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Visiting the Tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft


Visiting the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft in London.

The last time I was in London it was on my list to visit the resting place of Mary Wollstonecraft. Not only is she considered one of the pioneers of the first wave of feminism with her work The Vindication of the Rights or Women, she is the mother of one of my favourite writers, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein).

 

I can’t pinpoint exactly where my obsession with mother and daughter began, but it definitely grew as I read more of their works and about their lives. I have previously recommended Charlotte Gordon’s incredibly dual-biography, Romantic Outlaws, on mother and daughter. Not only were their lives fascinating, Gordon alternates each chapter so the reader can see the parallels between the two women.

 

I had two reasons for wanting to visit the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft.

 

First of all, I wanted to pay my respects. It is impossible not to learn about Wollstonecraft’s life and works and see just how much she fought and suffered for her beliefs. She was absolutely a woman ahead of her time.


As soon as I arrived it was clear that many others had made the pilgrimage to the tomb and had left little tokens in thanks. From rocks and twigs, to flowers and small written letters of thanks. It was a lovely sight to know that this woman had not been forgotten.

 

Second, I wanted to be in the space that was so dear to Mary Shelley!


Marisa traces the letters engraved on Wollstonecraft's tomb.

It is said that her father, Wollstonecraft’s eventual husband William Godwin, taught young Mary Shelley how to write her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone. Later, when Mary was trying to escape her step-mother, Mary Jane Clairmont, at home, she would steal away to her mother’s graveside to read. It is said that she even began writing her own stories here too.


She read and re-read her mother’s writings again and again, grappling with her loss and trying to get to know her mother through the words she had left behind. For a woman who would go on to have a lasting literary legacy, it was fascinating to me to in the place where she learned to write and read.

 

On a more scandalous note: this sacred place for young Mary became the spot where she met poet Percy Shelley in secret. This began when she was 16 and he 21 (he was also already married), but they fell madly in love. The rumour goes that Mary lost her virginity atop her mother’s grave. While we have Mary’s letters, or what the family released of them, we don’t know for sure if this is fact or if it has become literary myth. While this may solidify Mary Shelley as a Gothic icon, the cemetery would not have been spooky for her: it was a place where she read and thought and wrote. It was imbued with so much emotional and intellectual meaning before Percy arrived.

 

For those looking to go, the tomb in St Pancras Old Church Garden, behind St. Pancras train station. And while you’re there, you might as well pay your respects to another feminist landmark: the location where the Spice Girls filmed their music video “Wannabe” is the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel London.



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