Feminism, Frankenstein, and Freedom

The individualistic works and lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley


Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon, Random House, 672 pages, $30

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, shared life on earth for a mere 11 days. But though fate kept them apart, the two women together managed to change the Western world's conception of women's rights, human reason, education theory, and romantic love. Not to mention invent modern science fiction. In Romantic Outlaws, biographer Charlotte Gordon makes a compelling case that each woman's intellectual legacy has been underappreciated. She also argues persuasively that the two were linked by more than just blood: Wollstonecraft's life and principles had a profound impact on her daughter, an influence critics largely have ignored.

Both Marys led lives that captured the public imagination at least as much as their path-breaking writings did. Their dramatic personal stories, coupled with well-meaning family members' attempts to manage their reputations after their deaths, help explain how their ideas got lost in the sensationalist shuffle. But Gordon sees the Marys' private lives not as obstacles to be overcome but as extensions of their philosophies. Mother and daughter, she argues, tried to craft independent and meaningful lives of the mind in times when a self-supporting, freethinking woman wasn't just an oddity but a scandal.

"Without knowing the history of the era, the difficulties Wollstonecraft and Shelley faced are largely invisible, their bravery incomprehensible," Gordon writes. "Even those who revere mother and daughter do not fully realize how profoundly they challenged the moral code of the day. Yet both women were what Wollstonecraft termed 'outlaws.' Not only did they write world-changing books, they broke from the strictures that governed women's conduct, not once but time and again. Their refusal to bow down, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind." Gordon's admiration for the two is clear and contagious.

Mother Mary and Independence

"Independence is the grand blessing of life," Mary Wollstonecraft wrote. Hers certainly was hard-won. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in 1759 to an unhappy family dominated by an alcoholic and abusive father. Self-taught and determined to provide for herself and her younger sisters, Wollstonecraft pursued the only jobs deemed socially acceptable for a woman of the era: a lady's companion, a governess, a teacher, and a school administrator. These experiences gave her a front-row view of the failures of women's education across the social and economic spectrum, inspiring her first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, in 1787.

Drawing on John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Wollstonecraft believed that education could shape people—and, conversely, that miseducation could misshape them. She had witnessed ample evidence that when women were taught at all, they were taught to be ornamental and attractive, not to reason logically or to provide for themselves. She argued that proper education could empower women to become independent, rational individuals in a way that past miseducation or lack of education had not allowed them to be.

This would be Wollstonecraft's lifelong refrain, one that would be repeated often in the classical liberal tradition: Independence is the goal, and education is the road that leads there.

A fan of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's egalitarian philosophy, Wollstonecraft was taken aback at his portrait of the ideal woman Sophie, a vapid character trained to dependence and submission, in Emile, or On Education (1762). Wollstonecraft responded with Mary: A Fiction (1788), now considered the first novel in English literature to celebrate a rational, opinionated genius of a heroine—and the first to highlight the tragedy of shackling such a unique mind in the legal and social chains of a traditional marriage.

Wollstonecraft didn't simply talk of economic and intellectual independence for women. She walked the walk, forging a path as she went. Thanks to Joseph Johnson, the influential English publisher and editor of Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft made a living with her pen. This led her where others, men as well as women, feared to tread. She traveled to Paris during the French Revolution and the Terror to report on the struggles there. She took on the conservative English philosopher Edmund Burke in 1790's Vindication of the Rights of Men, then sealed her reputation as a philosopher in her own right with 1792's Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was barely in her thirties, and her work already was considered required reading by intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic.

Almost a century later, Gordon explains, when activists for women's suffrage such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt invoked Wollstonecraft's memory, they would pay particular tribute to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a foundational work of feminist thought. It contains Wollstonecraft's most famous articulation of her message: "The most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau's opinion respecting men: I extend it to women."

Wollstonecraft left France not just with an international readership but with a baby girl, Fanny Imlay—and a broken heart, courtesy of her daughter's father. Wollstonecraft had not wanted to wed the American privateer Gilbert Imlay, because she believed the institution of marriage aided in the oppression of women, but she had hoped their relationship would endure. His abandonment caused her despair and shame; finally, in the throes of depression, she attempted suicide. Gordon does not shy away from the contradictions—calls for reason and independence sit rather awkwardly beside extravagant anguish at failed romances—but she also underscores how Wollstonecraft channeled her pain in a productive direction.

