Charlotte Gordon’s biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is an excellently organized, researched, and captivating read about the radical mother and daughter. Don’t let the size of this book intimidate you, I have read it twice now and it flies by! With each chapter Gordon alternates between the lives of Wollstonecraft and Shelley, which keeps the reader eagerly wanting to know what happens next.
Gordon writes in clear prose, bringing the story to life in such a memorable way that it is impossible not to feel for these two women who 'knew' each other for only a few days but had ripple effects in each other’s lives. Shelley spent her life reading her mother’s works and wishing for the acceptance inherent in a mother’s love; Wollstonecraft spent her life taking action to better the lives of women through education with a particular emphasis on the upbringing of young girls—leaving behind guidance for her own daughters.
"As with Frankenstein, Mary [Shelley's] largely male audience wondered what kind of woman would dream up such a nightmare vision. Books by female novelists were supposed to celebrate beauty; their tone should be gentle, their themes soft and tender" (478).
Understanding the social and political, as well as personal, climate in which both mother and daughter were writing is eye-opening. A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is even more convincing when you read that Wollstonecraft was ostracised from English society for her 'unladylike' behaviour. From her refusal to dress in restricting feminine clothes to her close relationships with men, romantic or not, she was 'dangerous' to be associated with. The loneliness of the Creature in Frankenstein (1818) comes to life when reading about Shelley’s abandonment by her father and the deaths of her children and husband. Gordon is also able to present the complexity of these remarkable women by humanizing them: both women struggle with romantic relationships, paying bills, and meeting family obligations. Constant societal disapproval leads both women into depressive episodes that cannot fail to resound with the reader, especially when presented in Gordon's sympathetic style. When the historical record is unclear, Gordon provides the reader with the prevailing understanding as well as the alternatives, trusting the reader to make their own analysis.
“Not all of Wollstonecraft’s acquaintances in Paris shared her excitement over her pregnancy. Some contented themselves with whispering behind her back, but others turned away from her in public, expressing shock when her stomach began to protrude” (254).
The personal and societal fight for independence in 18th and 19th century society jumps from the page and humanizes these two women in a way that is relatable to the modern reader. What becomes evident is that both women were well ahead of their time and it can be disheartening to see how they had to compromise their values and beliefs in order to protect their children. For example, not wanting Mary Shelley to be cast out of society like her first daughter was, Wollstonecraft marries William Godwin. Or, in order to be seen a responsible in the eyes of the law, Percy and Mary Shelley wed to try and obtain his children from his first wife. Despite choosing radical husbands, for both women marriage meant giving up any legal rights to their children and autonomy over themselves.
I could go on about Romantic Outlaws, but you just have to read it for yourself! If you are interested in Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, or even just the society that shaped their works (works that have ably stood the test of time), this is a must read.
This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting a small business.