Of late, I’ve found good biographies pretty difficult to find. Good biographies that are interesting and easy to read are rare enough; but a biography that is interesting and easy to read whilst simultaneously telling two life stories side by side is about as easy to find as unicorn poop. Finding this book, which details the lives of two women I’ve long found fascinating, can only really be described as a fine example of the best unicorn poop I’ve come across. If you see what I mean.
It helps, of course, that Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley were mother and daughter and, in their own way, blazed particularly distinctive trails, one as an early feminist and political libertarian, the other as a noted Gothic novelist whose greatest creation survives today. One of the (many) things which struck me, however, is how despite having written a number of novels between them, each woman was best known for her first work – Wollestonecraft for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Shelley for Frankenstein.
The book interweaves their lives, giving each woman a chapter in turn – the first and final chapters are, if you like, joint chapters – shows the parallels their lives took to remarkable effect and allows the reader to show just how deeply the daughter was influenced by her mother, despite never having known her.
The central figure linking both women is William Godwin, husband to one and father to the other. Gordon does not paint a terribly flattering picture of him and the most charitable view of him from the biography is of a curmudgeonly old hypocrite more interested in extracting money from his son in law than in having any kind of social relationships. Indeed, he frequently ignored his family members, noticing them only if a bill was to be paid or they had some money with which to settle the outstanding (and rising) debts.
Of course, it is impossible to write about Mary Shelley without mentioning the Romantic poets, given her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the close association both of them had with Lord Byron. Both of the poets came across realistically, but I can’t help wondering if Gordon instinctively felt closer to the Romantics than she did to Godwin. Of course, there is always the possibility that Godwin really was a curmudgeonly old hypocrite and both poets were arrogant and idealistic, although Shelley seemed the more empty-headed and flighty of the two.
Gordon makes extensive use of the women’s unpublished writings, relying on letters and journals to illustrate their mental processes and the development of their respective outlooks on life. For both women radical politics were of fundamental importance and their interpretations of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 19th century is still worth reading today. It doesn’t feel like much has changed sometimes, although at least wives are no longer their husband’s property – for now.
This book was a chance find in my local library and I’ve loved every page of it. It’s an essential read if you love either of the main subjects, or even radical politics or Romantic poetry. It doesn’t feel like a heavyweight book, which is an amazing achievement for 500 plus pages.