For the benefit of those who have not visited one, JD Wetherspoons are a large chain of British pubs where you can eat cheaply all day, take children and have refillable mugs of coffee. Some are in beautiful buildings with amazing toilets and we have visited them from Canary Wharf up to the top of Scotland.
One of the two Wetherspoons in Bournemouth town centre is a former night club with nothing distinctive about its architecture. It is called ‘The Mary Shelley’ and I wonder what a famous authoress and wife of a great poet, would have thought had she known she would end up as a pub, as a result of her final burial wishes.
The pub faces the lovely St. Peter’s church. Bournemouth celebrated its bicentenary in 2010, the church was consecrated in 1845 and was rebuilt from a little rustic church to boast the towering spire it has today.
Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstoncraft, writer on women’s rights, who died soon after her birth, she was brought up by her father William Godwin a writer and liberal thinker. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a friend of her father’s; famously at the age of 23, he ran off to France with 16 year old Mary and her step sister, leaving behind a teenage wife whose life would end in tragedy. Perhaps these days he would have been accused of ‘grooming’ and there would have been an all ports call to find a vulnerable teenager. With Lord Byron as a friend, what parent wouldn’t be worried about Percy? But he was the love of her life.
It was a night like no other that would go down in literary legend. To be precise, three days in June 1816, the Year Without a Summer. Severe climate abnormalities were caused by a combination of an historic low in solar activity and major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years.
The five young people cooped up by the endless rain in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, could not have known the causes. They passed the time telling fantastical tales and challenging each other to create their own. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin, not yet married to Shelley, are well known, Mary’s step sister and Lord Byron’s physician, less so.
Mary is most famous for writing Frankenstein and January 2018 marks two hundred years since it was published.
I have always felt sympathy for Doctor John Polidori finding himself in such a writing group. Was he eager to emulate Lord Byron? Apparently the others were dismissive of his poetry and stories. His painting shows a dark good looking young man resplendent in the smart clothes of that era. He was clever; university at fifteen, a degree in medicine at nineteen. Twenty years old in that summer of 1816. He is credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre, his most successful work, conceived in those drug filled nights. But his story ‘The Vampyre’ was at first attributed to Byron, published without the permission of either man. The theme was adopted by others and it is Bram Stoker’s name that comes down in history. Perhaps Doctor John Polidori should become the patron saint of sidelined and unrecognised writers!
Polidori was not completely forgotten, appearing (without permission) as a character in numerous novels and films inspired by Doctor Frankenstein, vampires and the scandalous romantic writers. His diaries were ‘redacted’ by his sister, so we shall never know all his thoughts on that summer.
In the true fashion of the romantics his life was cut brutally short. He died in August 1821, aged twenty five years. The coroner gave a verdict of natural causes, despite strong evidence he took prussic acid – cyanide. Perhaps if he had followed medicine and not Lord Byron things might have turned out differently.
Mary Shelley’s life was longer, but hard, only one of her children survived and thirty year old Percy was drowned at sea, his body recovered and burnt on a funeral pyre on an Italian beach. Legend has it his friend seized his heart untouched from the flames and it is only these remains that are in the family tomb.
Mary’s son Sir Percy Florence Shelley had moved with his wife to Boscombe, near Bournemouth, during her final illness and she requested she be buried there with her parents. This involved the building of a family tomb and the disinterment of her parents’ bodies from a Paddington cemetery. Percy Florence and his wife are also buried in the tomb.
Her family are also remembered in street names, but more importantly Percy Florence built a family theatre at his home, Boscombe Manor, which has now been restored. You can read more about the family history and the theatre at their website.