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Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Interview with Buss/Macdonald/McWhir

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Why did you decide to devote a book to Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley?

Macdonald: It’s not just the fact that they’re two of the most important writers of the Romantic period, and that they happened to be mother and daughter. The connection between them is textual as well as biographical — it’s a matter of writing as well as of life. Mary Wollstonecraft longed for a child, especially a daughter, to educate; Mary Shelley longed for the mother she had never known since Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to her. This longing informs their writings. Frankenstein makes his monster, after all, partly because he has lost his mother. Shelley’s fiction returns again and again to issues raised in her mother’s writings: the relations between men and women, the importance of education, the hope for a better society. Thinking about Wollstonecraft and Shelley together helps us to begin to construct a female genealogy of Romanticism, as an alternative to the traditional male-centred genealogy that talks about how Keats responded to Wordsworth or Coleridge — or how Percy Bysshe Shelley responded to William Godwin.

What are the benefits of applying life-writing theory to the study of Wollstonecraft and Shelley?

Buss: The literary production of both women covers such a broad spectrum of generic forms that finding a common thread helps us realize the significance of their work. Wollstonecraft wrote widely — political manifestos, novels, and letters — but always used her personal experience as a woman to inform the various genres. Her “self” is like the thread on which she strings the various concepts, feelings, plots, and characters of her texts, and once we recognize that she is always self-referential we can begin to assess the difference she brings to political/philosophical discourse, to epistolary travelogue, and to autobiographical fiction. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley was prolific in a number of writing forms as well, such as poetry, novels, art criticism, and prefaces. Once again, it is the ability to find ways to write her own gendered experience into genres that do not contain direct self reference that helps us read her resistance to the silences enforced on her from the larger culture. In Shelley’s situation there was a doubled censorship of self-writing, not only because of the disrepute that had befallen her mother’s ideas, but also because of the fact that Percy Shelley’s father refused to let her write a biography of her husband. Mary Shelley found ways to resist and subvert this censorship through various disguised forms of life writing.

How did this book come about?

Macdonald: It was Helen’s idea. She wanted to organize a conference to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Mary Shelley, on 30 August 1797, and the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, on 10 September. For a long time we thought of it simply as the conference of “the two Marys;” Helen also thought up our eventual title, “Writing Lives,” to suggest both that Wollstonecraft and Shelley devoted much of their lives to writing — they led writing lives — and that they devoted much of their creative energy to life writing — to writing lives. The Calgary Institute for the Humanities agreed to sponsor the conference, and we invited the most eminent Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and life-writing scholars we could think of. To our delight, most of them were able to come, and some generous support, both from external bodies like SSHRC and from the University of Calgary, enabled us to bring them here. I’d particularly like to mention the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme, which enabled us to commission Rose Scollard’s play. The play is a good example of the kind of collaborative work that went into this volume. All three of us attended the rehearsals, and Rose was always willing to listen to our comments and suggestions. The play had a public reading and two runs; one of them during the conference, so that Rose l was also able to get feedback from the other scholars we had invited. Both before and after the public sessions of the conference, we had extensive editorial meetings in which all the contributors discussed what shape the book should take. We had always intended that the conference should give rise to a book. Between the conference and the publication date, of course, we corresponded with our contributors, helping them to polish their contributions and suggesting ways that they could link up with each other. I think the result is a pretty cohesive book.

Why did you decide to include a play in a book of critical essays?

McWhir: The play developed in parallel with the conference from which this book emerged — and was, indeed, a central event at that conference. As writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary, the playwright, Rose Scollard, wrote drafts of the play and workshopped it with members of the English and Drama departments, including the head of the Department of Drama, Brian Smith (the play’s director), the student actors, and the three of us. Following a public reading early in 1997, the play premiered at the University in May and was performed again during the Wollstonecraft and Shelley conference in August. In its integration of scholarship with imagination and stagecraft, the play had (and continues to have) a close connection with the entire project that included the conference and a series of related events during the Wollstonecraft-Shelley year of 1997-98.

It seemed inevitable that we should ask Rose for permission to include her finished play in a book that had shared in this process. The book as a whole, like the play, results from consultation, collaboration, and the relationships among different kinds of work: scholarly, critical, theoretical, personal, and creative.