Bookish beginnings

Mary Shelley lived on EC1’s Skinner Street as a girl, at the bookshop of her debt-ridden father, William Godwin. In the 200th year since ‘Frankenstein’, we give a taste of her local home through this extract from a new biography.

Number 41 Skinner Street is a five-storey corner building facing two ways, on to Skinner Street and Fleet Market. It has no basement area: the street about the ground-floor windows. Like The Polygon [Mary’s previous home, in Somers Town], it’s part of a half-failed and incomplete speculative build; the house has stood empty for the five or six years since its construction.

The surrounding neighbourhood is built up without necessarily being very lively. And with good reason. There are three prisons close by, and the house is within earshot of both Smithfield Market, where cattle are slaughtered nightly, and the New Drop at Old Bailey, where public executions take place every few weeks. The abattoir stink of the meat market and the threatening, noisy crowds who surge in to see the hangings seem to press up against the very walls of this new home. Unlike The Polygon, with its smells of fresh air and fields, this is a house in which to keep the windows shut…

Because it occupies a corner site, the house buries the two sides that don’t make up frontage in the terraces it joins on either side. Literally blind-sided, it faces only front – a house that is all show. It’s also a home in which roles have been reversed. The powerhouse is no longer Mary’s father’s rst- oor study but the unavoidable ground-floor shop, presided over by her stepmother. The house has no other entrance.

Writing, formerly sublimated as intellectual adventure, turns out to be something to sell. For number 41 is – at least – on a street of booksellers. By now Godwin has been a publisher for around two years, and he has been writing pseudonymous books for children for three more. The names under which he writes seem almost to develop into heteronyms, each with its own specialism. Edward Baldwin, author of Fables, Ancient and Modern (1805) and The History of England for the Use of Schools and Young Persons (1806), is the historian… William Scolfield retells Bible stories for children. And Theophilus Marcliffe writes books with improving morals for the young, including his copycat The Looking Glass.

Godwin produces relatively little serious work during these years. No surprise: since 1805 he’s been maintaining, as well as 29 The Polygon, a house on Oxford Street for use as a bookseller–publisher, and making the building pay by taking in lodgers. His notoriety means that these projects have had to be kept at arm’s length. But secrets have a habit of running away with themselves. The bookshop, in Hanway Street, is set up in the name of Thomas Hodgkins, the man Godwin employs to run it. He’s thus able to embezzle the money it makes – and he does.

At Skinner Street, where the new bookshop is set up in his wife’s name as M. J. Godwin & Co., family life combines with business premises. Soon these in turn combine with [his children’s publishing imprint] the Juvenile Library, which marries commerce with a discreet dissemination of liberal social and educational ideas. Publishing writing by fine radical contemporary minds, Charles and Mary Lamb’s among them, is commercially attractive and keeps standards high; it also keeps Godwin connected to his intellectual peers.

This extract is taken from “In Search of Ma Shelley: e Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein” by Fiona Sampson, published by Profile Books.