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A Tale of Two Marys

Claire Tomalin previews a National Portrait Gallery exhibition which focuses on mother and daughter Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

The  religious writer Hannah More’s grumble at Mary Wollstonecraft’s claim for sexual equality was, ‘Rights of Women! We’ll be hearing of the Rights of Children next!’ We have travelled slowly since the 1790s; but opinions, like reputations, do shift. Mary Wollstonecraft was long treated as a marginal figure, and her daughter Mary Shelley as a mere appendage to the Byron/Shelley circle. The exhibition ‘Hyenas in Petticoats’ now at the National Portrait Gallery presents them as central figures.

About time, two hundred years after the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman died giving birth to the author of Frankenstein. A Vindication is after all one of the fundamental texts of the Enlightenment. Wollstonecraft, a self-educated woman, absorbed much of the message of the Encyclopédistes, perceived their striking omission, and gave the world her own original statement of the case for women’s rights. It was published in England, Ireland, France, Germany and America, before fading from view during the nineteenth century.

Wollstonecraft was the pioneering thinker; her daughter’s gift was as myth-maker, and one of great power. Frankenstein, having bred a thousand spin-offs, is probably the best known text of the Romantic movement today. It was written when Mary Shelley was nineteen. She went on to spend the rest of her life writing. Both women produced novels, travel books, children’s stories and essays; they translated and they edited, most notably in Mary Shelley’s case with her superb edition of her husband’s poems. The exhibition shows the full and surprising range of their work.

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