“Mad, bad and dangerous”: Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley’s Lives

Review of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Whew. I’ve been absent from the blog for a while now and it feels a bit weird to be writing again, so bear with me, please. I’ve been having a hard time with my reading (!!!) and finally managed to finish a book, something I hadn’t done since July (!!!). Do you ever have these weird reading slumps where you want to read but as soon as you start you’re like, ugh? I had been feeling that way for a while and it sucked. I probably began to read five or six books that I have no intention to continue reading any time soon. But that’s life. Fortunately, there have been many exciting things happening in my life, of which I will write about soon. But enough about me, this post is about the wonderful book that brought me back to life. Shockingly enough, it is not a novel.

I came across a copy of Romantic Outlaws earlier this year. It was 70% off, hardcover and beautiful, so I bought it. To be honest, I am not good with biographies. I love reading about authors I love, but it’s hard for me to stick with non-fiction books in general, so I read them in parts, often while reading something else. Anyway, while on this reading slump I thought, what could be better than to read about badass women? I needed some motivation! So I gave the book a shot and oh boy was it awesome.

The book is a dual biography, which is interesting since Mary Wollstonecraft didn’t get to know her daughter, Mary Shelley. She died a few days after giving birth to her. It is also interesting how Charlotte Gordon intertwines the narratives of their lives: we read one chapter about Wollstonecraft, then one about Shelley, in chronological order. Although I thought this would be confusing—especially because they’re both named Mary—, it was not so. Also, this technique shed some light on parallelisms in their lives and their intellectual pursuits: Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and writings would play a very important role in the upbringing and life choices of her daughter Mary —and of other Romantic poets like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron—, perhaps the more so because Mary never got to know her.

Both writers had their share of hardships and heartbreaks, as well as many contradictions between their philosophies and their lives, aspects that the author of the book not only highlights, but also defends. I must say it is refreshing to hear how Gordon portrays her subjects, especially Mary Wollstonecraft. The book is in a constant argument with previous critiques of Wollstonecraft’s works and correspondence.

Although nobody can deny that Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a crucial text for feminism and human rights, her figure has been neglected due to certain “contradictions” in her life (chiefly that she tried to take her own life after a breakup, although now we can say that the depression with which she struggled her whole life was not only caused by said breakup). However, the powerful insight and the extensive research behind Gordon’s biography sheds light on the complexities of a woman who was way ahead of her time, a woman who not only argued for the rights of women and their place as rational creatures, but who also fought for women to be able to enjoy the same sexual and emotional liberties as men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was not only hard and heartbreaking but also dramatic and exciting—*cue The Man by Taylor Swift*— . I am very comforted by the idea of a woman travelling alone, joining a group of revolutionaries and founding a school for girls in the 18th century.

“Who was the ideal woman? Mary [Wollstonecraft] asked. Was she a fainting maiden, easily fatigued and naïve? No! She was a resourceful intelligent human being. Mary, as usual, was alone with her ideas, a single candle in the darkness”.

And what can I even say about Mary Shelley? Running away at sixteen, travelling across Europe with a handsome poet—*Style by Taylor Swift plays in the distance*––, having sex at graveyards and then casually writing a literary masterpiece. That’s the life.

“The life she dreamed of, filled with love and passion, seemed impossible, a glorious adventure that happened to other people, not her”.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s life was much more complex than that. She had her share of misfortunes, like the deaths of her children or Percy Shelley’s sickness, not to mention the blatant oppression she suffered because she was a woman, the rejection from mostly every social and literary circle in England (“mad, bad and dangerous” was how the press referred to her), etc. Gordon’s book also challenges the popular idea that both Shelley and Byron helped Mary write Frankenstein. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Gordon talks about how the three Romantic poets influenced each other’s writing. I guess you could say the book is as much a biography as it is a study on English Romanticism.

“Artists. Poets. These were the true prophets, the ones with the most profound vision […] No self-respecting Romantic writer (with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe) would ever have admitted (as Poe did with The Raven) that his work was the result of a careful intellectual process, a cold and pedestrian endeavour of plotting and outlining. Sudden burst of inspiration, visitations from spirits in the night—these were the true sources of art to Mary and her friends”.

My favourite part? The stories behind Frankenstein‘s genesis. There is a whole chapter about the famous reunion in which Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori gathered around the fire to tell ghost stories. It was on that night that the idea of a human body reanimated with electric energy occurred to Mary. It was also on this night that Polidori came with the idea for The Vampyre, a novel which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are many accounts about that night and the writing process of the novel—Percy Shelley’s letters and poems, Mary’s diary, Polidori’s diary— that Gordon goes into.

Biographies are funny because even when you know you will never be able to comprehend someone else’s life, their motivations and intentions, their hopes and fears, fully—and the more so when these people lived two hundred years ago—, you end up with a narrative that is not only about its subjects, but also about its author, its author’s time and, most importantly, a reflection on literature itself, on fiction and on the limits of language and the written word. What can we know of these legendary women? Perhaps not much, perhaps only what we see through the glass of our own experiences, but to find in that things that resonate with us, here, now in 2019, is magical.

In conclusion, this book is the perfect mix between juicy literary gossip, drama, feminist theory, literary theory and history. It reads just like fiction because the author is obviously passionate about her subjects, it’s almost like hearing a friend rant about their favourite authors.

This book was powerful enough to bring me out of my reading slump. It also made me feel that I’m better after reading it: I have always enjoyed reading about women who fight for what they believe in and who dare to make their voices heard in a world that is, to our day, chiefly shaped by men. So, here’s to badass women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

Have you read any cool biographies lately? I am currently looking for recommendations for what to read next.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

dsc_0041.jpg

However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

dsc_0001

What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

dsc_0037

“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

dsc_0022

“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

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

dsc_0040

“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.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

dsc_0027

Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

dsc_0018

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

captura de pantalla 2019-01-11 a la(s) 19.13.34

 

Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!