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Mary Shelley: the Dundee connection

SummaryMary Shelley

In 1812 a young Mary Godwin was sent by her father to stay with a family he knew in Dundee called Baxter. The connection between the writer and the city used to be commemorated by a plaque on a wall in South Baffin Street, near the site of the Baxter's home. Although this was a relatively brief period in her life, it was an important one for Mary.

The Beginnings

Mary Godwin was born in 1797, the daughter of radical political philosopher and writer William Godwin, by his second wife, the radical writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. She was to die shortly after the birth. Four years later, William Godwin remarried, this time to Mary Jane Vial or Clairmont. She was a widow who lived in the house next door and had two children, Charles and Jane (later known as Claire).

Mary's relationship with her stepmother was not a comfortable one. Muriel Spark suggests that Mary resented her while idealising her own mother, who she had of course never known. (Mary Shelley, p. 14). Godwin meanwhile described his daughter: 'She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious and active of mind. Her desire for knowledge is great, and her perseverence in everything she undertakes almost invincible' (quoted in Mary Shelley, p.15).

Mary comes to Dundee

Her health was also poor and a break from London was advised. Against this backdrop, Mary set sail on the packet Osnaburgh on 7th June 1812. Her host in Dundee, William Thomas Baxter, had met Godwin once. However he had given financial assistance to the defendants during the Treason Trials of 1794. His eldest daughter, Margaret, was also married to Godwin's friend, David Booth (Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, online extract).

Of Baxter's other children, it was daughters Christina (Christy) and Isabel who Mary became closest to. The family lived at 'The Cottage', a substantial house on Dundee's Ferry Road, originally built as the Countess of Strathmore's dower house (Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, online extract). Mary recollected her time in Dundee when she wrote Frankenstein:

I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy. I wrote then - but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions of the airy flights of my imagination , were born and fostered. I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affair as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations. (quoted in The Dundee Book, p. 103).

Early 19th century Dundee

'The Dundee Mary Shelley came to was a flourishing, alert town of ambitious intelligent people'('Not even the trivial grace of a straight line', p. 19). The Ferry Road area was lined with several large houses, including the other Baxter home of Ellengowan. The eastward expansion of the harbour had still to happen as had the building of the railway, so Mary must have had an interupted view of Tay as it flowed past Carolina Port, just down the hill from where she was staying.

Dundee was however an industrial town and the Baxter family were key players in its textile industry. How much of the 'sharp end' of textile production Mary was able to witness is unclear but it is interesting to consider this in light of how she uses the relationship between technology and people in Frankenstein.

The Return to London

Mary finally returned to London in May 1814. She had come south with one of the Baxter girls the previous year and stayed for seven months. After that she had gone back north for another ten months until her final journey home. She had met her future husband before but, as she was still only a scoolgirl, he had paid her little attention. By 1814 she was a young woman and he was instantly attracted, describing her as 'the inalieanble trasure, that I sought and I have found' (quoted in Mary Shelley, p.22). On 28th July they eloped, taking with them Mary's half-sister, Claire Clairmont.

Initialy they did not marry. This fact, coupled with the fact that Percy was still legally married to his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, eared them the scorn of the 'orthodox world'. Mary found a letter she sent to Isabel Baxter was not directly replied to. Instead Isabel's fiancÚ sent 'a letter of such cold biterness to upset Mary completely' (Mary Shelley, p.37). It was after the death of Percy Shelley (who she had married in 1816) that Mary renewed her friendship with Isabel. Since Mary had married, Mary was now deemed 'respectable'.

Conclusion

How great the influence of the time in Dundee was on the adolescent Mary is not something to be decided here. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim undue credit. However this time did immediately precede a momentous upheaval in her lifeand, as she wrote herself, gave her the space for her imagination to develop. At a time when Dundee is still trying to throw off the yoke of 'jute, jam and journalism' it is reassuring to remind ourselves that its influence was much greater.


Bibliography

  • Kay, Billy (Ed.), The Dundee Book (Mainstream, 1990)
  • McKean, Charles A., 'Not even the trivial grace of a straight line', in Miskell, Louise et al, Victorian Dundee, Image and Realities (Tuckwell Press, 2000)
  • Mellor, Anne K., Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (Routledge, 1988) &
    Sunstein, Emily W., Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (John Hopkins UP, 1989):
    extracts online at http://www.owecc.net/crunyon/CE/SDConnections/MaryScotland.html (accessed 12 January 2002)
  • Spark, Muriel, Mary Shelley (Cardinal, 1989)

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