Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley
By Charlotte Gordon
Random House, 2015
Source: e-ARCs from Edelweiss
You guys. This book was my white whale of 2015.
Let me tell you a (not)secret: I do not read nearly as many books as my sister. To date, I have read about half as many books as my 2015 goal – in part because I spent so much time not-reading Romantic Outlaws.
I started this book in March. I finished it in September. More accurately, I started and stopped this book in March and then read this book in September, but it weighed heavily on me in the interim.
Anyway, you should read this book, but I won’t pressure you about when. Take your time.
I chose – and labored over – this book because Amanda said: ‘hey, let’s read this!” All I knew of Mary Wollstonecraft I remembered from Mr. Nall’s AP European History class, and she sounded like someone I should know more about, having written A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, well before the first-wave feminist movement began in earnest.
I went into this book with no idea what I was getting into with the Marys.
I too, think I read this book forever. This is not a read for the faint of heart – it is 672 pages. But it was completely fascinating and worth all of the time it took. I really didn’t believe a nonfiction book this long would keep me enthralled but I was hooked. Occasionally I was thrown off by too many Marys, but I really loved how we flashed back and forth from mother to daughter.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, and died in 1797, when her daughter Mary Shelley was born. Mary W had unquestionably shitty parents – an abusive father and a checked-out mother – and she spent her childhood moving around as her father dodged debts or chased various schemes. Mary W decided she wanted more out of life, and took initiative to make things happen – starting with her writing. She wrote articles, then books, and then decided to document the French Revolution in real time. She willingly went to Paris during the terror while blood is running in the streets. There Mary, not one for social conventions, fell in love and had a child out of wedlock. She was up for the challenges she faced from society, though she had more trouble with her rocky relationship and her own depression. Back in England a few years later, Mary met and eventually married William Godwin, who had once called a husband’s legalized possession of a woman in marriage “odious selfishness.”
Mary Shelley grew up with her father, William Godwin, who remarried shortly after his wife’s death. Godwin, while an interesting person, turned out to be not a winning parent himself. Mary S, singled out her whole life as the child of intellectual heavyweights, went through a rebellious teenaged period which resulted in her running off with the poet Percy Shelley. The married poet Shelley. This was a bad scene, made worse by the fact that Mary’s step-sister and rival, Jane, tagged along. Then Jane changed her name to Claire, and there were pregnancies and rumors and the poet-playboy Lord Byron and before long, the girls and the poets were nicknamed “the league of incest.” All the while, Godwin was either not-speaking to his daughter, or asking her to get Shelley to send money. Along the way, Mary Shelley developed into a talented writer herself, truly the equal of her husband. Mary and Percy marry, eventually, after his wife’s suicide. Seriously – these stories are fascinating.
The book flips with a chapter on Wollstonecraft then a chapter on Shelley. At first, I found this jarring, but when I tackled this book in September I just decided to take notes along the way. Once I actually got into this book, it was a page-turner – in part, because of the scandals and antics, but also because of the impact that mother & daughter had on writing, on feminist ideology, and on the societies in which they lived.
Do you ever have that experience when you’re really into a book then find that it relates to everything around you? As I was reading about Mary W making the choice to stay in France during the Revolution and what she wrote about the revolutionaries I was also reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation books. That series focuses on the English nobles who, at times, actively worked with the displaced French nobility. I had a whole new perspective on my fun historical fiction read.
Then I met Lord Byron – the Justin Bieber of his time. Seriously, I need to read more about him. But I then flashed back to Almost Famous Women and the story of poor and illegitimate Allegra Byron. Does this happen to anyone else? I swear I referenced this book all the time in conversation and I talked my husband’s ears off. These Marys were just amazing! I have 21 pages of highlights in my kindle from this book. I won’t give you all of those – but will leave you with Gordon’s words:
Even those who revere mother and daughter do not fully realize how profoundly they changed the moral code of the day… Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct, not once but time and time again. Their refusal to bow down, to subside and surrender, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind.
So Holly, when are we going to start reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Frankenstein?
Read this! Nonfiction November is coming!
Thank you Random House for these advance read copies in exchange for honest opinions!