In 1999 I spent some time in London (as I’ve said) trying to find sites significant in Mary’s girlhood. But they are few.
According to The London Encyclopedia, a reference book I virtually ingested during the time I was working on Mary Shelley and her circle, the Polygon stood in Somers Town, which, at the time was north of London but has now been swallowed by urban growth, though if you look on a
Polygon is on the left
The Polygon, says the Encyclopedia, was a striking 15-sided building of 32 houses, three storeys high, built around gardens. It was there that Godwin was living; Mary Wollstonecraft died in their place (No. 29), and, some years later, in 1828 (when the location had become less desirable), Charles Dickens (in his middle teen years) and his family lived in No. 17. Peter Ackroyd, my favorite biographer of Dickens (Dickens, 1991), says the family lived there only about ten months before continuing their journey down poverty’s slide.
But the Polygon was long gone (!) by the time I headed to the area in 1999. As the Encyclopedia says brusquely: The Polygon was demolished in the 1890s. Sigh. But Polygon Road is still there, only blocks from St. Pancras Churchyard, where we know Mary Wollstonecraft would be (temporarily) buried. My journal from 1999 records my visit to St. Pancras—but there’s nothing about going to look at the spot where the Polygon had stood. Idiot!
After Mary Wollstonecraft’s death—and after Godwin’s remarriage to Mary Jane Clairmont—and after that complicated family decided to go into the book business—they all moved, as I’ve said, to Skinner Street in Holborn, a bit farther south in London. A number of London’s streets were named for the sorts of businesses that operated there. Bread Street was the home to numerous bakers (Mary and Percy Shelley were married at St. Mildred’s, Bread Street), there was a Brewer Street (hmmm, wonder what went on there?), and animal skinners occupied their eponymous street. We can be certain that the air in the vicinity was not an aroma to remind you of the alluring sweetness of Calypso’s island in The Odyssey.
On April 18, 1999, my journal says I took a walk to Skinner Street—of which there is not much, I commented. (That’s helpful!) Somewhere I have a photograph, though. The place where the Godwins lived—41 Skinner Street—is also gone. Here’s how biographer Emily Sunstein describes it: Number 41 was a cheap new five-story corner building with a curved display window and a carved head of Aesop over the door. Occupying the ground floor were the bookshop and offices …. The upper four stories comprised Mary’s home. One of the first visitors was Aaron Burr ….
Yes, our Aaron Burr. He’d come, among other things, to see little Mary.