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Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley - Charlotte Gordon

This is such a fantastic biography that I suspect it will become my gold standard. It’s a dual biography of two well-known female intellectuals (who were also mother and daughter), Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. All I knew of either woman before reading this was her most famous book, but as it turns out they both lived fascinating – and, because they were writers, well-documented – lives. Both traveled internationally (Wollstonecraft even lived in France in the midst of its revolution), wrote extensively, and had children outside of marriage, and all this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This isn’t only a factual account; it brings both protagonists to life in alternating chapters (because Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Shelley, the two barely intersect), with distinct, complex and vivid personalities. And Gordon is an excellent storyteller, rendering their lives in a readable style more compelling than many novels; the end of a chapter would often leave me wanting to read just one more. The book is rich in information about the times, providing the context of these women’s lives and the lives of those around them, but despite being a history, the facts never feel inevitable; this is quite an achievement, requiring fresh and vivid storytelling. For the first 100 pages I was concerned that it would be a downer, featuring women oppressed by their gender and culture at every turn, but both women soon grow up and take control of their destinies. In the end, my only concern is that, while the book includes extensive endnotes and a bibliography, the author usually only cites a source when directly quoting someone; I wanted to know where more of the assertions about people’s feelings, in particular, came from.

Overall, this is an excellent book, and it left me curious to read both of these writers and see how my analysis of their works compares to the author’s. This would be a great choice for anyone interested in the lives of historical women; for those who don't typically read biographies, it's a perfect place to start.