A powerful, intensely personal, and deeply emotional story about a brilliant woman many consider to be the first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797)— the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The daughter is also famous as the author of the novel, FRANKENSTEIN and the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. I gave it five stars on Goodreads.
At the beginning of LOVE AND FURY, Mary Wollstonecraft is in labor, attended by Mrs. B., a local London midwife. It’s a difficult birth, causing the very concerned Mr. Godwin to call in a couple of physicians. (This, in 1797, when midwives knew so much more than doctors about the process of giving birth, but doctors carried more prestige.)
Mary soon becomes ill prompting Mrs. B. to stay on as nurse. To help pass the time, Mrs. B. suggests that Mary tell her infant daughter her life story. And that provides the structure for this novel: alternating chapters by Mary and Mrs. B. Mary’s chapters, obviously, focus on events in the past, Mrs. B’s chapters address the progress of the illness and portray Mary’s “current” life.
There is much sadness in Mary’s story. One among six siblings, her father is a brutal, abusive, failure of a man — drawn primarily to alcohol and gambling. The result is a family living with increasingly diminishing resources. What limited love Mary’s mother has is fixated in an almost romantic way on her eldest son, so that Mary winds up with much of the caretaking responsibilities for her brothers and sisters.
At the same time, Mary, an exceptionally bright and curious child, hungers for the kind of education given only to boys. She grabs knowledge wherever she can find it. But those opportunities are all too rare.
As her life unfolds, Mary’s travels take her to Portugal, France (during the French Revolution), and Scandinavia. Her outspoken commitment to never marry, her intelligence, and her increasing renown as a published author put her in the orbit of artists, writers, and some of the most prominent minds of her day (including Thomas Payne, Gilbert Imlay, and Henry Fuseli). She learns about love, suffers losses, and ultimately finds contentment in a world with carefully prescribed rules that limit nearly all options except marriage to women.
The book is beautifully written, very emotional, and, at times, hard to read. There is physical, sexual, and animal abuse and attempted suicide. So this is not for the faint hearted. But also so much drama and beauty that for me, it was worth riding the roller coaster. I will now go on to read Silva’s previous (2020) novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol.
More about the author, Samantha Silva.
You may be interested in my review of a book about Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley: Monster by M. R. Arnold.