Her Lost Words is emotive, poignant, touching, inspiring, and beautifully written historical fiction on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the world’s founding feminist philosophers, and her daughter Mary Shelley, mother of modern sci-fi literature.
Her Lost Words: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Stephanie Marie Thornton
Publication Date : March 28, 2023
Publisher : Berkley
Read Date : April 24, 2023
Genre : Historical Fiction
Pages : 448
Disclaimer – Many thanks to publisher for eARC via NetGalley.
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From A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to Frankenstein , a tale of two literary legends—a mother and daughter—discovering each other and finding themselves along the way, from USA Today bestselling author Stephanie Marie Thornton.
1792. As a child, Mary Wollstonecraft longed to disappear during her father’s violent rages. Instead, she transforms herself into the radical author of the landmark volume A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , in which she dares to propose that women are equal to men. From conservative England to the blood-drenched streets of revolutionary France, Mary refuses to bow to society’s conventions and instead supports herself with her pen until an illicit love affair challenges her every belief about romance and marriage. When she gives birth to a daughter and is stricken with childbed fever, Mary fears it will be her many critics who recount her life’s extraordinary odyssey…
1818. The daughter of infamous political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, passionate Mary Shelley learned to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s tombstone. As a young woman, she desperately misses her mother’s guidance, especially following her scandalous elopement with dashing poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary struggles to balance an ever-complicated marriage with motherhood while nursing twin hopes that she might write something of her own one day and also discover the truth of her mother’s unconventional life. Mary’s journey will unlock her mother’s secrets, all while leading to her own destiny as the groundbreaking author of Frankenstein.
A riveting and inspiring novel about a firebrand feminist, her visionary daughter, and the many ways their words transformed our world.
Review of Her Lost Words
Her Lost Words is moving and beautifully written historical fiction on the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. Their love of literature, zeal for language, radical feminist beliefs, and challenges they faced in their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries are genuinely inspiring.
I don’t have enough words for Her Lost Words. I knew nothing about Mary Wollstonecraft and her books before I read this, nor I knew she was the mother of Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s author that also I haven’t read yet and I also don’t know anything about Mary Shelly’s life. So Her Lost Words has been informative and educational for me.
The pace is slow but the writing is so beautiful that I devoured every word or every page. The story is written in dual timeline with alternative perspectives of Mary Wollstonecraft (from 1775 to 1979) and Mary Shelley (from 1814 to 1831). It was hard to remember what happened in which year (unless you have taken notes) but I was never confused with their perspectives and life stories.
Her Lost Words covers theme and layers of gender inequality, women’s position in male dominant world and industry, impact of war and revolution on the country and people, injustice and biased legal system towards women, childbirth issues and diseases around this era.
It was amazing to read the parallel life story of mother and daughter that showed they have so many things in common and how deep the connection was even though they never got to know each other and how their words and love tethered them to each other and the world that never has been kind to them.
It’s unfathomable to think how they might have lived with their modern and independent thoughts in the era in which women had no rights to education, no rights to think, even less to voice them, and were expected to live by social norms under male dominance… If they deviated from it they were shunned, spit on in streets, called crazy witches, or were locked in the asylum!
It was admirable how Mary Wollstonecraft escaped her abusive father, found a job as a governess, and then paved her path to famous author in London with only clothes on her body, no money, and only one priced possession- her manuscript ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ that was rejected by more than a dozen publishers until she found Joseph Johnson who later published all her books and also been supportive with her trip to France only to return back to London with heartbreak and betrayal.
The chapters on her time spent in France, observing and writing about the French Revolutions, were poignant, horrible, and heart-wrenching. Mary Wollstonecraft falls in love with Imlay, have an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, only to be left heartbroken and unprovided by Imlay that brought vulnerability she never felt before with her radicle thoughts. While this part was a turning point in her life I felt these chapters were a little dragging and at the same time.
I loved how she recovered from betrayal and found her way back to independence, hope, and also love. Her fierce, determined, and unshakable spirit is what made her inspiring and admirable.
While Mary Wallstonecraft’s life was touching and heartfelt, Mary Shalley’s (Mary Godwin before marriage) was even more tragic. When she met Percy Shelley in her father’s bookshop, it was clear he was a trouble and I wasn’t ready to trust him even though it was clear from her name and title, they later got married. Percy was married at that time with a kid and still, he flirted with Mary Godwin and it looked like both her sisters were under his spell.
