Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

by Charlotte Gordon

Paperback, 2016




Random House Trade Paperbacks (2016), Edition: Reprint, 672 pages


"Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her daughter Mary Shelley (1797-1851) have each been the subject of numerous biographies by top tier writers, yet no author has ever examined their lives in tandem. Perhaps this is because these two amazing women never knew each other--Wollstonecraft died of infection at the age of 38, a week after giving birth to her daughter. Nevertheless their lives were closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other: both became famous writers; both fell in love with brilliant but impossible authors; both were single mothers and had children out of wedlock (a shocking and self-destructive act in their day); both broke out of the rigid conventions of their era and lived in exile; and both played important roles in the Romantic era during which they lived. The lives of both Marys were nothing less than extraordinary, providing fabulous material for Charlotte Gordon, a gifted story teller. She seamlessly weaves their lives together in back and forth narratives, taking readers on a vivid journey across Revolutionary France and Victorian England, from the Italian seaports to the highlands of Scotland, in a book that reads like a richly textured historical novel"--… (more)


(85 ratings; 4.5)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Jaylia3
This dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley utterly enthralled me. Both were talented, groundbreaking, independent thinking women, they each had drama and difficulties in their lives worthy of a Brontë novel, and between them they knew intimately some of the most
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interesting people involved with Romantic literature and radical political thought from the French Revolution through to the mid-Victorian years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born into a poor family with a very difficult, sometimes violent father, but Wollstonecraft was at least as spirited as he was and she struggled to surmount the boundaries gender and poverty put on her life in every way she could, eventually becoming a leading progressive thinker and the author of several influential books, including A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She loved passionately but refused the traditional roles women were expected to embrace at the time, so she married the political philosopher William Godwin late in life and only reluctantly. Wollstonecraft died days after giving birth to the daughter named for her, so it was through her extensive writings that Mary Godwin Shelley came to esteem, cherish, and love her mother.

While still a teenager Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, a social commentary many consider the first science fiction novel, while holed up in Switzerland with a crowd that included Lord Byron. Like her parents she rejected social conventions about love, life, and marriage and at sixteen she scandalized her more staid contemporaries by running away with the already married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, though that particular rebellion she came to regret because it hurt so many people. Mary longed for and looked up to her mother, using her mother’s writings as guideposts for her own life, and that reverence was shared by her husband, her stepsister, Lord Byron, and many of Mary’s other peers.

Romantic Outlaws is written in a back and forth chronology, with chapters about the two women alternating, so the section about Wollstonecraft’s early life is followed by one about her daughter at a similar age. I thought this might be confusing, especially since they’re both named Mary, but their circumstances were different enough that it was usually simple to keep track of who I was reading about, and structuring the book that way makes it easy to compare the lives of the women, which adds even more interest to their stories.

The book is well researched and documented with notes, but far from being a dry recitation of facts I found it quite compelling. Many of the chapters even end in what might almost be called cliffhangers, a technique that definitely kept me highly engaged.

Before reading this biography both Marys were more symbols to me than women with families, lovers, personal trials and private doubts, but Charlotte Gordon illuminates the hearts and minds of her subjects and succeeds at bringing the two women and the era they lived in to life. William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron are among the people who are also well rendered, and many other fascinating people spend time on the book’s pages, including Coleridge, Keats, and John and Abigail Adams.

Saying it’s engrossing is almost an understatement--I don’t remember ever finding a biography so hard to put down. I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, but I’ve already preordered my own copy hardback edition of Romantic Outlaws.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
This thoroughly researched dual biography presents us with the lives of two women who were indeed outlaws – they defied conventions by living by their pens and having children out of wedlock. Both were groundbreaking writers- Mary Wollstonecraft wrote political and social criticism from a
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feminist viewpoint (work that was given serious consideration and debated by the intellectuals of the day, right up until they found out it was written by a woman) while Mary Shelley (nee Godwin) gave us the classic ‘Frankenstein’.

