Andrew Cayton: History, Romance, and Conversations with Dead People

Love in the Time of Revolution by Andrew CaytonToday we welcome a guest post from Andrew Cayton, author of Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818. In 1798, English essayist and novelist William Godwin ignited a transatlantic scandal with Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Most controversial were the details of the romantic liaisons of Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, with both American Gilbert Imlay and Godwin himself. Wollstonecraft’s life and writings became central to a continuing discussion about love’s place in human society. Literary radicals argued that the cultivation of intense friendship could lead to the renovation of social and political institutions, whereas others maintained that these freethinkers were indulging their own desires with a disregard for stability and higher authority. Through correspondence and novels, Andrew Cayton finds an ideal lens to view authors, characters, and readers all debating love’s power to alter men and women in the world around them.

In the following guest post, Cayton describes how his intrigue in the personal letters of prominent nineteenth century figures, and the complex psychologies within, inspired a book that is historical in content but borrows from romantic narratives in form and tone.


Love in the Time of Revolution is in part a response to a long simmering dissatisfaction with the antiseptic neatness of my own scholarship. More than three decades ago, doing research for a dissertation on political culture in early Ohio, I went through the papers of a prominent figure in nineteenth-century Cincinnati. It quickly became obvious that I was not going to find much about politics. Most of the letters were from the man to the fiancée he had left behind in Rhode Island. Their topics were personal and quotidian. I should have moved on to the next collection. But I couldn’t.

Two dead people were suddenly no longer dead. They were a young woman and a young man in love: flirting, quarreling, and imagining possibilities. When she joined him in Cincinnati and the letters abruptly stopped, I was disappointed and seriously frustrated. No longer privy to their conversations, I would never know what happened to them. Factual details I could find: when their children were born, where they lived, when they died. But as living people, they had ceased to exist. I know no longer knew them.

The pleasure the perusal of this correspondence afforded me did not entirely assuage my feelings of guilt about indulging in a frivolous diversion from real work. You’re a historian, I reminded myself. If you want to write about a love affair, write a novel. It took a long time to realize just how mistaken I was. Innovative studies of women, gender, sexuality, family, literature, and history itself persuaded me that romantic love was an important subject of historical inquiry. But while scholars taught me a lot about the structures of thought and emotion, they did not teach me much about the process of thinking and feeling. The problem was as much a question of form and tone as content.

My most useful conversations about this rhetorical challenge were with the people who became the central characters of Love in the Time of Revolution: Mary Wollstonecraft, Gilbert Imlay, William Godwin, Fanny Imlay Godwin, Mary Hays, and Mary Godwin Shelley, among others. I made their acquaintance in desultory fashion. I started reading books published in North America and Great Britain between 1754 and 1815 looking for women and men who would resist, maybe defy, and certainly subvert my scholarly inclination to drain them of life in order to categorize them. I wanted to know them as something more psychologically complex, more unfinished, less defined than disembodied figures quoted in support of an argument. If I could, I would follow them embracing the radical possibilities of self-government, enduring the consequences of their choices, and striving to make sense of them.

Meeting these people as interlocutors more than as subjects, I learned how much they had to teach me. Like I, they were less interested in what individuals did than in how and why they behaved as they did and, as important, in the highly contingent stories they told about themselves in retrospect. They preferred to explore these questions within the still relatively new genre of novels, or personal histories. Relating the entangled lives of imagined women and men, they confronted the limits of human power, human comprehension, and human liberty. They emphasized mistakes, misunderstandings, and mutual confusion, narrating experience as a fluid, erratic, and frequently contradictory mixture of personal and public moments, expectations and regrets. Above all, they suggested that individuals who spurned social commerce under the illusion that they could manage on their own were doomed to misery and failure.

Conversations with these friends—or more precisely, engagement with their writing—led me to rethink my assumptions about the relationship between history and literature. I had no interest in creating fiction. I like the discipline of history, especially the requirements that I support what I say with evidence and that I not ignore inconvenient evidence. But I wanted to write a book with emotional as well as intellectual depth. And so, borrowing elements of form and tone from fictional personal histories, I attempted a narrative of a love affair informed by the sensibility of a novelist.

I hope readers will find in Love in the Time of Revolution a history of the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft and the American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, two strangers falling in and out of love, and of the ironic and often painful impact of their choices on a host of people, including us. If I’m lucky, readers will encounter a history of women and men working their way through lives shaped not just by war, revolution, capitalism, and politics, but by hope, love, anger, melancholy, fear, grief, remorse, and hope again, all within the rapidly shifting language, conventions, and assumptions of English-speaking people around the North Atlantic at the turn of the nineteenth century.

But for me, the book always has been and always will be a personal history, as I like to imagine the women and men whose choices and reflections fill its pages would have wanted it to be. I miss them, these people with whom I have conversed for much of the last decade of my life, if only because they would understand better than anyone why the process of writing Love in the Time of Revolution was ultimately more satisfying than seeing it fixed forever in print.

Andrew Cayton, University Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University, is author of Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, and co-author, with Fred Anderson, of The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000.