Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, died of childbed fever just ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. (Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for germ theory and widely available birth control.) They overlapped in life only briefly, but Wollstonecraft nevertheless played a major role in shaping her daughter’s life and ideas.
That influence is the driving theme in Charlotte Gordon’s new dual biography of the pair, Romantic Outlaws. Gordon flips back and forth between the lives of the two Marys, tracing Wollstonecraft’s rise alongside Shelley’s tumultuous relationship with Percy, her stepsister Claire, and the rest of the proto-Goths knocking around Romantic circles.
The book is full of fascinating details. For instance: Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband, William Godwin, would exchange notes between home and his office down the street throughout the workday. And so we have a series of hastily scrawled dispatches (ranging from what’s for dinner to Mary’s complaints about bearing the brunt of the domestic work) that look an awful lot like emails or instant messages. Also: When the Shelleys hung around Byron, they had to put up with the papers back home lumping them into what one outlet dubbed “the League of Incest.” The League of Incest! Say what you want about scurrilous blogs, but you just can’t get away with a turn of phrase like that anymore.
It was such a fascinating read that by the time I got Gordon on the phone, I couldn’t help but throw a bunch of observations at her and see what she had to say. Fortunately she was very patient and game. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Tell me about how you got started on this particular project.
I’d always heard of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, of course, because I’m that kind of person. But you know, I never really realized they were mother and daughter. I’m embarrassed to say that, but I didn’t know it. When I found out, I was really interested. I’d always really thought Mary Shelley was brave and cool and interesting, and so I thought, Well, that makes so much sense—she had this cool, brave, pioneering mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. So then I read all the biographies that I could find of Mary Wollstonecraft, and I found out she’d died ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, so how could she have influenced her?
I then read all the biographies of Mary Shelley, and I thought, she’s so influenced by her mother, this is so weird. So then I looked for the biography that told the story of their two lives and guess what, it wasn’t there. So I ended up writing it.
I didn’t know I was writing a book when I started this. This really came out of personal interest. I was just curious, which is always such a great feeling when that happens. It’s so fun to be interested in something. And I kind of fell in love with both of them, then I got on a mission to really explain what I see as one story. I know that everyone says the book is a dual biography, but I really see it as one story, and I think that’s important in terms of women’s history. The influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter was incalculable. And I feel like it’s important that we tell that story, because I think we’re influenced by history in ways that we don’t always know. So let’s look at a case here so that we can see exactly how history plays itself out, especially in this weird and interesting family.
Your book argues that Mary Wollstonecraft’s influence on her daughter has been pretty systematically underestimated. Why do you think that relationship fell out of the historical record?
I think there’s the sort of primitive answer, which is no one really cares. And the ‘70s feminist in me says they were both underestimated as intellectuals and as thinkers and so no one was really interested in Mary Shelley’s literary heritage. And in fact the most important work that happened with Mary Shelley was excavating her from under the dominance of her husband, and no one has been that interested, frankly, in the female lineage, which is what interests me.
I think one of the fascinating things about Mary Wollstonecraft is we almost lost her. It’s thanks to the great women writers of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century that we have any historical records left of Mary Wollstonecraft, because as you know, after she died, her grieving husband wrote this tell-all memoir that scandalized the world. When people knew all the stuff she’d done and the men she’d slept with, et cetera, she became known as even more of a scandalous figure.
Nobody wanted to associate with her. Not early proto-feminists. And so it’s thanks to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf that we have kept any kind of record of her.
On another level, I think there was an active campaign to silence the voice of Wollstonecraft for about 125, 150 years. Really she was not studied or taken seriously until second-wave feminism, until the 1970s. And even then, the fashion was to see people as isolated miracles and not place them in their context.
And then, no one I think thought that a mother who had died could have influenced a daughter. People didn’t take into account—again, because they were minimizing who Wollstonecraft was and who Shelley was—that in fact Wollstonecraft was in fact so prolific that all Shelley had to do was read her books over and over and over again—which is what she did—to learn about her mother’s ideas and in fact to idealize her mother in a way that she might not even have done if she had been a normal daughter with a normal living mother where you quarrel and fight. Instead she had this idealized image that was her guiding light throughout her whole life.
It seems in some ways she was more influenced by the mother that wasn’t there than she might’ve been by the mother that would have been there.
I totally think that. I love my mom, and there’s all sorts things that happen between mothers and daughters that are filled with friction and identity and I’m different from you and I’m like you, all those sorts of questions. And Mary Shelley didn’t have to deal with any of that. She could just have this idealized image of this brave, pioneering, all-loving mother. And her father fought for that. There’s that famous story that she was taught to read on her mother’s gravestone, and I think the love affair conducted on her mother’s gravestone with Percy just speaks to the fact that she wanted her mother with her at the most important points in her life. And I think it’s so interesting that she chose to be buried with her mother and not with Percy Shelley at the end of her life.
One of the striking things about this book was that the Victorians are so dominant in the way we think about the past that it’s easy to forget that the generation before Shelley’s was so full of revolution and racy experimentation. It was really striking to watch the conservatism that sweeps in after Mary Wollstonecraft.
