It was not long before Betty and I were exchanging information and opinions about one of the oddest experiences of young Mary Godwin’s life. In 1802—Mary had just turned five years old—there was a demonstration in London of a new bit of technology: the parachute. Here’s an edited version of that event from my YA biography, The Mother of the Monster:
Although the Godwins lived quietly, sometimes there were moments of great excitement. In his journal entry for 21 September 1802, for example, Godwin wrote: “(Parachute).” This device was quite a novelty in Mary’s day—still in the experimental stage. One of the early designers, a Frenchman named André-Jacques Garnerin, was the first man to parachute from a balloon and live to tell about it. He rode to earth in a basket attached to the chute.
On 21 September 1802, Garnerin was in England to make the first parachute descent in the history of the country. People in London paid five shillings (about $20 today) to witness the balloon launching at a park about a mile and a half from the Godwins’ house. A huge, excited mass of people gathered. Vendors sold refreshments.
Slowly, Garnerin’s balloon rose before a surprisingly silent crowd—they must have felt they were witnessing the last moments of his life. But Garnerin said later that he had felt “calm and serene.” He recalled the strange sight of thousands of people chasing him through the streets as the wind blew him northeast toward St. Pancras Church—toward the Godwins’ house. The design of the parachute-and-basket sent Garnerin swinging back and forth with terrible violence throughout his ten-minute descent. After he landed, he wrote, “I was then seized with a painful vomiting, which I usually experience for several hours after a descent in a parachute.”
It is impossible to tell from Godwin’s diary if he had gone to watch the balloon ascent—or if he had taken Mary or any of the others with him. It was not, however, the sort of thing that he would have done, letting his children witness something that might well end with a person being smashed to death. And the admission cost would have been beyond him. But it is very likely that he saw the parachute coming down, heard the cries and cheers of the spectators running in the street. And, perhaps, then he called for his children to come witness this spectacular sight, a man swinging through the evening sky, right over their house, landing near the church where Mary Wollstonecraft lay buried.