Wednesday 1 February 2017

Mary Shelley's Grave

On this day in 1851 Mary Shelley died, her cause of death recorded as 'Disease of the brain Supposed Tumour in left hemisphere of long standing certified'. She had been suffering from headaches for some time before her death, and in December 1850 had started to experience numbness in her leg and speech impairment. By late January, nearly completely paralysed, she suffered a series of convulsions before falling unconscious. Nine days later, surrounded by her family, she quietly stopped breathing.

Mary was unafraid of death, and had made plans for her burial. She wanted to be interred with her parents - Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin - who were buried at St. Pancras in London. It was ultimately decided, though, that her final resting place should be in the more picturesque surroundings of St. Peter's in Bournemouth.

In order to honour Mary's wishes, her only surviving child, Percy Florence, and his wife Jane had the bodies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft exhumed and reburied in Bournemouth alongside Mary. The pair are commemorated on one side of the grave, with the inscription noting that they have been moved from their original burial place in London.

Inscription commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin

The other side of the grave commemorates Mary herself, with the inscription reading 'Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Daughter of William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Widow of the Late Percy Bysshe Shelley, Born August 30 1797, Died February 1 1851'. Percy Florence and Jane were also later added to the grave. Percy Bysshe Shelley had, of course, drowned back in 1822, and his body was cremated at the time on the beach in Italy due to local quarantine laws. Mary Shelley, however, supposedly kept the remains of her late husband's heart, and this is said to have been buried with Percy Florence when he was laid to rest in 1889.

Inscription commemorating Mary Shelley, Percy Florence Shelley, and Jane Shelley

The grave is surprisingly popular with tourists wanting to pay their respects to the author of Frankenstein; when I visited on a rather grey and wet autumn day last year, there was a steady stream of people coming to view it. The site of the grave is very easy to find, situated as it is upon a small slope not far from the entrance to the churchyard; the church itself very pretty, and is also worth a look while you're there.

St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth

The grave is positioned on a small slope near the entrance of the churchyard

As I wandered around the surrounding streets following my visit, I did have a chuckle when I came across the local Wetherspoon pub, which is aptly named 'The Mary Shelley'. It's not the most glamorous memorial, but at least Mary Shelley is being remembered and celebrated!

'The Mary Shelley' pub

P.S. If you're interested in writers' graves, you might like to visit The Gravestone Project, which collects and explores data relating to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century graveyard cultures. The site features a separate section on 'Literary Graves', where you can view images of the gravestone that marks Mary Wollstonecraft's original resting place.