The Putney Bridge I saw in 1999 was not the same one that Mary had known, a wooden structure that opened in 1729, designed by Sir Jacob Ackworth and built by Thomas Phillips. In their The London Encyclopedia, editors Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert note that its twenty-six spans “presented a serious obstruction to navigation.” It was subsequently modified, then replaced in 1886—a bit upstream—with the stone structure that still stands--and that I saw
|old Putney Bridge|
Wednesday, April 14, was an incredibly busy day for me. I went first thing in the morning to Putney Bridge and took some photographs—but my journal (curse my 1999 self!) mentions nothing significant about my trip there. I was more interested in the rest of the day. I would take a tour of the new Globe Theatre; I would board a train to Windsor, where Mary and Bysshe had lived for a while. I also had an abiding interest in the town because only about a dozen years earlier I’d directed a production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at Aurora High School back in Ohio. So I got to see some of the places the Bard mentions in that play.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s leap from Putney Bridge was not her only suicide attempt. In April 1795 she’d tried an overdose of (probably) laudanum. She left a letter. But Imlay—as Janet Todd records in her biography Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life—interceded. either before she actually ingested the poison, or shortly afterwards. In his 1798 biography of Mary—published shortly after her death—Godwin writes that she “had formed a desperate desire to die.” And he speculates, lightly, that Imlay intervened.
It was a beautiful day in April when I saw and photographed Putney Bridge—that much I managed to record in my diary. And I remember walking out to the middle, looking down at the moving Thames, and thinking about how lucky the world was that some boatmen saw her jump, rowed to her rescue. Saved her. And the literary world must be grateful.
So much of her great work lay before her. And she was yet to meet William Godwin. Or deliver the daughter who would become Mary Shelley.