Review: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon


Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.
Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

This was the nonfiction I chose to go along with reading The Determined Heart as it appeared to be one of the most recent biographies of Mary Shelley (whom The Determined Heart was about). I have read several books over Mary Shelley, but I would have to point out this one as the biography I’d send people to if asked to choose one about the author of Frankenstein. Alternating chapters between Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, the book is honest about their flaws as well as their genius. And both women were nearly forgotten for their genius based strictly on their gender and scandalous lifestyles, a situation compounded in Wollstonecraft’s situation by an ill-advised biography courtesy of her husband. Both women defied their time period in their beliefs and lifestyles and both women were given to bouts of depression, a malady that was not recognized or understood at the time, leading Wollstonecraft to garner a reputation as being irrational (and leading to two suicide attempts) and Shelley to come across as “cold” (her last years with Percy Shelley were plagued with conflict between the two and contempt from his friends towards her as she understandably failed to shake the depression of losing two children).

It is a tragedy that these two women never knew each other because their brilliance has changed literary and philosophical history. Shelley is almost entirely responsible for the rehabilitation of her husband’s posthumous career, being careful to paint him in a light that appealed to Victorian sensibilities (and excising his flaws, of which he had a LOT). Wollstonecraft was one of the foremost feminists and an accomplished author herself who is just recently being recognized for her literary innovations. They were complicated, intelligent, little understood women who paid for being ahead of their time. Tangled family situations, complicated love lives, and betrayal followed both women, but neither one ever left their positions as being champions of women throughout their lives.

5 out of 5


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