Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft is one of those books that feels as though it was written just for me. As a Mary Wollstonecraft fan, I’m always happy to see her getting some attention above and beyond her role as the famous Mary Shelley’s mother (Full disclosure: I am also a fan of Mary Shelley). This historical fiction novel tells Mary Wollestonecraft’s story from when she first stands up to her father at the age of thirteen to her final days.
This book was rough going in places as Mary had a difficult life. By the time I was 15% into the book, I had noted
TW/CW – so very many
TW: Death from childbirth, abuse of children, implied martial rape, murder of a dog.. Further TW’S include a difficult childbirth, depression, sexism, attempted suicide, marital rape, and death of an infant.
And yet I did not find the book to be depressing. Rather, I found myself exhilarated by all Mary did with her life, and more fond than ever of this stubborn, passionate, brilliant, frustrating woman. Perhaps the blows were cushioned by the fact that as a Wollstonecraft fan I knew most of what lay ahead. However, I also think that this book manages an uplifting tone by demonstrating that Mary’s life mattered, not just to her, and not just to future generations, but to all of the people who came in contact with her. They didn’t all like her, but they certainly paid attention.
Here is a very abbreviated summary of Mary’s life. Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 and was protecting her mother from her abusive father and raising her siblings pretty much single-handedly by the time she was thirteen. She had what at the time were called “passionate friendships ” with two women, one of whom she started a school with. She was a war journalist who covered the French Revolution from Paris, where she fell in love with Gilbert Imlay and had a daughter with him. When he dumped her, she tried to kill herself twice and then re-invented herself as a travel writer, traveling all over Europe with her infant daughter and the daughter’s indefatigable nurse in tow. Mary wrote a lot of books, including A Declaration on the Rights of Women. She eventually met and married William Godwin, and they had a baby who grew up to write Frankenstein. Tragically Mary died ten days after the birth.
The narration alternates between Mrs B (Mary’s midwife), and Mary. Mary tells her story to her newborn daughter during the ten days she has to live between giving birth and dying. The chapters from Mrs. B’s point of view give the reader a lovely perspective on how close and happy the Wollstonecraft/Godwin family was before Mary’s death, and how Mary’s life and personality affected people around her. Mrs. B. also provides some much needed grounding to a story about extremely idealistic and equally impractical people.
Mary’s narration demonstrates her warmth and her sense of responsibility for people in her orbit, even as the reactions of these people reveal her changeability, her stubbornness, and her tendency to arrange people’s lives for them without consulting them about what they wanted. She constantly feels torn between her ideals and her responsibilities in a way that felt very human and relatable to me, and at the same time I could understand why some people in her life might have been frustrated by her.
I suspect this book works best for readers who already know something about Mary’s life. This is a short book, and while Mary’s life was also short it contained a number of events that could have filled novels on their own, so the moments the book describes are barely sketched in. For instance, Mary had very specific reasons for refusing to marry for most of her life, and her decision to marry William Godwin came with major consequences for them both not to mention for both of Mary’s daughters. Yet her beliefs about marriage and how they affected her life are mentioned only in passing. The book could have used a lot more depth.
If you come to the book with some background knowledge, then the book suffusses the familiar facts of Mary’s life with a fond feeling. In particular, Mary’s relationship and break up with Gilbert Imlay make a little more sense when we have the chance to see them happy together.While this book does not shy from the tawdry aspects of Gilbert Imlay and his eventual callous disregard for her, it also shows the beginning of the romance, when they were two bright young people with similar ideals and dreams. When reading a biography of Mary (one of the best is Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon), it’s easy to wonder what on earth Mary ever saw in the guy. The novel allows us to see the honeymoon phase of the relationship, and helps us understand why Mary clung to the relationship so fiercely.
I’d love to hear whether this book works for readers who haven’t already learned about Mary’s life. In my case, this book supplemented the facts I already knew with a great deal of feeling. Not only did the book make me feel like I knew Mary, but I also got a sense of how other people felt about her, and why. Do not let the short length of the book fool you – it’s not a light read due to the multiple traumas depicted or alluded to in the book. However, it’s a rewarding portrait of a flawed and fabulous person.