Review by Nina Dinan, age 13

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Summary: In 1797, less than two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft died, and a remarkable life spent pushing against the boundaries of society’s expectations for women came to an end. But another was just beginning. Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary was to follow a similarly audacious path. Both women had passionate relationships with several men, bore children out of wedlock, and chose to live in exile outside their native country. Each in her own time fought against the injustices women faced and wrote books that changed literary history.
The private lives of both Marys were nothing less than the stuff of great Romantic drama, providing fabulous material for Charlotte Gordon, an accomplished historian and a gifted storyteller. Taking readers on a vivid journey across revolutionary France and Victorian England, she seamlessly interweaves the lives of her two protagonists in alternating chapters, creating a book that reads like a richly textured historical novel. Gordon also paints unforgettable portraits of the men in their lives, including the mercurial genius Percy Shelley, the unbridled libertine Lord Byron, and the brilliant radical William Godwin. -Amazon

     Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is a dual biography about two remarkable women. It takes place in an age when girls were taught from infancy that their duties were solely domestic, when intelligent women were encouraged to hide their abilities in order to render themselves more pleasing to men, and when even progressive writers such as Rousseau asserted that a woman “has nothing in her favor but her subtlety and her beauty.”
     A brilliant philosopher and fierce polemicist, the enchanting and headstrong Mary Wollstonecraft wrote numerous pamphlets in which she explored topics far outside “feminine” territory. Challenging some of the period’s greatest thinkers, she championed women’s rights while denouncing slavery and monarchy. Her most famous work is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote one of history’s great horror stories, Frankenstein. In this dark story, she, like her mother, ventured beyond light, customary female topics and explored the consequences of unchecked male ambition. Rebellious as well as brilliant, Shelley eloped with a married man at age 16 and wrote several novels in which she upheld her mother’s values.  
     The chapters in Romantic Outlaws alternate between mother and daughter, giving the reader the unique opportunity of following the two lives at once. This method proves poignant on more than one occasion. For example, the suicide of a despondent 19-year-old is followed by her birth in a subsequent chapter and her early years as a lively, happy child. This book is as fast-paced and exciting as any novel I have read, complete with romance, scandal, heartbreak, and an excessive amount of laudanum. (Most of the central characters had histrionic temperaments.) This side of Victorian society, full of trailblazing men and women whose radically progressive views and lifestyles seemed completely out of their time, was new to me, and I found their stories inspirational, hilarious, and deeply moving. The escapades of Mary Shelley’s poet husband Percy were extremely amusing.  (As a young child he set fire to his house. Despite being punished, he only regretted his failure to burn it down.) This book is so well written that while reading it I forgot that the characters were long deceased, and that fact was difficult to face at the end.  Everyone should read this book.


Find this book in our catalog: Romantic Outlaws


672 pages


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