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Romantic Outlaws
Cover of Romantic Outlaws
Romantic Outlaws
The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley
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NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE SEATTLE TIMES
This groundbreaking dual biography brings to life a pioneering English feminist and the daughter she never knew. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley have each been the subject of numerous biographies, yet no one has ever examined their lives in one book—until now. In Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon reunites the trailblazing author who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Romantic visionary who gave the world Frankenstein—two courageous women who should have shared their lives, but instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy.

In 1797, less than two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft died, and a remarkable life spent pushing against the boundaries of society's expectations for women came to an end. But another was just beginning. Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary was to follow a similarly audacious path. Both women had passionate relationships with several men, bore children out of wedlock, and chose to live in exile outside their native country. Each in her own time fought against the injustices women faced and wrote books that changed literary history.

The private lives of both Marys were nothing less than the stuff of great Romantic drama, providing fabulous material for Charlotte Gordon, an accomplished historian and a gifted storyteller. Taking readers on a vivid journey across revolutionary France and Victorian England, she seamlessly interweaves the lives of her two protagonists in alternating chapters, creating a book that reads like a richly textured historical novel. Gordon also paints unforgettable portraits of the men in their lives, including the mercurial genius Percy Shelley, the unbridled libertine Lord Byron, and the brilliant radical William Godwin.

"Brave, passionate, and visionary, they broke almost every rule there was to break," Gordon writes of Wollstonecraft and Shelley. A truly revelatory biography, Romantic Outlaws reveals the defiant, creative lives of this daring mother-daughter pair who refused to be confined by the rigid conventions of their era.
Praise for Romantic Outlaws

"[An] impassioned dual biography . . . Gordon, alternating between the two chapter by chapter, binds their lives into a fascinating whole. She shows, in vivid detail, how mother influenced daughter, and how the daughter's struggles mirrored the mother's."The Boston Globe

"Written with the galloping pace of a skilled novel peopled with fascinating characters . . . these women live on in its pages. . . . Thorough and irresistible."—The Seattle Times

"Gordon unfolds the two stories in tandem, deftly balancing the gossipy aspects of her subjects' lives with their serious intellectual concerns."The New Yorker

"[A] thoughtful, intelligent and deeply felt book . . . Gordon has written a book about two women, a mother and her daughter, who changed not only the way we think, but the way we are."The Sunday Times (London)

"A most welcome deeper take on the women who scandalized Victorian England—and whose stories continue to resonate today."Vogue

"By linking these two lives, Ms. Gordon's biography stretches over a fascinating era in history, characterized by great flux in political and cultural thinking and involving some of the main figures in English literary and philosophical history."—The Wall Street Journal
From...
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE SEATTLE TIMES
This groundbreaking dual biography brings to life a pioneering English feminist and the daughter she never knew. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley have each been the subject of numerous biographies, yet no one has ever examined their lives in one book—until now. In Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon reunites the trailblazing author who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Romantic visionary who gave the world Frankenstein—two courageous women who should have shared their lives, but instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy.

In 1797, less than two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft died, and a remarkable life spent pushing against the boundaries of society's expectations for women came to an end. But another was just beginning. Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary was to follow a similarly audacious path. Both women had passionate relationships with several men, bore children out of wedlock, and chose to live in exile outside their native country. Each in her own time fought against the injustices women faced and wrote books that changed literary history.

The private lives of both Marys were nothing less than the stuff of great Romantic drama, providing fabulous material for Charlotte Gordon, an accomplished historian and a gifted storyteller. Taking readers on a vivid journey across revolutionary France and Victorian England, she seamlessly interweaves the lives of her two protagonists in alternating chapters, creating a book that reads like a richly textured historical novel. Gordon also paints unforgettable portraits of the men in their lives, including the mercurial genius Percy Shelley, the unbridled libertine Lord Byron, and the brilliant radical William Godwin.

"Brave, passionate, and visionary, they broke almost every rule there was to break," Gordon writes of Wollstonecraft and Shelley. A truly revelatory biography, Romantic Outlaws reveals the defiant, creative lives of this daring mother-daughter pair who refused to be confined by the rigid conventions of their era.
Praise for Romantic Outlaws

"[An] impassioned dual biography . . . Gordon, alternating between the two chapter by chapter, binds their lives into a fascinating whole. She shows, in vivid detail, how mother influenced daughter, and how the daughter's struggles mirrored the mother's."The Boston Globe

"Written with the galloping pace of a skilled novel peopled with fascinating characters . . . these women live on in its pages. . . . Thorough and irresistible."—The Seattle Times

"Gordon unfolds the two stories in tandem, deftly balancing the gossipy aspects of her subjects' lives with their serious intellectual concerns."The New Yorker

"[A] thoughtful, intelligent and deeply felt book . . . Gordon has written a book about two women, a mother and her daughter, who changed not only the way we think, but the way we are."The Sunday Times (London)

"A most welcome deeper take on the women who scandalized Victorian England—and whose stories continue to resonate today."Vogue

"By linking these two lives, Ms. Gordon's biography stretches over a fascinating era in history, characterized by great flux in political and cultural thinking and involving some of the main figures in English literary and philosophical history."—The Wall Street Journal
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  • Chapter 1

    A Death and a Birth

    [ 1797--­1801 ]

    On a sunny afternoon in late August 1801, a few miles north of London, three-­year-­old Mary Godwin held her father's hand as they walked through the gates of St. Pancras churchyard. They were on their way to visit her mother's grave in a cemetery as familiar to Mary as her own home. She and her father, William, came here almost every day. The churchyard was more like a pasture than a burial ground. The grass grew in uneven clumps; old gravestones lay toppled on the ground, and a low rail separated the grounds from the open countryside.

