Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

22294061Title: Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley

Author: Charlotte Gordon

Rating: 4 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review

As a feminist, I have long counted Mary Wollstonecraft as one of my heroes, along with her daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, one of my favorite novels of all time. But as much as I admire both of these women, I’ve never read in depth about either of them. I knew the “Cliff’s Notes” of the Romantics: Shelley and Byron, scandalous love affairs and tragic boating accidents. I knew much less than that about Wollstonecraft–basically, I knew A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and about her death. Luckily, Romantic Outlaws came along to fill in my prodigious blanks on the subject of these two remarkable women.

Romantic Outlaws is a hefty tome. At nearly 600 pages, it is probably not for the casual reader. But Gordon brings both Marys fascinatingly to life, while also analyzing their work, their legacies, and their receptions over the centuries.

It is unusually structured. In fact, I’ve never seen a book laid out quite like it. Each Mary is almost a footnote in the other’s story–Wollstonecraft died when her daughter was just ten days old–and when you read about Wollstonecraft you are likely to see Shelley as a brief reference at the end of the story, while when you read about Shelley you are likely to see Wollstonecraft briefly referenced at the beginning. But Gordon, as much as she gives each woman her own story, is also attempting to analyze them in relation to one another, and so each chapter alternates. Chapter one focuses on Wollstonecraft. Chapter two focuses on Shelley. And so on and so forth, for the entirety of the book.

It took a while to get used to, and led, at times, to some pacing problems, but on the whole I really liked this setup. It allowed Gordon to highlight similarities in the Marys’ philosophies and personalities while also painting them as products of their different generations.

Both Marys were daughters, lovers before becoming wives, and mothers. Gordon does a great job of illustrating how those feminine roles at times imprisoned them and kept them from living their true philosophies. They were both punished for breaking the rules of their society in ways that the men in their lives were not. For instance, William Gordon–Wollstonecraft’s (eventual) husband and Shelley’s father–was able to live a lofty philosophical life-of-the-mind, writing without interruption for a set number of hours every day, while Wollstonecraft had to deal with the messy realities of household budgets and childcare. When she was able to find the time to write, Gordon mostly responded to her work by criticizing her grammar. He preached Free Love–until his daughter eloped. But while he decried the scandal and refused to talk to Mary Shelley in person for years, that certainly didn’t stop him from begging money from her at every turn (and she, as a proper daughter, always complied).

As for the Shelleys, while Percy was able to cultivate a poetic mystique about himself with his radical, atheistic ways, Mary was shunned by polite society and, at the same time, deemed not radical enough for the radicals. While he fell in love with one new muse after another, she had to deal with the devastating loss of child after child. And after Shelley’s death  she was often seen as “unworthy” of his legacy, unworthy of his love. Even her work was questioned. Because it is known that Percy Shelley had some editorial input on Frankenstein, it was long assumed that it was more the work of his hand than Mary’s (of course, she had as much or more editorial impact on Percy’s poetry, but no one ever accused him of not authoring his own words!)

The hypocrisy of society is evident again and again in this narrative. Each Mary was done a disservice by her age–but the more things change, the more they stay the same, and it is easy to see parallels of their stories, by different degrees, even today. Each Mary was also done a disservice by those who came after her. In his biography of Wollstonecraft, William Gordon–who thought he was doing his wife a great service–exposed all of her scandals and destroyed her reputation for centuries. Shelley–at the hands of her son and daughter-in-law–was remade into an almost saintly Victorian icon, even though she had once written a book that shocked an entire age and publicly eloped in a sex scandal that made her notorious. So the mother became a scandalous harridan while the daughter became a boring prude who cramped the style of her genius husband. No wonder the two women are so seldom studied together–they’ve been painted as almost exact opposites for centuries.

Charlotte Gordon works to undo all that. Romantic Outlaws is a great history in that it explores the women in the context of their times. It’s also a good piece of literary criticism that analyzes all of Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s written works, not just the most famous ones. It’s definitely an investment of time, but a well worthy one. It gave me new appreciation for a story I thought I knew.

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