'Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley', by Charlotte Gordon - Review

By Bouverie, Tim | The Spectator, April 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley', by Charlotte Gordon - Review


Bouverie, Tim, The Spectator


Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Charlotte Gordon

Hutchinson, pp.649, £25, ISBN: 9780091958947

If Mary Wollstonecraft, as she once declared, 'was not born to tred in the beaten track', the same with even greater reason could be said of her daughter Mary Shelley. Not only was she the child of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , she was also the daughter of William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. Given this auspicious pedigree, it is perhaps not surprising that Shelley would lead a life every bit as daring as her mother, and in Frankenstein produce a masterpiece of equal fame.

A joint biography of this most famous mother/daughter combination is, therefore, a good idea. Despite the fact that Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to Mary, the pair led similarly rebellious lives and, through the former's works, maintained a connection that reached beyond the grave. As Charlotte Gordon highlights in her introduction, Shelley continually re-read her mother's books and as her husband Percy put it, Wollstonecraft's fame would always shine on Mary, 'through the tempests dark and wild'.

During her lifetime, and for nearly a century afterwards, however, Wollstonecraft was more infamous than famous. A radical freethinker, who for the first time articulated the gross injustices faced by 18th-century women, she was condemned as a dangerous subversive, a 'hyena in petticoats' (Horace Walpole) and even a whore.

Her daughter fared little better. Having eloped at the age of 16 with the decidedly wild Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was ostracised from the mainstream of British society, who were appalled at her choice of partner -- a self-proclaimed atheist -- and later horrified by the macabre and destructive themes in of her novels.

But if it was the patriarchy at large which was responsible for 'outlawing' Wollstonecraft and Shelley, the pair suffered far greater pain at the hands of the men who should have protected them. While Wollstonecraft's father was a drunk, who squandered the family fortune and beat his wife, William Godwin was a hypocritical sponger who refused to speak to his daughter after her elopement, except to demand money. Wollstonecraft's first love and the father of her first child, Gilbert Imlay, left her -- presaging two suicide attempts -- and even the beloved Percy Shelley caused his wife acute pain by becoming fixated on other women, not least on her half-sister, Claire Clairmont. …

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