Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley By Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon ☆ 7 read

3.5 I have thought long and hard what to put in this review. Brilliant mother and daughter, fighters for women's rights, led lives that were frowned upon during their days and penned books that have impacted many and lived on. The author does a great job telling their stories in alternating chapters, using crisp and clear dialogue and moving the narrative forward at a stay pace. At times though I would be interested in one part of the narrative and it would end and switch to the other. Could keep reader a reader at a distance and at times proved confusing. I also thought at times I could sense the author inserting her personal opinions rather than historical fact.

Did get a good sense of who these people were. Such notable names that we still read today. Yet I have to admit to not liking many of them and I think this colored my reading. Wollstonecraft, while I admired her dedication did some mighty strange things. Byron and Shelley were less than desirable humans in my eyes, geniuses or not. Felt that these people often used the cover of brilliance and the notoriety of being thought different to think only of themselves. They mostly did whatever they wanted to at the time, with little concern for others and their feelings. Very selfish people who caused much harm to innocent and not so innocent people. Even Mary, though she loved her children seemed very self centered at times.

Still a very interesting look at a time in literature that is still important today. Women's rights, early defenders, a mother and daughter who never knew each other but made a huge impact during a time period where woman were granted very few.

Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History This dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley utterly enthralled me. Both were talented, groundbreaking, independent thinking women, they each had drama and difficulties in their lives worthy of a Brontë novel, and between them they knew intimately some of the most interesting people involved with Romantic literature and radical political thought from the French Revolution through to the mid-Victorian years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born into a poor family with a very difficult, sometimes violent father, but Wollstonecraft was at least as spirited as he was and she struggled to surmount the boundaries gender and poverty put on her life in every way she could, eventually becoming a leading progressive thinker and the author of several influential books, including A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She loved passionately but refused the traditional roles women were expected to embrace at the time, so she married the political philosopher William Godwin late in life and only reluctantly. Wollstonecraft died days after giving birth to the daughter named for her, so it was through her extensive writings that Mary Godwin Shelley came to esteem, cherish, and love her mother.

While still a teenager Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, a social commentary many consider the first science fiction novel, while holed up in Switzerland with a crowd that included Lord Byron. Like her parents she rejected social conventions about love, life, and marriage and at sixteen she scandalized her more staid contemporaries by running away with the already married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, though that particular rebellion she came to regret because it hurt so many people. Mary longed for and looked up to her mother, using her mother’s writings as guideposts for her own life, and that reverence was shared by her husband, her stepsister, Lord Byron, and many of Mary’s other peers.

Romantic Outlaws is written in a back and forth chronology, with chapters about the two women alternating, so the section about Wollstonecraft’s early life is followed by one about her daughter at a similar age. I thought this might be confusing, especially since they’re both named Mary, but their circumstances were different enough that it was usually simple to keep track of who I was reading about, and structuring the book that way makes it easy to compare the lives of the women, which adds even more interest to their stories.

The book is well researched and documented with notes, but far from being a dry recitation of facts I found it very compelling. Many of the chapters even end in what might almost be called cliffhangers, a technique that definitely kept me highly engaged.

Before reading this biography both Marys were more symbols to me than women with families, lovers, personal trials and private doubts, but Charlotte Gordon illuminates the hearts and minds of her subjects and succeeds at bringing the two women and the era they lived in to life. William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron are among the people who are also well rendered, and many other fascinating people spend time on the book’s pages, including Coleridge, Keats, and John and Abigail Adams.

Saying it’s engrossing is almost an understatement--I don’t remember ever finding a biography so hard to put down. I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, but I’ve already preordered my own copy hardback edition of Romantic Outlaws.
Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History Świetnie napisana biografia. Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History Click here to watch a video review of on my BookTube channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

An intimate look at the lives of two extraordinary women who unapologetically broke with convention and scandalized Victorian England. Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History It’s such a tragedy that two of the greatest writers of the romantic literary era never had the chance to know each other, a chance to discuss ideas and to help each other with their craft: they never got chance to talk and to be a proper family.

