Credit Constance Roisin

“I’ve always felt like I’m breaking the rules”: In conversation with Charlotte Gordon

By Constance Roisin

Constance Roisin discusses with Charlotte Gordon her book Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley.

There have been a lot of stories told about Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. In  their own lifetime the pair were notorious, not just for their controversial books – A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, and Frankenstein – but because of the ways in which they lead their lives. The tale goes that Mary Wollstonecraft was a whore, who tried to force the painter Henry Fuseli into a ménage à trois with his wife. She was a hypocrite, a feminist who tried to kill herself when a man rejected her. Her daughter lost her virginity on her tombstone, travelled around Europe in a  ‘League of Incest’, and took credit for a Gothic novel that actually her husband, who never really loved  her, wrote. Wollstonecraft was an emotional wreck, Shelley was cold and unfeeling. A revival of both women took place in the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, but still, scholars were apologetic and a shade embarrassed by Wollstonecraft, and considered Shelley a “second rate writer”. 

Enter Charlotte Gordon and her dual biography of the two women, Romantic Outlaws, published in  2015. “Basically my great insight”, she tells me, “was that they were mother and daughter. But it  turns out that that was a hugely revolutionary thing to say!” The connection between Wollstonecraft  and Shelley has been skipped over by many, and in her book Gordon argues brilliantly that Mary  Shelley was influenced all her life by her radical mother (though Wollstonecraft died a few days  after giving birth) and that Wollstonecraft in turn often seemed to be speaking to an imaginary  daughter. As Gordon says, “I really saw Wollstonecraft speaking to the future of women. And  Shelley taking up her mum’s flag and marching forward with it”.  

Though it has been several years since Romantic Outlaws was published, long enough that “the  book feels like somebody else wrote it at the time”, Gordon feels more and more connected to the  subjects of her biography. She tells me that when it is winter and it is dark and she’s writing,  Gordon thinks of Mary Shelley, and her belief that it was “her imagination that sustained her”. On  the other hand, if she is about to publish something controversial, “if I’m trying to be brave and take  public stands, then I think of Wollstonecraft. I think come on, she did it, so can you”.  

Gordon is particularly keen to stress the importance of research, of really looking for the truth in  your subject. “I’m old enough now that in most of the books I’ve written, I’ve had to go against  experts, who say this is how it was, and I’m reading these texts thinking ‘but it doesn’t seem that  way to me’. And then I feel kind of crazy. But I end up writing books that disagree with past experts.  It’s been challenging, especially when I was a younger writer, to do that. And I still find it so.” 

Even the style in which Gordon writes is somewhat radical. She tells me that when she was a  student at Harvard, it was frowned upon to write narrative history, because it was “a way of  imposing order on something that was inherently orderless”. The opinion of the time was to never  ever read people’s biographies into their work. “I did feel like, I’ve always felt like, I’m breaking the  rules”. She laughs, “I still feel kind of guilty”.  

One regret of Gordon’s is that she didn’t challenge Fuseli’s story about Wollstonecraft enough.  Was Wollstonecraft really so blatantly after a relationship with him, to the point of involving his  wife? Was she really “overwhelmingly in love” with him? Gordon doesn’t believe him, and she  

wishes she had stated that more strongly in her book. But anxiety that everyone else believed him,  got in the way.  

In her lifetime, Mary Shelley also had to contend with gossips. There was the pathological liar  Edward Trelawny, who vastly exaggerated his naval ability and ‘helped’ design the boat that Percy  Shelley would be on when he drowned (“He is the villain! The more I found out about him the more  I thought what a jerk”). And then there is the untrustworthy Jane Williams, who had a relationship  with both Percy and Mary Shelley (“I think it’s sad that Mary wasn’t enough for her. Because I think Jane  would have been enough for Mary”). There are lots of mysteries left to uncover in both women’s lives. Lots of pages ripped out of diaries. Did Percy Shelley impregnate Claire, Mary’s step-sister? Gordon thinks so. Was Byron in love with Percy? Yes, but Gordon can’t write that down “because we don’t have Byron writing dear Percy, let’s have sex”. The gaps in the story, argues Gordon, is part of the excitement. “On the one hand, we yearn for mystery, on the other hand, we want to solve it all.”  

The problem with mystery is that people can take advantage of it. And what easy prey dead  women make. “I am amazed at how vulnerable we all are to the stories that people tell”, she says.  “Any of us could die, and people could say terrible things about us and be believed. Unless there’s  a fight.” Gordon goes on to point out that the more marginalised the person, the easier it is to reinvent their life. As a writer, she tries to “look at the silences, look at what’s in the margins, look at what’s in-between the lines”. 

“Here’s the cliché,” Gordon tells me. “The past is never the past. And the fights we have over the past and the present are going to shape our future. They just are”. Indeed, the problems that both Wollstonecraft and Shelley faced feel awfully relevant to the modern age of cancel culture and fake news. How can you make a controversial stand when your reputation is so fragile? How can you convince people of the truth, when it is easier and faster to tell a lie? Gordon’s message of taking care with sources, to read them closely and critically, is not just helpful in re-evaluating women from history: it provides a useful roadmap for how to live in the world today.


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