Charlotte Gordon, author of the acclaimed Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, shares her thoughts on the places she visited as part of her research for the book.
I live in Massachusetts, and in the early days of writing Romantic Outlaws, I spent a lot of time on the internet, trying to picture the places where Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft lived – London, Rome, Paris – they seemed exotic to me, so far from the fishing village where I live.
But I knew I could not really capture the smells, the tastes, the feel of their travels unless I hit the road. And so, over the last seven years, I have been to London, Dundee, Geneva, Paris, Avignon, Rome, Venice, Milan, Lake Como, Sicily, Lerici, Florence – the list goes on and on. I learned to sip coffee outside in the hot Italian mornings, just as Mary Shelley did. I have looked for homes and gravesites. I have tried to imagine Paris as it was before Haussmann, Lake Como before electricity and automobiles, Hampstead as a remote rural community on the outskirts of London.
Writing history is a curious exercise of the imagination, one where one must subtract things before one can add anything in. I would stare at the old church in St Pancras, the church where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married, where Wollstonecraft was buried, and where her young daughter, Mary Shelley came to visit her grave, and I would try to subtract the busy city that presses all around it — the enormous train station and the trucks rushing past – and try to see what it was like over two hundred years ago, when it was a quiet country church, bordered by farmland and the gentle curve of the River Fleet…