Women who shape their personal lives around what they want rather than what they’re told have always faced a complicated set of risks and rewards. Whether choosing sex outside of marriage, loving another woman rather than a man, or deciding to live alone – all these options have carried the threat of condemnation and ostracism, in some times and places more than others.
But choosing for yourself has its benefits. Foremost among them, of course, is happiness. And even in earlier eras, when stigma was more firmly set against unwed mothers, lesbians, or single women who hadn’t sublimated their sexuality and ambition into religious vocations, a revolutionary private life could earn not just a reputation but a considerable public following.
The rewards of being a rebel can be so considerable, in fact, that some female writers keep trying to reap them, even as they have less and less to rebel against. Charlotte Gordon’s “Romantic Outlaws,” a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, explore what it cost women to live with integrity in the 18th and 19th centuries, what it gained them, and how they reckoned with the ledger’s final balance. By contrast, books such as Kate Bolick’s “Spinster” illustrate the diminishing returns that can result when contemporary writers try to dress up the luxury of choice, minus the risk of ostracism or poverty, as some sort of revolution.
Wollstonecraft, the English writer and philosopher who became most famous as the author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” died in 1797, shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Godwin, who forged her own reputation through her relationship and marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and through her writing, particularly of the horror classic “Frankenstein.” Gordon tells the women’s stories side by side in alternating chapters, illustrating the choices mother and daughter made at similar life stages, and how Mary Shelley and her stepsister Claire tried to live up to their mother’s revolutionary legacy.
For Wollstonecraft, the need to revolt grew out of the brutality of her childhood. Her father favored his oldest son, hanged the family dog out of spite and at night “terrorized [his wife] Elizabeth, raping her and beating her so painfully she could not stifle her screams,” Gordon explains. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft rebelled, “setting up camp outside her mother’s door, waiting for her father to come home so she could stop him from crossing the threshold.”
She grounded her sense of justice in the works of John Locke, and developed a writing style that married emotion and logic, at a time when writers frowned upon using feeling to sway readers. Wollstonecraft’s publisher, Joseph Johnson, gave her an early holding deal, guaranteeing her a steady income and freeing her to write.
“A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” published in 1792, grew out of Wollstonecraft’s long-standing interest in education, and was in part a response to a French report suggesting women be limited to learning about domestic life. Wollstonecraft used her own experiences as a teacher and the political education she’d pursued herself to argue that women should be educated just as comprehensively as men so they could make contributions to society outside the home, rather than simply serving as helpmeets, and suggested that women should embrace their potential as rational beings, rather than surrendering themselves to sentiment and extreme emotion.
Wollstonecraft’s attempts to live up to her independent ideals sometimes lead to embarrassment and betrayal. She became emotionally entangled with the married poet Henry Fuseli, and after she had a child with the trader Gilber Imlay, she was heartbroken to discover that he was eager to enjoy the benefits of a sexual revolution without accepting responsibility for the results.
But Wollstonecraft’s adventurousness also let her see the world as it might become. She witnessed the transformation in sex and gender roles during the early years of the French Revolution, when women who had affairs or who had worked as prostitutes were able to win substantial if informal roles in public life as speakers or hostesses of influential salons — and the violent backlash that followed. And she found a relationship that lived up to her ideals of marriage in which both partners helped each other to do meaningful work with the philosopher William Godwin, who would raise their daughter Mary when Wollstonecraft died in childbirth.
“Romantic Outlaws” gains momentum when it explores how a new generation tried to live up to Wollstonecraft’s legacy, and how women reckoned with the possibilities that they could make the same choices about marriage and sex that Wollstonecraft had, and the consequences, including pregnancy, that followed. For Mary Shelley, her scandalous elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley contributed to her conviction that unwed mothers should have a chance at the custody that was often denied them, and to recognize that they were entitled to financial support from the fathers of their children. Her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who ran off with Mary and Shelley, ultimately reached a different conclusion, deciding that the costs of abandoning earlier sexual norms were simply too high.
