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THE SHELVES are already groaning under the weight of books about Mary Wollstonecraft, pictured right, and Mary Shelley, left. Romantic Outlaws, however, distinguishes itself by being a dual biography about mother and daughter.
Charlotte Gordon, who has previously written about poet Anne Bradstreet, examines the lives of the radical authors in parallel chapters in what is a hefty tome and in doing so shows how their lives were inextricably linked, despite Wollstonecraft dying 10 days after giving birth as a result of puerperal fever.
It would have been difficult for Shelley not to grow up in awe of her mother. She learned the alphabet from her headstone and Wollstonecraft was venerated by her father, the political philosopher William Godwin, and the intellectuals who visited their house, including Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she would elope at the age of 17.
Her upbringing, surrounded by enlightened views, was far removed from that of Wollstonecraft, whose political views were formed as an adolescent growing up with a weak mother and an alcoholic father who squandered the family’s money on failed projects. This made her determined to live on her own terms, free from financial or social dependence on men.
It was a resolution that resulted in her chasing pirates in Scandinavia and visiting Paris during the revolution. It was a city her daughter would visit 20 years later under very different circumstances, amid concerns over the new industrial age.
This would affect their writing — Wollstonecraft’s travel journals were largely optimistic while Shelley’s Frankenstein voiced a note of caution about science without ethics.
Yet while this writing gave both mother and daughter a degree of financial independence, their lives had a central contradiction in their emotional subservience to the men they loved. Wollstonecraft became obsessed with unscrupulous businessman Gilbert Imlay while her daughter suffered periods of depressive anxiety over the faithfulness of Shelley.
Their belief in free love affected not just on their own lives but had tragic consequences for women on the periphery, the book being littered with the suicides of Shelley’s first wife Harriet and Wollstonecraft’s daughter by Imlay, Fanny.
It’s a pain for which Shelley would later come to feel she was being punished for inflicting and this absence of sisterhood where love was concerned is an area that deserves more detailed analysis.
Another aspect that could be covered in more depth is the footnotes of their lives, with Godwin’s memoir of Wollstonecraft having the unintentionally damaging effect of portraying her as a hysteric. Shelley’s reputation was equally damaged by her conservative daughter-in-law Jane, who shaped her as a respectable literary wife at the cost of her desire to live along feminist ideals.
These minor points aside, this is an engaging book that shows clear affection for its subjects. It subtly points out how little progress feminism has made in some areas — the central tenets of chick lit being the same as the ones Wollstonecraft decried in 18th-century novels — and it certainly demonstrates both the excitement and pain of being a romantic outlaw.
Review by Susan Darlington
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