Dear infamous Mary,
I had never read a book about you, and I confess I wasn’t even planning to. But, last month, a hefty tome came my way: somewhat unexpectedly, the blank was to be filled with Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (2015).
Gordon’s dual biography of you and Mary Shelley opens with death and birth, both mingled. Your lives overlapped for 11 days, before you died of puerperal fever, and your daughter would never know her (in)famous mother. But in Gordon’s book you two meet – sort of.
The book is told in a series of alternating chapters, going back and forth between you and Mary Shelley, as if your lives were running in parallel. The book’s structure mirrors Gordon’s premise: she wants to draw our attention to the similarities between you and Mary Shelley. By alternating the narration between similar stages in the lives of mother and daughter, Gordon attempts to make your lives as intertwined as possible: she stresses the many ways you may have influenced Mary Shelley’s beliefs and choices.
It is true that you played an important role in your daughter’s upbringing: she not only learnt to read from your tombstone (the very place where she would later declare her love for Percy Shelley), but was also a devoted disciple of your work – especially, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). Both of you struggled against prejudice, fell in love with the wrong men, were sceptical of traditional matrimony, had children out of wedlock, lived abroad, broke social conventions, and were ostracised by society. Furthermore, both of you wrote acclaimed books.
However, the similarities between mother and daughter stop there. As compelling as the book’s alternating structure and parallelism may be, for me this is more a rhetorical device than a clarifying instrument. Not only your lives were intensely disparate, but also Mary Shelley’s attempt to live up to your legacy seems to have been distorted by her contemporaries’ prejudiced understanding of what that legacy meant.
While you were a self-taught, radical freethinker, a noisy polemicist and feminist, condemned as dangerous subversive, and described by Horace Walpole as a “hyena in a petticoat”, Mary Shelley was less outspoken and much more restrained. She spoke quietly, strove to be decorous, and was even thought to behave without feeling. After your death, your love life overshadowed your work and you were deemed a whore; Mary, on the other hand, underwent a process of Victorian whitewashing during her later years. As she lived in a more conservative era, that may have played a part not only in her choices, but also in the public persona she wanted to project.
Your early lives could not have been more different. You had an abusive, alcoholic father, and your impoverished family moved house many times to avoid bailiffs. You always resented the fact that your education was considered of far less importance than that of your brothers. Your first strike of luck happened when you befriended a reclusive reverend, who lent you John Locke’s books. Mary, on the other hand, spent her childhood as the favoured daughter, encouraged by her father to read and study. Mary Shelley received an advanced education for a girl at that time: she had a governess, a daily tutor, and attended, for six months, a boarding school. When you were young, you had to take care of the house and protect your mother against your violent father, while Mary’s favourite occupation as a child was writing stories.
As a young woman, you were determined to forge your independence: first, you took a job as a lady’s companion; then, you started a school for girls, where you tried to promote egalitarian principles for the independence of women; later, when the school collapsed, you took up work as a governess for an Anglo-Irish family; and finally, you started a successful career as a writer, under the patronage of a radical London publisher. As Virginia Woolf would later write about you, “every day, she made theories by which life should be lived; and every day she came smack against the rock of other people’s prejudices. Every day too — for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist — something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh.”
However, while you were intent on forging a financially independent existence, Mary took the opposite road: on her first opportunity to cast off parental authority, she threw herself into lifelong dependence upon a man. Having eloped at the age of 16 with a married man (Percy Shelley, a self-proclaimed atheist and practitioner of free love, no less), she was rejected by her father, and ostracised as a member of the so-called “League of Incest.” Interesting enough, Gordon implies that Mary Shelley thought that, by eloping with Percy, she was applying her mother’s principles and shunning authority. Quite on the contrary, though, I think that she was emulating her father’s image of you: the distorted image of a ‘fallen woman’ that Godwin made public when he published his memoirs of you (Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1798). At that time, your political and feminist ideas had been overshadowed by the stories about your love life: and it was this aspect of your life and of your public persona that Mary Shelley emulated when she eloped – not your struggle for education and financial independence.
