Few seaside towns can claim so many literary associations as Bournemouth. The remains of writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of one of the most famous of all Gothic horror novels – Frankenstein, is buried in the cemetery of St. Peters in the centre of the town.
Mary Shelley was born on the 30th August 1797, in Somers Town, London. She was the second daughter of feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft and political journalist William Godwin (who are also interred in her grave). Her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth from a hemorrhage sustained either during delivery or by the actions of the midwife. Unusual for girls at the time, Mary received an excellent education. She published her first poem at the age of ten.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and his first wife Harriet often visited Godwin’s home and bookshop in London. At the age of 16 Mary eloped to France and then Switzerland with Shelley. During May of 1816, the couple travelled to Lake Geneva. Apparently inspired by a ghost tale contest among her friends, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont Mary had what she called a waking dream that became the manuscript for her most famous work, entitled ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘The Modern Prometheus’.
It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who tries to create a living being for the good of humanity but instead produces a monster. Frankenstein creates his monster by assembling parts of dead bodies and activating the creature with electricity. The monster, which has no name in the book, is actually a gentle, intelligent creature. However, everyone fears and mistreats him because of his hideous appearance. Frankenstein rejects the monster and refuses to create a mate for him. The monster’s terrible loneliness drives him to seek revenge by murdering Frankenstein’s wife, brother, and best friend. Frankenstein dies while trying to track down and kill the monster, who disappears into the Arctic at the end of the novel.
Many films have been based on the character of Frankenstein’s monster, the most iconic being played by Boris Karloff in the Universal Studios 1931 version of the novel. Most are simply tales of horror and have little to do with the serious themes of Shelley’s novel. These themes include the possible dangers involved in scientific experimentation with life and the suffering caused by judging people by their appearance.
Mary and Shelley married in 1816 after Shelley’s first wife committed suicide by drowning. In 1818 the Shelleys left England for Italy. The Italian adventure was, however, blighted for Mary by the death of both her children Clara, in Venice and their son Will died from malaria in Rome. Mary suffered a nervous breakdown after the death and almost died of a later miscarriage. It was followed by the birth of her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In July 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed up the Italian coast and was caught in a storm on his return. He drowned on the 8th July along with his friend Edward Williams and a young boat attendant.
To support herself and her child, Mary wrote novels, including Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), and the autobiographical Lodore (1835). She spent much of her life in promoting her late husband’s work, including editing and annotating unpublished material. She returned to England, never to re-marry.
She died on 1st February 1851 in Chester Square, London of what some suspect to be a brain tumor, before her to move to live with her son Percy Florence Shelley at Boscombe Manor. Her last book, sometimes considered her best work, was ‘Maria’, which was published posthumously. Her son brought his mothers remains to be interred in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth, along with Percy’s heart, which was not originally buried with his body. It was retrieved from his funeral pyre by his friend Trelawny and kept by Shelley’s wife Mary, pressed flat, in a copy of the poet’s “Adonais” and was interred for the first time in Mary’s tomb.