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House of horror: Bath opens the world’s first museum dedicated to Mary Shelley

This week the city finally embraced its gothic past – in honour of one of its most famous residents. And with it, a host of dark secrets

“Yes there’s plenty of scope for bodies around here,” Stephen Clews, the Roman Baths & Pump Room manager chuckles. We’re surveying the Abbey Churchyard square that fronts Bath’s Pump Room and entranceway to the Roman Baths. Saxon burials were unearthed here during Pump Room excavations, and a medieval church and graveyard were flattened to make way for the square in the 18th century.

Bath’s Unesco limestone centre is a complex patchwork of historical intrigue, but what we’re actually here to look at is a plaque to the left of the Pump Room that marks where Mary Shelley lived in 1816 and 1817 and wrote most of her novel Frankenstein (first conceived by Lake Geneva). Unbeknown to Shelley, she was practically living on top of the Roman Baths, but they weren’t discovered until 60 years after she left. The living quarters she occupied were torn down in the 1890s to extend the Pump Room. Shelley’s ties to Bath were laid to rest for 200 years, but then this plaque was erected in 2018 on the bicentenary of Frankenstein’s publication after a campaign by cultural historian Christopher Frayling.

The more we read about Shelley, the more you learn she’s this extraordinary person and a visionary who is not celebrated

With the unveiling of the plaque, a seed was planted. And this week the world’s first museum dedicated to Shelley and her creature has opened in Bath, financed by locals. Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein is a slasher-esque immersive experience occupying a Georgian townhouse two doors up from the Jane Austen Centre. The brainchild of Jonathan Willis and Chris Harris, who met in the theatre before moving into film and video, it is a homage to Hollywood that makes use of customised room scents, an 8ft automaton, electric shock displays and actors. But it’s also a painstakingly researched retelling of Shelley’s life and time in Bath.

“When I realised that she wrote Frankenstein here, I took a real interest in it. The more we read about her, the more you start to learn she’s this extraordinary person and a visionary, who’s not celebrated – here or anywhere in the country,” says Harris. “She’s one of the most important figures in English literature. Her book is always cited as one of the Top 100 most important books, but there’s nothing.”

The museum is a homage to Hollywood as well as Shelley’s time in Bath.
The museum is a homage to Hollywood as well as Shelley’s time in Bath

So why did it take 200 years for the city to acknowledge Shelley? “Forty years ago Christopher Frayling was trying to get Bath to celebrate Mary Shelley but the council at the time said it was too Hollywood. The council now has a very different attitude,” Harris says.

It might also have something to do with the fact that, like Jane Austen, it’s well documented that Shelley had a far-from-happy time in Bath, as I learn that evening on a Frankenstein walking tour with the Show of Strength theatre company. Founder Sheila Hannon has been banging the drum for Bath’s Shelley connections since 2016. “Someone once called this tour ‘EastEnders for posh people’,” she jokes, before launching into a Georgian soap opera filled with licentiousness, suicide and melancholy.

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A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
A portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

Following in Shelley’s footsteps, we visit the boarding house on New Bond Street – now an upmarket fashion store with a Percy Shelley quote inscribed above the clothes rails – where Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont was confined to give birth to Lord Byron’s illegitimate child in Bath. Dark secrets like this dogged the unmarried Shelleys and their tribe, for whom, on paper, fashionable Bath was an unusual choice.

“She’s 19 when she arrives in Bath, and in certain circles she is notorious as Percy Shelley’s mistress and the mother of his illegitimate children, and there are other secrets that she’s desperate to hide,” says Hannon theatrically as we pause in a narrow backstreet to escape the din of street buskers. “She loathes fashionable people, she hates Bath – just like Jane Austen. So what is she doing here?”

Today, Bath trades on its glamorous Georgian legacy. You can take high tea in the colonnaded Pump Room while being serenaded by a grand piano. The city puts on costumed Regency balls in honour of Jane Austen, and hen parties rave on the flagstones to Bridgerton headphone tours. In Georgian times the rich spent the autumn season in Bath taking the thermal waters – like tourists today – and recuperating in hospitals around the spa quarter where Shelley lived, but the city was underwritten by gambling dens and brothels.

Shelley came to Bath to hide. Yet she found deep wells of inspiration while living in the shadow of the city’s gothic abbey

By all accounts, Shelley came to Bath to hide. Yet she found deep wells of inspiration while living in the shadow of the city’s gothic abbey, particularly among Bath’s medical community. Significantly, she was a contemporary of Dr Charles Wilkinson, a pioneer of medical electricity, and attended lectures at his laboratory around the corner from her lodgings when she was writing about Victor Frankenstein breaking taboos by using galvanism to shock life into a creature stitched together from dead body parts. Frankenstein is widely considered the first science-fiction novel – and Bath’s imprint on Shelley’s story is clear

Curiously, Shelley wasn’t the only gothic author to tread these handsome streets. Gothic fiction pioneer Ann Radcliffe grew up in Bath decades before Shelley arrived, and then in the 1970s Angela Carter, the godmother of modern gothic feminist fiction, also lived in the city.

A huge head of Shelley’s famous monster is among the museum’s exhibits
A huge head of Shelley’s famous monster is among the museum’s exhibits

The following evening, I join Dr Lynch from Bath Ghost Tours to learn more about Georgian Bath’s little explored underbelly. “Alexander Pope described Bath as being a sulphurous pit in summer, because it really was disgusting,” he says. The city’s medicinal reputation brought not just the ailing rich, but also lepers and plague sufferers. “They were trying to cure them with the water. It never worked,” says Dr Lynch, who cheerfully describes the Georgian spa marketing machine as an “absolute con”!

I’m taken to an old duelling pit in a grassy knoll beneath the Royal Crescent and we stop at the allegedly haunted Theatre Royal. But the most memorable stories come from a visit to Trim Street, once a den of iniquity where Jane Austen famously lived in an apartment with her mother after her father’s death. At the entrance to the street are the remnants of Bath’s medieval wall and a discreet sunken plaque marking a plague pit where bodies were dumped by the hospital between 1736 and 1849.

Old Bath
Mary originally lived in the centre of Bath, to the left of the Pump Room

“This wall is famously known as the groaning wall of Bath. People say they can hear the sound of human voices inside,” says Dr Lynch grimly from behind comically dark glasses. In both Austen and Shelley’s day, this open burial ground would have wafted an unfathomable stench through the low-lying core of the city. In Bath, you don’t have to scratch too deep beneath the surface to find something murky and rotten.

The House of Frankenstein is just the beginning of Bath’s newfound gothic embrace. The museum creators are also about to open an escape room and in the next year they want to add monster balls, a horror tour bus, a Scary Mary’s cafe staffed by actors, and gothically styled accommodation offering sleepover experiences. Bath’s well-to-do image is about to get an electric shock of theatrical gruesomeness. Jane Austen, eat your heart out.

www.theguardian.com

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