At a time when women were expected to marry well and dedicate themselves to husband and home, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley rejected societal norms to become the world’s founding feminist philosopher and first female science fiction writer respectively. Though their lives only intersect for ten brief days after Wollstonecraft gives birth to Shelley, Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating dual biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley, is structured to compare and contrast the mother-daughter duo to show how Wollstonecraft strongly influenced Shelley. Charlotte Gordon presents a profound personal analysis of the pathways connecting two generations of extraordinary women.
“The memory of my Mother has always been the pride & delight of my life.” – Mary Shelley
During the restrictive Georgian and Victorian eras, both women established substantive literary careers to support not only themselves, but their extended and immediate families, and both experienced the challenges of single parenthood. Wollstonecraft was an unwed mother when she met her husband, a reputable writer and philosopher in his own right, William Godwin, and Shelley’s husband, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, died when she was only twenty-six, leaving her to raise their young son, Percy, alone.
The book darts back and forth between Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s story making the distinct impression that a woman’s status in society is little changed between their lives. Wollstonecraft initially rejects marriage as a lifestyle option, and this is born out of a childhood spent witnessing her father’s mistreatment of her mother. It is further deepened when she assists her sister to abandon her abusive husband. Her sister has to leave her daughter behind, as the laws of that time mandate that a child is the property of the father and the mother has no rights or claims to her child. Wollstonecraft goes on to write Vindication of the Rights of Men, Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Letter Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The Vindications made Wollstonecraft a famous writer, philosopher and fierce advocate for women’s equality and rights. Wollstonecraft did eventually marry, but the marriage was as unconventional as the notable pair of writers who married. Each kept separate but adjoining houses, allowed each other freedom to work and socialize alone and often communicated by letters. The biographer makes it clear that while both retained their independence during their brief and happy union, it was Mary who handled all the domestic duties and dealt with merchants and household staff.
Likewise, Mary Godwin Shelley found time to work her craft penning Frankenstein, Mathilda, and Valperga, while tending to house and children, whilst Percy Shelley found ample time to pal around with Lord Byron, write, travel, and pursue hobbies such as sailing sans Mary and children. Mary Shelley originally published Frankenstein anonymously, and once she revealed that she was the author of the work, scandal surfaced that her husband was the true author of the work. Mary Shelley never denied that Percy helped edit the original edition, but Charlotte Gordon points out that his suggestions did not always improve the overall book. Interestingly these rumors over authorship persist today, whereas they do not exist for the book of posthumous poems authored by Percy that Mary Shelley published after her husband’s untimely death. No one has ever claimed that Mary wrote these poems and not Percy. Charlotte poignantly emphasizes the impact and irony associated with Mary’s efforts to promote her husband’s work and the double standard at play.
Both women are revealed to be paradoxes. Wollstonecraft attempts suicide twice due to a broken heart, whilst being a fiercely independent feminist; and Mary Shelley valiantly attempts to live by her mother’s free love ideals, yet her early bohemian lifestyle is fraught with insecurity and anguish. Perhaps this is not surprising as both cannot fully castoff the rules their society dictates.
The authors of the landmark Vindication on the Rights of Women and the literature class staple Frankenstein are rendered not as flat, romantic angels, but as passionate, strong-willed rebels. Both Wollstonecraft and Shelley suffered reputation problems posthumously, and their works languished mostly unread, but today they are celebrated for their distinctive writing styles that were ahead of their times and as independent women who architected lifestyles that married their personal ideals to societal standards.
Charlotte Gordon’s biography is a first of its kind in that it pairs the famous Mary Wollstonecraft and her equally famous daughter Mary Shelley. Romantic Outlaws is a lush and engaging portrait not only of these two outrageous historic heroines but of the revolutionary times in which they lived.