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Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and Dundee

Updated on July 11, 2015
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Gordon has a Ph.D. in modern history and is particularly interested in the nineteenth-century political and economic history of Britain.

Portrait of Mary Shelley (nee Godwin), c. 1840

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Introduction

In the preface to a new edition of Frankenstein in 1831, Mary Shelley recounted her childhood experiences of Dundee:

‘I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy … It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.’

Predictably, this description eventually encouraged a zealous local press to ask whether one of the most famous stories in Western literature had originated in Dundee. The local press has not been slow to revive the connection between Mary Shelley and Dundee, with articles appearing on the centenaries of the birth and death of both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. Even the release of Kenneth Branagh’s remake of the film Frankenstein in 1994 provided a justification for another article.

While much of the narrative of events surrounding Mary’s visit to Dundee have been recounted for literary and autobiographical purposes, the connection between the literary masterpiece and Dundee has rather detracted from other elements of the story. Mary Godwin, as she was at the time, stayed in Dundee from June to November 1812, and then again from June 1813 to March 1814, at the home of William Thomas Baxter, a textile manufacturer. Baxter was an admirer of Mary’s father William Godwin and his radical free-thinking political philosophy. Godwin wrote to Baxter on 8 June 1812 that he had ‘shipped off to you by yesterday’s packet, the Osnaburgh, my only daughter’.

When she travelled to Dundee for the first time, Mary Godwin was not yet fifteen. Her stay with the Baxter family led to a fascinating set of relationships surrounding the radical, free-thinking and anarchistic literary and intellectual circles of William Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Baxter’s political views and activity providing an interesting insight into the local and national political issues which though conducted separately, shared a common rhetoric of anti-oligarchic politics, and which advocated political reform on the basis of the democratic expression of the will of the people.

Thus, while Mary Shelley’s visit to Dundee can be viewed simply in literary and biographical terms, by examining the radicalism of William Thomas Baxter, we can obtain an insight into the wider social and political milieu of Dundee politics, and add a new dimension to Mary Shelley’s connection with Dundee.

William Thomas Baxter was born on 12 July 1771, a son of Thomas Baxter and Elizabeth Craik. He had four siblings, John Thomas, a grocer in Dundee, George Thomas, a coal merchant in Dundee, Thomas, a broker in London, and a sister Hannah. Baxter’s father was a younger brother of John Baxter, handloom weaver from the village of Tealing who had arrived in Dundee in 1728 in the wake of the Rev. John Glas. The Baxters were members of the Glasite sect formed by Glas which by their rejection of the National Covenant and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland became the first group to secede from the established Church in Scotland.

By 1790 the Glasites were the second largest denomination in Scotland after the Church of Scotland and the largest dissenting group in Dundee at the end of the eighteenth century. Despite the studied political neutrality of the sect’s leadership during the French Revolution, the Glasites were part of a radical Dissenting tradition which encouraged an intellectual ferment of ideas with the potential to diverge from orthodox political and religious beliefs and structures.Outside Scotland, the Glasite message was spread by Robert Sandeman, a son-in-law of Glas. Sandeman was so successful that outside Scotland the group were known as Sandemanians, but the theology was identical. An important part of Godwin’s education was under Sandemanian tutelage. However, both Godwin and Baxter moved away from their earlier beliefs towards free-thinking, atheism, and ultimately an anarchistic view of the State.

Commemorative Plaque of Mary Shelley's visit to Dundee

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Family relations: Godwin and Baxter

Baxter’s wife died in June or early July 1811 and was buried on 4 July 1811. The couple had two sons, Robert and John Cowley, and five daughters, two of whom, Isabel and Christina, were closely acquainted with Mary Godwin. After his wife’s death, Baxter married Mary Ann Scott in 1827, who was, according to the 1841 Census, twenty years his junior. The Baxter family relationships were complicated, and part of the problem arose from the marriage of his eldest daughter Margaret to David Booth, for, after her death, Booth married her younger sister Isabel in 1814. Until the 1835 Marriage Act, in England and Scotland there was no outright civil ban on marrying a deceased wife’s sister although these marriages were viewed as morally dubious. Until 1835, these marriages were considered voidable, meaning that any person could validly cite the relationship as a reason for annulling the marriage. In effect, the legal legitimacy of these marriages rested on whether or not a person had any opposition to a marriage which had already taken place. The 1835 bill enacted that all such marriages would henceforth be unlawful but the Act simultaneously legalized all marriages within the prohibited degrees of affinity that had been made before 31 August 1835. Thus, the Act retrospectively validated marriages to a deceased wife sister which had occurred prior to 1835, whilst preventing such marriages from taking place legally in the future.

Booth played an important part in Baxter’s life, not only by marrying two of his daughters, but also by introducing the Baxter family to the circle of William Godwin, his daughter Mary, and thus subsequently to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Booth knew William Godwin from around 1799, when both men planned to establish a ‘Juvenile Library’ in Edinburgh. In 1809, Booth introduced Baxter to Godwin, and in the same year married Baxter’s eldest daughter Margaret. Booth was born in Forfarshire, and had been a brewer in Newburgh, Fife, before turning his attention to literary pursuits and teaching. He published works on grammar, composition, and a highly complex dictionary, for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. By his marriage to Isabel in 1814, Booth again became Baxter’s son-in-law, despite being five years older than Baxter—the absurd family relationships caused by the age difference between Booth at 48 and Isabel aged 21.

