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  • Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818 by Andrew Cayton
  • Tamara Harvey (bio)
Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818. Andrew Cayton. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 351 pp.

The radical idea at the heart of Andrew Cayton's Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818 is that social and political transformation should be founded on natural or social commerce, the open exchange of ideas and affections unimpeded by the conventions and strictures of established institutions, whether monarchy, monopoly, or marriage. The risk is solipsism and abuse in the name of freedom, but when successful this form of revolution fostered social justice, outlined new possibilities for international exchange among new and transformed nations, and promised economic opportunities for the middling classes. Cayton explores ideas about social commerce, particularly between men and women in the decades during and immediately following the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century, through the tangled lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Gilbert Imlay, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, and Percy Shelley. The scandals of these two generations are well known, though not often explored through the lens of transatlanticism that governs this text. For Cayton, this group of people provides insight into "the foundation of revolution," that is, "the ability to imagine one's self as a malleable historical actor living among other historical actors who could (in conversation with others) revise themselves and thus reinvent society" (10). Both in how they lived and, just as importantly, how they wrote, Wollstonecraft, Imlay, [End Page 242] and Godwin in particular "chang[ed] the ways in which English-speaking people understood change because they focused on form as well as content" (10). The claim to transatlanticism must rest largely on the involvement of Imlay, the only American among the central figures, but it is also evident in Cayton's stress on literary discourses developed in novels and essays; the conversation of educated, mixed-gender groups; and, more generally, radicalism associated with revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the heart of this book, both structurally and sentimentally speaking, is the Wollstonecraft-I mlay-Godwin triangle. Wollstonecraft and Imlay met in Paris in 1793, not long after the execution of Louis XVI. Both were radicals, but Cayton writes, "whereas she was there to help promote change in Europe through education and writing, he was there to promote change in North America through trade and war" (55). They fell in love, spoke of buying a farm together in the western territories of America, and declared themselves united in a kind of common law marriage both as a political expedient—it protected Wollstonecraft in a French republic more accepting of Americans than British subjects—and as "an expression of their firm belief in a social order defined by consent and natural commerce rather than coercion and artificial institutions" (97). But when Wollstonecraft became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Fanny, Imlay left to pursue business interests that took advantage of shifting political, economic, and military conditions among European and now American nations. He also became involved with a series of other women. Cayton treats this change simultaneously as sexually and emotionally self-serving and as a manifestation of the conflicts arising between Imlay's investment in neutral commerce among economic actors unimpeded by trade restrictions and monopoly and the commitment to social commerce he shared with Wollstonecraft.

In the last throes of their relationship, after Imlay had left her and their daughter and taken up with another woman, Wollstonecraft traveled to Scandinavia in order to collect money for Imlay from a former business associate. The literary result, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, drew the attention of William Godwin, whom she soon married, only to die giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley) just months later. More than what they tell us about these individuals, Letters and Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" are significant in Cayton's telling as influential examples [End Page 243] of imaginative historical writing informed...


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pp. 242-246
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