Menagerie of Live Authors

Francesca Wade

  • Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
    Hutchinson, 649 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 09 195894 7

There were high hopes for the son of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, the grandson of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, but the boy told his mother that all he wanted was a quiet life and a sailing boat. She wasn’t wholly disappointed at his failure to distinguish himself. When it was suggested at school that he needed to learn to think for himself, Mary Shelley said: ‘Oh God, teach him to think like other people!’

Percy Florence was unusual in a uniformly cerebral family. Charlotte Gordon’s premise for writing a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is that while their lives overlapped only for ten days, they shared a spirit. Wollstonecraft’s work – especially her treatise on education and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – was addressed to future generations, and her daughter was one of her most avid disciples. Wollstonecraft died at 38 of puerperal fever; her daughter, the story went, learned to read by tracing the letters on her gravestone, which still stands in St Pancras churchyard; she also declared her love to the married Shelley there. Her first book, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, was written in direct homage to her mother’s bestselling memoir of her Scandinavian tour, and much of her subsequent fiction examines the fate of the motherless, from the ‘cursed’ Ida in her short story ‘The Pilgrims’, torn between her lover and her disapproving father, to the eponymous heroine of Matilda, forced to fend off her father’s advances. Many have detected, in the destruction Frankenstein’s monster visits on his creator, the author’s guilt at her mother’s death.

Although both Marys have been the subject of many biographies, their intellectual significance has often been doubted. Shelley’s daughter-in-law Jane wrote an ‘antiseptic’ biography claiming that Shelley and Mary eloped only after his wife had died, which led to Mary being seen as merely a virtuous wife, tender of her husband’s flame following his early death. In 1951, Muriel Spark rescued Mary’s literary reputation in her critical biography. Until then, Mary’s assertion that Shelley’s ‘genius, far transcending mine, awakened & guided my thoughts’ prevailed; many believed him the true author of Frankenstein, and dismissed her editorial work on his poetry. Much the same happened with Wollstonecraft, whose standing, bad in her lifetime, worsened after her death. Godwin’s hastily written memoir of her was explicit about her relationships, pregnancies, suicide attempts and religious doubts. After her Posthumous Works were published, detractors in the press warned, as Gordon puts it, that ‘her words could promote suicide, foster licentiousness and destroy the very fabric of decent society.’ Wollstonecraft was not reclaimed until the 1970s, when six biographies appeared in as many years. Charlotte Gordon relies on the work done at this time by Claire Tomalin, Lyndall Gordon, Janet Todd and Miranda Seymour: her innovation is to narrate the lives in alternate chapters, which allows the two stories to echo each other (though the jumps in chronology are confusing). In 1885 the Athenaeum described Wollstonecraft’s life as ‘one of the most thrilling romances’; Gordon seems to agree, sacrificing depth and context for paciness and overblown prose.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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