On marrying Isabel, Booth wrote to Mary Shelley informing her he had forbidden his wife to correspond with her, on account of Mary eloping with Percy Bysshe Shelley, while also alluding to his wife of an improper relationship existing between Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Booth was under the misapprehension that Shelley lived alternately with Mary and Claire.

Booth had facilitated the meeting between Baxter and Godwin in 1809, and a further visit by Baxter to London in 1811, accompanied by his daughter Christina, led to their meeting Mary Godwin at the Godwin family home in Skinner Street. From these meetings came the invitation for Mary to visit the Baxters in Dundee. Mary arrived in Dundee in June 1812, and stayed with the Baxters at their home ‘The Cottage’ on Broughty Ferry road, Dundee. A description of the house appears in 1816, when Baxter decided to lease the property and grounds, consisting of upwards of four acres:

‘The house is pleasantly situate, in the midst of an acre of ground. Laid out in a lawn and garden well stocked with fruit-trees, currant and gooseberry bushes of the best sorts, and sheltered from the North by a thriving wood of beautiful forest-tress.’

The Baxters were educated and cultured people, interested in the liberal arts, and Mary thrived in her surroundings, despite her later comments on the dreariness and bleakness of the area. During these visits, Mary became very close to Isabel Baxter, who was four years older than her. Both families shared an appreciation of culture and literature, as well as a taste for anti-clericalism and radical politics. How far Baxter subscribed to Godwinite ideas is difficult to tell. Baxter left only two pamphlets and a handful of letters with which to judge his political views. Yet it seems safe to say that his radicalism was more advanced than the staple radical agenda of parliamentary reform and retrenchment in public expenditure. Although supportive of particular reformist measures as a means of reforming the state and restoring the constitutional rights of the people, Baxter appears to have subscribed to the views of Paine, Godwin, and Shelley that it was necessary to overthrow the despotic aristocracy and the oligarchic political system which they had created.

The views propagated by Godwin and Baxter had an important if complex influence on Mary. She shared their iconoclasm and rejection of bourgeois mores and modes of behaviour but the influence of her mother was perhaps more important in this respect.

Denouement

After a couple of years of political activity and agitation in 1815-16, Baxter retreated from public affairs and local politics. In 1817 he renewed contact with the Godwin-Shelley circle, which appears to have abated after 1814, probably on account of Booth’s marriage to his daughter, and Booth’s opposition to any further contact with the Shelleys. The Shelleys lived at Albion House, in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, from March 1817 until his departure for the Continent in March 1818. Baxter came to visit on 1 September 1817, meeting Shelley for the first time. As Mary had given birth to her daughter Clara that very day, Baxter left the following day but returned later in the month.

During this visit, Baxter became fully acquainted with Shelley, and was very impressed by his intellect and manners, writing to his daughter Isabel on 3 October 1817:

‘I was surprised and delighted to find him a being of rare genius and talent, of truly republican frugality and plainness of manners, and of a soundness of principle and delicacy of moral tact that might put to shame (if shame they had) many of his detractors, and with all this so amiable that you have only to be half an hour in his company to convince you that there is not an atom of malevolence in his whole composition’.

Baxter spent some time with the literati of Shelley’s circle, and accompanied Leigh Hunt and his wife to the theatre. His presence re-opened the issue of Mary’s relationship with his daughter Isabel. After her marriage, Mary Shelley attempted to renew her correspondence, writing to her on 14 and 21 June but receiving merely one disagreeable letter from her on 31 July. Godwin had written to Baxter in May 1817 and this might have been the reason for Baxter visiting the Shelleys.

Booth and Baxter met the Shelleys on 13 November 1817 in an attempt to convert Booth to a more favourable opinion of Shelley, and resolve the difficulties surrounding the friendship of Mary and Isabel. Shelley was impressed by Booth after meeting him, stating he had never ‘derived so much amusement and instruction’ from anyone but Booth remained opposed to any question of friendship. The precise reason for his stance remains unclear. It has been suggested that he thought Shelley was living with two women, but he could hardly claim the moral high ground after his marriages to two sisters. Jealousy of Mary Shelley and the fear that Isabel would be enticed away appear a more likely reason, one underscored by doubts over the morality of the Shelleys. This would appear to be an unreasonable fear but Booth was an unusual man, who appears to have intrigued and frightened many people who met him. After an encounter with him in Bloomsbury in 1832, Dr Robert Blakey was shocked by his sceptical, anti-Christian arguments, and fascinated by his small stature and dark complexion which gave him an ‘impish’ appearance.