I notice that when I teach women’s history, my students always think that things progress. That things have steadily gotten better for women over the years, and they’re always startled to find that in fact that hasn’t been the case. That seventeenth-century America was a great time to be a woman but nineteenth-century America was a horrible time to be a woman, for example. That’s always surprising to people, I think.
To be Mary Wollstonecraft, you still had to be super brave. She was called a hyena in petticoats; she was vilified for her publications and her ideas. But she was still living in an era which, as you said, was a profoundly revolutionary one. And it’s her daughter who has to come of age during this horrible conservative backlash against the French Revolution. What a horrible time to be a young intellectual radical woman, the 1820s and 30s.
I was reading your book and frankly, Percy Shelley, Byron, Godwin, Gilbert Imlay—the men in this book really aren’t looking great. And I’m curious what you make of the male characters in the biography, especially since Percy Shelley is traditionally considered this Romantic hero.
Well, you know, I went into the book very much from the point of view of both the Marys—to begin with, I had loved Percy Shelley as an undergraduate. My big paper as a junior was on Shelley and Keats, always just seeing him as the iconic romantic poet. I came very much to see him as the enemy in the beginning stages of the book. And then, I think what happens when you write this size book, is you end up having to take the point of view of all of the characters. So I really came to understand where Percy had suffered. Percy had a miserable childhood. He was brilliant—what was he going to do in the world? He had struggled with his father all his life and I saw him a man who was really just searching but was also strangely fatherless and rebellious and perhaps driven by homoerotic impulses he didn’t fully understand. I don’t think anyone would want to be married to him, but I think he was a brilliant soul. I do think he was a brilliant man. But I think he caused lots of pain and heartache as well.
As for Godwin—I mean I think with all of the people in this book, I saw their strengths and weaknesses. I love how he did love Wollstonecraft, but I saw his limitations. He didn’t know how to be a father. If Wollstonecraft had lived I think she would have helped him be a good father. He was a man of pure ideas, really. And his ideas were pretty beautiful—that humankind was naturally good, that we shouldn’t therefore be restricted by any laws or rules, that the institution of marriage was oppressive to women. He thought the right things, he just didn’t know how to love people or be intimate.
I hope that I showed these characters’ strengths as well as their weaknesses. I really did end up having empathy for everyone in the book, even the people I thought were villains to begin with. With one exception, probably, and that’s Trelawny, I thought was dreadful.
I want to talk specifically about Jane, Mary Shelley’s daughter-in-law. As you’re reading the biography you keep encountering pieces of missing information—ripped out diary pages, for instance. So I was expecting to get to the point where her descendants were handling her legacy and dislike them. I was picturing these stereotypical Victorian prigs. Then you get to the end of the book, and you meet Jane, and it’s just such a relief that at least one person was totally dedicated to taking care of Mary Shelley. How did you feel about her as a historical figure, given that you were bumping up against her interference as you were writing the book?
I went through exactly the same thing with Jane. She was totally my enemy. Because you know she’d gotten rid of stuff I wanted and she’d rewritten history and she’d done these terrible things from the point of view of the biographer. But Mary Shelley loved her so much and she was so good to Mary that I really had to see her actions in light of protection of Mary. And you know, I was not alive during the Victorian era. Jane really thought she was doing the best thing she could be doing for her mother-in-law and I really had to understand that as such. I’m also really grateful for the things she let slip by!
I think it makes it even more of an alluring story, because I do believe that Mary Shelley was writing for modernity, or a future that would understand her. And so trying to sift through the clues that were left makes researching her really a fascinating experience, because I think she left clues embedded through all of her work about what her real ideas were and her real thoughts. And in her fiction, but especially in her encyclopedia articles that Jane could never really get hold of, thank God. Those are great, and nobody reads them, because nobody knew they existed until about ten, fifteen years ago. And they’re still uncovering some they think were probably written by Mary Shelley, because they weren’t signed.
As you talk to me and as I talk to you, you know so much about me through how I wrote this book. And so you can learn so much about Mary Shelley by how she writes these other people’s lives. When she talked to the encyclopedia guy that she was writing for, she’d been assigned to write all the lives of the great Mediterranean men—the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, because no one else knew those languages. So she was the only woman doing this. She went to him and said, you know, this would be a really neat thing, to do an encyclopedia of great women. And he said no. She didn’t fight with him. She did something that taught me so much about her and explained so much about her. Instead, she embeds the story of the women in the articles that she wrote about the men. I think I had to cut all this from the book because it was already so long, but if you read her essay on Montaigne, for example, she’ll say, “Oh yeah, he was a great essayist. His niece, Mary, now she was poet. And here are some of her poems. And she knew ancient greek.” And you think, what happened to Montaigne?
It makes me think all the way back to 19-year-old Mary, [writing Frankenstein and] embedding narrative inside narrative inside narrative. That is how she coped, is through embedding her story in other stories so they could stay safe for the informed reader. She could fly under the radar, which was really important in the Victorian era.
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