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

Charlotte Good. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley.
New York: Random House, 2015.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald

shellyMary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Wollstonecraft) and her daughter, Mary Godwin Shelley (Shelley), never knew each other, the mother having died of “childbed fever” when the infant was 10 days old. Yet Charlotte Good demonstrates how close the two women were, as she traces the many “intersections of their lives” in alternating chapters. “Both women were ‘outlaws.’ Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct…profoundly challenging the moral code of the day.” They were early feminists, who “…asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.”

Good’s admiration for each woman reflects the critical attitudes that did not emerge until the mid-twentieth century. For more than a century, both had been denigrated by a viciously unforgiving, conservative society, whose mores the women had challenged. Wollstonecraft, author of novels and studies that demanded fair and equal treatment for women and the impoverished, had been dismissed as a whore and a hysteric. Shelley was accused of being immoral and of having smothered the romantic inspiration of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Both women had felt suppressed since childhood. Wollstonecraft was the “invisible child” in a household ruled by her violently abusive, drunken father; she received no support or praise from her mother. Shelley was beaten down mentally by a stepmother who was given to histrionics and a father who was condescending. Wollstonecraft escaped after creating a scandal in which she encouraged her unstable sister, who may have been suffering from postpartum depression, to abandon her sexually abusive husband. This was a bold move because women had no rights or protection from the law. The society had no sympathy for a runaway wife or for her accomplices. With assistance from a wealthy woman, Wollstonecraft set up a girls’ school designed to “meet students as individuals” and to “require girls to use their reason”—both ideas opposing the society’s stultifying treatment of young females. Her focus was always on the “physical, spiritual, and moral welfare” of her students. Shelley’s “escape” came as her father sent her to live with a Scottish family, which treated her as an adult. She was extremely bright, reading widely, and teaching herself several languages. At the core of her view of the world were her mother’s brilliant books which argued for just and equal treatment of women.

Both mother and daughter flew in the face of English mores by rejecting the requirement of marriage, viewing the institution as society’s means of entrapping women –preventing their intellectual development, making them totally dependent upon their husbands, and leaving them financially destitute should the husband abandon them or die. Both Wollstonecraft and Shelley had long-term relationships—Wollstonecraft reluctantly married her lover, William Godwin, only to prevent her child’s being branded as illegitimate. Shelley’s behavior was scorned publicly as she ran off with the renowned romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married and the father of a child.

Both mother and daughter were subject to depression. Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice after being used poorly by her first lover, who had rejected her. His cruelty was most evident when, shortly after she had deliberately overdosed on laudanum, he sent her on a trip to investigate a failed business venture. When she returned, he informed her that he had no more use for her. Several of Shelley’s children died of illnesses, but the poet showed no sympathy for the mother’s grieving; instead he found another woman, and eventually sank into self-pity, quite possibly deliberately orchestrating his own death by sailing an unstable vessel into a storm when he could not swim. Consequently Shelley came very close to committing suicide.

Wollstonecraft embraced the views of the Romantics: “emotion over reason, passion over logic, spontaneity over restraint, originality over tradition.” She supported the French revolution—at least in its early, less violent stages. She voiced many ideas that were adapted later by Wordsworth and Coleridge. She endured the criticism of much of the intellectual community, who found her work to be undisciplined. William Godwin, her lover/husband, belittled her creative efforts for their lack of logic, for their poor grammatical structure, and for their reliance upon emotion. He was probably most responsible for the horrid reputation that arose following her death. He published a slanted biography, citing many of her private letters, many of which voiced violent outrage at the horrible treatment by the former lover who had nearly caused her death. She appeared to be a woman governed solely by her passions—totally devoid of reason.

Although Percy Shelley had a history of infidelities and dalliances, Mary Shelley bore most of the burden of “guilt” for their relationship. She was charged with smothering the poet’s artistry with her own passion and lack of intellect. This allegation was totally untrue; in fact, it was she who systematically arranged much of his work for publication. Some of his poems were in disarray, and she ordered them logically. When the poet’s father refused to let Mary publish the poet’s biography, she shrewdly put together a heavily annotated collection of his works—the notes providing a great deal of biographical material. “But by promoting and editing [his] work,…she had almost painted herself out of the picture.” She followed in her mother’s footsteps, writing emotionally powerful novels, which initially met with disapproval from a conservative readership including her father. She displayed her amazing language skills and erudition when she was hired by a “Cyclopedia” to write biographical essays about the scientific and literary men of Italy, Portugal, Spain, and France.

Frankenstein, one of Mary Shelley’s earliest creations, may very well be a self-portrait; she was the “monster,” created by a man obsessed with becoming God-like through his scientific reasoning. But the tale was tragic; Dr. Frankenstein “…was at fault because he did not provide his creation with love or an education.” “’Monsters,’ says Mary,’ are of our own making.” Both mother and daughter were treated as if they were monsters by their society. However, they are now recognized and praised as brilliant, courageous women who refused to be governed by the oppressive male-dominated society.

tedTed Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 44 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.