“The True Key of the Universe Is Love”

Cayton - Love in the Time of Revolution - UNC Press

During a panel at this summer’s Revolution conference in Philadelphia, someone asked Annette Gordon-Reed whether she sees any hope for a synthesis of contemporary scholarship on race, class, and gender. She answered that she tries to achieve this by talking about people—that is, telling stories about particular lives.

Whether biography represents the culmination of decades of historical scholarship on identity and social power or an admission of its shortcomings is an interesting question. Either way, biography, including biographical microhistory, has a growing place in the field.[1] British and American historians have taken part in the “biographical turn” with special enthusiasm, though it is hardly unique to us.[2] 

With Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, Andrew Cayton advances biographical historiography by binding it unusually securely to two other trends in early American historiography: studies of print culture, broadly conceived, and studies of the Atlantic world as a system. Cayton builds the family life of Mary Wollstonecraft into the center of a narrative about what it could mean to be a revolutionary intellectual in the Atlantic republic of letters.

In this context, Cayton argues, the shattering of empires reverberated in the relationships of their subjects. Conversely, political radicals aimed, more than we often recognize, at redefining the way ordinary men and women related. Liberty, as they thought, should include the freedom of particular people to love, befriend, and sympathize with each other. The upshot of his story is that the revolutionary moment at the turn of the nineteenth century was curiously modern. The personal was already the political, liberalism already extended to the bedchamber, and Georgian Britain produced (we might say) red-diaper babies, who would transmute their parents’ radicalism into a cultural liberalism suitable for the Victorian realm.

In outline, Love in the Time of Revolution presents a familiar story. The book begins in Wollstonecraft’s adulthood, shortly after she has published the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as she struggles to cultivate real-life relationships that live up to her ideal of egalitarian intellectual “commerce” between men and women. That turns out to be more difficult than she anticipated. She develops a passionate attachment to painter Henry Fuseli and offers to move in, platonically, with him and his young wife. The offer is rejected.

The book then follows Wollstonecraft from London to revolutionary Paris, where she settles into a transatlantic circle that includes Thomas Paine, William Blake, William Godwin, Joel Barlow, and Joseph Priestley—and begins a sexual relationship with Gilbert Imlay, a shifty land speculator from New Jersey. She gives birth to a daughter, Fanny. Their ménage eventually falls apart because it embodies clashing ideas about liberty; Wollstonecraft’s ideal for love among the free is interdependence, but Imlay’s is independence. This is a charitable way of indicating that he enjoys sleeping with other women. Wollstonecraft attempts to drown herself.

Several months later, she falls in love with William Godwin, who may be (after Paine) the most notorious radical writer of the age. He is as awkward as she is needy. They disliked each other the first several times they met. But somehow, they begin to make sense to each other. Briefly, they are happy. Just over a year later, she dies after giving birth to their daughter Mary.

Thanks to Wollstonecraft’s influence, the bereaved Godwin’s work takes a turn for the sympathetic. He stops writing as if human societies ran like clockwork; now he understands the importance of “individualities,” “particulars,” and “romance” to human history.[3] Love has become the essence of history; Wollstonecraft has clarified for him the personal implications of revolution.

But Wollstonecraft’s relationships with Godwin and Imlay will also echo in the lives of their children, in ways that suggest revolution’s limits. In 1814, sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin will enter a similarly complicated sexual relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like her mother, she will see love as offering personal freedom. Unlike her mother, however, Mary Godwin Shelley will use love as a way of shutting out postrevolutionary society, rejecting its values and spurning its interest in her life. Love no longer seems likely to transform the world; it has become a way to escape it. And Mary’s half-sister Fanny, daughter of Gilbert Imlay, divided between worlds and family members, will lock herself in the bedroom of a Welsh inn, write a note asking her family to forget she ever existed, and extinguish herself with a bottle of laudanum. The age of revolutions will collapse into the age of romanticism. And this, in a strange process of sublimation that deserves a second book instead of a short concluding chapter, will underwrite middle-class liberal domesticity in the middle of the nineteenth century.

There are no new revelations in this narrative. But Cayton’s telling of this story, which draws extensively on recent biographies and makes good use of Janet Todd’s edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters, is sensitive and fluent. What makes Love in the Time of Revolution useful and original is that it marries each development in the lives of its characters (including members of the supporting cast like America’s Joel Barlow and several other women, like Catherine Macaulay and Mary Hays) to excellent close readings of their written work. Cayton has written not so much an intellectual biography as an intellectual prosopography, using Wollstonecraft’s life to give shape to a story about an entire generation of British, French, and American activists.

As a guide for future historical work, Love in the Time may also be useful because it argues that imagination is the beating heart of revolution. “A future readers could imagine,” Cayton writes, referring to novels, “was a future they might achieve” (223). Statecraft, violence, and alienation may stimulate action, but imagination feeds the bodies that fight. That allows Cayton to integrate fiction seamlessly into his story and evidence. In his account, fiction made revolution real in advance, transferring social authority from existing institutions to writers and readers who could envision alternatives. Love in the Time of Revolution thus may be a useful model for historians seeking to incorporate imaginative literature into accounts of concrete political and social change—though cause and effect, as always, are difficult to disentangle.

Just as importantly, the same insight is what allows Cayton to place women at the center of the transatlantic revolutionary moment. Visions of any future society are visions of life together, visions in which women as well as men (and their offspring) must thrive.  They might be excluded from full and direct participation in politics, but it was almost impossible to sustain the illusion that they might be excluded from the new world it would create.


[1] Examples may be unnecessary, but for early American studies alone, I have in mind Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008); Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007); Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (2007); Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse (2008); Carol Berkin’s Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimké Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant (2009); Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams (2009); G. J. Barker-Benfield, Abigail and John Adams: The Americanization of Sensibility (2010); Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons (2012); Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (2013); and David Waldstreicher’s ongoing project on Phillis Wheatley—to name only a few recent examples with unimpeachable race/class/gender credentials.

[2] See the conference “Toward a Biographical Turn? Biography in Modern Historiography—Modern Historiography in Biography” at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., reported in GHI Bulletin 35 (fall 2004) [PDF]; and Tom Wengraf, Prue Chamberlayne, and Joanna Bornat, “A Biographical Turn in the Social Sciences? A British-European View,” Critical Methodologies 2.2 (May 2002) [sub. req.].

[3] William Godwin, “Essay of History and Romance” (1797), quoted on 176.

One response

  1. That book sounds fascinating. It is exactly the type of thing I’ve been reading lately. I’m in the middle of writing a post about the political and the personal during the revolutionary era. Thanks for writing about this. I’m definitely getting that book.


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