It is no wonder that most of the parts of the book that deal with Mary are taken by the men in her life (her father, Percy, Byron); the chapters on you, on the other hand, are mostly focused on your work and your struggles. Even your marriage arrangements are different: while you tried your best to ensure an unconventional life with your husband, keeping separate houses and different circles of friends, Mary was completely absorbed by Percy’s friends and demands, frequently defering to him. At 18, Mary was already a mother, and her life was confined to her husband and her children; even after his death, Percy remained as a dominant figure in her life. You, on the other hand, remained free of domestic responsibilities until your mid-thirties.
Gordon’s insistence in shedding light on the similarities between you and your daughter leads to the lack of a deeper exploration of your personal and contextual differences. The book hardly covers the period of Mary’s life after Percy’s death: it is full of gaps in time, with some love affairs thrown here and there. Mary’s decreasing ‘radicalism’ later in life is barely mentioned. Gordon’s insistence in portraying Mary as a radical revolutionary may have overlooked the many different ways in which she was an extraordinary person – not her mother’s woman, but her own woman.
At this point, you might be tired of reading about my disagreement with Gordon’s main premise. It might not seem so, but the truth is: I really enjoyed reading this book! It works well as an introduction to both mother and daughter. Gordon uses a variety of sources, and her writing style makes the story very engaging: she makes use of fictional devices (such as cliff-hangers), and her book reads very much like a novel. The notes are a bit of a mess: they were inserted at the end of the book, without any clear reference in the main text itself… Perhaps it was the result of a conscious choice to make the book more novelistic and less academic, but its biographical aspect could have benefited from a slightly more transparent and systematic regard for footnotes, quotations, and sources.
The highlight of the book for me was the way the biography explored the context in which you and your daughter wrote your most famous books. The author puts forward an exercise in biographical criticism: while analysing each book you both published, Gordon draws parallels between your lives and your work, focusing on the personal events that might have informed the meaning of your and Mary Shelley’s books.
Gordon claims, for instance, that your novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) was influenced by your experiences with oppression, as well as based on your suicide attempts. “In [Maria], she wanted to dramatize the plight of abused and abandoned females, exposing the falseness of popular novels in which feminine weakness was glorified and the heroine’s suffering was a cue for the hero’s entrance. In many ways, this was the plot that has almost killed her (…)”.
In this vein, Gordon claims that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) can be read as a parable about a world bereft of mothers, about the dangers of unchecked male power. According to her, the novel was informed by Mary’s her experience of being a motherless child, as well as her disappointment at her father’s rejection of her relationship with Percy. Brought up by her father to be a freethinker, Mary Shelley would then be, according to this reading, the monster herself – abandoned by her creator/ father, at the moment when she tried to enact the very principles of her upbringing. That’s a possible reading of your daughter’s famous novel – as long as we keep in mind that this is not the single possible reading of it.
Gordon also applies a feminist framework to your centrality to the Romantic movement. According to her, you not only vindicated a place for emotion, nature, and subjectivity in literature, but also, by doing so, you gave women entry into what had been, until then, predominately a male domain: because women lacked classic education, they could be more original and radical. “Women’s lack of book learning, far from being a disadvantage, freed them to be closer to Nature. (…) Mary had taken her lack of formal education and turned it into a strength.”
Your main influence on Mary Shelley is not as much felt in her books (she never ventured into political writing), nor in her choices (she was much more restrained, and less independent), but more generally in her life: as a woman who had the privilege to receive a better education, and who later was able to make a living by her pen.
“If a female fainted easily, could not abide spiders, feared thunderstorms, ghosts, and highwaymen, ate only tiny portions, collapsed after a brief walk, and wept when she had to add a column of numbers, she was considered the feminine ideal.” ― Charlotte Gordon,“If a female fainted easily, could not abide spiders, feared thunderstorms, ghosts, and highwaymen, ate only tiny portions, collapsed after a brief walk, and wept when she had to add a column of numbers, she was considered the feminine ideal.” ― Charlotte Gordon,
“The real problem, said Mary, was not women, but how men wanted women to be.” ― Charlotte Gordon,“You know I was not born to tread in the beaten track—the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.” ― Charlotte Gordon,
About the book
- Random House, 2015, 674 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book along with Jessie, for the Tales & Co. Goodreads Group (hosted by A Skeptical Reader), as well as for my 20 Books of Summer.