Mary Wollstonecraft died just five days after giving birth to her daughter Mary. Mary Shelley would learn about her mother through her writing and through her father William Godwin. She gained an image and an idea of what her feminist mother was like and what she stood for, and this greatly influenced her own life. She did not know her mother in person, but her writing helped her form a connection: it helped her to understand her legacy and to create her own.

Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, never got to read Frankenstein or The Last Man. She never got to see how her daughter’s literary genius matched her own and would even come to surpass it. I wonder what Wollstonecraft would have made of Mary’s husband, Shelley, and his own radical views. I wonder what else she could have written had she lived longer. I wonder. I wonder. And I think she would have loved the work her daughter created: she would have seen much of herself in it.

This book is such an ambitious project. It chronicles the lives of both writers, and it demonstrates how in some ways the tragedy and drama are paralleled across time. Both women had very tumultuous experiences and it shaped who they were and what they wrote about. After the exhaustive research, Gordon is making a very strong case for how much Wollstonecraft influenced Mary Shelley. Her ideas creep across Mary Shelley’s work. And it’s fantastic to see.

Overall, this is a very good book for those interested in the work of either writer. However, it is a bit of a slow burn but a bright one!


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__________________________________ Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History


Romantic Outlaws is the first book to tell the story of the passionate and pioneering lives of Mary Wollstonecraft – English feminist and author of the landmark book, The Vindication of the Rights of Women – and her novelist daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

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

Eminently readable biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. It's swapped off, each woman every other chapter. I found it best to skip the chapters and read one then the other. Well researched, but the author couldn't resist inserting her own opinions, occasionally self-servingly modern, even fatuous (such as the one about Claire Clairmont converting to Catholicism late in life to share the same upbringing as her dead daughter) which has a tendency to make me look very warily at other insights. But that's no different than most biographies.

Aside from that, it's a vivid portrayal of a cast of fascinating people, filled with plenty of quotes, and some vivid descriptions of sites. The notes at the ends of the chapters are filled with good primary source stuff, especially for the reader who can't get at the things kept in archives or that cost hundreds of bucks to get copies of. Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History This book borders on wrist-breaker status but despite the volume I wish there was more to read. I picked it up as more of a self-education piece and break from fiction, not really thinking about the entertainment factor. I learned so much. I had no idea who Mary Wollstonecraft was or how much hardship she and her daughter, Mary Shelley, went through during their lifetimes. Their hardships, strengths of character and literary talent make them incredibly inspirational.

Mary Wollstonecraft is born into a poor family with an alcoholic, abusive father, a depressed mother and many siblings. With this rough beginning, she chooses to educate herself and takes over the care of her two younger sisters for much of her lifetime. Despite living in a very misogynistic and conservative time, Mary W. is able to publish her opinions of the need to educate young women and to banish the ideals of the dainty, unintelligent housewife.

Mary Shelley grows up in a house where people want to meet her simply because of her parents’ celebrity. Her mother passed away shortly after Mary’s birth, but the author proves throughout the book how much Mary W’s ideals affected her daughter. Mary S. also struggles with the conservative nature of the time and spends much of her life in exile with her husband, stepsister and yes, sometimes Lord Byron.

It’s amazing to me how strong these women were in such difficult times and how their family depended on them but gave them little credit for their hard work. For example, when Mary S. ran away with Shelley, her father refused to talk to her...except to beg for money. Both Mary’s suffered from depression yet somehow overcame their mental illnesses to continue writing important works of art.

I highly recommend this book. Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History Guau! qué vidas las de Wollstonecraft y su hija Mary... Ellas, Shelley, Byron, Godwin.. escritores que junto con el resto de integrantes de sus respectivas biografías, demás familiares, como hermanas e hijos, amigos y no tan amigos, son “personajes”, seres, que se van a quedar conmigo por lo hondo que me han calado.

Cuantas cosas he aprendido de este libro..

