Chapters 11-20 of Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws follows Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley as they begin to publish their most influential literary texts. Though Wollstonecraft would later write several fictional works, her political and philosophical writings have been her most successful. A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) are perhaps her most celebrated pieces, works that bought her a degree of celebrity. These pieces were born out of the political tumult of late-eighteenth century Europe, as the continent reacted to the French Revolution. For Wollstonecraft, the Revolution was a fascinating and inspirational global event, as it demanded a more equal distribution of wealth and political power among the French people. She was, therefore, dismayed by philosopher Edmund Burke’s condemnation of the Revolution. Gordon is sure to make mention what seemed to be, at least in the eyes of many of his contemporaries, his political hypocrisy. Burke had publicly supported the American Revolution but later condemned the revolutionary events in France. She does stipulate, in his defense, that Burke had always been “far more conservative than his supporters realized” (2471). His 1790 publication, Reflections on the Revolution in France, declares that nothing was more important to the English people than the upholding of tradition, which meant the upholding of the monarchy.
In a direct and scathing response to Burke’s text, Wollstonecraft produced A Vindication of the Rights of Man within a month of Burke’s publication. She directly attacks Burke’s writing style and his ideology, which she considers to be outdated conservatism. She praises the events of the Revolution and hopes that the ideology will spread through the world—a sentiment that was very much feared by monarchies throughout Europe at the time. This text, originally published anonymously, catapulted her to a kind of celebrity within London. She almost immediately set to work on another text, this time focusing on the need for the equal treatment of women in modern society. She took more time with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, not publishing it until about two years after The Rights of Man. This work, according to Gordon, “scandalized the public” (114). She calls for the enhancement of female education, for women to master their reason over their sensibility, and for female civil rights within England. She acknowledges that many of her sex seem intellectually inferior to their male counterparts, but she insists that this difference is not due to biology, but rather to inadequate female education.
Gordon follows Wollstonecraft’s personal endeavors to resist the sexist structures at the time. She falls in love with a man named Gilbert Imlay, and while they do not marry, she becomes pregnant. She refuses to hide her pregnancy, and, as a result, encounters significant social disapproval. Gordon quotes a letter from Wollstonecraft to Imlay about the affair: “‘I told them simply I was with child: and let them stare…all the world, may know it for aught I care!’” (4115). From the first time he appears in the book, Gordon seems to disapprove of Imlay. She portrays him as a seductive figure: “He had known many [women]. Too many, he sometimes thought” (3415).
Their child, Fanny Imlay, who would shortly be born out of wedlock, would face a lifetime of social difficulties stemming from her scandalous birth. These chapters discuss Fanny’s eventual suicide and a note that confessed she never found life easy, that she considered herself a continual burden. Fanny said she had always been “a being whose birth was unfortunate and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavoring to promote her welfare” (3494). Gordon impressively shows the way in which Wollstonecraft, even when resisting sexism on a professional and personal level, became a victim of sexism nonetheless through her daughter’s suffering. While her daughter’s suicide occurred long after Wollstonecraft’s death, she, nonetheless, witnessed the unfair treatment her daughter experienced throughout her lifetime as a result of her birth.
As always, Gordon also spends half of these chapters following Wollstonecraft’s legitimate daughter, Mary Shelley. In these chapters, Shelley begins composing Frankenstein (1818), often regarded as the greatest achievements in British literary history with its examination of the natural state of humanity as well as appearance and reality. While Frankenstein is not overtly or politically concerned with issues of feminism, it remains important to the history of feminism. In authoring such an intelligent, successful book, Shelley serves as evidence that the female intellect, when properly educated, is identical to a man’s. There were, however, assertions that a woman could not have written such an impressive book. Many critics argued that her lover, Percy Shelley, must have been the true author. Interestingly, Gordon notes that this incorrect assertion still continues today: “There are still those who claim that Frankenstein was essentially [Percy] Shelley’s creation, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Great male authors have rarely faced such attacks, even though other works of literature, such as The Waste Land and The Great Gatsby, were edited far more extensively than Frankenstein” (3526). Therefore, Gordon illuminates the fact that sexism permeated the personal and professional lives of both Shelley and Wollstonecraft.
My next review will more closely examine the relationship between Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft. The review will discuss how Imlay’s abandonment of Wollstonecraft is affected by gender politics. It will also examine the role of mental health in both Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley.