Review: Frankenstein in Bath (Bath, 16 June-30 Sept. 2016)

The Somerset spa town of Bath should perhaps be better known for having been home to some of Britain’s major authors of Gothic fiction. In the eighteenth century, Ann Radcliffe – whose Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is read in Bath by characters in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) – grew up there. It was while living in Bath during the mid-1970s that Angela Carter worked on the darkly erotic fairytales collected in The Bloody Chamber (1979). And exactly two hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1816, Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein (1818) during a six-month residency in Bath – as this theatrical walking tour, developed by Bristol-based theatre company Show of Strength, has reminded audiences at nightly performances this summer.

View of Bath from Beechen Cliff, with Bath Abbey at centre

Bath’s harmonious Georgian terraces of yellow-grey limestone houses, and its history as a centre for water therapies and polite sociability, might not immediately suggest the macabre or grotesque. But there is a distinctly uncanny, even Gothic, tension in the contrast between the elegant surfaces and hedonistic spirit of Bath, and its traditional function as a refuge for the diseased. Frankenstein in Bath rightly mentioned the public lectures on the reanimation of corpses by galvanism that Mary Shelley attended in Bath as having probably influenced her novel; but the town’s existing associations with sick and dysfunctional bodies – as well as its significance as a marriage-market – might in any case have informed Shelley’s tale of a creature burdened with both a troublesome, monstrous body, and a craving for love.

Georgian Bath’s prestige as a fashionable health resort was shadowed by its attraction for women wishing to conceal illegitimate births amidst the comings and goings of its transient population. Such was the situation of Mary Shelley’s unmarried stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was about four months pregnant by Lord Byron when the two women arrived in Bath on 10 September 1816 – following the summer in Switzerland, with Byron and the then Mary Godwin’s married lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, during which Mary famously began Frankenstein. The birth of Clairmont’s daughter Allegra in January 1817 was not the only major occurrence to affect Mary Shelley during her time in Bath. That same six-month period saw the suicides of her half-sister Fanny Imlay (elder daughter of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft), and of Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet Westbrook – as well as Mary’s subsequent marriage to Percy Shelley on 30 December 1816.

New Bond Street, Bath. Claire Clairmont lodged at No. 12 (black frontage immediately to left of passing car).

Show of Strength’s 75-minute tour began in the shadow of Bath Abbey, near the former site of the newspaper premises, adjoining the Pump Room, where the Shelleys lodged. Other locations on the ingeniously-plotted itinerary included 12 New Bond Street, where Claire Clairmont lived (currently a clothes shop); and the former York House hotel (now a Travelodge) where Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin stayed during his futile search for the suicidal Fanny Imlay in October 1816. The tour also highlighted Shelleyan associations with Bath from beyond 1816, taking in 25 Milsom Street, where Mary Wollstonecraft was employed as a lady’s companion in 1779.

Defying the evening chill in off-the-shoulder black velvet (after Richard Rothwell’s 1840 portrait of Mary Shelley), narrator Annette Chown skilfully projected the story across a challenging soundscape of road traffic, and university freshers’ week bar-crawlers. Sheila Hannon’s lively text presented the main facts accurately, and featured generous extracts from Shelley family letters, as well as from Frankenstein.  I couldn’t agree with all of Hannon’s interpretations of the dynamics between characters such as William Godwin and his secretive second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont (mother of Claire) – but she did acknowledge recent research that has exposed the hardships Mary Jane suffered in Somerset before her marriage, and highlighted her talent as a literary translator.

During the 1970s, Angela Carter and cultural historian Christopher Frayling proposed to Bath town council that a plaque be mounted to commemorate Mary Shelley’s work on Frankenstein in Bath. That proposal was rejected – but the absence of such official recognition has perhaps allowed greater scope for unusual and imaginative engagements with this episode in local women’s history, such as Frankenstein in Bath. To walk between the sites associated with Mary Shelley’s life in Bath was not only to be reminded of a chronological sequence of facts relating to one woman’s career. It was also to gain a renewed sense of how the Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Shelley women’s experiences of love, death, and literary work echoed and reflected each other – across generations, both in Bath and elsewhere.

I attended the 27 September 2016 performance of Frankenstein in Bath. The photographs were taken not on that occasion (it was dark!) but during 2015, while I was pursuing some research of my own on the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont in Bath.

Two other Shelley researchers have described the challenges of finding the sites relating to Mary Shelley’s life in Bath at Romantic Circles (2006).