    William Godwin did not think it was odd to teach his small daughter to read from her mother's tombstone. And Mary was eager to learn anything her father had to teach. In her eyes, he was "greater, and wiser, and better . . . than any other being." He was also all she had left.

    She began by tracing each letter with her fingers: "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin." Except for the "Wollstonecraft," this name was the same as hers: MARY GODWIN. One dead. One alive. This gravestone could be her own. She yearned to be reunited with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman she had never known, but whom she loved all the same.

    Mary Godwin had been born on August 30, 1797, at the end of a month when a comet had burned through the London skies. People all over England had speculated about its meaning. A happy omen, her parents had thought. They could not know that Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever ten days later, leaving behind a daughter so small and weak it seemed likely she would soon join her mother. But under the care of Wollstonecraft's dear friend Maria Reveley, Mary gradually grew stronger, and by the time she was a month old, though still undersized, she howled at all hours of the day and night. Her sweet-­tempered half sister, three-­year-­old Fanny, Wollstonecraft's illegitimate child by another man, tried to calm her tears, but there was nothing anyone could do. Mary would not be soothed.

    Godwin asked his friend William Nicholson, an expert in physiognomy, to measure Mary's cranium and facial features, but the baby shrieked through the entire examination, leading an exasperated Nicholson to report, "The mouth was too much employed to be well observed." However, he told Godwin he saw evidence of "considerable memory and intelligence" as well as a "quick sensibility." The only potential negative, Nicholson said, noting her screams, was that she could be "petulant in resistance."

    Godwin, Fanny, and Mary lived at No. 29 the Polygon, a semicircular block of tall Georgian homes in Somers Town, about two miles north of St. Paul's.

    The Polygon has long since been torn down, and though a plaque on Werrington Street says that the Godwins once lived here, it is an act of the imagination to picture them behind St. Pancras today. Hospitals, new developments, and council estates have replaced the shops, rose gardens, and cow sheds of Mary's childhood. In the early 1800s, her home was deep in the country. A dirt path led through a white turnstile into Clarendon Square, where thirty-­two terraced buildings had been constructed as an early experiment in suburban living. No. 29 had a large parlor with a marble mantelpiece where Godwin received guests and where Mary and Fanny learned to be quiet during grown-­up conversations. The family ate their suppers upstairs in the dining room and could stand outside on a wrought iron balcony to gaze out over the wild heaths, Hampstead and Highgate. From her bedroom window on the top floor, Mary could see the River Fleet and the narrow lane that led to her mother's grave.
    ...

About the Author-
  • Charlotte Gordon is the author of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet and The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths. She has also published two books of poetry, When the Grateful Dead Came to St. Louis and Two Girls on a Raft. She is an associate professor of English at Endicott College and lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 23, 2015
    The relationship between Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and the mother she never knew—Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), author of the incendiary tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who died 10 days after her daughter’s birth—is explored with remarkable insight and perspicacity in this exhilarating dual biography from Gordon (Mistress Bradstreet). The book illustrates the similarities between mother and daughter by devoting alternating chapters to their lives. Both were raised in emotionally turbulent households (although Shelley’s offered more intellectual stimulation); both had to leave home to find their identities as writers; and both lived as adults under the shadow of scandal—Wollstonecraft for her outspoken feminism and marriage to liberal political philosopher William Godwin, a critic of matrimony, and Shelley for her role in the notorious Byron-Shelley literary circle. Gordon’s perceptive reading of both women’s published works illuminates their core ideas, including complementary critiques of patriarchy, and identifies the emotional fault lines caused by the drama in their lives. Her lucid prose and multifaceted appraisal of Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and their times make warm-blooded and fully fleshed-out people of writers who exist for readers today only as the literary works they left behind. Agent: Brettine Bloom, Kneerim, Williams, & Bloom.

