Last week, I began to read Charlotte Gordon’s recent text, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley. While these two women are unarguably two of the most fascinating figures in literary history, I nonetheless expected their biographies to be somewhat dry, likely due to my limited, stereotypical understanding of the biographical genre. In even just these preliminary chapters, however, Gordon has proved herself to be an invaluable researcher. Even more than her research, however, her animated tone throughout the narrative results in an easily readable, engrossing text. Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s writings, though irreplaceable to the history of British literature, are frequently misconstrued as stuffy texts. But Gordon’s biography has the potential to revitalize everyday readers’ veneration of both Wollstonecraft and Shelley.
Gordon details the two Marys’ biographies, beginning with their respective childhoods, and positions them as parallel narratives. The women’s lives historically overlapped for only 11 days, as Wollstonecraft contracted a fever after childbirth and died ten days later. Shelley, then partially raised by an emotionally withdrawn stepmother, continually imagined that her childhood might have been much more peaceful had her mother survived. Though Gordon’s parallelism in plot construction is compelling, the Marys’ childhoods were intensely disparate. Wollstonecraft’s father was abusive and tyrannical while Shelley spent her childhood as the favored daughter. Shelley’s older sister, Fanny, was illegitimate, the product of an affair Wollstonecraft had prior to marrying her husband, William Godwin, which serves as an explanation for the evident favoritism.
Beyond being an impassioned text, Gordon’s double-biography includes a number of anecdotes difficult to obtain in research available to the general public. For instance, Shelley’s brush with men of consequence began from the time she was a small child. One of the family’s closest friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, frequently read his poetry to Mary and her siblings. Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States, befriended the Godwin girls when Mary had just begun adolescence. While the intelligence of the two Marys is already well recognized, Gordon details the cultivation of their respective geniuses in a way that will impress readers. She reminds her audience that Wollstonecraft rebelled in order to achieve access to a proper education, which is perhaps the reason that she so vehemently advocated for adequate female education later in her life. In contrast, Shelley was encouraged by her father, even when barely an adolescent, to read and theorize about philosophical works by Rousseau and Locke.
Much too often, those of us who are not eighteenth-century scholars, but who come into contact with eighteenth-century literature assume the period to be one overwhelmingly of conservatism. We have a tendency to speculate that the generations preceding our current time must have been both intellectually and socially repressed to some degree, which precisely marks why well-researched biographies such as Gordon’s are essential. She records the thoughts of many renowned philosophers who authored radical texts, though she does clarify that such thinkers are outliers. Godwin, for example, goes so far in his political philosophy as to argue that government should be wholly abolished, as it, by definition, limits one’s natural rights. He, Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelley all asserted that marriage resulted in the oppression of women, and therefore each advocated for free love at some point in their literary careers. Perhaps Mary Shelley’s elopement with the already married Percy Shelley was, in some degree, influenced by the free-love philosophy of her parents and romantic partner. These rather surprising radical philosophies wouldn’t be so shocking to readers if they had an appropriate understanding of eighteenth-century academic culture. It is therefore imperative that we, as everyday readers with an interest in eighteenth-century studies, comprehend the intellectual radicalism of the period with a much greater accuracy.
The chapters also examine issues relating to gender-prejudice for both Wollstonecraft and Shelley. The text follows as, in 1784, Wollstonecraft visits her sister, Eliza, only to discover that she is undergoing physical and psychological fits that worsen whenever her husband approaches. Wollstonecraft attributes Eliza’s condition to domestic abuse, a social reality from which women could claim little legal protection. Throughout the eighteenth-century, married women had almost no legal agency. Gordon records: “Later, Mary would say ‘a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing she can call her own,’” (1091). Wollstonecraft succeeds in removing Eliza from her abusive home—they employ aliases and stay at a local inn. But her husband disciplines Eliza’s desertion by ensuring that she never sees their child again. Both Gordon and Wollstonecraft, appropriately, lament this consequence and Eliza’s inability to legally dispute it.
Beyond the individual plight of Wollstonecraft, Gordon comments on the deplorable state of gender relations during the period: “Without legal protection, women were vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. Husbands could beat their wives and declare them insane. If a woman tried to flee, her husband had the right to bring her back by force. A man could starve his wife and keep her locked indoors. He could also prevent her from seeking medical care, or from having visitors who might help ease her suffering” (1082). Gordon further documents Wollstonecraft’s contempt for the total absence of strong female fictional characters in popular culture. When Wollstonecraft decides to become a writer, she proposes to break this patterned absence with her first novel, Mary (1788). As Gordon notes, Wollstonecraft refers to this goal in the advertisement that prefaces the text: “In [this] artless tale, without episodes, the mind of a woman, who has thinking powers is displayed.” In her advertisement, Wollstonecraft resists the female tropes so common to the popular female characters who preceded Wollstonecraft’s Mary. She states that her protagonist will be a more forceful and capable woman than the meek Sophie from Rousseau’s Emile (1762) or Richardson’s ever-virtuous Clarissa (1748).
Shelley, in contrast, experienced sexism most potently after her affair with her future-husband, Percy Shelley. Running away with Percy Shelley resulted in enormous social consequence for Mary, a reaction that was clearly gender-biased: “by kissing Shelley, Mary had committed a far graver offense than Shelley ever could; the conventions that governed women’s behavior were far stricter than those that governed men’s” (1406). This moment for Shelley is fascinating when considering that Wollstonecraft also lived with a man outside of marriage and even had a child out of wedlock. Wollstonecraft too faced immense social pressure to marry, and her husband, William Godwin later ostracized her child born outside of marriage. Wollstonecraft and Shelley both resist the strict constraints upon a woman’s sexual instrumentality by engaging in public affairs outside of marriage, but both too eventually conform to the social standards and marry, either for their own wellbeing or that of their children.
My next review will cover Romantic Outlaws chapters 11-20, which will examine the works that made these women famous writers: Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) as well as Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).