Rebellious Writers: The Two Mary's

Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
Category: Reading

Sometimes rebels spring from nowhere, or become rebels in order to rail against strict rules imposed on them by society. Other times, they’re following in the footsteps of a rebel parent who came before.

Such is the case with Mary Shelley, a talented and worthy daughter to the strong-willed, intelligent, rebellious Mary Wollstonecraft.

Wollstonecraft came of age in a time when the philosophical spirit flourished and the rights of man were being argued across Europe and the newly formed United States. The rights of women, however, were largely ignored, and this rankled Mary. Her own ideas about women’s rights and worth were further influenced by her family experience: her elder brother was singled out as their mother’s and wealthy grandfather’s favourite. This struck young Mary as being monstrously unfair.

With few options available to a ‘gently bred’ young lady of the late 18th century, Mary took a position as a companion to a wealthy lady, but she quickly rebelled and left. She then faced the depression of her sister, Eliza, urging Eliza to leave her unhappy marriage and newborn child. She shrugged off the criticism she received for this unorthodox behaviour, opened a school (which later failed), and wrote an advice manual, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, in which she railed against the horrors of intelligent women being forced to hide their brains in order to secure a rich husband.

Mary was uninterested in catching herself a husband, despite the fact that it was practically a requirement for young women at the time if they wished to be independent of their families. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was a reaction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Emile, which held that a girl’s education should aim to make her a useful and supportive companion of a rational man. Mary held strongly that equal educational opportunities should be a right, to avoid young women becoming vacuous, useless creatures whose only role was to become objects of admiration to men.

Wollstonecraft led a somewhat scandalous personal life: she worked for a radical magazine as an editorial assistant, writer and reviewer; headed to France to celebrate the Revolution, and lived with a married man, Gilbert Imlay, and gave birth to his child. In her letters to Imlay, she grapples with the issues of female sexual desire and how it should operate within society, though previously she thought this was something that should be tightly controlled.

Her work attracted the notice of William Godwin, a political writer and novelist, and after her relationship with Imlay ended the two became close friends, and then lovers. When Mary became pregnant, they married, and Mary began work on a book called The Wrongs of Woman, meant as a companion to The Rights of Woman. In it, she calls for women to be permitted the freedom to express their sexuality, reason and independence.

Mary died ten days after giving birth to a daughter, also named Mary. After her death, Godwin published her final, unfinished book. Her views on female sexuality earned her many enemies, who called her a “prostitute” and “unsex’d female”. Some of her ideas were so shocking that most 19th century feminists refused to acknowledge her influence, though it was clearly considerable, particularly in their calls for more equal educational opportunities. 

Wollstonecraft’s writing focused on the complexities of women’s lives: their desire for both independence and companionship, anxieties over motherhood even when it was something they desired, intelligence that society demanded they keep hidden and need for political significance, sex, affection, and esteem.

Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Godwin, was a worthy successor to her mother’s literary legacy. Mary Godwin grew up in an intellectually stimulating household with her father, stepmother and five half- and step-siblings. She began writing at an early age, publishing a children’s tale called Mounseer Nongtongpaw at the age of just 11. A two-year stay in Scotland in her early teens further fired her imagination.

Like her mother, young Mary was not constrained by the rules of what “good girls” of the early 19th century were meant to do. At the age of 16, she eloped with fellow writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married with young children. They lived together and had two children (one of whom died at birth) before the death of Percy’s first wife in 1816 enabled them to marry.

During a summer stay in Geneva in 1816, Mary conceived her most famous work: Frankenstein, or, A Modern Prometheus. Ostensibly a ghost story, the novel grapples with the complicated balance of science and humanity, whether one is born or made good or evil, parental responsibility, how far scientific thought and discovery should really be pushed and the questions of just what makes one human and what a human being is owed and entitled to in life. It also refuses to be a perfectly black-and-white story: the titular character, whom most would expect to be the hero, is actually a complicated anti-hero who creates life, only to abandon it when it doesn’t quite meet with his (aesthetic) approval, leaving ‘the creature’ to fend for itself in a hostile world and ultimately return to his creator in a desperate (and deadly) search for companionship.

Frankenstein was published anonymously on New Year’s Day, 1818. Although some critics dismissed it once they discovered the author was a woman, others, including Sir Walter Scott, praised the book, and it was an instant sensation with the public. A stage adaptation appeared in 1823, fuelling the novel’s popularity, which hasn’t waned in the past 200 years since its publication.

Mary continued to write, in part out of necessity after Shelley’s tragic death in 1822. With herself and a young son to provide for, Mary published novels and essays, as well as editing some of her late husband’s manuscripts. The popularity of Frankenstein ensured her books sold well, allowing Mary to live independently and to stand up to her wealthy father-in-law when he threatened to withdraw any financial support unless she gave her son wholly into his care.

Mary continued to be a prolific writer up until her death in 1851, at the age of 53. Aside from Frankenstein, which ensures her a permanent space in literary history, her nonfiction, particularly her biographies and travel essays, is ranked as some of the best writing in those genres. 

Did you miss our last post on rebellious writer James Baldwin? Check it out here.

Or discover some unconvetional sets of sisters from books.  


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