Sunday, August 16, 2015

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Professor Charlotte Gordon/Endicott College

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
(Random House, 2015)
By Lawrence Kessenich

If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, why the name of Mary Shelley, the wife of famous Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, is so often written Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Charlotte Gordon provides a full and fascinating answer. Although Mary Shelley never knew her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died ten days after her daughter’s birth, Shelley not only inherited her mother’s name but also her spirit. And, as Gordon makes us fully aware in this lively biography, what a spirit it was—in both of them!

Despite the fact that mother and daughter only lived together for ten days, Gordon presents their lives like a dramatic, intertwined novel, alternating chapters on each and continually leaving the reader to wonder what will happen next—and what new parallel will emerge in their lives. By presenting these two amazing women side-by-side, Gordon helps us to know both of them, and their times, better and to admire what they accomplished.

Wollstonecraft is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, a book that provided an eloquent, ringing defense of women’s rights at a time when most people wouldn’t even consider the subject. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call her book the opening volley of the Women’s Movement, and it was written nearly two centuries before general acceptance of women’s rights in Western nations! Spurred by the helplessness of her mother in the face of an abusive husband, Wollstonecraft saw the subjugation of women—and especially married women—with a clear eye and called it what it was: slavery. Although her arguments were dismissed by most men—and women—at the time, she had laid the groundwork for later writers and crusaders.

One woman who decidedly did not dismiss Wollstonecraft’s arguments was her daughter Mary. Her father, William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist who also challenged the status quo in his writing, revered Mary’s mother, engendering a deep respect for her in his daughter—until, that is, his daughter acted upon his and her mother’s words and challenged the status quo herself. At seventeen, Mary eloped with married poet Percy Shelley, and lived with him out of wedlock, inviting—and receiving—the approbation of polite society and her supposedly revolutionary father. Both Mary and her poet husband read and reread Mary Wollstonecraft’s work, and spent their life trying to live by her tenets of personal freedom that disregards societal norms.

But being an outlaw—Romantic or otherwise—carries a stiff price, and both Marys paid that price throughout their lives. Both were mocked and scorned, privately and in public, for living lives of sin. Mary Wollstonecraft had an illegitimate child by American businessman Charles Imlay and was impregnated by William Godwin before the two were married. (Not surprisingly, considering the contemporary belief that, outside of a few days after menstruation, frequent sex made pregnancy less likely!) Mary Shelley broke up Percy Shelley’s marriage and was also impregnated before she married Percy (after his ex-wife committed suicide). Because of this, and because they espoused “free love,” both Wollstonecraft and Shelley were called whores and snubbed in public.

Worst of all, despite the fact that both Wollstonecraft and Shelley were highly original, skilled, professional writers, their being free thinkers and women often prevented them from being taken seriously by most of the writing establishment and the public at the time. And those who wrote about, and falsely interpreted, Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s lives immediately after their deaths also ensured that both writers would be misunderstood for nearly two more centuries. As Gordon describes it:

Wollstonecraft was written off, first as a whore and then as a hysteric, an irrational female hardly worth reading—slander that proved so effective in undercutting the ideals of A Vindication of the Rights of Women that it persists today in the rhetoric of those who oppose feminist principles. Mary Shelley, on the other hand, would be condemned for compromising the revolutionary values of her genius husband and her pioneering mother [and]…she was discounted as intellectual lightweight, her only important work done with the help of her husband.

The irony is that these were both highly intelligent, learned women—mostly self-educated, of course—who were capable of holding their own with the learned men of their time. Wollstonecraft took on social and political philosophy, expounding original and thought-provoking ideas in those areas—which were often praised, until it was discovered that a woman was putting them forward. Shelley’s Frankenstein challenged the ruling ethos about the unassailable goodness of science and progress—an ethos very few men were brave enough to challenge, and no one thought a woman had the right to challenge. And her education was so wide that, later in life, she was able to write (anonymously) five volumes in a book series entitled Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.

Perhaps the biggest irony of these great, independent lives, as Gordon describes them, is how much both Wollstonecraft and Shelley suffered over the men they loved most. Then again, perhaps it is not ironic, or even unusual. Don’t we still see strong, intelligent, independent women pining away for men who hardly seem to deserve them?