Me parece altamente recomendable esta doble biografía. Charlotte Gordon dedica cada capítulo a una Mary, y así, con ambas a la vez avanzamos al mismo tiempo en sus vidas, luchas y dramas de madre e hija, y lejos de desubicarme me ha gustado esa originalidad, llegando un punto (al desconocer la mayor parte de los sucesos biográficos) que he devorado el libro. Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History As soon as I started reading this double biography I got sucked in. It chronicles the lives of two amazing Marys. Mary Wollstonecraft the reformer and her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley.

MW and MGS both became famous in their own right during the times when they lived. Nowadays the more well known of the two is MGS because of her story Frankenstein.

I have read previous biographies about both Marys. And this one will proudly sit on my self with other biographies I have about these amazing women along with other books I have dealing with The Romantic Movement and Frankenstein.

Charlotte Gordon's writing style kept me engaged and I wanted to keep reading more. And I am grateful for the bibliography that she created for this book. I will get a chance to add more new books to my TBR that I have missed out on.

Give this wonderful biography a go.
Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History
Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) died within days of giving birth to Mary Godwin who became Mary Shelley the writer/creator of “Frankenstein”. While death was a physical separation of Wollstonecraft and her daughter, author Charlotte Gordon explores how Wollstonecraft and her views on the role of women were embedded in Mary Godwin Shelley.

While the facts speak for themselves (women had no legal rights either to their property or their children in deference to a father or husband) Gordon shows through the lives of her two subjects the very thing they wrote about - the horrible situation of a battered, unwed pregnant and/or emotionally abused woman. Society looked the other way, and most women, joined the powerful male authority structure in blaming the victim. What else could they do when all in their lives depended on a husband or father?

One common reaction of women to the pecking order was a sense of entitlement. This is exemplified by Wollstonecraft’s sisters who, since the males in their family either would not or could not support them, made demands on Mary who was barely afloat herself. Claire, Mary Shelley’s half sister, similarly demands support from the Shelley’s all the while interfering with their marriage. Mary-Jane, Mary Shelley’s step-mother who undermined her very life, similarly expected much of Mary Shelley. Both Mary’s responded with charity as they could.

Another reaction is despair for being a burden which is exemplified in Fanny, Mary Wollstonecraft’s first daughter and Harriet, Percy Shelley’s first wife.

As per the title, both Mary’s stepped outside society’s laws by following their hearts. Wollstonecraft’s passion for Gilbert Imlay was freighted with her unmet needs which we barely understand today. Her daughter “eloped” with a married man (and her step sister). These relationships, for which the women risked so much, were far from ideal. Gordon shows how friends and society found many ways to condemn them for things beyond their control.

The hypocrisy of men in their lives was staggering. William Godwin (whom Mary marries to save her unborn child the crushing stigma suffered by her first child) continues to instruct Mary, a more celebrated writer than he, in grammar, style and technique. He writes against marriage as bondage for women but, without a hint that he sees the irony, will not speak to his daughter until she marries. Later, this father, after shunning his daughter for years (while seeking a loan from the man he thinks she should marry) and publishing her mother’s most personal and embarrassing letters demands (and receives) support from her. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron are a pair… both blithely have affairs and leave partners and children to fend for themselves.

The book is full. There is description of the culture of the times, not only male/female roles, but different climates in France as it pursued its Revolution and terror, and the awareness of the freer climate in the former colonies an ocean away. There is analysis of literature produced by the principles (Wollstonecraft, Godwin, M. Shelley, P. Shelley, Byron) a description of its meaning for the writers and where it fits in their relationships. Most intriguing to me were the ongoing descriptions of how the two women were viewed in their lifetimes and how the perception of them changed… some by design, and some by their writings which we see today as being way ahead of their times.

The style of defining one woman and then the other at a comparable life milestone was jarring and took a few rounds to get used to. The Index got me everywhere I needed to go. There are good illustrations that help you envision the key people. While times are well defined, a timeline for quick reference would have been helpful.

If you are interested in these women, this period, British literature, women’s rights or just enjoy a thought provoking book, this book is for you.
Nonfiction, Biography, Womens History