Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Ruwa Alhayek, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Charlotte Gordon about her book Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley (Random House), which is the National Book Critics Circle Award biography winner for 2015.
Ruwa Alhayek: In your book you point to William Godwin as a positive influence in his daughter’s life, despite his relative absence, and particularly in terms of the attention he paid her relative to his other daughters/stepdaughters, and also in terms of the people and books he exposed her to. When I was doing my undergraduate thesis I came upon an article by Carolyn Barnet where she talks about the importance of paternal influence in patriarchal societies as agents of political socialization. Can you speak to that?
Charlotte Gordon: Yes, and it sounds like you understand that it is super complicated. When you’re addressing issues like this, you’re addressing a situation where patriarchy is holding women back, and yet it is at the same time, going to be one of the agents of that patriarchy that helps educate and empower some of the women inside of it., and what an interesting and complicated situation that is! But [in the case of Mary Shelley] I would certainly say Godwin was both a positive and empowering force, [but at the same time] a super destructive one. Not binary at all.
RA: So do you think that, given the fact that we live in a relatively patriarchal society now, do you think that even though it’s a slightly different one, that what is going to allow a lot of women to flourish is positive, if not also patriarchal, forces in our lives?
CG: Unfortunately, yes. I mean, I’m hoping yours is a different generation than mine, but I myself had very few female professors, so I had to learn how to find male mentors who were appropriate in terms of boundaries, because in my era, with issues of sexual harassment, people looked the other way. I think mentorship is really important for young scholars and writers, and for many of us who were of my generation, sometimes that [finding appropriate and inspirational mentors] was tricky because our role models were exclusively male, and there was a kind of permissive culture out there that said sexual harassment was just fine.
RA: So my second question is actually related to those feelings of being without a mentor and of being lonely or frustrated. You speak about the misfortunes and deep sadness and loneliness Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley felt at different points in their lives and how their frustrations found a healthy outlet when they came across thinkers and writers who vindicated and gave words to their feelings. As a writer of biographies and a poet, can you speak to particularly how such writing (that of biography and poetry) can help writers and artists (particularly women) who feel similarly to Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley, and why you think those genres can help when other people or things can’t?
CG: That’s another great question. It’s connected to number one because if you are part of a society that frowns upon what you’re doing, and you are receiving a lot of attributive criticism, sometimes the best support you can find is in your imagination or in mentors, who, frankly, are dead. While I also write some fiction, I think in many ways, in terms of biographies, you get the companionship of people who have pioneered before you, and there is solace in that, but also inspiration. I think it is a super smart strategy for those of us who feel ambitious and want to break new ground to find mentors or to find inspiration from the past. And if you look at 19th century Victorian British women, they very consciously did that. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, George Elliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Virginia Woolf [for example], they’re all certainly looking back to find help from before, and that is one of the reasons I wrote the book. We really need those role models to see how people endured, really painful social exile for simply speaking the truth that they thought.
RA: So that actually leads me to the next question. sometimes we can look to the past or other writers or women that vindicate our feelings and frustrations, but then what about a contemporary context? In your book, you speak about the time Mary Wollstonecraft moves to Newington Green, and she meets Dr. Price, the radical preacher. She becomes a part of this “political and religious community unlike any she had known before and unlike any other in England.” How can we do a similar thing, I mean, how can we find these types of inspiration and mentorship in our current context?
CG: You know, there is a book I’ve recently come across that talks about similar “pockets of genius”.
RA: Yes, exactly, can you speak to that idea of such communities and spaces, those “pockets of genius?”
CG: I always tell my students that I protest against this American image of man against nature, or man alone in the wilderness, especially for the symbol of the great artist, and I always come back to the examples of these great male artists who needed communities to create their work. So, T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound [for example], or even if I were just to stay with my Marys. But I think that living inside a community of people who are supporting you and pushing you to really think radically and go ahead and espouse beliefs that aren’t popular in society at large—like, what an incredible experience and how important that is for us! I hope you are finding that [sort of community] in graduate school, because sometimes people don’t find that and sometimes graduate school can be a destructive experience, but I hope that is not true for you. I think Newington Green is [that incredible experience and that supportive community] for Mary, and kind of like the question of Mary Shelley and Godwin, she was able to find herself a couple of good male mentors, and she was very good at it, finding male mentors.
