Coll.; The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of
Three Faiths, 2007) delivers a drama-filled dual biography of Mary
Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and her daughter, Mary Shelley (1797-1851).
In an occasionally confusing style featuring alternating chapters, the author’s biographies of the two Marys show how different their lives were. The daughter of an alcoholic father, Wollstonecraft grew up constantly trying to protect her mother and siblings, circumstances that led her into a lifelong fight for independence and female rights and against marriage. Her publisher, Joseph Johnson, gave her a position as a book reviewer for his monthly Analytical Review, where only initials indicated the author, masking her gender. Johnson eventually sent her to Paris to write about the Revolution, and she became the first foreign correspondent and an unwed mother to boot. Her political writing, especially A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was highly regarded. She eventually married William Godwin, a political writer with an equally dim view of marriage. Their marriage was happy but short, and Mary died giving birth to her daughter, who spent her life idolizing and emulating her mother. At 16, Mary and her half sister, Jane, ran away to France with Percy Shelley; the only poorer choice would have been his dear friend, Lord Byron. Together, society termed them the “League of Incest.” Mary and Jane vied for Shelley’s attention; Jane eventually had Byron’s child, and polite society shunned them. Mary and Percy eventually married, in hopes of gaining custody of his children from a previous marriage. The widowed Mary successfully carried on her mother’s work, not through political writing but in novels.
What the two women had in common was their writing talent, strength, and dedication to the fight for women’s education and rights. While Gordon tells their stories well, moving back and forth between the Marys can be perplexing.