Freedom Personified: The Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
Novak reviews Charlotte Gordon’s book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.
At the core of the libertarian feminist enterprise is the proposition that when freed from the strictures of pervasive government controls and stifling social conventions individual women (and men, too) are best positioned to pursue their own goals and strategies. It is therefore a great cause for celebration among libertarian feminists when they are able to cite instances in which women, in particular but not exclusively, have fulfilled goals and objectives they individually cherish as a consequence of deliberate choices, thanks in part to loosened constraints within the institutional environment.
Many libertarians take philosophical inspiration from the works of eighteenth‑century libertarian feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and may have delighted in the fictional works of her daughter Mary Shelley, but few may be aware of the struggles they themselves faced during their quest to achieve dignified and flourishing lives. These matters are detailed extensively in Charlotte Gordonʼs book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, which happens to also creatively interweave the personal, economic, and social lives of these two pathbreaking women. What the author of Romantic Outlaws makes clear is that Wollstonecraft and Shelley, as brilliant as they were and as influential they have become, endured numerous setbacks which, had it not been for ingenious decisions and the demonstration of resilient character, otherwise could have greatly frustrated their life ambitions.
For many of us living in the present our lives are doubtlessly shaped to some extent by personal tragedies, but, if anything, the two leading figures in Gordonʼs book seemed to face more of their fair share of such tribulations. These came in many forms, including an abusive, alcoholic parent to the young Mary Wollstonecraft; the tragic loss of childhood friendships; the heartbreak of dissolved personal relationships; depression leading to suicide attempts; actual suicides within the extended family; the untimely drowning of Mary Shelleyʼs husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the death of Shelleyʼs children.
The difficulties confronting Wollstonecraft and Shelley even transcended the personal. The severe gender‑based occupational segregation of the British Georgian era also consigned many women as domestic servants if they were to work at all (Wollstonecraft herself served a short, dissatisfying period as a governess in Ireland), posing an obvious dilemma for women seeking to participate in the domestic economy in a broader sense.
From challenge, though, often arises opportunities, and a very important feature of the lives of mother and daughter were their fortuitous forging of associations with other people, leading to substantial improvements in their economic, and indeed social, circumstances. This is particularly evident for Mary Wollstonecraft, whose innate senses and intellectual curiosity regarding the ideals of freedom led her to come into contact with the dissenting clergyman and moral philosopher Richard Price, who in turn introduced Wollstonecraft to radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Following her dismissal as governess with the family of an Irish peer and with fresh prospects for acquiring income seeming a forlorn prospect at the time, Wollstonecraft excitedly, but no less poignantly, wrote to her younger sister Everina in November 1787:
Mr Johnson … assures me that if I exert my talents in writing, I may support myself in a comfortable way. I am then going to be the first of a new genus ‑ I tremble at the attempt.
Romantic Outlaws details the uproarious public response to both of Wollstonecraftʼs major philosophical efforts, with many critics seemingly exuding a dismissive stance on account of Wollstonecraft being a woman, imparting momentary periods of self‑doubt for even this most energetic of personalities. In the face of these underwhelming public impressions, Mary Wollstonecraft managed to remain steadfast to her project of writing the language of liberty and, importantly on a personal basis, successfully grafted her own career tapping into her underlying interests and talents.
The young Mary Shelley is depicted as something of a child prodigy, and there was little question that Shelley perceived herself as standing atop the shoulder of a towering intellect in the form of her mother:
Her [Shelleyʼs] body of work is notable for her commitment to the rights of women and her condemnation of unchecked male ambition. She had devoted her life to upholding her motherʼs philosophy, and one of her greatest fears was that she would fall short of Wollstonecraftʼs brilliance.
Romantic Outlaws does the Shelley legacy a service by appropriately conveying the senses in which the daughter develops her own sense of personhood: less politically active, say, than Wollstonecraft, but nonetheless an incisive thinker in her own right who very successfully laid down a permanent marker in literature.
Shelleyʼs famed novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), written at the tender age of 19 years, continues to arouse discussion to this day: was the intention of describing the torment of Victor Franksteinʼs monstrous creation to warn about the immorality of scientific endeavour? Was Shelley wanting to spell out the dangers of a motherless existence, as she largely experienced herself? From a libertarian perspective, it could be submitted that Frankenstein maintains an enduring value through the ways in which the Mary Shelley grapples, in her inimitable style, with matters of individuality, free will, and moral choices, and the place of individuals situated within broader civil society.
In a roundabout way Charlotte Gordon investigates such issues in Romantic Outlaws because, as she points out in great depth, the public reputations of both Wollstonecraft and Shelley were tarnished for a lengthy period of time on account of innuendo surrounding the personal choices both women made. Grounded in a strong ethical value in avoiding any sense of subservience to men, Mary Wollstonecraft abstained from wedlock for much of her adult life, bearing her first child (Fanny) to American adventurer Gilbert Imlay in 1794, only to marry her friend and, later, husband William Godwin a less than a year before her death yet living in adjoining but separate homes during the marriage. Aside from those figures who declared discomfort with Wollstonecraftʼs expressions of libertarian feminism, her posthumous reputation was dented quite markedly by the hasty publication of Maryʼs intimate letters by late husband William Godwin, which achieved little but to offend Georgian‑era moral sensibilities.
For her part, Mary Shelley first eloped and struck an intimate relationship with her future husband Percy Shelley during her late teens, often sharing readings at the gravesite of Wollstonecraft, even though Percy was himself married. Those choices which, as Gordonʼs book title suggests, typecast the young couple as outlaws divorced from the moral strictures of polite society was met with consternation from senior family members on both sides, who abstained from providing finance to Percy and Mary Shelley, and especially painted the public reputation of Mary Shelley with the hues of scandal.
It would be brave to contend that such romantic arrangements were unique to Wollstonecraft and Shelley, even during eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain exemplified by greater moral rectitude (or, one might say, prudishness), but the point that the author of Romantic Outlaws seems to be making is not about that. Gordon appears to suggest the personality traits inhered in both liberty‑minded women led them to more openly flaunt their relationships, as much as they chose to flaunt their creative and intellectual talents against the societal grain, and those choices possibly helped, in some way, to push the social boundaries of women and men in future generations. The implications and legacies of these formative adaptations of free love and sexual freedom has tended to be underappreciated in libertarian scholarship, and Charlotte Gordon deserves credit for bringing to a modern audience the relational experiments in living indulged by Wollstonecraft and Shelley, warts and all.
One of the greater fortunes enjoyed by modern libertarianism has been the eventual revival of interest in the ideas and lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, two genuine forebears of the noble ideal that women are deserving of equal freedoms, liberties, and rights alongside men. Charlotte Gordonʼs ambitious double‑biography Romantic Outlaws serves as a compelling narrative of the influence of libertarian ideas in shaping peopleʼs lives, not least those of two leading figures lauded by modern libertarian feminists.