Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Garden of Marys: Wollstoncraft, Shelley, 'Romantic Outlaws'



            They lived ridiculously eventful lives, these two Marys (and their men), the romance and the suffering running neck and neck, the latter perhaps winning out when you take the shortness of their lifespans into the reckoning.
            Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759 –1797) probably the first "serious" female English writer in modern history, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), at a time when a woman could not put her name to anything that appeared in print except for nursery tales and gothic romances intended exclusively for children or female readers. In it she argued that women should be educated just as men are for the same useful and intellectual tasks, and that they should be given the same opportunities to play useful roles in society. Also (a revolutionary notion for the time), women should be allowed to own property and conduct their own business and monetary affairs. Under English law women had no property rights; all they 'owned' was actually the property of their husbands or fathers. She further contended that women should have the right to vote and hold office, and that their ideas should be accorded the same reception as would be given to a man's.
            Listen seriously to a woman? It was to titter.
            Wollstonecraft's analysis of the economic, domestic, public and private lives of women, and the oppressions that attended all of these, either ridiculed or ignored in her own times and for generations afterwards, anticipated almost exactlty the arguments that would be made by the feminist movement of the early 1970s.      
            When she was rediscovered. She was almost 200 years ahead of her time.
            Wollstonecraft also modeled the kind of lives women should lead so that they would not be entirely dependent on men by supporting herself as a writer. She wrote childen's stories that provided models for intellectually active and enterprising lives, a history and defense of the French Revolution, a few novels, a travel book filled with topical observations, and many book reviews and other magazine pieces.
            And her own society, which is to say the 1 percent of class-bound England's population that mattered, made Wollstonecraft suffer for every word she published. Maddeningly. This makes for some painful moments in "Romantic Outlaws" (published last year) by Charlotte Gordon and subtitled "the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley."
            While Wollstonecraft did not go mad, she did make two attempts to kill herself after she was abandoned by the man who fathered her first child and who she believed loved her, a hope in which she was deeply disappointed. Recovering, Wollstonecraft resurrected her literary career, inventing the personal travel memoir, the least explicitly political of her books but perhaps most successful in leading readers' thoughts outside the conventional ruts they had been trodding for centuries.
            She took back her personal and social life as well, attending parties and salons, making new women friends, influencing other writers of both genders, and establishing a close and 'equal' friendship with a man, "radical" political theorist Richard Godwin, who eventually became her husband and the father of her second child.
            This child was Mary Godwin, who would become Mary Shelley, probably only England's second writer on serious political and social themes, and a novelist who invented one of English literature's most enduring genres, the dystopian 'horror' story, as the author of "Frankenstein."
            And then, as if life didn't sin enough not only against female intellectuals, but women generally in the benighted centuries before the invention of antibiotics, after giving birth to daughter Mary (in the first year of her marriage) Wollstonecraft suffered a fatal infection from the unwashed hands of the surgeon who was cutting the afterbirth out of her weakened body and died nine days later.
            As author Gordon frankly states, no one one had any idea of the existence of killing "germs." The idea would have been considered "quite mad."
            Unfortunately for her reputation, Wollstonecraft's cotnributions as feminist theorist and writer were overshadowed by the perverse interest defenders of the status quo took in her personal life, abetted by a tell-all memoir by her widower husband, the rather tone-deaf radical theorist Godwin.The sexually inexperienced Wollstonecraft (as Gordon tells us) had earlier pursued some sort of relationship to a married artist named Fuseli, who befriended but then dropped her. Worse, she had an affair with an American (Gilbert Imlay) in Paris during the dangerous days of the French Revolution, her first sexual relationship, and bore his child. Imlay's rejection of her led to the two suicide attempts.
            Godwin, regarded as the leading radical thinker of his day because of his defense in his books of liberty and equality as absolute rights prior to and more important than society's claims, proved stiff, formal, and hypocritically conventional in his own life. His ideas attracted many followers, including the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, a then young and unknown poet in love with liberty, anarchism, and "free love." Godwin, in need of money and more interested in Shelley's status as the first son of a wealthy family, gave him the run of the house, but was shocked -- shocked and and appalled -- when his daughter, Mary, ran away with him to the continent.
            Mary Godwin, who became Mary Shelley when she married the poet a couple years later, was deeply influenced by the heroic and trail-blazing life led by her mother. This is Gordon's thesis for her book. The connections between their lives are in fact remarkable. Mary Godwin sought to live the ideals of freedom and independence proclaimed by both her parents (at least in their books). Shelley, though already married, appeared to be the embodiment of that ideal.
            But idols, particularly the male ones, have clay feet. I have long hungered to know the details of the Mary Godwin-poet Shelley connection, and I fully recommend this book's account of their lives as a cure for that appetite. The poet Shelley, who wrote "Prometheus Unbound," an epic of the salvation of mankind, could not save himself from the consequences of a thrill-seeking, forever-young nature. If we wish to believe that too much innocence, unseasoned tidealism, reckless self-indulgence, and unrestrained youthful energy are likely to lead to -- suffering, losses, bankruptcy, and early death -- you'll find plenty of evidence not only in Shelley's life but in that of his friend-and-rival Byron to back up that conviction. (The third member of the famous troika of  romantic poets dying young, Keats, simply suffered from tuberculosis, a disease his time had no cure for.)
            On the other hand, these are also the kind of people whose stories we desire to hear. In another context, a book about the Greek myth, I remember reading the author's conclusion that when mortals become involved with the gods, things are likely to end badly, and it's the people who pay the costs. Yet when people avoid the gods completely, well, these people have no good stories to offer.
            Just to focus on Mary Shelley -- whose life had perhaps too many brushes with divinity -- she was only 19 when she began work on "Frankenstein," one of the seminal classics of modern fiction and a truly "romantic" work since the monster is after all a loving, tender-hearted creature until he is cruelly rejected by his creator-father. There's society for you; or -- in Mary's case -- fathers, since her father refused to have anything to do with her after she ran off with a married man.
            A generation later, Mary Shelley's talent received no more recognition than her mother's had. If anything, English society had regressed since Wollstonecraft's day in reaction to the dangers posed by the French Revolution to autocratic, class-ridden England. She ended up surviving and raising her son decently more because of her skills as domestic finance manager than a scholar and creative writer (she was both). Her novels were ignored or reviled, and her reputation permanently blackened by her youthful elopement with Shelley.
            She also lost -- not only Shelley, at age 30, to an unschooled pursuit of sailing -- but three of their children, all in early childhood. The details of these losses are indeed hard to bear.
            But like her mother, Mary Shelley is one of the heroes of English literature, both for what she produced herself and mid-wived for others. She wrote almost all the literary profiles in one of England's first multi-volume encyclopedias. And her reconstructive editing and recovery of her husband's scattered writings is a major reason why we know of and celebrate the poetry (as many of us do) of Shelley today.