Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
This dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley utterly enthralled me. Both were talented, groundbreaking, independent thinking women, they each had drama and difficulties in their lives worthy of a Brontë novel, and between them they knew intimately some of the most interesting people involved with Romantic literature and radical political thought from the French Revolution through to the mid-Victorian years.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born into a poor family with a very difficult, sometimes violent father, but Wollstonecraft was at least as spirited as he was and she struggled to surmount the boundaries gender and poverty put on her life in every way she could, eventually becoming a leading progressive thinker and the author of several influential books, including A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She loved passionately but refused the traditional roles women were expected to embrace at the time, so she married the political philosopher William Godwin late in life and only reluctantly. Wollstonecraft died days after giving birth to the daughter named for her, so it was through her extensive writings that Mary Godwin Shelley came to esteem, cherish, and love her mother.
While still a teenager Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, a social commentary many consider the first science fiction novel, while holed up in Switzerland with a crowd that included Lord Byron. Like her parents she rejected social conventions about love, life, and marriage and at sixteen she scandalized her more staid contemporaries by running away with the already married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, though that particular rebellion she came to regret because it hurt so many people. Mary longed for and looked up to her mother, using her mother’s writings as guideposts for her own life, and that reverence was shared by her husband, her stepsister, Lord Byron, and many of Mary’s other peers.
Romantic Outlaws is written in a back and forth chronology, with chapters about the two women alternating, so the section about Wollstonecraft’s early life is followed by one about her daughter at a similar age. I thought this might be confusing, especially since they’re both named Mary, but their circumstances were different enough that it was usually simple to keep track of who I was reading about, and structuring the book that way makes it easy to compare the lives of the women, which adds even more interest to their stories.
The book is well researched and documented with notes, but far from being a dry recitation of facts I found it very compelling. Many of the chapters even end in what might almost be called cliffhangers, a technique that definitely kept me highly engaged.
Before reading this biography both Marys were more symbols to me than women with families, lovers, personal trials and private doubts, but Charlotte Gordon illuminates the hearts and minds of her subjects and succeeds at bringing the two women and the era they lived in to life. William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron are among the people who are also well rendered, and many other fascinating people spend time on the book’s pages, including Coleridge, Keats, and John and Abigail Adams.
Saying it’s engrossing is almost an understatement--I don’t remember ever finding a biography so hard to put down. I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, but I’ve already preordered my own copy hardback edition of Romantic Outlaws.