How long Baxter stayed at Marlow is unclear but he was definitely back in Dundee by December, for Shelley wrote to him complaining that he had not heard from him, and that Baxter had not even acknowledged his cheque of £7 for blankets supplied by Baxter to Shelley for the poor.What appears to have happened was that Booth influenced Baxter to break off relations with Shelley, and Baxter sought to do this by leaving Shelley’s letters unanswered. In a letter of 25 December, Shelley wrote that not only did Baxter decline to visit but that he did not think his invitation worthy of the formality of a refusal. Shelley cited Baxter’s ‘manifest change of manner’ towards him. Baxter replied on 29 December repudiating these charges, and instead citing differences between the families in terms of fortune and status. In particular, Shelley’s fortune allowed him a degree of free thought that clashed with Baxter’s attempts to educate his children in the ‘customs, manners, and prejudices of European society’ with which Shelley’s free thought was inconsistent.

The Shelleys, almost certainly correctly, suspected Booth to be the cause of the rift. Shelley replied with a powerful letter to Baxter thanking him for the explanation, and praising him as ‘a man of virtue and talent whose feelings and opinions I perpetually found occasions of sympathy’. The main point of the letter was to broach the subject of Mary’s friendship with Isabel Baxter, for this friendship was the basis of the subsequent friendship between Shelley and Baxter.

Shelley raised the subject of Isabel’s marriage to Booth:

‘Mary for three whole years has been lamenting the loss of her friend, and was made miserable and indignant that her friendship had been sacrificed to opinions which she supposed had already received their condemnation in the mind of every enlightened reasoner on moral science’.

Shelley went on to praise Booth as ‘a man of great intellectual acuteness and consummate skill in the exercise of logic’, and who had excited Shelley to ‘severe and sustained mental competition’ and from whom he derived ‘so much amusement and instruction.’ However, this praise was merely the precursor to a damning indictment of Booth’s malignant influence, citing him as ‘deficient in those elementary feelings which are the principles of all moral reasoning’, and of possessing a keen and subtle mind ‘better fitted for the detection of error that the establishment of truth’. He ended by voicing his suspicion that Booth had pressured Baxter into ending their friendship but it was a postscript added by Mary Shelley which addressed the issue with sardonic wit and in blunt, uncompromising terms:

‘You see I prophesied well three months ago, when you were here. I then said that I was sure that Mr. Booth was averse to our intercourse, and would find some means to break it off. I wish I had you by the fire here in my little study, and it might be “double, double, toil and trouble,” but I could quickly convince you that your girls are not below me in station, and that in fact I am the fittest companion for them in the world; but I postpone the argument until I see you, for I know (pardon me) that viva voce is all in all with you.’

Baxter showed Shelley’s letter to Booth who wrote to Shelley on 2 January 1818, accusing him of amusing himself with character sketches of he and his father-in-law. Booth responded in kind, with a rather boisterous and rude defence of his conduct, for as he had ‘never sought your friendship or your correspondence, I have therefore violated no presumptive compact in declining either’. It was an abrasive letter, signalling his intention to have nothing to do with the Shelleys in the future. It appears from the letter that Booth had agreed to a renewal of the correspondence between Mary and Isabel in 1817 at Godwin’s request but when he heard the Shelleys had invited Isabel to the Continent he insisted on the termination of the correspondence.

Before departing for Italy on 11 March 1818, Shelley had an interview with Baxter on 2 March 1818. It is not known what passed between them but Booth’s influence was by now damaging the relationships. Mary recorded in her journal that Shelley had called on Baxter on 2 March 1818 and that ‘Isabel Booth is arrived, but neither comes nor sends’. On the following day she wrote ‘no news of Isabell—I write to her’. However, there was no dramatic reconciliation, and the departure of the Shelleys for the Continent terminated any hope that the relationship could be renewed. Mary had clearly not give up on it, and it is perhaps testimony to the emotional attachment she felt, that even after Booth had behaved so badly towards the Shelleys, that she was still tentatively recommending people to meet him. It seems clear that this type of action was part of a stratagem whereby she would renew her friendship with Isabel. After Shelley’s death, that friendship was eventually renewed but it was sporadic and punctuated by illness. Nevertheless, the deep emotional attachment arising from a friendship formed during youthful years, clearly remained. On her deathbed, Mary Shelley requested her son to grant Isabel, an annuity of £50, a request that was honoured.


Isabel's death in 1863 effectively marked the end of the link between the Baxter family and the illustrious and turbulent Godwin and Shelley circle. However in 1883, an enterprising local reporter sought out Christina Baxter, then aged 91, and attempted to glean some details about the Shelley circle, as a means of re-capturing some of the flavour of the time but Christina could not, or did not wish to, recall much detail. Perhaps significantly, on account of her accompanying her father to London, she expressed the view that she and not her sister Isabel should have been great friends with Mary Godwin.

The set of relationships between the Godwin and Baxter families were at times intense, highly volatile, and unstable. Friendships based on a shared appreciation of culture, learning, and politics, foundered on the vicissitudes of class, social position, personal jealousies and rivalries. In keeping with the lives of Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley, it was a tale of high drama, romanticism and ultimately tragedy.

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