Their elopement at first sounded big mistake but I get how Mary Godwin felt, desperate to find a connection with her mother and believing in her words about free love and disbelief in social customs, especially marriage, wanting to retrace her footstep to know her better and so running away with Percy looked more right to her and I was relieved to see she wasn’t wrong in believing in heart.
What I loved most in her story is how testing Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley’s relationship was. Life was constant difficulties for Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley until they were forced to marry and even after that life wasn’t easy for them.
Lord Byron made their life even more struggling with his involvement with Clair. That man was everything Mary Wollstonecraft despised and advocated against. But no matter how unfortunate their meeting with Byron turned out, I liked how Percy and Byron’s childish games birthed Frankenstein and how everything Mary felt and have gone through was poured into the monster of the book.
What I didn’t expect was soul-shattering series of tragedies in the second half. It made me ugly cry till the end of the book. I was shocked there was no one there for them not even their own families. It feels impossible to live through all these tragedies yet Mary Shelley did and not just lived but made name for herself which was even more inspiring and motivating than her mother’s life story.
What I still can’t figure out is why William Godwin (Mary Wallstonecraft’s husband and Mary Godwin’s father) didn’t accept Mary and Percy’s relationship. As per the book and even the facts, he himself didn’t believe in marriage. He was an atheist and also a person who admired and believed in Mary Wollstonecraft’s idea of women’s rights and free love so his reaction to their relationship didn’t make sense.
I still find it hard to digest, this smart well know philosopher wrote a memoir in his grief that reviled Mary Wallstonecraft’s name for over a century! It was sad to read how much both mother and daughter struggled in their literary journey, were challenged by people for their work, and weren’t acknowledged openly as accomplished and brilliant writers.
From what I read in a Google search there are other things that were fictionalized that aren’t mentioned in notes, like Fanny’s life – she wasn’t as disfigured and depressed as shown in books and her suicide has been a mystery- and about Mary Shelley’s stepmother, Jane Clairemont- She wasn’t a nice person. I cannot validate the sources but whether fictional or real I loved the twist author gave to Jane’s character in the end and how she helped Mary to connect with her mother and also inspired her to write more.
It was interesting to read in the author’s notes about which parts were changed or fictionalized and which were kept close to facts. I agree with what author said in the notes, “this is a love letter to two brilliant women who lit the way for not just women writers, but all women.”
What I loved most is snippets from the work of authors in this book – Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. It was also interesting to read mentions of some well-known and some forgotten historical figures of the era.
Overall, Her Lost Words is emotive, poignant, touching, inspiring, and beautifully written historical fiction on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the world’s founding feminist philosophers, and her daughter Mary Shelley, mother of modern sci-fi literature.
My Favorite Quotes
“Words have the power to transform us, Mary. They can lift us from our grief. The ideas they form can even offer humanity the hope for the future,”
“Knowledge is the fairest fruit and the food of joy. You must never forget that. And you must swear a solemn oath that you will never stop reading, or learning, or sharing that knowledge, like the philosophers of old.”
“I Mary Wollstonecraft of Hoxton, would use wings stitched from words and knowledge and kindness to soar my way to freedom.”
“Writers grow best with a little solitude, time, and a place to spread out.”
“I consoled myself with the reminder that distinguished women in history were neither the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
“For a woman to cling to innocence was to remain in a perpetual state of childhood.”
“In striving for happiness, we also seek the ability to make our own choices and be free of every restraint that seeks to hold us back. Anything less is oppression.”
“Mary Wollstonecraft- ‘Please tell me you’re not one of the hapless majority who believe women to be inferior in all areas of human development.’
William Godwin – ‘Not quite, although I do believe that, due to the softness of their nature and the delicacy of their sentiments, women stand in need of male protection.’
Mary Wollstonecraft- ‘Your moth-covered opinions sell us ladies short, sir. Have you ever considered that perhaps all that male protection keeps females soft and delicate? That perhaps you men couldn’t handle women who were allowed to grow and thrive on their own?’
“I refused to be confined to a life of domestic concerns and placated by the paltry crown of marriage. Until men and women were equal before the law, marriage was too far removed from the sacred act it was meant to be. I refused to take part in that vehicle of legal slavery. To do so would make me the worst sort of hypocrite.”
“We can’t help whom we love. If we could, there would be no novels. And far fewer love songs.”
“Marriage has never been about speaking vows in front of the officiant- those merely benefit the onlookers. One day I hoped my children would understand that. A true marriage is the little moments you build together every day.”
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