Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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This book begins with a birth and a death. In August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to a daughter also named Mary. Mother and daughter only spent 11 days together before Wollstonecraft died of an infection, but her legacy would influence her child’s life. Her career as a journalist, philosopher and writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Women surely must have fired off her daughter’s writing ambitions. It also must have influenced young Mary’s desire to flout society’s expectations for women. At age 17, she ran off with the poet Percy Shelley. At 19, she wrote her classic horror story, Frankenstein.

Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws covers both women’s lives in tandem, devoting one chapter to Wollstonecraft, the next to Shelley and so on. Gordon does a fantastic job of weaving both stories together, highlighting how mother influenced daughter, how their struggles mirrored each other and how the world changed between their lifetimes.

Wollstonecraft was born to a drunk father and emotionally distant mother. Desperate to become financially independent, she found work as a governess before starting her own school for girls. She published books, reported on the French Revolution, went toe to toe with Edmund Burke, and composed some of the fieriest love letters the public had read (which Gordon should have quoted from more). A virgin into her 30s, she enjoyed an unconventional marriage with fellow philosopher William Goodwin. They only got married because Mary was pregnant, and they didn’t want society to punish the child. Theirs seemed to be a marriage of equals (or as close as you could get in the 18th century). They kept separate friends and even separate studies, sending love letters to one another while they worked.

Shelley thought she was emulating her rebel mother when she ran away with Percy. Brimming with romantic ideas of creative expression and free love, the Shelleys struggled to find a place in society that accepted their bohemian lifestyle. When they ran off together, Shelley was very much married to another woman, who later committed suicide. Mary’s half-sister joined the couple, creating a scandalous ménage. While we can’t say for sure if Claire and Percy ever actually hooked up, it seems apparent that the two had feelings for each other, which often made for an uncomfortable household. Mary wasn’t exactly a proponent of free love, she merely accepted her husband’s wandering eye.

As much as they tried to escape the rigid patriarchal confines of society, neither Mary could ever truly escape. Both initially published their work under male pseudonyms, and only revealed themselves when their work was praised. Of course, once reviewers figured out they were women, those positive notices went away quickly. Their families were dependent on them, but loathe to complement their hard work.   Wollstonecraft found steady work for her two sisters who peppered her constantly with complaints and requests. And even though William Goodwin disowned his daughter after she ran off with Percy (they reconciled after Mary and Percy actually married) that didn’t stop him from badgering her for money.

And even though they both married for love, the men in their lives ended up being a lot of trouble. Before Percy Shelley died at 29, he and Mary were sleeping in separate rooms. She blamed the deaths of their two children on his narcissistic tendencies. Percy couldn’t understand why she was sad all the time, and found solace in the arms of whichever women who would have them.  And after Wollstonecraft’s death, her husband published a biography of her which painted her as a lovelorn hysteric and minimized her many accomplishments.

I really enjoyed Romantic Outlaws. I wish Gordon had quoted from her subjects more, but that seems like a small quibble when you look at the 650 page tome she delivered. It tells the tale of two extraordinary women living in two extraordinary times and the prices they had to pay for making their own ways in the world. If the page count doesn’t scare you, I would recommend you pick it up.

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