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Biography 25.2 (2002) 397-400



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Helen M. Buss, D. L. MacDonald, and Ann McWhir, eds. Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives. Windsor, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. 340 pp. ISBN 0-8892-0363-6, $49.95.

Given the importance of both these writers and their relation to one another, we might reasonably expect a body of work to have grown up that discussed their lives and works as intertwined. There are, however, relatively few studies that address this mother and daughter together, largely because of the untimely death of Mary Wollstonecraft just days after Mary Shelley's birth. Severed from one another in life, the two have suffered a similar fate in terms of their critical reception. As Charles E. Robinson notes in his contribution to this volume, "there is a book begging to be written. . . a study of the ways in which Mary Wollstonecraft and her literary texts play out in the lights and shadows of Mary Shelley's life and works" (128).

This collection maps out the terrain that such a book might cover. It resulted from a 1997 conference at the University of Calgary commemorating the bicentennial of Shelley's birth and Wollstonecraft's death, and the editors aimed to produce a text that would be collaborative and "integrated by diverse creative and scholarly energies" (8). In an unusual choice reflective of their commitment to multiple perspectives and voices, the editors include Caves of Fancy, a new original play based upon the writings of Wollstonecraft and Shelley by Canadian author Rose Scollard, which was performed at the 1997 event. Because the theme for the conference was "writing lives," the collected essays spend as much time theorizing the activity and definitions of life writing as they do analyzing particular texts, an aspect of the collection that widens its potential audience. Most of the scholars represented have written extensively on the period in which Wollstonecraft and Shelley were writing, and many are established leaders in the field. Cross-references to one another's work pervade the collection, giving the reader a sense of the liveliness of the conference that brought this group together. The selections are fairly brief, averaging about fourteen pages, with a total of sixteen contributors represented. In general, the book is refreshingly multivalent, and relatively free from excess baggage.

The figure of Shelley's Frankenstein monster recurs within the essays as an emblem for the act of writing lives. Life writing emerges from scraps of evidence pieced together, details assembled into some sort of coherent—necessarily artificial—whole, gaps that must be filled or covered. Like Victor Frankenstein, the critic who writes about another's life puts together disparate elements, found between the covers of books or in the archives of libraries and public records, in an attempt to create life out of death. [End Page 397]

Although neither Wollstonecraft nor Shelley wrote an explicit memoir or autobiography, their writings contain a number of self-referencing features that offer glimpses of the ties that bind them together. The mediating figure between the two women was, of course, William Godwin, who after his wife's death moved into her study, hung her portrait over the mantel, and began writing the memoirs that would soil her reputation for generations to come. In looking back at Godwin's excessively candid Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), many scholars have condemned him for foolishly exposing the pioneering feminist author to public censure by sharing information about her pregnancies out of wedlock and her suicide attempts. Helen M. Buss argues in her essay on the Memoirs that Godwin's mistake did not so much lie in telling all as it did in treating his subject as if she were a male public figure: "When the woman subject's private life has broken the accepted moral boundaries for her gender, as Wollstonecraft's did, no public accomplishment can redeem her 'outlaw' status, since such an accomplishment is then seen as further proof of her inappropriate behaviour" (122). Buss contends that the Memoirs are significant in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 397-400
Launched on MUSE
2002-03-01
Open Access
No
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