Chapters 21-30 of Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter, Mary Shelley examine the relationship between authors’ biographies and their fiction, their romances, and their partnerships. While this segment of the book includes deeply intriguing criticism regarding the writing process and the ideal romantic partnership, Gordon has several disconcerting moments of characterization.
Perhaps the most fascinating theme in chapters 21-30 is the way in which Gordon repeatedly joins together the authors’ personal lives with their fictional and political works. Mary Shelley’s work, according to Gordon, was often influenced by the state of her marriage. Devastated by the loss of three children, Mary lays blame with her husband, feeling he did not take enough precautions with their health. It is, therefore, entirely possible to read Percy’s Prometheus Unbound and Mary’s Valperga as pieces that include hidden commentary on their marriage. Gordon argues that Percy’s Prometheus served as an antithetical character to Mary’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the text, Mary portrays English society as generally intolerant and unjust, as the creature is again and again socially rejected based on his appearance. Though Percy originally found his wife’s dark societal outlook fascinating, he eventually came to regard it as disturbing. Later, Mary fictionalizes Shelley as the prince in her novel, Valperga: “Under the surface, though, she indicted Shelley himself. The prince causes the death of children. So, Mary thought, had Shelley” (5802). Gordon, therefore, illuminates several actual instances in which the authors’ lives inform the writing of their fiction.
This theme continues with Gordon’s chapters on Wollstonecraft. The end of her novel, Maria, was based on one of Wollstonecraft’s earlier suicide attempts. This work, Gordon claims, was also a manifestation of Wollstonecraft’s previous experience with oppression: “In [Maria], she wanted to dramatize the plight of abused and abandoned females, exposing the falseness of popular novels in which feminine weakness was glorified and the heroine’s suffering was a cue for the hero’s entrance. In many ways, this was the plot that has almost killed her,” (6013) referring to her past suicide attempts. This link between the authors’ real experiences and their writing is inverted when Gordon notes that Wollstonecraft was well aware that her personal letters might one day be published. This awareness explains why the letters contain so many philosophical thoughts. Consistently, throughout the text, Gordon draws a link between biography and fiction for these writers.
As a literature student, I was repeatedly advised to avoid drawing parallels between an authors’ life and work. Gordon’s apparent endorsement of biographical criticism and apparent rejection of formalist criticism, therefore, interested me. Gordon (unsurprisingly as she is, after all, a biographer) insists that actual events within an author’s personal life inform the meaning of her texts and can even serve as a motive for a novel’s generation. However, in addition to the embedded biographical criticism, these chapters were, at many points, uncomfortable in regard to Gordon’s characterization of both Gilbert Imlay and Mary Shelley.
Wollstonecraft began to experience major depression. Imlay, not long thereafter, departs from France in order to return to London, leaving Mary and their daughter, Fanny behind. When he does, reluctantly, invite them to join him, he insists on remaining sexually and socially independent. Strangely, Gordon interjects her voice within the biography to defend the behavior: “Gilbert was not a bad man, but he was not a strong man. And it would have taken a very strong man to support the weight of Mary’s suffering” (4696). Gordon is, however, misguided in her attempt to lay the culpability for the failure of Wollstonecraft and Imlay’s relationship on her—and her mental illness. Gordon does not afford Imlay’s abandonment of his longtime lover and daughter the appropriate weight.
In a similarly questionable characterization, Gordon charges Mary Shelley with some degree of the responsibility for her failed marriage—seemingly on the basis of Mary’s sex: “She [began speaking] sharply to Shelley about their finances and vetoed schemes that she deemed to dangerous for eighteen-month old Percy. She had become, in fact, a wife” (6210). Gordon portrays Mary Shelley as overbearing with diction such as “sharply” and “vetoed’—rhetoric reminiscent of a shrew. Gordon essentially implies that becoming a shew is synonymous with wifehood–a disappointing moment in the text.
To be sure, Gordon’s text, by and large, is socially progressive. She consistently emphasizes female oppression and female genius in eighteenth-century society. But I was dissatisfied with the way in which Gordon assigned blame for the Marys’ failed romantic ventures. My last review will focus more expansively on the lives of Wollstonecraft and Shelley to determine how they furthered the feminist movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as how they, personally, were adversely affected by sexism.