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Romantic Outlaws, by Charlotte Gordon.

April 6, 2015

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon.  Random House (2015), Hardcover, 672 pages.

3 stars

A dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a major early advocate of women’s rights, and her daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley are women who deserve our attention. Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women, the most extensive statement of why women should be treated as well as men that had appeared when it first published in the 1790s. The problems it addressed still remain unresolved and the book still worth reading. Wollstonecraft also craved out a life for herself that was highly unusual for the period, writing, supporting herself in the company of radical men of her generation. Among them was William Godwin, a fellow radical whom she married shortly before their daughter Mary was born. Ten days after Mary’s birth, Wollstonecraft died, and the girl was raised by her father and his second wife and later married Percy Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.

Charlotte Gordon teaches at Endicott College in Massachusetts. She has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Yet her dual biography is not an academic one. She has published other books, never  specializing on the time and place of her subjects. She makes the point that Mary Shelley was deeply affected by her mother, a fact that she says has been frequently overlooked. Yet she doesn’t prove that absense with chains of evidence documented by footnotes or discussion of how other scholars have viewed these women. She does not establish whether this book was original research from primary sources or if it was primarily a summary of the research of others. On her website, she says that when she noticed these two women, she wanted to make sure they were better known. Who can argue with that?  Her book is not academic but seems to be aimed at a general, but educated audience of readers.  Yet it is a very big book, with more detail than general readers usually appreciate.

Gentle Outlaws in structured into alternating chapters featuring Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. The pairings seem intended to present them at the parallel points in their lives, but I found the organization confusing. It was hard enough just to keep straight who was doing what, especially since both women shared the name Mary. The shifting time periods made it difficult to get a real sense of what was going on around them, personally, socially or intellectually. The result was to play down the revolutionary eras they lived through which shaped their lives and writings.

I recommend this book primarily to those who enjoy big biographies of significant women from the past.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ekwy permalink
    April 7, 2015 2:58 am

    Thank you for this review. Receiving your email notifications of a blog post regularly, I wanted to say please keep up the good work. When I do get round to reading anything you’ve reviewed, I’ll be sure to write up a comment.

    • April 7, 2015 11:18 am

      Thank you for your encouragement. I am glad you like my reviews. I will be eager to know what you think about some of these books.

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