“Romantic Outlaws,” Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, is an irresistible account of two unconventional women, mother and daughter, who broke new ground with their writings and beliefs, and paid a high price.
“Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley”
by Charlotte Gordon
Random House, 649 pp., $30
Mother and daughter knew each other for only 10 days. As was common in late 18th-century London, the author and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever less than two weeks after giving birth to her daughter. The child, also named Mary, grew up haunted by others’ memories of her remarkable mother.
“Mary Wollstonecraft,” wrote her daughter, decades later, “was one of those beings who appear once perhaps in a generation, to gild humanity with a ray which no difference of opinion nor chance of circumstance can cloud.”
Wollstonecraft and her daughter, who as Mary Shelley achieved fame as the author of the novel “Frankenstein,” have both been the subjects of previous books, with their unconventional and passionately literary lives catnip to biographers.
But Charlotte Gordon’s thorough and irresistible “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley” is not simply a chronological biography, but presents the two women’s histories side by side in alternating chapters — allowing us to see how their lives at times mirrored each other, and how the mother’s spirit lived on in the daughter who never knew her.
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Their beginnings were markedly different: Mary Wollstonecraft’s early years were miserable. She was one of seven children born to an alcoholic father who would rape and beat her screaming mother, while Mary lay sleepless on the other side of a thin wall, “chafing against her mother’s helplessness as well as her own.”
Education became her salvation, and writing her lifelong passion — much of it, as in her best-known work “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a ringing advocacy of women’s equality and the social harm caused by patriarchy.
Her life was bold and unconventional, embracing dangerous solo travel (she spent time in France during the Revolution, and wrote a book about it) and what would later be called free love; with her first daughter, Fanny, born out of wedlock during a disastrous relationship with a man who later abandoned her.
Three years later, she met the writer/philosopher William Godwin, and married him after she became pregnant. “I still mean to be independent,” she wrote to a friend, envisioning a marriage in which her needs would be equal to her husband’s.
Mary Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, grew up reading her mother’s books, gazing at her portrait on the wall and visiting her grave at St. Pancras churchyard — the site of romantic trysts, in Mary’s late teens, with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The apple didn’t fall far from this 18th-century tree: Mary, swept up with passion, ran off with the married Shelley to France and spent several years in nomadic life in Europe, while her name became notorious back home.
“Frankenstein,” famously, was born on a dark night at Lord Byron’s estate in Italy — Byron, it should be noted, swaggers through this book like a marauding pirate — where guests were challenged to create a ghost story. The book, notes Gordon, reflects Mary’s complex relationship with her mother: “Like the creature, she felt abandoned by her creator. Like Frankenstein, she felt compelled to create.”
The lives of both Marys, intertwined here, were ringed with tragedy: illness, the death of young children, heartbreak, depression. But the book, written with the galloping pace of a skilled novel peopled with fascinating characters, is ultimately uplifting; you close it relieved that these women live on in its pages.
At its end, we learn that Wollstonecraft’s remains were eventually moved to Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley was buried; mother and daughter were finally together.