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

About the Book

Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.

Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.

649 pages (hardcover)
Published on April 28, 2015
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I didn’t know much about Mary Shelley before diving into this book, and I’d never heard of Mary Wollstonecraft. However, this book had great reviews and it looked interesting, so I decided to put it on hold at the library. 

The thing is, I didn’t actually expect to like it, and I certainly didn’t think I’d devour it. 

Romantic Outlaws tells the story of both mother and daughter, switching between their lives from chapter to chapter. This allows the reader to learn about both women when they are roughly at the same point in their lives, but it also gives you a good point to juxtapose their stories. At first, there’s a whole lot to compare. Despite the fact that both Marys fought very similar battles in their lives, the two women couldn’t really be more different. 

“Both mother and daughter attempted to free themselves from the stranglehold of polite society, and both struggled to balance their need for love and companionship with their need for independence. They braved the criticism of their peers to write works that took on the most volatile issues of the day. Brave, passionate, and visionary, they broke almost every rule there was to break. Both had children out of wedlock. Both fought against the injustices women faced and both wrote books that revolutionized history.” 

Mary Wollstonecraft had a pretty horrible start in life. Her father was an alcoholic, gambler, and abusive. Mary was the second oldest child in a family with seven children. Her older brother was her mother’s favorite child, and so Mary spent most of her childhood trying to both protect her mother from her father, and trying to win some of her mother’s affection. 

What really interested me about this was the fact that the author, Charlotte Gordon, did a great job at showing just how Mary Wollstonecraft’s childhood, and the various trials she faced in her home life, and frequent moves, helped turn her into the formidable woman she became. It was really easy to see where the roots of her thought, so outrageous for the day, really were planted, and how and why they grew into what they became. 

Her daughter, Mary Shelley, was also a mover and shaker in her own right. I will fully admit, however, that I didn’t warm to her story until well after the halfway point in the book. Her relationship with Percy Shelley completely baffled me. I very quickly figured out that I didn’t like Percy Shelley at all, and I was honestly quite relieved when he turned into a past-tense figure, rather than a present force in her life. It wasn’t until that point that I really grew into Mary Shelley’s story. 

The women, while having some parallels in their lives, really grew up quite differently. Mary Wollstonecraft was such a huge presence in Mary Shelley’s life, even though she wasn’t alive during any of it. It must have been quite a thing to grow up in Wollstonecraft’s shadow. She still had followers and devotees, people who wanted to know Mary Shelley because it was the closest they’d ever get to her mother. There also must have been quite a bit of pressure there, a need for Mary Shelley to perform, though the author never really gets into that explicitly.

While their lives are very different, both women climbed up the same hill in different ways. They both felt passionately for the rights of women, and both of them scorned a lot of the political and social mores of the times, and often seemed to feel that any independence they gained was worth the battle they fought to gain it. Mary Wollstonecraft really blazed a trail for Mary Shelley. While veering off the tried-and-true path was never easy for either woman, I think Wollstonecraft made it a bit more acceptable and expected for Shelley.  

“If a female fainted easily, could not abide spiders, feared thunderstorms, ghosts, and highwaymen, ate only tiny portions, collapsed after a brief walk, and wept when she had to add a column of numbers, she was considered the feminine ideal.” 

This is not to say that it was ever easy for Mary Shelley. She had a lot of trials and struggles. I don’t think Percy Shelley really helped her much emotionally, and quite honestly, I spent a good chunk of the book really, profoundly disliking the man on an almost visceral level. He was a devotee of Wollstonecraft, and so he lived a life in the fringes. An outspoken atheist, and a man who believed in setting up a “free love” society, he at turns loved Mary Shelley and broke her heart. He also ensured that she spent much of her earlier years living the life of an outsider alongside him. When it was time for her to walk on her own path, I don’t think straying from the norms of the time was as hard for her as it otherwise could have been, thanks a lot to both her mother’s memory, and her life with Percy Shelley.

The gestation and evolution of her infamous book Frankenstein, was absolutely fascinating. There’s been a lot of focus and debate about how that book came to be. The author does an absolutely amazing job of setting up the discussions, the nights, what everyone there was doing and talking about, and all of the writing, from all parties present that came of those conversations. Her take on Frankenstein, however, and her ability to break it down and show how parts of Mary Shelley’s life likely influenced bits of the novel was, quite honestly, one of the most interesting parts of the entire book. 

I feel like I’m focusing a lot of Mary Shelley, and while she’s interesting, the parts of this book I really lived for was her mother’s. Mary Wollstonecraft was absolutely riveting. She was such a strong woman, who was so determined to stray from the path. She suffered love and heartbreak, she was afraid. She fought. She wrote books that created huge stirs. She had a child out of wedlock. She loved and was loved in return. 

I can’t believe I’d never heard of her before, but every one of her chapters stole the show. She was utterly and completely her own woman in a world where women were owned, though did not own. She held her own against nearly every man she faced, and while she was very abrupt and likely abrasive, she was also incredibly intelligent with a wit and mind that was honed sharp as a knife. It’s not very common that a book can not only inform me about a historical figure, but also turn them into some sort of hero of mine at the same time, but I think this one did that for Mary Wollstonecraft. 

All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough. Mary Wollstonecraft, in my opinion, outshines her daughter by orders of magnitude, but both were formidable, boundary breaking women in the annals of history. Both women fought for what they believed, which was often against the standards of the time. Both women blazed new trails for others, not just in their day and age, but in future generations as well, and their echoes are still felt today. 

5/5 stars