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Book review

‘Romantic Outlaws’ by Charlotte Gordon

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Mary Wollstonecraft.

Charlotte Gordon’s impassioned dual biography opens with a beginning and an end, new life mingling with death. On Aug. 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to a girl, whom she named Mary. The child would never know her mother, however — Wollstonecraft, a philosopher, writer, radical, and pioneering feminist who outraged English society with her views, died 11 days later from an infection. Her daughter would also court controversy, running off with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was just 17, fashioning her own literary career as a woman of letters and author of “Frankenstein.’’

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Both mother and daughter flouted convention, refusing to submit to male prerogatives over how women should live their lives. “Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct,” the author writes, “not once but time and again, profoundly challenging the moral code of the day. Their refusal to bow down, to subside and surrender, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind.”

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A professor of English at Endicott College and a Gloucester resident, Gordon brings a rousing zeal to her pages. Both Wollstonecraft and Shelley have been the subject of previous biographies — the author builds her account on a tremendous variety of sources and scholarship — but Gordon, alternating between the two chapter by chapter, binds their lives into a fascinating whole. She shows, in vivid detail, how mother influenced daughter, and how the daughter’s struggles mirrored the mother’s.

Gordon can be a theatrically effusive writer. (“Who was the ideal woman? Mary [Wollstonecraft] asked. Was she a fainting maiden, easily fatigued and naïve? No! She was a resourceful intelligent human being.’’) But her style matches the outsized passion — Mary Shelley would declare her love to her husband on her mother’s grave — and intellectual ferment that define both women’s stories.

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Wollstonecraft’s life brims with drama. Born in 1759, she escaped the confines of her large family, becoming a governess. But she resisted this path, starting a school for girls, where she promoted ideas of independence for women. Hers was a daring pedagogy. She also started to write, finding a sympathetic publisher in London, Joseph Johnson, whose support was vital and enduring. She reported on events in France after the revolution, taking on Edmund Burke over the meanings of this watershed moment.

It was in this decade of social upheaval that Wollstonecraft wrote her classic tract, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’’ Though the work is now a staple of the feminist-studies curriculum, Gordon also makes a strong case for Wollstonecraft’s centrality to the Romantic movement. Her spontaneous and rapturous declarations about nature in another of her works, “Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark,’’ influenced Coleridge and anticipated Wordsworth. As Gordon nicely writes, it is the letters “that ‘vindicated’ emotion, subjectivity, and psychological complexity, the book that showed the Romantics a new writing world.”

Mary Shelley’s father was philosopher William Godwin, whom the then-pregnant Wollstonecraft married in 1797. Mary Godwin, as she was then called, plunged into this milieu when she eloped with Shelley in 1814, her half-sister Claire in tow. It was a scandalous ménage, and an unstable one. The mercurial poet, an admirer of Godwin père, was notorious for his atheism and radical political views, and his flights of fancy would prove trying to Mary, as would his tumultuous friendship with Byron. Still, he was a fervid supporter of her work and encouraged her efforts with “Frankenstein.’’ Gordon reads this classic through the lens of loss, of a world bereft of mothers. It is, she suggests, a parable about the dangers of unchecked male power, the same power that Wollstonecraft battled in her life.

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Indeed, the problem of male power emerges as the troubling theme of this book. Neither Shelley or Wollstonecraft could fully escape it. After the latter’s death, Godwin tried to tame his wife’s legacy by downplaying her considerable achievements and criticizing “A Vindication.’’ In doing so he did lasting damage to her reputation.

Both Byron and Shelley could treat women as playthings. Claire bore Byron an illegitimate daughter, but she grew to hate him, and Shelley, calling them “monsters of lying, meanness cruelty and treachery.” The measured Gordon never resorts to such epithets, but she never lets you forget the toll exacted on her subjects as they sought new worlds.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.
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