s frequent and prolonged absences on business were a prelude to her and her baby’s total abandonment by Imlay. When her republican experiment in free love ended in disillusionment and despair the following year, Mary tried to take her own life. Rev. William Drummond, Rowan’s biographer probably spoke for many when he observed that, while Mary had been ‘barbarously betrayed and deserted’ he could not resist remarking that her experiment ‘should never be repeated by any woman who places the slightest value on her honour.
Rowan however was of more generous heart and when he got over his initial shock at Mary’s flouting of convention, they became dear friends. He was delighted to visit Mary, and over a cup of tea they would have ‘an hour’s rational conversation’. Both talked longingly of the absent spouses, and when Mary said that no man and wife should stay together when love was dead, Rowan was deeply wounded. He felt he had treated his wife and family so neglectfully that he might have lost Sarah’s affections. Mary knew of what she spoke, when she assured Rowan that, ‘when a person we love is absent, all the faults he might have are diminished and his virtues augmented in proportion’. If Mary still loved Imlay, no doubt Sarah still loved Rowan.
Mary and Rowan had been delighted by the early stages of the French Revolution. Both had admired Mirabeau and the Girondists and both had been sickened by the onset of the Terror and the sight of blood that flowed in torrents at the foot of the guillotine. However Rowan appears to have been sympathetic to Robespierre, whom Mary regarded as a ‘monster’.
Rowan’s letters to his wife seem to indicate that he had become disillusioned with ‘reform and the other word that begins with r’. There may be an element of Rowan telling Sarah what he knew she wanted very much to hear. His disgust at the bloody execution of Robespierre’s adherents by their erstwhile comrades is patently genuine, as was his disillusionment with the petty tyrannies of revolutionary government. Mary could see beyond the immediate difficulties to better times ahead:
‘……These evils are passing away, a new spirit has gone forth, to organise the body politic…..Reason has at last, shown her captivating face, beaming with benevolence; and it will be impossible for the dark hand of despotism again to obscure its radiance, or the lurking dagger of subordinate tyrants to reach her bosom’.
Mary was fortunate to have Rowan’s company and friendship at this point, for most of her English friends had left Paris and poor Tom Paine was still languishing in prison. Even the climate served to chill Mary’s worried, longing and lonely heart.
The winter of 1794-95 was one of the coldest on record. The Seine froze; so did the fountains. The Convention had abolished more price controls, the cost of bread rose, and the freezing of harbours like Le Havre on the Normandy coast prevented the import of emergency grain. People died of starvation; wolves howled at the gates of Paris. Coal was scarce and queues lengthened’.
Much and all as Mary wished to stay in France, she left Paris for Imlay’s house at Le Havre in the spring. Imlay was still in London on business and eventually Mary departed to join him there in April 1795.
Rowan had been getting letters from Sarah urging him to leave France for America. When he agreed and made his plans known to Mary, she readied the house in Le Havre for him to stay while he awaited his transatlantic passage.
Mary Wollstonecraft left for England and never saw Rowan again.
On reaching London, she found that all along, Imlay had been living with a young actress; she was distraught and tried to drown herself in the Thames. She slowly recovered and wrote to Rowan on a number of occasions. Her letters are frank and affectionate and make it clear that she regarded Rowan as a beloved friend and confidant. She eventually got over Imlay and married William Godwin in March of 1797. In August, Mary gave birth to a daughter who became almost as famous as her mother as Mary Shelley. Ten days later Mary Wollstonecraft was dead.
Godwin consoled himself by writing Mary’s life story in such frank terms that he ruined her reputation for a few generations. When he acknowledged that Mary took particular gratification in her relationship with Rowan, some reviewers chose to believe that this was code for suggesting that Wollstonecraft and Rowan were lovers. These reviewers were not sympathetic to Mary’s views and wished to portray her as a loose woman. Even by Godwin’s very open and honest account, Mary had only four loves in her life, Fanny Blood, Henry Fuesli, Gilbert Imlay and Godwin. There is no basis for believing that in the case of Blood and Feuesli there was any sexual consummation. On at least two occasions in her life, Mary Wollstonecraft loved not too wisely but too well. However she was not a loose woman and William Godwin, unluckily for Mary’s reputation, never wrote in code. Whether Mary Wollstonecraft and Rowan ever shared a warm bed during that frozen Paris winter is not relevant to our story. That the greatest radical English female of the Eighteenth century befriended Archibald Hamilton Rowan, when his spirit was at a low ebb, and helped him steady his emotional and political nerve is all that matters here.
Dublin Unitarian Church
This is a small extract from the next book by Fergus Whelan, this is copyrighted material.
Fergus Whelan author of Dissent into Treason,
Unitarians, King-killers and the Society of the United Irishmen.
(see back cover)