Thursday, 6 December 2018

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

I knew next to nothing about the mother/daughter Mary Wollstonecraft/Shelley pair until reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. I had started reading Frankenstein for the very first time as a #CCdare when the Preface alerted me to the fact that there had been an ongoing controversy about who wrote Frankenstein. I remembered that I had this bio lurking non my TBR pile and it seemed like exactly the right time to dive in.


Gordon is clearly of the view that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein with input certainly from her husband.

Mary's role in shaping Shelley's revolutionary theories is rarely acknowledged. Rather, critical debate has centred on Shelley's influence on Mary. In part, this is Mary's own doing. In her version of events, Shelley was the great man and she the diminutive follower. But her representation of their relationship has more to do with her own complexities than with the actual partnership they formed.

It is these very complexities that Gordon goes on to explore in this dual biography of the two Mary's.

She has written a very readable and engaging account of both their lives. Told in alternating chapters to highlight their parallel lives, I occasionally got a little mixed up with which Mary I was reading about and what time frame I was in. This was mostly due to so many of the cast having the same names or suddenly changing their name.

I was fascinated to learn that Mary W was in Paris during the trial and execution of Louis XVI. I'd love to source a copy of her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has produced in Europe, 1794 one day.

Both women (as well as most of their family and friends) suffered the indiscriminate and sudden loss of children due to illness but also by law and circumstances. These were hard, hard times to raise a family and to enjoy good mental health. People died easily and suddenly at any age. Men and women suffered these losses at all levels of society. It was harsh and relentless. But for any woman who  desired to be independent or different, or who was forced by circumstances to be independent or different, life was tougher still.

The roles of men and women were very clearly defined and monitored during this time. If you stepped outside these cultural norms then you had to expect to be censured and ostracised. Both Mary's desired independence and a creative life but life circumstances also forced them down this path. Ghastly combinations of poverty, abuse, death of parent/s and illness dogged both their young lives. Yet, as noted in my recent review of White Houses, why is it that some people with horrific childhoods, succumb to its sordidness, always the victim, yet others find a resilience and sense of agency to remake their adult selves?

The Mary's struggled not to be victims and a lack of understanding about depression tortured both of them at various times. Yet they used this pain to embrace creativity while they used education and intelligence to give their lives purpose and meaning.

That the mind can create actual 'beings' and that 'feelings' can 'produce ideas'; that inspiration comes from inside the self, not outside, from emotions, not logic; that the wanderer can see truths in Nature that the city dweller misses; that in solitary contemplation the artist combines emotion and thought, recollection and observation, to create a new universe, new creatures, a new vision for humankind - these are the principal tenets of Romanticism.

The appalling way the men in their lives treated not only the women and children, but also each other was astounding. Such selfish, thoughtless and cruel behaviour made me grateful to be living in a more enlightened, emotionally aware world. The irony being that both Mary's thought that they were living through more enlightened times.

I wonder how our lives will be judged by future generations (assuming there will even be a world for future generations to live in)?

It was a hard world and hard times and the fact that these women achieved success despite or because of the adversity they faced is an incredible story.

It is a sobering tale, the rise and fall of both Marys, since it so clearly points to how difficult it is to know the past and how mutable the historical record can be. For almost two hundred years, Wollstonecraft was written off, first as a whore and then as a hysteric, an irrational female hardly worth reading....Mary Shelley, on the other hand, would be condemned for compromising the revolutionary values of her genius husband and her pioneering mother. Viewed as a woman who cared more about her place in society than about political ideas or artistic integrity, she was discounted as an intellectual lightweight....
At the end of her life, Mary Shelley could never have suspected that she and her mother would be treated so differently by history....
To be themselves. The hurdles, the critics, the enemies, the insults, the ostracism, the betrayals, the neglect, even the heartbreaks - none of this had stopped them

Since it was my reading of Frankenstein that prompted me to pick up this book in the first place, I thought it would be fitting to finish with Gordon's summary of Mary's story.

Mary's three-pronged narrative, her Russian doll technique of nesting one story inside another, provides the reader with three different versions of the same set of events....Careful not to weight the story in favour of either the creator or the created, Mary conjured a sense of moral suspension in which the conventional questions -- Who's the hero? Who's the villain? Who's right? Who's wrong? -- no longer applied....Monsters, says Mary, are of our own making....
Like Mary, the creature has only a father, and his father fails him, leading the creature to seek murderous revenge. In a world without mothers, she suggests, havoc reigns and evil triumphs. 
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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