Wollstonecraft’s romantic nemesis was American businessman Gilbert Imlay, whom she met in Paris during the French Revolution. They seemed a perfect intellectual and romantic match, and spent blissful months together. But Imlay’s attentiveness to Wollstonecraft soon waned, and he used his business travels to get away from her. Wollstonecraft, who had become pregnant by Imlay, refused to accept that the relationship was not the ideal one she had envisioned.

These feelings were exacerbated when their child was born and Imlay did not care for the child as Wollstonecraft did. Long-lasting post-partum depression intensified Wollstonecraft’s suffering, and she pursued Imlay with a vengeance via letters and during infrequent face-to-face encounters. Ultimately, it took several years before she finally gave up on him and found her own equilibrium again.

Although Mary and Percy Shelley were artistic soul-mates until the tragic end of his life, he caused her a good deal of suffering during their years together—and, as Gordon fairly represents it, Mary could be hard on him, too. Shelley could be the very embodiment of  many people’s image of the Romantic poet: dreamy, impractical, self-involved, putting art above everything else. Unfortunately, these attitudes usually left Mary, who was trying to write herself, to deal with the everyday responsibilities of running a household: planning meals, caring for children, shopping, paying bills, and so on. (Her mother had similar problems with Mary’s father, Godwin, who wanted little involvement with domestic duties.) Of course, as a wife of her time, Mary was expected to do these things. But Mary was not a typical wife of her time, she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, and she came to resent Percy’s comparative freedom.

To make matters worse, Percy often had crushes on younger women—as he’d had on Mary when she was seventeen and he was twenty-two. These younger women were often part of social groups with whom the Shelleys spent a good deal of time, so Percy’s flirtations were in full view of Mary. Although Mary espoused free love, in the event it was often difficult to see herself displaced in Percy’s attentions.

Percy always came back to Mary, however, even if she sometimes made it difficult by being cold and distant. He seems to have loved her to the end, as she did him, even if they were not as close as they’d once been. And they never ceased sharing their literary efforts, each going to the other for advice and support until the very end.

But with all the sturm und drang that sometimes characterized their love life, these two women produced an impressive array of fiction and nonfiction works. To give just two examples from the output of each: Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women has a fresh, personal voice that makes its world-changing arguments clearly and simply, unlike most contemporary philosophical writers, which is why it still speaks to us today. Her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark seems to have introduced a whole new style of essay writing, full of personal and passionate responses to people and places. Gordon doesn't make this comparison, but this style sounds to me like a pre-cursor to the New Journalism of the 1960s.

As for Shelley, her Frankenstein was a bold and wholly original work of philosophical fiction whose theme is as challenging today as it was when she wrote it. Her “monster” has become an icon of Western civilization, and with the advent of the atomic bomb, her cautionary tale about the hubris of science was instantly proved prescient. Her voluminous, erudite contributions to Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men demonstrates the depth and breadth of her knowledge as well as her writing skill. As one source describes her contribution to this series:

Shelley's biographies reveal her as a professional woman of letters… Her extensive knowledge of history and languages, her ability to tell a gripping biographical narrative, and her interest in the burgeoning field of feminist historiography are reflected in these works.

These two bold women led interesting, complex, difficult, colorful lives, and Gordon presents them to us with all of their complexity and contradictions. She makes us appreciate how important it is that the reputations of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley have been rehabilitated over the past few decades. And Gordon’s well-thought-out dual biography will certainly continue to advance those reputations. She sums up the importance of these two women at the close of the book:

Without knowing the history of the era, the difficulties Wollstonecraft and Shelley faced are largely invisible, their bravery incomprehensible. Both women were what Wollstonecraft termed “outlaws.” Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct, not once but time and again, profoundly challenging the moral code of the day. Their refusal to bow down, to subside and surrender, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind. They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.

                                                        ABOUT THE REVIEWER

During his time at Houghton Mifflin, Lawrence Kessenich recruited W. P. Kinsella author of “Shoeless Joe,” Rick Boyer’s “Billingsgate Shoal”, a mystery that won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, “Confessions of Taoist on Wall Street,”by David Payne, and “Selected Poems of Anne Sexton,” edited by Diane Middlebrook. Kessenich was the editor for Terry McMillan’s first book “Mama,” as well. Kessenich is an accomplished playwright, poet, and a managing editor for the literary journal: Ibbetson Street.

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