I recently came across two oddly similar stories about Englishwomen in Paris. Both women came to the city to work, both became pregnant with men they met in Paris, both had baby girls while living with these men. But the men, absorbed in their work, grew distant. The women found solace in writing; their work was published. Both ended up meeting and marrying other men and having a second child by these husbands.
One is a contemporary story― that of Catherine Sanderson, author of Petite Anglaise, a blog and then a “blook” (book based on a blog). She wrote about the intimate details of her life in Paris, referring to her first child as “Tadpole” and the child’s father as “Mr. Frog.” Her posts were followed by hundreds of readers, who offered advice, consolation, and admonitions as she had an affair, left Mr. Frog, broke up with the other man, struggled as a single mother, and eventually found happiness. You can read all about it on her website. A testament to the strangeness of life in the early 21st century.
The other woman’s experiences constitute a testament to the strangeness of life in the 1790s. The Revolution had broken out, and the massacre of prisoners in September 1792 had scared off most expatriates. Yet one Englishwoman, a sufficiently unusual one that she worked as a freelance writer, headed for Paris to find out for herself what was going on and to send back a report to her publisher. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft, and she was the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Mary arrived in December 1792, only to find that the friends she had planned to stay with had left Paris. Fortunately, they left a message that she could live in their house on the rue Meslée (today the rue Meslay). Unfortunately, the servants were unhelpful (they put her in a remote room on an upper floor), and Mary’s spoken French was not very good. An unpromising start.
The rue Meslée was close to the Temple fortress, where King Louis XVI was imprisoned. Mary saw him pass in his coach on the way to his trial on December 26 (shown in the image below). She was frightened and disturbed by the event and wrote to her publisher:
I cannot dismiss the lively images that have filled my imagination all the day―Nay, do not smile, but pity me; for, once or twice, lifting my eyes from the paper, I have seen eyes glare through a glass-door opposite my chair, and bloody hands shook at me. Not the distant sound of a footstep can I hear. My apartments are remote from those of the servants, the only persons who sleep with me in an immense hotel… I wish I had even kept the cat with me! I want to see something alive; death in so many frightful shapes has taken hold of my fancy. I am going to bed―and for the first time in my life, I cannot put out the candle.
She was still staying in the house when Louis went to his execution nearly a month later.
Why didn’t she leave? For one thing, she had begun to make some new friends in the group of expatriates who gathered at White’s Hotel in the passage des Petits Pères. For another, she was invited to contribute to a plan for education in the new republic. And third, she fell in love with an American businessman, Gilbert Imlay. In the upheaval of the Revolution, life was precious and the normal rules of relationships did not apply. She embarked on an affair with Imlay.
By the summer, English residents of Paris were in danger. The English had denounced the execution of the king and the two countries were on the brink of war. Mary’s hosts from the rue Meslée owned a cottage just outside the city in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and sent her there, with a gardener to look after her. She lived in Neuilly during the summer of 1793, working on a book about the Revolution, and waiting for Imlay’s visits.
To visit Neuilly, he had to pass through the barrier in the wall that encircled Paris in those days. On his visiting days, Mary would go to meet him, and she later spoke of his “barrier face” ―his expression of pleasure at the sight of her.
Writing a book on the Revolution without being in central Paris wasn’t easy, but Mary was able to do some on-the-spot reporting when she visited the Palace of Versailles, now an empty, echoing shell, filled with ghosts:
How silent is now Versailles!—The solitary foot that mounts the sumptuous stair-case rests on each landing-place, whilst the eye traverses the void, almost expecting to see the strong images of fancy burst into life.—The train of the Louises, like the posterity of the Banquoes, pass in solemn sadness, pointing at the nothingness of grandeur, fading away on the cold canvass, which covers the nakedness of the spacious walls—whilst the gloominess of the atmosphere gives a deeper shade to the gigantic figures, that seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.
That autumn, she returned to live with Imlay in Paris in the St-Germain area (probably the rue Jacob). Shortly thereafter she became pregnant. To protect her, Imlay registered her as his wife, which gave her the status of an American citizen. (The United States supported the French Revolution, so she was no longer an enemy alien.) When all English residents were rounded up and imprisoned, she remained free, able to visit them and keep them in touch with the outside world.
The Revolution was good business for men like Imlay. He saw opportunities in rising prices and trade embargoes. When he moved his base of operations to Le Havre, Mary went with him. She finished her book there, and gave birth to a girl―officially named Françoise, but generally known as Fanny―in May 1794. The three lived together as a family for a few months before Imlay went to London on business and Mary returned to Paris.
Mary’s return journey to Paris was difficult (the coach overturned four times) and her future was uncertain. Although the Terror had ended in July 1794, most of her English friends had left the city after being released from prison. Mary had little money and single motherhood left her no time for work. That winter was also one of the coldest Paris had ever experienced―the Seine froze, food was scarce, and some Parisians starved to death.
Mary’s relationship with Imlay had become strained, and she suspected there was another woman in his life. Nevertheless, Imlay asked her to return to London.
Once again, why did she stay? Mary wanted to bring up her daughter in France. Although the radical feminism of the early Revolution had been crushed during the Terror, women in France were still better off than women in England. The tide of English public opinion had swung against equal rights, as part of a strong reaction to the Revolution. On balance, Mary felt that republican Paris offered greater freedom than repressive London.
But she had no money and no resources, so she gave in and reluctantly went back to England in April 1795. She must have regretted leaving Paris. Imlay had indeed met another woman, and Mary was so unhappy in London she attempted suicide. Twice.
Eventually, she met and married the writer William Godwin, and had a second daughter by him in 1797. But Mary did not live long after the birth of her second child, another daughter, christened Mary Godwin, who much later went on to elope with Percy Bysshe Shelley and write Frankenstein. But that is another story.
Mary Wollstonecraft is buried in London, but I suspect she left her heart in Paris.
Text copyright Philippa Campsie