"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"--
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I have a complaint, it's that because Gordon calls both women "Mary," I 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.)