Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

As I continue reading biographies to find out how best to write about Lady Mary I am continually delighted by new(to me) books about, and new insights into the lives of women of accomplishment from earlier centuries.  I have recently completed a wonderful book “Romantic Outlaws” by Charlotte Gordon.

romantic outlaws

This is a dual biography, written in alternating chapters about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.  Initially I was doubtful that alternating chapters could satisfy, but I was wrong.  The time from Mary Wollstonecraft’s birth in 1797 until Mary Shelley’s death in 1851 expanded time and women’s experience for me.

This book tells the story of two very intelligent, independent-minded and rebellious women, each of whom has left an indelible impression on all modern women, whether we are aware of it or not.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a child of the Enlightenment.  She was an intellectual.  “She had strong opinions-‘truths’- she would have said-that she wanted to express in what she called a ‘masculine’ style: bold, honest, and eminently rational rather than trivial, weak and flowery, the unfortunate list of adjectives attributed to ‘feminine’ writing by most in the eighteenth century.”  She wrote columns in journals of the day.  What she learned and shared with all of us was that rationality does not need to be abstracted from sentiment.  She believed and determinedly lived her life blending both logic and grand passions.  There has often been a confusion, for mainly feminists I think, about a strong rational woman who fearlessly gave into her passion and obsession with her lovers.  I do not think she would have seen a contradiction.  One should not cancel out the other.  A passionate life need not cast a shadow over a rational life.

Mary Shelley was more than the woman who wrote Frankenstein or the poet’s wife.  She, too, was an independent-thinking, strong woman who loved fiercely, maintained an intellectual life which included much writing and reading Greek (among other accomplishments she shared with Shelley, the poet).  What is remarkable to me, is that she actually incorporated in her personality and her life all that her mother believed and tried to live.  She also endured the loss of her mother at her very birth, the deaths of four children and her husband’s dramatic drowning in Italy.  She faced down all varieties of scandal by choosing to live her life true to herself.

This quote from the book is about Mary Wollstonecraft, but I think it applies to Mary Shelley, as well.  “Mostly, her deeply held beliefs sustained her.  On the one hand, she was unique, the first of a genus, but like all women she had endured prejudice and hate; her sufferings, though specific to her, exemplified the injustices that others also had to suffer; and it was the general experience that she wanted to expose.  If she could show her readers what it felt like to be powerless, what it was like to be a woman without legal recourse, poor, abused and at the mercy of others, if she could reveal the root causes of human suffering and misogyny, then perhaps she could galvanize her readers and save others from the same miseries.”

I love these two women thanks to Charlotte Gordon’s “Romantic Outlaws.”