Subtitle: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Charlotte Gordon presents her biography of the brilliant mother/daughter authors in a unique and enjoyable way. She intertwines the story of each in alternating chapters, showing them at the same age. At first I found the switching back and forth irritating, but once I got into the book, I liked it a lot. It is very interesting to see these two women at each stage of their development. Both women were shaped by their difficult backgrounds. Wollstonecraft had an unstable alcoholic father who moved his large family from place to place as it suited him. When Mary Wollstonecraft died of childbirth fever at age 38 after a short marriage to William Godwin of five months, Mary Shelly was left to be brought up by a step mother. Neither had a happy childhood. Money was always a problem in both households. Yet, both women grew into strong-willed, brave, free-thinking women, ahead of their times in all respects.
Wollstonecraft left home at an early age. All doors were closed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to women who aspired to free-thinking and independence. Other than prostitution, the only way for a woman to earn even a pittance was as a servant, or in the case of those having some education, as a governess, teacher or in rare cases, a writer. A writer is exactly what Wollstonecraft aspired to be. After she made her way to London, Wollstonecraft managed to be mentored by a the publisher, Joseph Johnson, who recognized her genus in the first manuscript she handed to him. Soon she was trading stories with the likes of Thomas Paine, William Godwin and other known philosophers, all of whom respected her intelligence. Despite her desire for independence, Mary became involved with several men with sad results. Suffering from depression, she twice attempted suicide before in her middle thirties, until she fell in love with William Godwin and seemed to at last have found a soul mate.
Mary Shelly, was profoundly influenced by her mother's life and writings, though the two women were quite different. At a very young age, Mary Godwin was introduced to the romantic and popular poet, Percy Shelley who was married at the time. He found her intellect and free-thinking fascinating, and she fell deeply in love with him. She was very young and Shelley, like contemporaries Byron and Keats, had what today would be rock star status. They eloped, and later married when Shelley's wife committed suicide. They ran with what was considered a fast crowd, and though Shelly was aristocratically wealthy, he was always being threatened with disinheritance by his disappointed father.
While Wollstonecraft wrote philosophically, Mary Shelley was best known for her groundbreaking gothic novel, "Frankenstein." Mother and daughter, both fighting social norms, made names for themselves. Both women were dogged and depended upon by their families. Mary Shelley's opinions were just as strong as her mother's, but she had easier relationships with men and she was faithful to Shelley throughout their marriage. The same could not be said of him. We are familiar with the brilliant Percy Shelley's death in a sailing accident in 1822 at only 29 years of age. It is hard to believe that Mary Shelley was only 24 herself. It seemed they had lived a lifetime together and suffered many adventures and travels. They tragically lost three children to disease at young ages. Mary's step-sister, Claire, was always present in their lives, bringing unwelcome drama with her sexual relations with both Byron and Shelley.
Mary Shelley soldiered on until 1851 when at age 58, she died of a brain tumor. She had one surviving child, Percy who was a dutiful and faithful son, with no interest in writing.
The two Marys are buried together.
I recommend this book to all readers. It is a well-written account of two fascinating women who defied the ages they lived in, to become examples to later generations.