Not a lot remains from Mary’s girlhood. When I was in Europe in 1999, scurrying around England, Wales, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy looking for her footprints (and those of her intimates), I saw virtually nothing that dated from her girlhood. The places she lived in London as a girl are all gone—some thanks to urban renewal, some to Nazi bombers in World War II. One remaining site is the cemetery associated with London’s St. Pancras Church on Euston Road, once threatened by the arrival of St. Pancras Station, now a busy train station.
When her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, died shortly after delivering the baby Mary, Godwin had her remains buried at nearby St. Pancras. The story goes that Godwin often used to take little Mary there. Here are the words of biographer Emily W. Sunstein, the first account I read of those visits, generally occurring after lunch:
Godwin then took the children for a walk. Often they crossed the meadows to nearby ancient, stubby St. Pancras church and its quiet graveyard, and stood at her mother’s pedestal-like tombstone between a pair of weeping willows Godwin had planted. He taught Mary to read and spell her name by having her trace her mother’s inscription on the stone.
And here’s what that inscription says:
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Of the Rights of Woman:
Born 27 April, 1759:
Died 10 September, 1797.
For her entire life Mary Shelley would idealize and idolize her lost mother. She was proud of her Wollstonecraft heritage, her Wollstonecraft middle name. She read her mother’s books over and over again. And I continue to find heartbreaking the image of that little girl, that little girl who’d never known her remarkable mother, placing her small finger in the groove of the stone, tracing the M, the a, the r, the y—and on and on. Tracing her mother’s name, touching her mother, learning from her stone the rudiments of the language that would one day become Frankenstein.
St. Pancras Church still stands, looking much as it did in Mary’s girlhood; that grave marker is still there, as well (you can easily find photographs on Google). Later, the grave would accommodate Godwin himself—as well as his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin. But when Mary Shelley died in 1851, her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, 31, transferred their remains to a tomb in Bournemouth (the southern coastal town of his residence), where they all remain today. Except for those of Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin. Mary’s son left those right where they were lying at St. Pancras. And that occasions another story …