This year marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, so it’s timely to have a look at the life of this famous Londoner.

Shelley was born on 30th August, 1797, in Somers Town, London, to feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher, novelist and journalist William Godwin. Her mother died soon after her birth, leaving her upbringing to Godwin (and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont who apparently didn’t get on with Mary).

While she received little formal education, she was tutored in a range of subjects – everything from literature to art, French and Latin – by her father and visiting tutors. Godwin described her as having a great desire for knowledge.

She first met her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while still a teenager. Shelley, who was estranged from his wife, had struck up a friendship with her father and was subsequently a regular visitor to their house.

Mary and Percy began secretly meeting each other at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard and then on 28th June, 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont with them but leaving Shelley’s pregnant wife behind.

They went on to Paris and then, through war-ravaged France, to Switzerland. At Lucerne, however, a lack of money forced them to turn back and they returned to London where Mary’s father refused to have anything to do with her.

Now pregnant, Mary and Shelley moved into lodgings with Claire in Somers Town and later in Nelson Square where they were known for entertaining his friends. Shelley’s wife, meanwhile, gave birth to his son – something that must have been hard for Mary – and it is believed that he was also a lover of Mary’s step-sister Claire.

Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on 22nd February, 1815, but she died just 12 days later. That same year, the death of Shelley’s grandfather brought himself considerable wealth and with their financial situation now relieved, in August, 1815, they moved to Bishopgate, in Windsor Great Park. In January, 1816, Mary gave birth to her second child, a son, William.

In May, 1816, the couple travelled with their son William and Mary’s step-sister Claire to Geneva in Switzerland where they hoped to improve Percy’s health. It was during the time they spent there that a ghost-writing contest in June, 1818, led her to write what would be the basis of the novel Frankenstein – credited with introducing genre of science fiction into English literature.

Returning to England, the Shelley’s took up residence in Bath (Clairmont was pregnant by Lord Byron and they wanted to keep this from the Godwins). Harriet Shelley, Percy’s estranged wife, drowned herself in the Thames on 9th November and it was following that, that on 30th December, Mary and Percy married at St Mildred’s Church in London with Mary’s father and step-mother as witnesses.

In March, 1817, the Shelley’s took up residence in Marlow where Mary gave birth to second daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, on 2nd September. Then in March, 1818, the family – along with Claire Clairmont and her daughter – travelled to Italy where it was hoped the warmer climate would help Shelley, who had been diagnosed with pulmonary disease.

There they lived at various addresses and were in Venice when Clara died of dysentery on 24th September, 1818. They traveled to Rome in April the following year and there, on 7th June, William died of malaria, leaving the couple devastated.

Their fourth child and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born in Florence on 12th November. Their Italian sojourn continued for the next couple of years until, on 8th July, 1822, Percy Shelley and his friend Edward Williams were drowned in a squall in the Gulf of Spezia.

Determined to show she could write and look after her son, Mary Shelley returned to England in mid-1823 and lived in The Strand with her father and stepmother until in the summer of 1824 she moved to Kentish Town. Her novel, The Last Man, was published in 1826 followed by The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) as well as working on numerous other writing projects.

Shelley never remarried although she was linked to various men romantically including American actor John Howard Payne whose offer of marriage she rejected.

After her son Percy left university in 1841, he came to live with her and between 1840 and 1842 Shelley travelled to various locations in Europe with her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father, died in 1844 with the result that Shelley and her son were now financially independent.

Percy married Jane Gibson St John in 1848 and Mary lived her son and daughter-in-law, splitting their times between the ancestral Shelley home – Field Place in Sussex – and Chester Square in London as well as accompanying them on their travels overseas.

Shelley suffered considerable illness in the last years of her life – including debilitating headaches and bouts of paralysis in her body – before on 1st February, 1851, she died at the age of 53 from a suspected brain tumour at the Chester Square property.

She had asked to be buried with her mother and father, but Percy and Jane instead buried her at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth closer to their home. In order to fulfill her wishes, they had the bodies of her parents exhumed from St Pancras graveyard and reburied with her.