Wollstonecraft made the personal political and vice-versa in her genre-blurring Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Part travelogue, part philosophical treatise, and part self-directed therapy session, the book enchanted readers. In particular, it caught the attention of the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, best known for An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). He wrote, "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration."

Godwin's words proved prophetic. After Wollstonecraft's relocation to London, the two intellectual luminaries became lovers. Events then moved swiftly. March 1797 brought an unconventional marriage with separate homes and independent careers; August brought the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would one day make history as Mary Shelley. Eleven days later, Wollstonecraft was dead of septicemia, and William Godwin was left alone to raise her two daughters and revere her memory.

William Godwin and the Wollstonecraft Legacy

When it comes to the latter endeavor, Gordon gives Godwin a mixed grade. In his grief, he threw himself into writing a biography of his late wife, which would be published the following year as Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. His intentions were noble. He hoped to celebrate the genius and courage of a woman who had proved herself the equal of any man; who had lived and thought and loved with passion and without apology; and who had provided living proof that women should have the same opportunity as men to develop their reason, take responsibility for their own lives, and contribute to society as productive, independent persons.

But the results were disastrous. Readers, even of the allegedly freethinking and revolutionary sort, were not yet ready for a bereaved husband to write of his wife's past love affairs and illegitimate child in admiration for her adherence to the principles of free love and sexual egalitarianism. What was intended to be an homage to a liberated woman was read by most as a sordid exposé that left the deceased in public disgrace. According to Gordon, the scandal of Godwin's ill-advised biography threw a shadow over Wollstonecraft's name and intellectual legacy that remained for generations.

But Godwin also published a second book that year: Wollstonecraft's Posthumous Works. The largest part of the volume is the incomplete novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, a bold fictional restatement of Wollstonecraft's ideas in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Maria, the heroine's husband deprives her of her child and commits her to an insane asylum for his own convenience, despite the fact she is not mentally ill. (Wollstonecraft had researched the famous Bedlam Hospital to see firsthand the inhumane conditions suffered by the mad and the merely inconvenient.)

The novel indicted the patriarchal structure of marriage that treated women as commodities and the legal tradition that protected men's privilege at the expense of women's natural rights. Maria is wronged not only personally by her husband, but politically by a larger unjust system. Scholars today recognize this unfinished tale as a key evolutionary step in the development both of the novel and of feminism. Maria also portrays women's sexuality frankly and depicts cross-class connections between female characters as well, underscoring how women at different points on the socio-economic spectrum share similar experiences of powerlessness and abuse. Godwin clearly deserves credit for his foresight in rescuing and publishing this work.

Despite a long list of parenting missteps, Godwin also deserves credit for giving his daughter Mary both an excellent education (for a child of either gender) and an abiding sense of connection to the mother she had lost. As an adult in 1827, she wrote to a friend, "The memory of my Mother has always been the pride and delight of my life; & the admiration of others for her, has been the cause of most of the happiness."

Daughter Mary and Responsibility

One of Romantic Outlaws' significant accomplishments is to stress the intellectual continuity between the two Marys' acts and works. Mary Shelley, Gordon explains, "was a staunch disciple of her mother. Her body of work is notable for her commitment to the rights of women as well as the bleak picture she painted of unchecked male ambition. She had devoted her life to upholding her mother's philosophy."

Mary started young, falling for a Romantic poet who had read and revered her mother's works: Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Their secret meeting place was Wollstonecraft's gravesite at St. Pancras Churchyard.) At 16, Mary ran away with the already-married Shelley, her stepsister Claire in tow—traveling Europe with him, reading classics of philosophy with him, and bearing his children along the way. (Only Percy Florence Shelley, born in 1819, would survive infancy.) In 1816, the famous "year without a summer," Mary joined Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was one of the most famous meetings of the minds in literary history, a gathering that yielded Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) and Mary's first work of fiction, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Mary Shelley did not pen overt political treatises as her mother had, but her seven novels, two travelogues, and 23 short stories had similar philosophical content. Take Frankenstein. Gordon notes the unchecked male ambition represented by Victor Frankenstein as he seeks to procreate without benefit of a female partner. But the book's echoes of Wollstonecraft's thought go well beyond that.

