Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history.
Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Charlotte Gordon Hutchinson, 649pp, £25
This ingeniously constructed double biography tells the story of a mother and a daughter, two writers, who did not know each other. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died of septicaemia ten days after giving birth to Mary Godwin, later best known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Very different in character and interests – Wollstonecraft was more political, Shelley more scholarly – both women demanded a rare romantic and intellectual freedom that cost them dearly but pushed the boundaries of possibility for later generations.
Wollstonecraft was probably the greater pioneer of the two. Born the second of seven children to a drunken bully of a father and a passive mother, she felt keenly the absence of formal education for herself and her sisters, an injustice that inspired works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication. A resourceful woman, she not only earned her own living from a young age but cared for her younger sisters for long periods of time.
Godwin had potentially more stable beginnings, as a daughter of Wollstonecraft’s grieving husband, the philosopher William Godwin, the author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Thanks to her father, the young Mary received a better education than did many of her male peers. Yet her dead and already notorious mother haunted her. Throughout her life, she read and reread Wollstonecraft’s work and she and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley often met and talked at her mother’s grave in St Pancras. They may even, Gordon speculates, have first made love there. Gordon later suggests that Frankenstein is best interpreted as a story of the horrors that follow when a mother’s love is absent.
The profound perils of sex, romance and motherhood resonate throughout these pages. Wollstonecraft travelled alone to revolutionary Paris, at first enthralled and later horrified and threatened by Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here, she fell in love with a charismatic American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, and became pregnant with her first daughter, Fanny. As a lone mother, she was a social outcast but went on to publish perhaps one of her greatest works, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Her daughter also suffered as both a lover and a mother.…