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Women and Emigrants: Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay

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The Rediscovery of America
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Mary Wollstonecraft never crossed the Atlantic. Her youngest brother, Charles, emigrated to America, while another brother, James, took French citizenship. Mary herself became a United States citizen through her American lover, ‘Captain’ Gilbert Imlay, who had fought in the War of Independence although his highest rank was almost certainly only Lieutenant. James Wollstonecraft called Imlay ‘a fine, handsome fellow’, and Mary wrote him into one of her novels as an engaging though not very intelligent lover, who seduces a married woman and then so neglects her that she is driven to attempt suicide. The unfinished novel (Maria or the Wrongs of Woman) has a distinctly autobiographical flavour, though when Imlay and Mary became lovers she was not married, and was on record as saying that, in marriage, women’s bodies are ‘often legally prostituted’. Before he finally abandoned her to make her own suicide attempt, Imlay apparently promised Mary that they would migrate to America as soon as his business ventures had yielded £1000 — which Mary considered ‘sufficient to have procured a farm in America’. Imlay had not only himself speculated in the Kentucky lands, but had played his own part in heightening the general emigration fever through his Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792) and his three-volume novel The Emigrants published soon after he and Mary met.1

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© 1998 Stuart Andrews

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Andrews, S. (1998). Women and Emigrants: Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay. In: The Rediscovery of America. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-349-26936-5

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-349-26934-1

  • eBook Packages: Palgrave History CollectionHistory (R0)

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