Mary Wollenstonecraft, the 18th-century writer and early advocate of women’s rights, died shortly after giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley, who went on to write “Frankenstein.” In her dual biography “Romantic Outlaws,” Charlotte Gordon weaves together the separate yet entwined lives of mother and daughter. Gordon teaches at Endicott College and lives in Gloucester.
BOOKS: What were Mary Wollenstonecraft and Mary Shelley like as readers?
GORDON: They were two different kinds of readers. Mary Wollenstonecraft was a self-made person. She was born into a hideous family. Her father was an alcoholic. She saw education as a tool for empowerment. By the time she was 16 she was reading John Locke, who said men and women were equals. Her husband, William Godwin, a famous political scientist, taught Mary Shelley to read on her mother’s gravestone. The first four letters she learned were M-A-R-Y. She read everything her mother wrote. She had a very deep relationship with her mother based on her work. When she ran off with Percy Shelley, they didn’t take sexy lingerie. They took all her mother’s books and read to each other. Nobody understands what nerds they were.
BOOKS: What did you read as research for your book that you would recommend?
GORDON: I loved Miranda Seymour’s biography of Mary Shelley. I loved the old chestnut, Richard Holmes’s biography of Percy Shelley. It’s a tour de force though I don’t like how he pictures Mary Shelley at all.
BOOKS: Do you like biographies?
GORDON: I love biographies, but I also love books about ideas. I love “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt, which is really a history of an idea. I love this book, “God: A Biography” by Jack Miles. He uses biblical sources and scholarly research to do an analysis of God as a character in the Bible, the way Hamlet is a character in Shakespeare.
BOOKS: Have you ever been surprised that you liked a book?
GORDON: I had that experience with Jonathan Franzen, whom I was ready not to like, then I loved his books. That was very alarming. That led me to read Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son.” I thought I’d have no interest in North Korea. He’s not a North Korea scholar, but I loved that novel so much. I just read a novel that I’d never heard of that I really like called the “The Ha-Ha” by Dave King, which is written from the point of view of a guy with brain damage so he can’t speak. It sounds horrible, but I loved it. It’s very touching.
BOOKS: How did you come across that?
GORDON: It was on my mom’s stack of books she hadn’t read. Usually I love whatever she loves. This spring we read as a family “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, which is a really important book. My mother, who is almost 90, wanted us to read it. I’m very close to my mother and my siblings, but there are some hard questions that don’t come up at the dinner table, like at what point would you consider your life not worth living? Reading that book together was like having a conversation without addressing these difficult topics over the corn on the cob.
BOOKS: What have been some of your other all-time favorite reads?
GORDON: I’m a little embarrassed to say anything by Jane Austen. I feel the same way about the British novelist Barbara Pym. The world she paints is a small world of humorous descriptions of people’s eccentricities. She was very different from the women she wrote about. She had lovers and a kind of wild life. I used to think books were test cases for friendship. I have since moved on from that. My partner doesn’t think Jane Austen or Barbara Pym are the be-all-end-all. All of my friends with one exception hate Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series. I devoured them. Yet liking the same books as someone else does cut down on existential loneliness.