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Gilbert Imlay was a man not of one, but of many lives. His shifting identities equipped him as “a prototype of the American conman” (1), whose survival depended upon the continual reinvention of himself. Imlay has been described as “unscrupulous, independent, courageous, a dodger of debts to the poor, a deserter, a protector of the helpless, a revolutionist, a man of enlightenment beyond his age, a greedy and treacherous land booster” but as his biographer, Wil Verhoeven points out, he was “all of these and more” (1).
This is the first book length biography of a man who is more commonly marginalised as the infamous lover of Mary Wollstonecraft. For nearly a decade, Verhoeven has been on the trail of the elusive Imlay, who spent much of his life in clandestine trafficking, dodging creditors and absconding from his responsibilities. Verhoeven has tracked down rare archival materials, ranging from legal transcripts to the family papers, secreted away in a relative’s proverbial drawer or shoe-box. Missing correspondences have been unearthed, along with traces of his business relations with better-known American comrades including James Wilkinson, Daniel Boone, John Filson, George Rogers Clark, and Benjamin Sebastian. Lost connections have been forged, absent contexts restored, family histories resurrected and Imlay’s surreptitious movements mapped
A fourth generation emigrant from Scotland, Imlay was born in Imlaystone, a town named after his family. This represents an indelible imprint of persons on place and one repeated by Imlay through his land-jobbing and writings, which included The Emigrants (1793), America’s first frontier novel, which doubled as a travel book, and his topographical study of the western territories. Born in New Jersey in the New World, Imlay would die 74 years later in Jersey of the Old World. Between these fixed points was a passage, which transported Imlay into what Verhoeven describes as “reverse transatlantic emigration”.5
A more sinister crossing of the Atlantic in which Imlay was implicated, was that of the enforced emigration of African slaves. Verhoeven is the first person to lay bare his involvement in the triangular trade as half owner of a slave ship, previously published in the William and Mary Quarterly (October 2006). This was Imlay’s passport to escape the Kentucky land-bubble, which had been precipitated by the end of hostilities between Britain and her colonies. Imlay was not unaccustomed to the sight of slaves during his upbringing in New Jersey, which had been a major transit port for slave labour shipped out to other colonies, while his second cousin John Imlay was a slave owner. Verhoeven has revealed how in 1786 Imlay tried using four slaves as human currency instead of cash money. His fellow slavers had hoped to procure 150 Africans from the Guinea Coast, provided that their cargo did not mutiny. They succeeded in exceeding their estimates by nearly thirty but due to particularly harsh conditions at sea, over half were wiped out by disease. Imlay, along with two other slave-owners, sustained massive losses even after attempts to salvage the damage.
His machinations led to him being pursued by sheriffs for debt and fraud. Outlawed, Imlay fled to Europe, arriving in England around the autumn of 1787, the year which saw the founding of the London Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. One of its most avid supporters was Mary Wollstonecraft, who would write seven years later to Imlay about “speculating merchants….These men, like the owners of negro ships, never smell on their money the blood by which it has been gained, but sleep quietly in their beds, terming such occupations lawful callings” (83). There is no evidence that she was aware of her bed-fellow’s earlier trafficking in this bloody trade. It is more likely that she regarded him as a fellow abolitionist, as he had also written against the slave trade.
It was not only Imlay’s career in commerce which was marked by such contradictions, but also his approach to sexual politics as Verhoeven reveals. In his arguments against the subjugation of women in marriage, Imlay continued to reinforce traditional stereotypes of female subordination. For example, in A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1792) which envisioned a utopia across the Allegheny Mountains, he writes: “Women are permitted to enjoy all the privileges, and all that protection, to which reason and delicacy entitle them” (137). In his Jacobin novel, The Emigrants, where more liberal divorce laws are favoured for women, they are described as “helpless beings….whose weakness demands [men’s] most liberal support.” (135) Here feminine weakness is taken to the perverse lengths of what Verhoeven describes as “Gothic voyeurism” (136) embodying “the eroticisation of the heroine’s wounds, which made her, in the words of the novel, “more lovely than ever” (136). The sexual narrative is built up on essentialist expressions such as his “fair captive” (136) and a “‘delicacy that is peculiar to the softness of [the female] sex’ which thrives in the strong manly arms of America” (137).
Imlay’s Topographical Description, which had captured the gestalt as a land-mark text, opened up a gulf between the author and his aspirations. It was hailed as a gateway to a New Canaan for emigrants yet had been written by a land-speculator and agent, who had swindled people out of their land and would continue to default on his debts. (More prosaically, Wollstonecraft had commented upon her lover’s extraordinary generosity and lavish living, but tight-fistedness when it came to supporting their love child Fanny Imlay.) The popularity of the book, which ran to several editions, was partly due to its re-enacting, Kentucky style, Rousseau’s notion of the Noble Savage while holding out the promise of “physiocratic progress and Jacobin perfectibility” (101) .
