Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

There’s a profound connection between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851), author of the 1818 masterpiece Frankenstein.  These two famous authors were, of course, mother and daughter. A book well worth reading about these women is the remarkable biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley were physically part of each other’s lives only for a few days as Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days after giving birth to Mary due to an infection. Yet the space they filled in each other’s lives was much wider.

All her adult life, Mary Wollstonecraft worked relentlessly to improve the lives of girls and women through her writing (in particular Thoughts On The Education Of Daughters: With Reflections On Female Conduct, In The More Important Duties Of Life and A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman: With Strictures On Political And Moral Subjects).

For a period of time, she ran a school for girls. Furthermore, she tried to secure a future for her sisters.

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Learn more about Mary Wollstonecraft
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Her daughter came into her life when she had opened a new, happier chapter. She had an established position as a writer and was financially independent. She had just entered into a marriage with a man who fully appreciated her as a person and an equal partner. The newly born daughter was part of her hopes for happiness.

Much of Mary Shelley’s life was shaped by her mother’s legacy. She knew of all her mother’s works and wanted to be equally audacious and authentic in her writing as well as personal life. It is to her mother she dedicated her novel Frankenstein: “The memory of my mother has always been the pride and delight of my life.”

Charlotte Gordon’s book weaves both of their life stories into one. She finds a way to reconstruct the threads of their relationship, while not losing the uniqueness of their stories.

Both lived in times of great change of their society – Mary Wollstonecraft in the times of American and French Revolution, Mary Shelley of the emerging Romanticism. They were engaged in the most vivid debates of their times and fought for the right of women to shape their destiny.

As a historian and literature researcher, Charlotte Gordon provides a comprehensive background of the period. However, she goes beyond facts and uses her craft as a writer to forge an intimate bond between the reader and the two protagonists. She dives into their writing and letters to understand their motivations. This is especially important to understand their complex relationships with the men in their lives.

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Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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First of all, there was the father of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband — William Godwin. He and Mary Wollstonecraft found each other later in life and had to learn to appreciate one another’s qualities. Mary Wollstonecraft had experienced a major disappointment in love and was learning to trust a man again.

As for his daughter, he influenced young Mary’s education and encouraged her to write. However, Mary Shelley experienced a significant estrangement with her father, as he did not accept her choice to elope with a married man — the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was ironically a follower of his. For a long time, he also hinted that her writing wasn’t what he expected and that she could do better.

Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, was a profound admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft’s work. Their first “date” took place at the most sacred place for Mary Shelley – her mother’s grave. He valued Mary as a person and writer. At the same time, his constant desire to lead a radical and adventuresome life would jeopardize the stability and safety of the young family.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Learn more about Mary Shelley
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The family relationships were marked by grief. Mary Wollstonecraft was at the peak of her womanhood when she died. She was confident about being a mother and well prepared for birth. Her death was sudden and unexpected.

Mary Shelley lived with a constant burden of guilt that she had been the reason for her mother’s death. Subsequently, she didn’t grow up in a happy household, with conflicting feelings toward her stepmother and her father’s strong expectations.

In a sense, she lost both of her parents. Her father pushed her away and after she chose to be with Shelley, and didn’t respond to her attempts at reconciliation. This was perhaps reflected in Frankenstein, whose emotional theme is a cry for love and pain of rejection.

Nevertheless, along with grief, there’s a stream of love and connection which flows between the two women. Mary Shelley drew inspiration and hope from her mother throughout all her life. She was confident that she knew who her mother was and that they shared common values. Both of them believed in education and learning.

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Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyHow Mary Shelley Came to Write Frankenstein
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They chose to be courageous and didn’t run away from the consequences of their choices. They wanted to make the world better. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley set very high standards for their writings, but were also forced to struggle and comprise in the publishing world.

Despite the mixed feelings towards marriage as an institution which carried the stigma of oppressing women, they believed in fidelity in love. Finally, they awaited the birth of their children with joy.

The achievement of contemporary herstory is bringing to light not just women that have been forgotten, but also the relationships between them. Thanks to Charlotte Gordon’s work, we can learn from the relationship between the amazing mother and daughter.

Contributed by Magdalena Macinska. Magdalena grew up on stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery and has been slowly climbing the alpine path of writing. She has adopted English as her second language. On the days when  she is not translating books or at book  readings, you can find her  at the POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw where she works as a guide. Fascinated with the spirit of nineteenth century women writers, she  enjoy traveling to places connected with them.

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