Both women had unpleasant childhoods; Mary W. had an abusive, drunken father and a mother who died young, leaving Mary W. to provide for them all. She eventually died only 9 days after giving birth to Mary Shelley. Mary S.’s father married a woman she despised- a woman who reciprocated that feeling. Both women had children out of wedlock, which meant polite society would have nothing to do with them. Both women were constantly importuned by their families to send them money. Both of them had their work denigrated by critics, usually simply for being written by a woman. They were feminists long before the term was coined. Both women, while primarily known for only one book each, did a lot of writing throughout their lives.

The book, while grounded in facts, is an easy read- once you get past the format. The author devotes every other chapter to each Mary in chronological order. With them having the same name- and with some other name duplications, too- I had a bit of trouble at first figuring out which Mary was being discussed. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it. Gordon really brings the women to life, especially Mary S.; Mary W. fares a little less well. She comes off as a bit pathetic in a couple of her love affairs. I’m not sure whether this is the fault of the author or just how Wollstonecraft really was. One thing I was impressed with was the author’s description of the French Revolution from an English person’s point of view- Mary W. went to write about the revolution as it happened and lived there until it got just too dangerous. If you have an interest in early feminist writers, take a look at this book.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5454. Romantic Outlaws The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (read 26 Mar 2017) (National Book Critics Circle Award fpr biography for 2015) This excellently researched book is a dual biography of a mother and daughter. The mother died ten days after her
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daughter was born so the lives did not coincide much. Mary Wollstonecraft was born 27 April 1759 and died 10 Sept 1801. Her daughter Mary Godwin was born 30 Aug 1801, eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley at age 16 (even though Shelley had a wife). and died 1 Feb 1851. The lives are told in alternating chapters, which means we at each chapter go to a different era. But this works pretty well since the reader know each chapter takes up the life of the other subject of the other biography. Both woman were subjected to deprecatory criticism during their lives and after their death and the book carefully delineates such criticism. Now the women have overcome that criticism and are viewed as the exceptional persons they were. One is amazed at the vast amount of material which the author has assiduously mined to tell of the intensely interesting lives led by both Marys. There are 547 pages of text, 55 pages of notes, and a 15-page bibliography. The book is a monumental work of careful scholarship, and eminently readable.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
The lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley only overlapped by ten days, but the mother left a profound impact on the daughter. Both women were writers: Mary Wollstonecraft of political and social commentary, Mary Shelley most notably of Frankenstein, and both led unconventional lives, with
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Mary Wollstonecraft's independence making her a heroine of her daughter's contemporaries. By presenting their stories in tandem, Charlotte Gordon delivers new insight about both women.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This mammoth book is a brilliantly written double biography of two of the greatest female figures - and figures overall - of late 18th and early 19th century English literature and political philosophy, probably one of the most famous and also misunderstood mother and daughter pairings in history.
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Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died in childbirth at the age of 38 giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, best known as the author of Frankenstein. They both struggled against the attitudes of their times, when women were considered their husbands' personal property, yet were also both married to brilliant and (in many ways, though not all) liberal-minded men, William Godwin, political philosopher and novelist; and Percy Shelley, famous poet and outrageous radical of the Romantic period. A lot of aspects of their lives mirror each other in being out of step with the morals of their own, and indeed of much later, times, loving and being loved by their men and giving birth outside wedlock; and having their own outspoken views about society and literature in an era when it was generally assumed that women could not hold properly considered views on such weighty matters. The structure of the book, with alternating chapters dealing chronologically with the lives of either of the two women, works well, though occasionally I did get momentarily confused about which Mary I was reading. Like I suspect many readers of this book, I was more familiar beforehand with the life of Mary Shelley than that of her mother, so there was little real confusion; someone not familiar with either of their lives might found this approach a little difficult. There are a fair number of interesting illustrations. This book would appeal to anyone interested in the lives of great writers, the development of political philosophy and literature during the Enlightenment, or even just interested in reading about colourful lives full of incident and controversy.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
I really enjoyed this dual biography. It's well-written, the pacing works, and Gordon did a great job of discussing the women's similarities and differences, and putting their lives in the context of the era they lived in.

