The best books if you’re writing a novel of Wollstonecraft’s life

Samantha Silva Author Of Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft
By Samantha Silva

The Books I Picked & Why

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

By Charlotte Gordon

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Why this book?

The giants of English biography (Janet Todd, Claire Tomalin, Lyndall Gordon) have written brilliant books about Wollstonecraft, but the one I went back to time and again (most dog-eared, underlined, annotated) was this dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. An absolute page-turner, it reads like a novel, bringing this extraordinary mother and daughter to vivid life in alternating chapters that reveal parallels in who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.


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A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark and Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women

By Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin

A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark and Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women

Why this book?

I’m often asked by Americans who aren’t familiar with Wollstonecraft (or confuse mother and daughter), which of her books to read first. Vindication of the Rights of Woman is her most famous, but I always answer that if you only read one, this book is it. It’s her most modern and personal work, and the last thing she wrote before dying of puerperal fever at age 38, after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley. It’s part travelogue, love letter, philosophical treatise, cultural history, and (I would argue) suicide note, bookended by her two attempts after a shattering affair with American speculator Gilbert Imlay. It’s short and accessible, beautifully written, and a glimpse into a magnificent mind.


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Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

Writing historical fiction, I tend to stick pretty faithfully to the period I’m thinking about, trying for an immersive experience, but then other books come along, beckoning with their unexpected gifts. In this deeply moving meditation on grief, the loss of a child, and the liminal space between life and letting go of it, I found so much rich ground for thinking about the eleven days between the birth of Mary Shelley and the death of Mary Wollstonecraft—a mother and child having to say hello and goodbye all at once. Come for Saunders’ prodigious imagination, stay for his extraordinary humanity.   


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A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf

By Virginia Woolf

A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf

Why this book?

This book became a kind of hymnal for me during the writing of Love and Fury. It was Virginia Woolf who in 1929 resurrected Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation and legacy, buried for a century because a tell-all memoir written by her widower, William Godwin, scandalized the world. It seemed natural to turn to Woolf, who found inspiration in Wollstonecraft’s “experiments in living”. I read a section of the diary every day before I started to write. Woolf’s profound creative visions, her anguish, and passions, her voice, helped me locate Wollstonecraft and my own voice in hers. 


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Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

In the middle of writing Love and Fury, feeling slightly stuck and unsure, I stumbled on this deliciously funny, self-deprecating, and exhilarating portrait of the artist struggling to write a book. Dyer recounts his somewhat desperate attempt, and failure, to “locate” the elusive D. H. Lawrence, but he ends up instead writing a kind of anti-biography and memoir that illuminates both writer and subject. We writers are always looking for other writers to commiserate with on how hard writing is. I’m not sure how that magic works, but it can be just the push to keep going.


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