Thursday, January 29, 2015

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon


Title: Romantic Outlaws
Author: Charlotte Gordon
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WORTHY!


DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is a true story (if a bit overly dramatized here and there!) of two Marys: mother and daughter, the elder of whom, Mary Wollstonecraft, pretty much single-handedly founded feminism, and the younger of whom, best known as Mary Shelley, became famous for her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written when she was eighteen (and which was almost universally panned upon its initial publication).

The title of this book is oddly ironic since there's nothing either romantic or outlaw-ish about either of these two women unless you think of outlaw as the opposite of in-law and consider Mary the younger's circumstances once she eloped with Percy Shelley, the pretentious poet. Outlandish Scofflaws might have been a better title!

What this history is, above and beyond all else, is a shocking account of abuse, cruelty, and injustice heaped upon women by the very men they loved and counted on: Imlay, Godwin, Shelley, and Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft, before she ever met Mary Shelley's father, was doing a great job of being the very thing she stood for - a strong and independent woman, until she met a complete jerk by the name of George Imlay, whom she allowed to take advantage of her before he then abandoned her for someone younger.

She fell apart at this point, betraying her feminist principles, going into a funk, and twice trying to commit suicide, selfishly sparing not a thought for her young daughter, Imlay's daughter and Mary Shelley's sister-in-law, Fanny, who herself committed suicide later in her own life. This is the same woman who competed with men on equal terms as a writer, who lived in and lived through the French revolution, becoming perhaps the world's first foreign correspondent, working for a news and social commentary magazine.

In turn, Mary Shelley, who never knew her mother, spent her whole life missing her, and took off with Percy Shelley in what was superficially a romantic elopement, but which proved to be nothing for than delusional juvenile folly which turned into a dire marriage sabotaged by Shelley's selfish and self-absorbed inability to love, and exacerbated by Mary's crushing loss of her first two children. Mary was partly to blame for the death of her second child, William, since she knew that Rome was subject to the fever (malaria) in the summer but selfishly refused to move away from the city. She never forgave herself for that poor decision.

The contrast between these two women's lives is as stark as the similarities. Mary Wollstonecraft had to fight for everything she admirably gained only to lose it willingly as she allowed herself to become a slave to her ironic dependency upon Gilbert Imlay. Mary Shelley was spoiled rotten except for her perennial longing for her father's affection, which never came. She got everything she wanted, although it came with the pain of being in dire financial straits and with social ostracism for her running away with a married noble man who turned out to be about as ignoble as they come.

Percy Shelley seduced his wife-to-be, Harriet, blinded by some asinine "romantic" notion that he was saving her - a notion which came to him again when he met Mary Godwin, and yet again when he met an Italian noble woman while still married to Mary. As soon as Harriet, and then Mary became pregnant, Shelley pretty much lost interest in them since they were no longer romantic, and he evidently had no idea how to be anything other than a distant lover. He preferred to go off by himself writing grandiose, but ultimately shallow poetry than to sit with his bereaved and grieving wife and hold her hand. Mary's cold withdrawal after the death of William didn’t help. No romance there.

Mary and Percy's relationship was lived in the pale shadow of Mary's other half sister, Claire, who traveled with them everywhere, adding to the scandal under which they lived, making Mary look (and in some ways feel) like one of two female concubines to the poet. This pressure came to a head more than once in fights between Mary and Claire.

Lord Byron was no better. He joined them on their extended vacation, seducing Claire and then abandoning her when she had his child. This so-called god of the romantic poem was himself nothing but a lowlife and a complete jerk around women. Why he's held in such high regard today is a mysterious as it is scandalous. He was present that dark and stormy night when the four (Byron, Shelley, his doctor John Polidori, and Mary) all agreed to write a ghost story. Mary and John were the only two who actually did, and neither one of them actually wrote a ghost story. Mary came up with Frankenstein, which was disturbingly autobiographical in many (metaphorical) ways and John wrote a vampire story which in turn inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula. Polidori killed himself only a few years later.

Mary's father, Godwin, had no idea how to show affection to a child, and Mary felt the loss of her mother and her father's icy demeanor throughout her life. Godwin, supposedly a free-thinker and an advocate of free love, ostracized Mary after her elopement, even as he hypocritically harangued Shelley for loans to pay off his own debts! He did not come around until Shelley's wife, Harriet, killed herself, and Mary and Shelley finally married against their own "principles". Shelley then hypocritically tried to gain control of the two children which he had until then quite effectively rejected!

Later in life, Godwin appallingly withheld Mary's novel Mathilda, from publication, refusing to submit it and refusing to return her own manuscript to her. It wasn't published until 150 years after her death! In short, this is the story of two women who were remarkable, each in her own way, but who fell afoul of bad men and ended-up on bad relationships, yet who seemed unable to stick to their principles and extricate themselves.

To be fair, society and the law were harshly stacked against women in those times, even more so than they are now. It’s remarkable that these two Marys achieved what they did, and in the long term, both did prove to be strong. After her two suicide bids, Mary Wollstonecraft came back to life, restoring her career, meeting and became involved with Godwin, and finally giving birth to Mary, but dying shortly afterwards - the fate of all too many women back then.

Mary, having lost her step-sister fanny, lost her first two children, and been sorely used by Shelley, wrote many novels, survived the death, tragedy and suicides around her, survived Shelley's sad death in a boating mishap, and lived to fairly ripe old age, becoming revered and an institution in her own lifetime.

This is a long, long book - almost six hundred pages (of which about ten percent is chapter notes) - packed with detail, anecdotes, and pictures. It’s remarkable history of the lives and times of two remarkable and very memorable women. I recommend it.


1 comment:

  1. That is pretty long! I can never take the name Fanny seriously, call it being British.

    ReplyDelete

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