If I have a complaint, it's that because Gordon calls both women "Mary," I
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sometimes got confused about which one she was talking about. (Didn't help that I read the second half of the book with a fever.)
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LibraryThing member whatsmacksaid
This was WONDERFUL. I absolutely loved it, and wholeheartedly recommend it.
LibraryThing member pierthinker
This extraordinary book is a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (author, among many other things, of A Vindication of the Rights of Women) and her daughter, Mary Shelley (most famous for writing Frankenstein). Although they never met (Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley)
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the mother had a profound influence on the daughter and there are many parallels between their lives as this book shows.

The book is written with alternating chapters focusing on each woman in turn and with each pair of chapters roughly representing equivalent periods or stages of their lives and careers. This constant switching can be confusing at times, especially as many characters, both major and minor, were significant to both women. But this is a minor issue and the structure magnificently serves to show how much they were alike and, especially, how each was treated by the men in their lives and the societies in which they lived.

Both women were intelligent, purposeful, capable and almost entirely constrained because they were women. In their literary careers both published work that was assumed not to have been written by a woman or was ignored or under appreciated because they were women. In their private lives, both suffered at the hands of men who automatically considered them and their ideas to be of less worth than those of a man. Both women had their reputations destroyed after their deaths and were all but forgotten until the rise of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century brought them to prominence again.

Charlotte Gordon has produced a wonderful book that takes us inside the world in which these women lived, inside their lives both personal and professional and inside their minds through their own writing and the observations of others. This is the best biography of any woman I have ever read.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
This book about Mary Wollstonecraft, an English feminist, and her daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, is probably not a book I'm properly qualified to review. I will admit to not being familiar with Wollstonecraft, though the name of her most famous work, The Vindication of the Rights of
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Women, was not unknown to me. Regardless, the reporting here makes it clear that Wollstonecraft was well before her time in advocacy for women's rights. On the other hand, her personal relationships with men seemed totally at odds with most of what she espoused for women in general society. To further prove my point of disqualification, I am not a big fan of poetry for reasons that have much more to do with clarity and directness of message than with skill of language manipulation, and this book is written by a poet about several very well known poets, in connection with the two main subjects of this book. Poetry lovers can stop reading now, because I'm bound to say something sacrilegious about poets and poetry, assuming I haven't already done so. William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and maybe a few I'm forgetting, are mentioned, with very broad degrees of intimacy, directly in relationship to the main subjects of this book. That's interesting to me, given that the two main subjects are best known as a feminist advocate and a fictional novelist. I could argue that this whole book is really just a poetry buff's deep dive into two women connected to famous poets. To an extent it is, but because of the vast resources of material available to the author, and the author's very commendable persistence and skill in researching all that material, the book is much more than just a poetry fan's treat. I will argue that the author's biases toward poetry and toward the two subjects seeps through too often, but the author gave me plenty of detailed reporting to allow me to come to somewhat different conclusions about both the two subjects and to the people connected to them. Should you be a potential reader who made it this far in the review, I can say with some degree of certainty that poetry lovers (especially of those mentioned often in this book), fans of Frankenstein or its author, and persons well versed in feminist scholarship, will very likely enjoy reading this book for extra information you are not likely to find anywhere else with such ease.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
I really enjoyed this dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. I knew Mary Wollstonecraft as the author of [The Vindication of the Rights of Women] and an early feminist, but I didn't know the extent of her political writings or how her lifestyle reflected her views of the need for
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feminine independence. Mary Shelley I really only knew about [Frankenstein] and that she was married to Percy Shelley, the poet.

This book beautifully illuminates both of their lives and the influence that Mary Wollstonecraft still had on Mary Shelley through her writing and reputation, despite the fact that she died a few days after giving birth to Shelley. Gordon alternates chapters in the women's lives so that you see them growing up in parallel. I both loved and hated this. It succeeds in that it keeps the focus on how Wollstonecraft's life influenced Shelley despite the lack of physical presence. But it also was confusing sometimes to keep the two lives straight, especially as some people are obviously present in both lives. In the end, I think I have it mostly straight in my mind and I think the format was an interesting and effective choice.
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LibraryThing member CasSprout
Very interesting. DNF


National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Biography — 2015)
ALA Notable Book (Nonfiction — 2016)
Notable Books List (Nonfiction — 2016)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

8 inches


0812980476 / 9780812980479
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