Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon
Published by Random House, 672 pages, $30
With zesty energy, local historian Charlotte Gordon tells this story of two Marys. Mother Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the landmark 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died soon after the birth of her second child. This daughter, Mary, became the author of Frankenstein and the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Though separated by death, both Marys had similar literary, ideological and romantic lives, fraught and colorful.
Gordon, who teaches English at Endicott College, turns from one Mary to the other in alternating chapters, where we see Wollstonecraft as a passionate proponent of modern-style feminism and the shunned mother of one illegitimate child. Later, she wed radical political philosopher William Godwin, though both were against the traditional constraints of marriage. Legitimate Mary follows, and her politics are just as progressive, her relationships no less complicated. Poet Shelley, romantic on the page, was irresponsible and selfish at home, and the couple rambled internationally alongside Lord Byron in a circle reviled as the “League of Incest.” Adultery, the deaths of children, suicide and anguish prevailed.
Gordon starkly and sorrowfully reports how the work of these Marys, who advocated fervently for the rights of women and other political causes, were misinterpreted and underappreciated for nearly 200 years. Still, the everyday poetry of their letters and diaries—alongside Gordon’s own literary vivacity—makes every page feel like a compressed novel.
From page 389: Sexual intimacy became a kind of chessboard, a test of strategy. For Godwin, whose father “was so puritanical that he considered the fondling of a cat a profanation of the Lord’s Day,” it seemed shocking to act on his sensual impulses. Mary, on the other hand, felt ready to plunge forward and was disappointed with Godwin’s restraint. She began to refer to him as “your sapient Philosophership,” partly in jest, but also to provoke him to display his feelings more openly.