Last night we watched Mary Shelley on SBS On Demand.
Other than knowing her as the author of Frankenstein, and some vague gossip about her and both Shelley and Byron, I knew nothing – I even had her father, William Godwin, mixed up with William Blake.
I have also never read Frankenstein and only have a cartoonish idea of the story.
The movie chronicles the formative period of the teenage Mary Shelley, and included a trip to Scotland when she was about fourteen. From the movie, you would think that she stayed in some country house out in the wilds of Perthshire, but no, she stayed with William Baxter and his family in Dundee, becoming firm friends with his daughter Isabella.
Something about this caused the hairs on the back of my neck to go up I’d come across these names before while researching my own family history – not that I was assuming any more of a connection than they’d employed some of my predecessors.
And I was mistaken. Given the tendency of Scottish families to reuse names, and the fact that the same names tend to repeat again and again, it was of course a completely different Isabella Baxter.
But my curiosity was whetted. Why did William Godwin send his daughter on a hazardous sea voyage to Dundee?
The answer seems to be that Mary was unwell and her father thought she should have time away from London to recuperate. So why Dundee?
William Godwin was friends with William Baxter, both men being of a radical outlook and both being members of the Glasite sect. While Baxter went on to become successful as the owner of a major jute and linen business, at this time he was only a moderately successful businessman who owned a linen weaving business.
At that time Dundee was a radical town, a town where during the 1790’s the Society of United Scotsmen had planted a tree of liberty beside the town cross. And in 1819, a reported 10.000 people demonstrated on Magdalen Green against the Peterloo killings.
And like many Scottish towns during the enlightenment, Dundee had its literary and philosophical societies where men would meet to discuss the latest developments in science as well as new and stimulating books.
(It’s worth mentioning that such societies would often put on demonstrations and experiments for public education – if like me you watched the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV as a child you’ll have an idea of what an experimental night at the philosophical society might have entailed – science as theatre – that’s an idea!)
So, given William Godwin’s aim to educate his daughter and expose her to new and stimulating ideas, Dundee would have been a surprisingly good fit.
At the time the Baxters lived in a house, now long gone, which had originally been built as a dower house for the Countess of Strathmore, where South Baffin street is now
South Baffin Street © Google Maps
Now, it looks as if the house would have looked out over the docks, but before 1820, when the docks were built, what is now E Dock Street roughly follows the original shore line of the Tay and the Baxters would have had a wonderful view of the Tay from their house. What is now Broughty Ferry Road runs along a ridge, and with their house being on the high side of the ridge there would have been unimpeded views across the Tay.
Prior to 1820 the docks were down towards what is now Discovery Quay where Robert Falcon Scott’s ship is now moored.
Dundee in 1821 (from John Wood’s plan – https://maps.nls.uk/view/74400021)
The docks however where probably important to the development of Mary’s admittedly gothic imagination – Dundee was already an important whaling port, and probably awash with tales of frozen ghost ships strange creatures from the Arctic, not to mention actual narwhals and walruses dragged off the boats to be cut up for their blubber and their ivory.
Apparently, while living with the Baxters, Mary learned to swim and row – this also fits well with the geography of Dundee in the 1810’s – as can also be seen from John Wood’s map – the open and sandy foreshore around Broughty Ferry, which was developing as a fashionable resort, would have been easily accessible and a few minutes walk from the house …