The Ladies Guide to History: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Romantic Outlaws
Romantic Outlaws relates the stories of a mother and a daughter: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Both were inspiring woman who chose not to let their lives be ruled by the arbitrary rules that society created.

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary was a complicated woman (like all women) and she mixed fierce independence with the almost desperate need to be loved. She had a habit of becoming completely attached to men, who really didn’t deserve the affection and esteem she had gifted them with. Mary started life in a house where men dominated the females of the household she quickly realized the need to gain her independence and took the jobs available to gentlewomen, a companion, governess and teacher. However, she eventually came to terms with the fact that these jobs were not for her and decided to write full time. She certainly received help to become independent with the help of her editor Joseph Johnson. He not only agreed to publish her works but gave her a place to stay when she needed it and introduced her to many other literary friends including Thomas Paine and William Godwin. While working for she translated works from French and German and wrote critiques of different works.

However after facing a humiliating rejection from Henry Fuseli, Mary traveled to France during the French Revolution to record the events of the revolution. In the beginning of the French Revolution there was attention paid to rights of women but soon opinions changed and she feared for her friends and for herself. A friend of hers Gilbert Imlay, an American, named her as his wife (As the wife of an American she would be safe where as a English citizen she would not) and they set up house together. Soon Mary became pregnant and had a daughter, Fanny. After the birth of Fanny and realizing that her relationship with Imlay was failing and while possibly suffering from postpartum depression she committed her first attempt at suicide and few month later tried again, neither were successful. While trying to get over her relationship with Imlay she toured Scandinavia where she wrote her travel memoir Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Denmark and Norway (which would become her most popular work during her lifetime). Soon afterward returned to England where she eventually met William Godwin, a writer and philosopher as well. After a shy courtship they got married and Mary gave birth to a small baby, little Mary Godwin later Mary Shelley. After the birth Mary Wollstonecraft caught a fever after giving birth to little Mary and died, leaving Godwin and the little Mary behind.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Writing

    Mary Wollstonecraft was the remarkable woman who wrote, among other things, Vindications of the Rights of Women. She supported not only herself, but also her two sisters when the means for women supporting themselves was very limited, especially to women who were of a higher social class essentially “gentlewoman”. In order to support herself and her sisters Mary took jobs as a companion, governess and teacher, which led her to writing about women’s education in her The Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Original Stories from Real Life. Mary believed that humanity would be better off if women were educated and able support themselves and not reliant on and subservient to men. She about politics especially in her Vindication of the Rights of Men which gave her the idea of Vindication of the Rights of Women. She wrote Mary: A Fiction her first novel and Maria: Or the Wrongs of Woman both novels tell the stories of women who are trapped by their circumstances and wronged by the men in their lives. When she traveled she wrote many letters, which became her travel memoir Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Demark and Norway. 

Who Was Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley the author of Frankenstein grew up in shadow of her two parents both famous authors and philosophers. People believed that the child of two giants would have to be a genius and they certainly were not wrong. Mary was an intelligent and quiet child, who sought her fathers approval. But when she was 16 she met a man named Percy Shelley, a poet whose legacy Mary helped to secure, and the two fell in love. Percy, despite the fact that he had a wife at the time, and Mary, despite of Godwin’s disapproval, decided to run away together. Not to be outdone Mary’s half-sister Jane (later renamed Claire) came with them. Mary’s father refused to speak or see Mary which reflected the larger ostracism the grouped faced from society and therefore, the group of three left England. They traveled all over continental Europe meeting with others of similar politics and opinions including Lord Byron who was present at the house party in Geneva where to stave off boredom they each decided to write a ghost story and where Mary conceived the story of Frankenstein and his monster.

While Percy and Mary were supportive of each other’s writing they had a difficult relationship. They  seemed to be fond of each other, although, Percy seems to have been rather self-centered and not very empathetic to his wife. He would be infatuated with Mary one minute and then would be chasing after another woman, especially Mary’s half-sister the next. Mary gave birth to four children only one who grew to adulthood. Percy died as a result of his sailing and left Mary heartbroken at age of 25. She lived the rest of her life with her last remaining child Percy Jr. and while Mary entertained a few flirtations she never married again. She dedicated the rest of her life to her writing and showcasing Percy’s legacy.

Mary Shelley’s Writing

Mary Shelley wrote several other works beside the work that has made her a very recognizable name. She published several poems before Frankenstein but her first published novel was Frankenstein soon afterward she published the controversial novel Mathilda. When she and Shelley traveled to Italy she wrote Valperga She continued to write after her husband’s death to support herself and her son. During this period she wrote several novels that were considered to be to dark to have been written by a woman just as Frankenstein had been these included The Last Man and Lodore among several others including a travel journal like the one her mother wrote before her Rambles in Germany and Italy. Mary also edited and compiled her husband’s work for publishing in order to secure her husbands legacy as a poet.

My Review of Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon did a fantastic job with this book and tells both Mary’s stories brilliantly. She explains her reason for alternating chapters with the premise that though they never truly knew each other they each impacted the other. Mary Wollstonecraft her thoughts on the education of women and the legacy that she hoped she would leave and Mary Shelley was influenced by the works, politics and legacy of her mother. I thought this was an interesting premise which I believe holds merit especially in the case of Mary Shelley but in the case of Mary Wollstonecraft I’m not entirely sure if it holds up. She was an educator and therefore probably did think in terms of educating female students but I think once she left teaching and then her governess position her thoughts were given more towards the politics of the period.

I enjoyed learning about these two women and I thought that they both had remarkable stories. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley’s stories had similar themes including independence and ostracism and the strength to continue on despite the ostracism they faced. Personally I didn’t like the alternating chapters. It was always felt very jarring going between time periods for me and as soon as I felt invested in one Mary’s story I felt like I had to read about the other. As with novels that tell their story in alternating perspectives, I always seem to favor one story line or voice. In this book, though nonfiction, it was Mary Wollstonecraft’s story I was invested in.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley or to anyone looking to learn more about women who wanted and did change the world.

I gave this book 4/5 stars

Relevant Links:

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Other Ladies Guide Posts:

The Ladies Guide to History: Marian Anderson

The Ladies Guide to History: Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir 

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One thought on “The Ladies Guide to History: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

  1. Pingback: The Ladies Guide to History: Hildegard of Bingen | ThroughTheWardrobetoMiddleEarth

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