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.”


Aphra Behn

As I begin in earnest my research and work to write about Lady Mary Wortley Montegue I have decided to read lots of biographies.  I hope it will reveal a way clear for me to do justice to this woman whose life I believe will interest a wider audience.  I have recently completed “Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn” by Angeline Goreau.

Aphra Behn is credited with being the first woman to earn her living by her writing. She lived from 1640-1689.  Yes!  In the 17th century a strong, literate, adventurous woman participated in the intellectual conversations of her time in London.  She wrote many successfully performed plays and was well known, then.  If any English Majors have even heard of her it is probably by knowing of the book called Oroonoko.  That book, she claimed, was a biography of an educated African slave who lived in the colony Surinam at the same time she was there as a young woman.   The veracity of it has long been questioned.  The author of this biography has done enough research to make a convincing claim that Oroonoko was a real person.  But, even if not, then this is a early work of fiction: a novel long before Daniel Defoe “invented” the novel.

What interests me the most about this woman who wrote, earned a living, experienced adventures in the world and was known by other writers of the era is how completely she has been sidelined and mostly forgotten, instead of celebrated. This is obviously the same issue I have with Lady Mary’s reputation.

The Restoration period was a time of what was referred to as ‘loose morals’.  No doubt people reacted to being freed from the religious strictures imposed by Cromwell and his administration.  The Restoration refers to the return of the monarchy.

Aphra Behn, perhaps the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, was educated and well traveled when she settled in London. She had been to debtors’ prison once and did not want to return.  Thus, she used her skills to earn a living.  She wrote bawdy, witty plays like most of her fellow writers.  As the era waned she was increasingly condemned for her lewdness.  “It is curious that the first woman to write professionally for the English Stage began her career when the morality of English Drama was at its lowest.”  Damning with faint praise by the Cambridge History of English Literature, indeed.

She was tough minded and unapologetic.  This is the epilogue to her play Sir Patient Fancy.  “I here and there o’erheard a coxcomb cry,/ Ah, Rot it —’tis a woman’s comedy,/One, who because she lately chanc’d to please us,/With her damn’d stuff, will never cease to tease us,/ What had poor woman done, that she must be/Debarred from sense, and sacred poetry?…/As for you half-wits, you unthinking tribe,/We’ll let you see, what e’er besides we do,/How artfully we copy some of you:/And if you’re drawn to th’life, pray tell me then,/Why women should not write as well as men.” Clearly she could give as good as she got!

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf pays tribute to her.  “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.  It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”

Research is such a pleasure, especially when I get introduced to these brave accomplished women.  I plan to share them as they become known to me.