A literary mother and daughter: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
In one of the most famous birth stories in literary history, Mary Wollstonecraft died eleven days after giving birth to Mary Shelley. Five years earlier, Wollstonecraft had scandalized the public by publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – a denunciation of the unfair laws and prejudices that restricted eighteenth-century women’s lives. The daughter she left behind would become the legendary nineteen-year-old author of Frankenstein, a novel so famous it needs no introduction.
Yet even those who are familiar with Wollstonecraft and Shelley are still sometimes startled to learn they were mother and daughter. For generations, Wollstonecraft’s premature death led many scholars to overlook Wollstonecraft’s impact on Shelley, viewing mother and daughter as unrelated figures representing different philosophical stances and literary movements. Shelley appears in the epilogue of the biographies of Wollstonecraft, and Wollstonecraft in the introductory pages of the lives of Shelley.
But strange though it may seem, Wollstonecraft’s influence on her daughter was profound. Her radical philosophy shaped Shelley, sparked her determination to be someone, and to create a masterpiece in her own right. Throughout her life, Shelley read and reread her mother’s books, often learning their words by heart. A large portrait of Wollstonecraft hung on the wall of Mary Shelley’s childhood home. The girl studied it, examining herself for similarities. Mary Shelley’s father and his friends held up Wollstonecraft as a paragon of virtue and love, praising her genius, bravery, intelligence, and originality.
Steeped as she was in her mother’s ideas, and raised by a father who never got over his loss, Mary Shelley yearned to live according to her mother’s principles, to fulfil her mother’s aspirations, and to reclaim Wollstonecraft from the shadows of history, becoming, if not Wollstonecraft herself, then her ideal daughter. Over and over again, she reimagined the past and recast the future in a doomed effort to resurrect the dead, gazing back at what she could never regain but sought to duplicate in very different times.
As for Wollstonecraft, though she shared only ten days with her child, she was profoundly influenced by the idea of children. She had directed most of her life’s work towards the next generation, dreaming of what life might be like for them and how she could help them inherit a more just world. Wollstonecraft’s earliest works, written before her famous Vindication, were education manuals, books about how to teach children, and what to teach children, especially daughters. Condemned by her own era, she turned to those who would come after, drawing inspiration from those who might read her books once she was dead, never once dreaming that one of her most important readers would turn out to be the daughter she left behind.
Both mother and daughter attempted to free themselves from the stranglehold of polite society, and both struggled to balance their need for love and companionship with their need for independence. They braved the criticism of their peers to write books that took on the most volatile issues of the day. Brave, passionate, and visionary, they broke almost every rule there was to break. Both had children out of wedlock. Both fought against the injustices women faced and both wrote books that revolutionized history.
Their achievements are all the more remarkable as they lived during a time when women were considered incapable of directing their own lives. Experts preached that women were irrational and weak. Girls were taught to submit to their brothers, fathers, and husbands. Women could not own property. Except in very rare circumstances, wives could not initiate divorce. Children were the father’s property. Not only was it legal for a husband to beat his wife, men were encouraged to keep women in check, punishing any behaviour they regarded as unruly. If a woman tried to escape from a cruel or violent husband, she was considered an outlaw, and her husband had the legal right to imprison her.
Not surprisingly, in such a climate, Wollstonecraft and Shelley were ridiculed and abused. Even their own families rejected them. And yet, despite the hostility they faced, their story is one of courage and inspiration. Wollstonecraft and Shelley weathered poverty, hatred, and exile, as well as the slights of everyday life – the insults and gossip, the silences and turned backs, the withering loneliness – in order to write words they were not supposed to write and live lives they were not supposed to live. They sustained themselves by dreaming of the day, long after they were dead, when readers would agree with their ideas: that women are equal to men, that all people deserve the same rights, that human reason and the capacity for love can change the world, that the great enemies to happiness are ignorance, poverty, wars, cruelty, and tyranny, and that every person is entitled to justice and freedom. Particularly the last. To both mother and daughter, freedom was where happiness and hope lay.
- Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws.
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