RA: So what about Newington Green not only as a place for Wollstonecraft to find those mentors in her life, but also as a place where religion and religious people can serve as a positive and radical political and social force? Do you think the role of religion in a contemporary context for some people at least to provide those communities of safety and radical thought that we don’t find in our society more generally, or do you think that generally nowadays some religious communities have the opposite effect and don’t challenge the status quo—particularly in regards to problems women, people of color, and those of the working class face?
CG: Actually, my last book talks very explicitly about this more so than this one, you might be interested in that one—it’s very much about the negotiations that women [face when we] negotiate traditional scripture in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It almost killed me [to write], it’s the most difficult book in the whole world. But to go back to [the specific case of] Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. For both women, unlike other characters I’ve written about, they probably would have experienced religious structure as oppressive except in Newington Green. Both of them actually really liked ritual and were very interested in mystical and spiritual experiences, and inside the radical church they definitely found support, but unlike say my first book or my second book, for these particular women, religion was less of a support system. I would say though, that I think Dr. Price is a terrific example of everything you just said. He found scriptural support for radicalism and for the belief in equality and egalitarian values, and so that was directly inspirational for Mary Wollstonecraft.
RA: So, to shift gears a little and talk about the more “private” spaces your characters inhabit or are a part of. Throughout the book you explore different marriages and different thinkers’ opinions on the institution of marriage. Marriage and home are central to many literary women’s lives—how do you think that has changed since the era you examine in your biography until now? Do women of similar socio-economic classes as Mary Shelley and Wollstonecraft face the same problems to a lesser or greater extent or do we face an entirely new set of problems as writers and artists?
CG: I’d say there are two parts to that question. One is that in the 18th and 19th century, to be married was to give up all your rights as a woman, as you know. So the moment you married, you lost all property, all legal representation, everything. In that sense, certainly things have changed. [Now,] we can initiate divorce, we can keep our kids (if we can win the battle in the courts). So, in a legal and political and economic sense, things are so different, and it’s amazing. However, I will say that Wollstonecraft’s relationship with Godwin is very similar to relationships that many of us who are in gender normative partnerships still struggle with. There is a famous note that Mary Wollstonecraft writes Godwin when they’re married and he’s off in his office having a great time, and she’s got little three-year old Fanny back at the house. She writes to him [to say] I’ve had a terrible morning, the plumber has come and bothered me, I couldn’t get any work done, I thought we had agreed that my time was just as valuable as your time, so why am I having to take care of all of the domestic duties? So, certainly I think that that’s a contemporary issue that we still have as women, and I think that we’ve inherited what Virginia Woolf calls the ‘the angel in the house’ from the Victorian era. We’ve inherited ideas of good and bad and virtue [from that time] that I think are still problematic, and that we can still hear, for example, when people complain about Hillary. When Hillary is told not to shout, not to be shrill, or that ‘it’s awkward for Bill’ [it is a reflection of those ideas we still hold]. We’ve inherited a lot of cultural prejudices and attributes that we really need to struggle against and understand where they come from [in order to adequately address and struggle against them].
Charlotte Gordon is the author of Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America’s First Poet and The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths. She has also published two books of poetry, When the Grateful Dead Came to St. Louis and Two Girls on a Raft. She is an associate professor of English at Endicott College and lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Ruwa Alhayek graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a degree in Near Eastern Studies and certificates in Arabic, Creative Writing, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) at The New School and loves to read and write about Arabic and Arabness, Islam and Muslimness, Gender and everything related to women, language, love, and grief. Find her on Twitter @.