My writing journey - Shelley places around the world
In search of Mary’s character and experiences I have seen original letters and stories in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Carl Phorzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library.
In the Bodleian boxes there was a lovely little notebook where Mary had sketched a story, with a lock of hair pressed between the pages.
In Italy, especially Pisa. I explored the ‘paradise of exiles’ locations. (I discovered that camels were used to pull boats on The Arno). I also visited Livorno (or Leghorn) where they stayed through much of their heartache after William died and where Claire like to bathe in the sea; to Lucca, where Mary’s second novel is set; to San Giuliano Terme (the Baths of Pisa) where Shelley took the waters; and to the picturesque and fashionable Bagni di Lucca, where they took the thermal spas and attended the dances in the casino;
I loved the beautiful Gulf of Spezia, and seeing Casa Magni, where they last lived, and where Shelley set off on his final journey. Then it was on the beach. Now there is a promenade and it is crowded with holidaymakers. You can still imagine, though, Mary and Jane, staring off that balcony, out to sea....
In the UK, Marlow in Buckinghamshire is another site I visited. They lived a happy year there just after Claire gave birth, in a rambling but damp house next to a school, and where they thought they might settle. Shelley spent hours on the river and they gave comfort and material help to the impoverished lacemakers of the village. Mary finished Frankenstein here. The house is still much the same.
The calm and pretty churchyard of Old St. Pancras in London, is where Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is buried. (She died giving birth to Mary). It is where Mary often went to be near to her mother, and it is where she first met Shelley. The grave and monument are still there and the grounds are still a quiet haven, even though next to St Pancras Station!
Byron's Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein was conceived, still looms over Lake at Geneva.. It looks big enough to house Byron's menagerie of dogs, cats, monkeys cockerels, and other animals.
Castle Frankenstein near Gernsheim in Germany, where the alchemist Dippel lived, and where the seed of the inspiration for the novel may have been planted. Mary and Shelley saw it when they and Claire were returning, penniless, to England by boat along the Rhine after their first escape to Switzerland. It is a ruin today, and rather creepy!
In Sydney I did most of my textual research in the Mitchell Library. The writing has meant a steep personal learning curve. I discovered that writing is a lonely business and that it is important to seek out conducive spaces like the library to avoid being bored. Coffee shops are also great, but the volume of reference books I needed made this very difficult. The Mitchell kept a trolley load for me that made it pleasant. I also spent a fortune to buy the books to have in my office, because unfortunately, there is a mountain of extant information on these people.
I also discovered that my research consultancy has not just been a fluke career. I have a research gene that meant I could not leave a subject alone, however trivial. I once spent a week researching steamboats for a half paragraph at a point when this is Shelley’s obsession. When I bemoaned this compulsive behaviour to my lovely editor, she continually pointed out that it was fiction and I could make it up!
I did ‘make up’ or at least offer my own interpretation, to at least two unexplained incidents in the Shelley’s lives. One was surrounding the circumstances of Mary’s sister Fanny’s suicide, and the other was the mystery of the ‘Neapolitan child’, a child that Shelley falsely registered in Naples as his and Mary’s.
What else? I am a Londoner by birth and now live on the north shore of lovely Sydney. I am a 'mother of three', who are grown up and scattered to the corners of the globe. (Two of them have also written books). I came to Australia from London in my twenties, as an account manager for Leo Burnett advertising agency.