Despite gaining respect as a writer in her own lifetime, Shelley’s reputation in the literary arts was overshadowed by that of Percy’s after her death. But in more recent decades her overall writing career has come to be more closely examined and applauded.

If you missed it, for more on Mary Shelley’s links with London, see our special series 10 sites from Mary Shelley’s London.

PICTURE: Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (oil on canvas, exhibited 1840/NPG 1235). © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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We’ve come to the end of our series on significant London sites related to Mary Shelley – in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein – so it’s time for a quick recap before launching our next Wednesday series…

1. Somers Town…

2. St Pancras Old Churchyard…

3. Marchmont Street, Somers Town…

4. Church of St Mildred, Bread Street

5. The Temple of the Muses, Finsbury Square…

6. St Giles-in-the-Fields…

7. Charles and Mary Lamb’s house…

8. Chester Square…

9. A lock of Mary Shelley’s hair…

10. Memorials to Percy Bysshe Shelley…

 

 

One of the more curious items related to Mary Shelley in London is a lock of her hair which is in the collection of the British Library. 

The lock of hair is contained in the decorative lining of a book of letters and other material along with a lock of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair which once belonged to Claire Clairmont, Shelley’s step-sister.

Percy’s hair was originally enclosed within a wrapper upon which Clairmont had written “The Poet Shelley’s Hair” – it is presumed to have been cut off following his death by drowning in 1822.

The rear lining of the same book contains material said to be from the ashes of Percy collected by Edward Trelawny from the beach near Viareggio where Percy was cremated.

Other Mary Shelley-related items in the British Library include a letter written by Percy to Mary (then Godwin) on 16th December, 1816, following the death of his first wife, Harriet, and a frontispeace from an 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

For more on Mary Shelley and the British Library, see www.bl.uk/people/mary-shelley.

PICTURE: Public domain (via British Library).

Renowned sibling writers Charles and Mary Lamb lived in a property at 64 Duncan Terrace in Islington from 1823-27 and, their visitors there apparently included Mary Shelley.

Shelley had returned to London in 1823 after the death of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley who had drowned along with two other men off the coast of Italy in July the previous year.

Back in London, Shelley lived in various properties as far afield as Kentish Town – many of which are no longer extant. But one home she was known to have visited after her return (which is still standing) was that of the Lambs.

Charles, part of the literary circle which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, described the property – Colebrook Cottage – as a “white house with six good rooms”. Now Grade II-listed, it dates from the 18th century.

The New River once ran close by  – so close, in fact, that one guest, believed to be the blind poet George Dyer, walked into the river after leaving the house and had to be rescued by Lamb. The river is now covered.

The property features an English Heritage Blue Plaque (although in this case, it’s actually brown), commemorating Lamb’s stay here.

PICTURE: Spudgun67 (licensed under CC BY 2.0).

 

The publishers of the first edition of Frankenstein – a company known as Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones – were based in Finsbury Square in Islington within a building known as The Temple of the Muses.

Designed as a ‘temple to reading’ (it is attributed by some to George Dance the Younger), the rather grand building in the south-east corner of the square was built by the aforementioned James Lackington in 1791 to sell books (his stocks grew to include tens of thousands of items), some of which the company would publish themselves.

The massive building was crowned a central dome topped with a flagpole (from which a flag fluttered when Lackington was in residence) under which was a circular counter around which it was apparently said a coach and horses could be driven see image).

The original Lackington had long since retired from the business when Mary Shelley came along. His relative George Lackingham then ran the business with many partners – Richard Hughes, Joseph Harding, William Mavor and a Jones. Known consequently as Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones, the company had apparently previously had a couple of different names including Lackington, Allen & Co.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first offered as a three volume book – without Shelley’s name attached – to the public on New Year’s Day, 1818 (slightly behind schedule due to printing delays). Thanks to the initial print run being late and an advertising mix-up, it was subsequently republished on 11th March the same year (this is now considered by many the original publication date).

The Temple, meanwhile, survived until 1841 when it burned down. The business, now known as Harding and Lepard, then moved to Pall Mall East.

PICTURE: Interior view of the Temple of the Muses (engraving/etching by William Wallis, probably in Jones’ University edition of British Classic Authors, 1828/Via Wikipedia)