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2015
    Gordon (English/Endicott Coll.; The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths, 2007) delivers a drama-filled dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her daughter, Mary Shelley (1797-1851).In an occasionally confusing style featuring alternating chapters, the author's biographies of the two Marys show how different their lives were. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Wollstonecraft grew up constantly trying to protect her mother and siblings, circumstances that led her into a lifelong fight for independence and female rights and against marriage. Her publisher, Joseph Johnson, gave her a position as a book reviewer for his monthly Analytical Review, where only initials indicated the author, masking her gender. Johnson eventually sent her to Paris to write about the Revolution, and she became the first foreign correspondent and an unwed mother to boot. Her political writing, especially A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was highly regarded. She eventually married William Godwin, a political writer with an equally dim view of marriage. Their marriage was happy but short, and Mary died giving birth to her daughter, who spent her life idolizing and emulating her mother. At 16, Mary and her half sister, Jane, ran away to France with Percy Shelley; the only poorer choice would have been his dear friend, Lord Byron. Together, society termed them the "League of Incest." Mary and Jane vied for Shelley's attention; Jane eventually had Byron's child, and polite society shunned them. Mary and Percy eventually married, in hopes of gaining custody of his children from a previous marriage. The widowed Mary successfully carried on her mother's work, not through political writing but in novels. What the two women had in common was their writing talent, strength, and dedication to the fight for women's education and rights. While Gordon tells their stories well, moving back and forth between the Marys can be perplexing.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    March 15, 2015

    This excellent dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and her daughter Mary Shelley (1797-1851) by author Gordon (English, Endicott Coll.; Mistress Bradstreet) examines the profound influence Wollstonecraft had on Shelley and the impact both women have had on women's rights in succeeding generations. Although Wollstonecraft died days after Shelley's birth, her writing, especially that most famous volume, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, inspired Shelley to embrace her mother's radical ideas and heartfelt aspirations. Consequently, Shelley's essays, novels, travel books, reviews, and poetry emphasize the importance of education and independence for women and denounce male values of dominance and ambition. Gordon presents the lives of each woman chronologically in alternating chapters; this technique allows her to emphasize "the echo of Wollstonecraft in Shelley's letters, journals, and novels and demonstrate how often Wollstonecraft addressed herself to the future." Gordon's prose is compelling and her scholarship meticulous; her contention that both women led "lives as memorable as the words they left behind" is brilliantly supported. VERDICT Readers interested in Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley will relish this volume.--Kathryn Bartelt, Univ. of Evansville Libs., IN

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • The Boston Globe "[An] impassioned dual biography . . . [Charlotte] Gordon brings a rousing zeal to her pages. Both Wollstonecraft and Shelley have been the subject of previous biographies--the author builds her account on a tremendous variety of sources and scholarship--but Gordon, alternating between the two chapter by chapter, binds their lives into a fascinating whole. She shows, in vivid detail, how mother influenced daughter, and how the daughter's struggles mirrored the mother's."
  • The New Yorker "Written with the galloping pace of a skilled novel peopled with fascinating characters . . . these women live on in its pages. . . . Thorough and irresistible."--The Seattle Times "Gordon unfolds the two stories in tandem, deftly balancing the gossipy aspects of her subjects' lives with their serious intellectual concerns."
  • The Sunday Times (U.K.) "Thoughtful, intelligent and deeply felt . . . Gordon has written a book about two women, a mother and her daughter, who changed not only the way we think, but the way we are. . . . Skillfully entwining the story of two generations that spanned a century, Gordon's Romantic Outlaws enables readers to compare the different ways in which these two remarkable women confronted their tragically difficult destinies."
  • Vogue "[Romantic Outlaws] is an innovative dual biography that foregrounds the writing of two women who disregarded the moral codes of their eras and shaped their own destinies. Gordon's parallel mapping of their lives reveals fascinating similarities in the ways writing sustained, and sometimes saved, them both."--Financial Times "A most welcome deeper take on the women who scandalized Victorian England--and whose stories continue to resonate today."
  • The Wall Street Journal "By linking these two lives, Ms. Gordon's biography stretches over a fascinating era in history, characterized by great flux in political and cultural thinking and involving some of the main figures in English literary and philosophical history."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) "The relationship between Mary Shelley and the mother she never knew . . . is explored with remarkable insight and perspicacity in this exhilarating dual biography. . . . Gordon's perceptive reading of both women's published works illuminates their core ideas [and] identifies the emotional fault lines caused by the drama in their lives. Her lucid prose and multifaceted appraisal of Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and their times make warm-blooded and fully fleshed-out people of writers who exist for readers today only as the literary works they left behind."
  • Booklist (starred review) "Gordon infuses literary history with electrifying discoveries in this symbiotic portrait of radical mother-daughter writers who indelibly changed society and the arts. . . . The first to fully investigate the life-determining influence Wollstonecraft's feminist writings had on Mary Shelley, Gordon chronicles their harsh, tragic, and courageous lives in alternating chapters that are as emotionally incisive as they are finely particularized in their astute renderings of tumultuous settings and dire predicaments."
  • Library Journal "This excellent dual biography . . . examines the profound influence Wollstonecraft had on Shelley and the impact both women have had on women's rights in succeeding generations. . . . Gordon's prose is compelling and her scholarship meticulous, her contention that both women led 'lives as memorable as the words they left behind' is brilliantly supported."
  • Miranda Seymour, author of Mary Shelley "A fascinating, thoughtful and continuously absorbing book, one to which I know I shall return on many future occasions."
  • Susan Ware, general editor, American National Biography "Charlotte Gordon reunites a mother and daughter tragically separated at birth in this rousing and surpassingly readable epic spanning the Romantic era. Wordsworth and Byron must step aside to make room for two brilliant women, Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, early and late Romantics whose remarkable contributions to their time and ours lend Gordon's artfully twined tale special significance."--Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize--winning author
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