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

Written by Charlotte Gordon
Review by Terri Baker

Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote some of the first proto-feminist tracts in the late 18th century, was an inspiration to her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and many of the Romantic poets that are currently part of that canon. She anticipated the tenets of Romanticism, later expounded by Wordsworth and others, in her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, faithfully read and re-read her mother’s oeuvre – often together with her husband, the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley – for not only approaches to writing, but also for approaches in how to be a woman in a patriarchal society. These are only some of the areas explored by Charlotte Gordon in this fascinating book on the lives of these two women. Gordon reveals how the patriarchal society in which they lived oppressed them when they were alive and, later, maligned their legacies. This thoroughly researched book has alternating chapters that cover periods of each woman’s life journey. Sadly, Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever when she was only thirty-nine; Shelley died, likely of a brain tumor, at fifty-three. Gordon explores how their lives were constantly challenged by the society in which they lived, but celebrates how these women nevertheless made an indelible mark on literature and the struggle for women’s rights.