“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.

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“The World Was Hers For The Reading”: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.

The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.

The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.

So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.

It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.

The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.

She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.

“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”

For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.

From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”

I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.

“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.'”

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of the books mentioned through these links, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the prices whatsoever.

“Trouble with mice is you always kill’em”: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.

It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.

When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.” 

This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.

What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.

The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.

Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.

Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of these titles from the links, I receive a commission from Amazon. This does not affect the price of the books anyhow.

An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

I can’t remember when was the last time I “ran out” of reading material.  I have always had a pile of books I haven’t read somewhere at hand, it just gives me peace to know there’s something to look forward to. I usually have at least three books I really want to read, and there’s a lot of research, conversations, Goodreads browsing and recommendations that influence my tbr pile, so when I buy a book it’s usually a title I’ve had in mind for a while. But a few times a year I’ll go crazy and buy a few titles I have never heard about, I just let them find me. This was the case of George Michelsen Foy’s Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. 

I saw this book at Chapters, Ottawa and I just had to buy it. Partly because lately I am obsessesed with travel writing, and partly because the cover is so beautiful. So I bought it with no other reference, and for four months it just accumulated dust on my nightstand. But now I finally got to reading it, and it was a pleasant surprise.

The book is part memoir, part a rollicking reflection on the very intimate link between navigation and humanity. The book begins thus: “‘Where’ is the primal question, rather than ‘when’, ‘how’, or ‘who’ because for any animal, figuring out where to move in defense or attack relative to the forces around has always been the first step to survival. From the start, staying alive has depended on navigation, the art of figurin g out our position and in what direction to travel”. And Michelsen goes beyond that affirmation, he even visits a neuroscientist that explains to him the fragile yet indispensable links between memory and the ability of locating oneself in a certain space, and how that happens in the human brain.

The book is not, however, just a collection of fun facts about navigation, there’s a story guiding the plot. Michelsen teaches creative writing at NYU, and the hero’s journey is easily discernible along the book. His concern with navigation goes beyond simple curiosity, he’s obessesed with maritime navigation and sailing because his Nordic ancestors were in the trade before emigrating to America. One of his ancestors was the captain of a vessel called the Stavanger Paquet, which sank in a journey from Stavanger, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany. After the incident, every other member of the Michelsen family who ventured into the sea met a similar fate, so the family abandoned their trade.

And it’s this family curse, a legend that has passed from generation to generation of Michelsens, that obsesses our hero. Michelsen feels particularly attracted to navigation and ships since he was a boy growing up in Cape Code. What dazzles him is that “navigation of the kind my ancestor practised was not just a skill but the roughest of magics: a spell cast in the face of mystery and fear against the near certainty of loss”. In explaining his obsession, Michelsen strikes a feeling every traveller has felt before, the need to go places, an innate wanderlust that prevents people from staying where they are in search for who knows what: even if the seas are believed to be plagued by krakens and monsters, they have to sail. This innate wanderlust, a nomadic instinct is what Steinbeck called “the urge to be someplace else“, a charming urge which has motivated thousands of pages in literature.

Sadly, part of the charm and danger of traveling, of navigating, has been lost recently because of technology. We know now that Google Maps actually makes us worst at navigating, and Michelsen not only criticises and explains this, but takes direct action against it. That’s where things get interesting, for we would not have a hero without a task.

The plot of the book is basically Michelsen trying to recreate the trip which took his ancestor’s life, that is, in as much as possible the same conditions: a similar ship, no modern technology, in a trip from Cape Cod to Maine. In preparing for the trip and actually setting out to it, Michelsen reflects on various topics related to navigation: the biology behind it, old methods of celestial navigation, history and family history. He’s constantly trying to understand what lies behind the human need for travelling and how it may have transformed now that we are so dependable on GPS technology.

Finding North is a curious book. It is uneven, gripping at times, exasperating and even boring at times. Michelsen introduces himself as a very likeable character—that is perhaps what I found annoying in the book— and tries to use a personal plot—his quest to recreate his ancestor’s trip— to unite a series of topics and interviews that seem not to be related. While everything is about navigation, there are parts that work more like independent essays but are forced into the general plot, so that might prove anticlimactic at times.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. When I bought it I thought I could learn some things about navigation, and I was not disappointed, there are plenty of facts and interesting data in the book, along with a Selected Bibliography at the end. It is obviously a very well-researched book, one that raises important questions about our current relationship with technology, and that moreover seeks to answer from personal experience the old question of why we travel. If you’re into travel writing, I’m sure Finding North will prove a delightful experience. You can get it from Amazon here*.

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