romantic outlaws book coverReviewed by Nina Longfield

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon is a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley. Freethinker Mary Wollstonecraft, although somewhat dated in philosophy to this modern world, was an early advocate for women’s right and the education of girls. Mary Godwin Shelley, a novelist of the late Romantic Era, is best known for running away with poet Percy Shelley and later as the author of Frankenstein.

Although the concept of a dual biography about this pair of writers, mother and daughter, of the Romantic Era is not singular, Charlotte Gordon does take a unique non-linear approach in relating the two women’s lives. Gordon skips about her subjects’ timelines bringing more warmth into the retelling of known stories as she parallels the mother’s life to that of her daughter’s upbringing. In other biographies, as far as I’ve read (or perhaps I’ve always skipped ahead), both Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin Shelley’s lives seem to begin with their writing; Gordon did a wonderful job digging into her research to bring out the early years of both women. The insight into Mary Wollstonecraft’s childhood shed a great deal of light into her later philosophy regarding women’s rights and the education of girls.

I generally read introductions after I’ve read the book. I should have kept to that rule with Romantic Outlaws. Introductions generally contain spoiler information, summarizing the body of the work, which leaves me wondering why I need to read the book. In some cases, I find introductions to be presumptuous and as though written down to an undeveloped comprehension and reading ability. The introduction in Romantic Outlaws pretty much covered almost everything I do not like about an introduction. It was presumptuous, belittling, and an attempt to summarize the whole of the book in a patronizing way.

The book, Romantic Outlaws, is not the introduction. I would recommend skipping the Introduction and jumping right into the biography. I found the biography intriguing; it is at times written with clear incisive depth, while at other times skimming the surface of its subject. This is a long biography since it is covering the lives of two extraordinary women, but Romantic Outlaws is insightful, is easily read, and at time narrated like a story. Through Charlotte Gordon’s retelling, I’ve gained greater understanding into both women’s lives, especially Wollstonecraft’s early years, which has led to a greater appreciation of both Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin Shelley’s writings.

Admittedly, I have read the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin Shelley, and several biographies related to each woman. Romantic Outlaws sets itself apart from other works through the warmth Gordon seems to imbue within her subjects’ stories. I don’t believe one has to have read either writer to get both insight and entertainment from Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.