Physiocracy was the revolutionary doctrine that liberty was not so much the pre-condition of prosperity as its end-product. Imlay, the hard-headed business pragmatist did not envisage a Romanticist utopian preservation of nature, but an opening up of land development in the western territories. It was a variation on the credo of American expansionism, intended to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, known as Manifest Destiny. Imlay’s vision was of a secessionist utopia, centred in the West rather than on the Eastern sea-board, which he associated with the petering out of Puritan ideals. The inspiration for Imlay’s Promised Land was not the American but the French Revolution. The more prosaic pressures of court cases and creditors had caused Imlay to become a fugitive in his own land. He fled to Europe, where he became involved in negotiations with the French to oust the Spaniards from Louisiana. The Spanish threat thwarted American imperial ambitions of Kentucky becoming the epicentre of the New World, owing to its strategic access to the Mississippi river. Verhoeven’s research has revealed that in 1793, Imlay proposed to the Girondins that he would lead a small army to foment rebellion in Kentucky against Spanish influence and interests. But the plan collapsed with the fall of the Girondins and the guillotining of their spokesperson Jean-Pierre Brissot, with whom Imlay had been negotiating.
Apart from anything else, Imlay may have hoped for the military glory that had eluded him, while he had served as a Regimental Pay Master on the side of the patriots, during the American Revolution, until his resignation probably in July 1778. His support of revolution continued in France, even after the Terror had broken out, possibly on the grounds that running ships against the British blockade would help the republican government feed a starving people. Verhoeven revisits Wollstonecraft’s covert expedition to Sweden to help recover Imlay’s lost ship with its cargo of silver, derived from melting down Church treasures. While Imlay knew how to extract gold, or rather silver, from the crucible of war, he never mastered the art of holding on to it and even sacrificed his relationship with Wollstonecraft for the pursuit of lady luck.
In his final chapter, Verhoeven presents a rather dubious explanation for Imlay’s neglect and dropping of his relationship with Wollstonecraft and their daughter, Fanny. He claims: “If Imlay’s treatment of Wollstonecraft has become one of literary history’s most notorious sagas of a lover’s betrayal and abandonment, this is only because it has always been assumed and expected that both partners were from the beginning equally committed to their relationship. They were not” (177). Verhoeven goes on to refer to Imlay’s desire for a “zest for life” as the reason why “presumably ….he was…not ready to commit himself at that point” (178). This particular moment was 10 August 1794, which was two years into the start of their relationship and three months after Wollstonecraft had given birth to their daughter. The evidence suggests Imlay “at that point” as having reneged on his previous commitment to Wollstonecraft. At the start of their relationship, their love had been mutual, fired by sexual passion and sustained by the plans they were making for a future together, which neither believed needed to be enforced by marriage. As Wollstonecraft wrote to him a year earlier, around August 1793: “You can scarcely imagine with what Pleasure I anticipate the day, when we are to begin almost to live together; and you would smile to hear how many plans of employment I have in my head, now that I am confident my heart has found peace in your bosom”. Surely such self-assurance could not have been reached unilaterally? It seems hardly likely that Wollstonecraft would have entered into a sexual relationship with a man, who was not yet ready to commit himself to her, despite his “zest for life”. Despite his assertion, Verhoeven provides no evidence to suggest that Imlay was not equally committed at the onset of their relationship. What he describes as Wollstonecraft’s “erotomania” (184) and her being “aggressively possessive” is not borne out in the substantiating extract of her letter, written to Imlay in January 1794. Here she writes that she is not a “parasite-plant” and describes her lover in language more traditionally associated with the seductive female: “You have, by your tenderness and worth, twisted yourself more artfully round my heart than I supposed possible” (184).
Even though we only have Wollstonecraft’s side of the correspondence and one that was edited in her favour by her husband William Godwin, she was not the only person to see Imlay as a potential life partner. His business colleague Joel Barlow in a letter to his wife Ruth predicted that Wollstonecraft would be going to America as the wife of Gilbert Imlay, whom he describes as “of Kentucky and a very sensible man”. More accurate is Verhoeven’s exposure of Imlay as a cheat and a swindler, who was engaged in “wartime racketeering and rogue trading” (30). It seems likely that his dubious attributes in being a “nimble-footed” operator (80) and adept at “smooth-talking” (179) were more than capable of crossing seamlessly from his business dealings into the bedroom. As courtroom transcripts testify, Imlay had the knack of persuading people to part with their money, their land and their best interests. Verhoeven refers to them as his “victims” (77). They too, like Wollstonecraft, went on to suffer betrayal and abandonment. Her ultimate rejection was when Imlay’s new mistress refused her proposal for a ménage a trios, prompting another suicide attempt. By now Wollstonecraft should have realised that she had been in a threesome all along, only with Imlay’s seemingly most enduring love – commerce.
This is not a biography about vindication since Imlay defies exoneration. Its great value lies in the traversing of new territory in a life-story through which Verhoeven has documented “a paradigmatic figure of his time” (4). Imlay lived through the American and French revolutions and was shaped by the great clashing forces of modernity, Enlightenment, millennium utopianism and entrepreneurial commerce. His reverberating story as retold through Verhoeven’s pioneering scholarship will be of interest to Romanticists, historians of early American history and scholars of eighteenth-century English and American literature and women’s studies.
Marie Mulvey-Roberts is a Reader in Literary Studies at the English Department of the University of the West of England, Bristol. Her most recent publication is an annotated scholarly edition of The Collected Letters of Rosina Bulwer Lytton, 3 vols (London, Pickering and Chatto, 2008). Currently she is working on a biography of Rosina and her family.