Unlike later film adaptations, which turned the Frankenstein tale into a warning about crossing the limits of science, the original novel focuses on responsibility: that of the creator to the created. Wollstonecraft often used the term "duty" in her works, as in the duty of a parent to educate a child. In Frankenstein, the titular scientist shirks his duty toward his Creature, and this begins the cycle of tragedy. For a time, in Wollstonecraftian fashion, the Creature exercises his reason and benefits from the stimulating, if in part unintentional, education provided by the De Laceys who, exiled from France and stripped of their wealth unfairly, nonetheless lead a loving and industrious life in their modest little cottage, closely observed by the Creature. But the miseducation of suffering repeated unjust cruelty ultimately misshapes him, though he remains more reasonable and sympathetic than his despicable creator.

Shelley also showed herself to be her mother's daughter in the way her work's structure plays to the reader's rationality. Earlier Gothic novelists filled their stories with sensational, apparently supernatural events, playing on the emotions; some, such as pioneer Ann Radcliffe, eventually clued in the reader that every seemingly fantastic twist and turn possessed a rational explanation, but only at the conclusion of the tale. Shelley flipped that scheme and prefaced her novel by noting that the "event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence." In other words, her fictional extrapolations about galvanism and the spark of life rested on firm scientific foundations.

In this way, she stood with her mother against the novels of sensibility (the "chick lit" of the era) that Wollstonecraft faulted for giving female readers a one-sided education involving only the heart and not the head. In the process, Shelley invented modern science fiction.

Gordon proves even more insightful regarding Shelley's post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), which casts Shelley herself as the lone survivor left to deal with the fallout of the brilliant but reckless Romantics, who ultimately found liberty far more to their taste than the responsibility that must come with it. Both Percy Shelley's and Lord Byron's real deaths are depicted metaphorically in the book, as is the collapse of the world Mary Shelley had known. Gordon is equally adept at mining the rich philosophical content in Shelley's historical fiction, such as Valperga (1823), a feminist answer to Walter Scott's masculine narratives, and Perkin Warbeck (1830), a gender-inclusive narrative that challenged the male-centric perspective of power politics. When critics praise contemporary novelists like Philippa Gregory for restoring women's voices to our understanding of history, they generally don't mention that Mary Shelley was doing the same thing a century and a half before.

Debates and the Shelley Legacy

Gordon is at her best when she responds to ongoing debates about Mary Shelley. For example, she proposes a solution to the mystery of an infant named Elena Adelaide Shelley who was registered in Naples as Percy's child while he was there with Mary. Was this child, many have asked, the result of Percy's affair with another woman? Or did she represent an adoption that somehow went wrong? Gordon's answer not only fits the facts better than previous theories, but it also follows what we know of Mary's lifelong and well-documented commitment to helping unwed mothers and other legally and economically vulnerable women (in this case, Gordon says, probably a servant who had been sexually assaulted by Lord Byron). Surely Mary would not think twice about her husband lending his name to the newborn. This is, after all, a woman who helped her friend Isabel Robinson and Isabel's lover, Mary Diana Dods—male pseudonym David Lyndsay—run away together to live in France as "man and wife."

In another case, Gordon puts to bed some critics' exasperating tendency to overemphasize Percy's involvement in editing Frankenstein. She points out that he influenced Mary's text far less than professional editors affected the texts of other classic works such as The Waste Land and The Great Gatsby, and no one accuses T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald of not authoring their own works. More to the point, she compares Percy's modest impact on Frankenstein to Mary's extensive involvement with his various texts, putting the couple's professional achievements in a most instructive light.

Gordon makes it clear that Mary Shelley, like her mother, was the victim of a well-intentioned but rather disastrous biographical tribute that obscured her intellectual accomplishments. Mary Shelley died in 1851, a decidedly less revolutionary moment than 1797, and her devoted daughter-in-law sought to reframe Shelley's life in the properly Victorian setting of the domestic sphere: not as a feminist or a philosopher or even an author and editor who earned her way with her pen, but simply as the pious, modest, and selfless wife of the late Percy Shelley. This required a wholesale rewriting of some facts. Tragically, many of Mary's personal papers were burned lest they dispute the result, which Gordon calls an "antiseptic little volume." If Godwin's depiction of Wollstonecraft made her scandalous, then Jane Gibson Shelley's Shelley Memorials (1859) made Mary Shelley safe. And that, perhaps, has proved to be the worse fate.

Fortunately, Charlotte Gordon's compelling dual biography sets the record straight about mother and daughter, their outlaw ways, and the trails they blazed. As Gordon rightly says, "They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end."