Romance and Rebellion in the Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

by Subashini Navaratnam

16 September 2015

Charlotte Gordon's dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is an engaging read, but it's hampered by pedestrian writing and a too reverent perspective of its protagonists.
 
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The Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon

(Random House)
US: Apr 2015

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley is a dual biography of two very well-known names in feminism and literature. There are a number of biographies and numerous works of analysis and criticism that focus on both Wollstonecraft and Shelley, but this is the first that attempts to paint a large canvas of the two lives by laying them side by side. The result is a largely engrossing work by Charlotte Gordon, a writer of various other titles of nonfiction and poetry, and an Associate Professor of English at Endicott College.

Romantic Outlaws begins with a compelling anecdote of Mary Shelley’s birth. This birth would prove to leave a lasting mark on Mary’s life, as her mother, Wollstonecraft, would die a few days after due to complications. In this sense, Gordon’s book is a sympathetic take on how the ghost of Wollstonecraft—as well as her words—continued to influence and shape Mary’s life in ways that ran almost parallel to her mother’s.

No account of either Mary’s life would be complete without detailed information of their circle. Wollstonecraft’s husband and Mary’s father, William Godwin, and Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, play significant roles. This circle also includes Mary’s half-sisters, one of whom was Fanny Imlay. Wollstonecraft had Fanny with her American lover, Gilbert Imlay, who blazed into Wollstonecraft’s life and then tried to quietly snuff himself out of it, resulting in two suicide attempts on her part. Additional members were Godwin’s step-daughters from his second marriage, one of whom, Jane, would go on to form a spiritual ménage à trois with Mary and Percy Shelley, as well as quite possibly a literal sexual relationship with Shelley himself. She would later reinvent herself as Claire, and be referred as such throughout the book.

Gordon tries to keep Fanny in the picture as much as possible, but owing to her star, which shone much less brightly than either her mother’s or her half-sister’s, the general impression we have of her from this book is one of a depressed, extremely introverted young woman who was cast aside or ignored for the most part unless she was used as a go-between for warring parties of her family as a means of extracting information. Shelley, to his credit, seemed to have found something in Fanny that was worth paying attention to, but the split between Mary and Shelley with Godwin and his second wife, after the former ran away together, ensured that Fanny’s role as informant for the Godwins meant that she could never get close enough.

While Gordon is an able enough writer, and the facts and information contained within the book’s pages are enough to hold the interest of anyone keen to learn more about Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and the Romantics, her one-note bland prose tends to flatten all of Wollstonecraft’s and Mary’s experiences in a bid to show how similar their lives were. However, it’s clear that Wollstonecraft and Mary had different personalities, and they dealt with individual problems in ways that were shaped by their political beliefs and philosophy as well as the social milieu in which they were raised. The alternating chapters between their lives is an occasional useful device, but more often than not it creates slight discordance for the reader, having to switch between one life (and era) and the next. Gordon’s tendency to halt a chapter at a particular “turning point” also felt a little too daytime-TV.

In her bid to remain sympathetic to the various trials and indignities both of them suffered, and suffer they did—laughed at when they published serious political and philosophical texts, ignored when they published innovative Gothic romances that will later become a canonical work in English literature, not to mention their various familial troubles ranging from alcoholic fathers to estranged ones, disappearing lovers and, most tragically of all in Mary’s case, a string of dead children—Gordon tends not to pass judgment or allow even the slightest critical tone creep into her narrative whenever it involves something Wollstonecraft or Mary did.

Moira Ferguson’s essay, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery”, for example, does more to highlight Wollstonecraft’s position in terms of race and class relations to highlight the absences and erasures of her purported feminism. This is not to discredit Wollstonecraft’s work, but to draw attention to the gaps that prevent canonical works to pass as total, self-explaining works of genius—either by a white man or woman—within the scheme of white supremacy.

Similarly, Barbara Johnson’s essay “Mary Shelley and Her Circle” in A Life With Mary Shelley puts some interesting information into perspective, such as Godwin’s influence on Mary’s writing of Frankenstein, as well as Wollstonecraft’s Orientalism of the time in her compare and contrast of middle-class liberal white women versus “subordinate” women under “Mahometanism”. These are facts that emphasise the position of white women in relation to their class position and, that in turn draws attention to their political position with regards to Western civilisation’s imperialist projects. On the whole, Gordon adopts a blasé tone about class struggle; whether she portrays the Spitalfields silk weavers as a largely petulant bunch or her emphasis on the French revolution solely in terms of its “terror”.

As a result, the interesting characters are the various lovers and not-husbands and not-quite-sisters of the two women’s circles, whether it’s Claire and her shrieking over Shelley’s ghost stories, or Shelley himself and his inappropriate comments in hotel guestbooks and his belief that Keats died of a broken heart due to negative reviews (Keats died of tuberculosis). It’s not that it isn’t clear that mother and daughter didn’t have fascinating if incredibly turbulent lives, or how the material conditions of women’s unceasing reproductive labour didn’t have an impact on how both came to view the world, but Gordon’s tendency is to make martyrs of them. This has the unfortunate effect of robbing Romantic Outlaws of much of its urgency and taming the radical, revolutionary aspects of the struggles of both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

Despite these evident flaws, however, people who are interested in learning more about both these women and specifically tracing out the parallel trajectories of their lives will find much to delight in, in this book.

The Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

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