The early attraction between Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley was shaped by their shared admiration of Wollstonecraft, and their relationship became a kind of competition over her legacy. Part of Wollstonecraft’s brilliance was the way she connected the repression of women to a range of political issues, including the discussions of natural rights that would culminate in the French Revolution and the responsibilities of the middle class. Shelley, rather self-indulgently, interpreted her work to mean he should rebel against everything, and that convincing Mary and her stepsister Claire to cast off parental authority and come away with him “was a triumph for the oppressed everywhere. The Irish. The peasant. The slave,” Gordon writes.
Mary Shelley wasn’t quite as self-aggrandizing about their experiment, perhaps because she bore the heavier part of their burden as outcasts. Her first child with Shelley was born prematurely and did not survive; her subsequent two children died as toddlers. Mary Shelley felt guilty when Shelley’s first wife — whom he left for Mary — drowned herself. And Mary had to tolerate Shelleys’ relationships with other women, including Claire, and his efforts to encourage her to have affairs with other men.
“Frankenstein” grew out of the experiences Mary Shelley shared with her mother and with her half-sister Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s daughter with Gilbert Imlay. Unmarried mothers and illegitimate daughters were hated by society, just like Frankenstein’s innocent creature,” Gordon writes. “Wollstonecraft became an outcast the moment she had Fanny. Fanny became an outcast the moment she was born.” Mary became an advocate for single mothers and illegitimate children, concocting a scheme for one young woman to present herself as a widow so she could get custody of her daughter without losing face and helping others financially.
Claire Clairmont made more radical choices than Mary Shelley, and she suffered by them. When the two women were younger, Claire competed with Mary, taking Shelley’s dare to go skinny-dipping when Mary would not. She wanted to be the best living example of Wollstonecraft’s ideals. The stepsisters began a destructive competition for Shelley’s affections, which slackened when Claire began an affair with the notorious poet Lord Byron, and eventually had a child with him. Byron demanded sole custody of their daughter, and the girl died in a convent school, leaving Claire embittered about their experiment.
“She and Mary had staked their lives on Shelley’s ideals of free love,” Gordon writes, “but when, at the end, she stood back and assessed what she had suffered — indeed what they had all suffered — she decided that she. . . and all the other women Byron and Shelley had known and claimed to love had been gravely harmed by the men’s deluded ideals.”
After their deaths, Wollstonecraft and Shelley also suffered at the hands of their early biographers, who sought to portray the women as less challenging figures. William Godwin wrote a book as a memorial to his wife, but he focused on Wollstonecraft’s love affairs rather than her political philosophy. Meanwhile, Mary Shelley’s daughter-in-law Jane destroyed the parts of Mary’s journal that failed to corroborate her vision of Mary Shelley as a “noble, grieving widow and a loving daughter and mother, not as a rebellious stepdaughter or the author of a disgraceful novel,” and certainly not “as following the promiscuous example of Wollstonecraft.”
Today, emulating women such as Wollstonecraft, Shelley and the social revolutionaries who followed them has become less risky, as Kate Bolick’s “Spinster” makes clear. Over time, the social sanctions for choosing an unconventional intimate life became less severe, and the late 19th and early 20th century female writers — including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman — whom Bolick dubs her “awakeners,” could reap rewards unavailable to women like Wollstonecraft and Shelley.
But progress can come at the expense of storytelling. Wollstonecraft and Shelley understood what they were rebelling against: domestic violence and social condemnation. By contrast, contemporary writers trying to navigate the wealth of choices available to them sometimes come across like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” in search of something to transform their personal dilemmas into a more exciting and political rebellion.
Bolick captures this progression — and diagnoses the weakness of books like her own — when she laments a period of romantic indecision. “Between my hamster wheel of dates and my confounding ‘situation,’ I was elated and miserable simultaneously, laughing in the morning, crying by afternoon,” she writes of her romantic life in New York. “Mistakes and pitfalls and longing and lust and, above all, liberty — at long last I had what I’d asked for, even if I was operating with half the grace of Edna Millay, or a quarter of it, come to think of it, which I had started to do, more and more, and the more I thought about it, the more I came to suspect that she’d gotten a lot more out of this romantic adventuring than I seemed to be, and not only because it was radical in her day and clichéd by mine.”
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