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Searching for Mary and Jane

I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.

Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial,  Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).

Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.

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Mary and Jane

I’ve just had a revelation, a moment of inspiration, an epiphany. It started as a vague discomfort, a niggle, the feeling something needed to be put right. I was on a walking tour of Bath, a literary walk, during which I discovered that Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein in that city.

Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Austen’s association with Bath is probably better known, one reason for this is that the great and the good of Bath, for some reason, denied any commemoration of Shelley’s work – probably because they knew her creation as the flat headed giant portrayed by Boris Karloff, a scar across his head, a bolt through his neck. Bath, it seems, would rather brand itself as the city of Jane Austen, of refined good manners, of the Pump Rooms and Bridgerton than of anything to do with Hammer Horror. The tour took us to some of the places associated with Mary and husband Percy Shelley, as well as her stepsister Clair Clairmont who, at the time, was living with another poet, Byron.

Something about this story stayed with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few weeks later when I realised: it was the thought that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen could have crossed paths. Mary’s book fizzes with electricity and ideas of the age, of evolution, a rage against creation, Austen’s belongs in a much earlier age. But they are similar in so many ways: precocious, smart, producing work at a prodigiously young age.  Mary was very dismissive of novels, and Jane died a year before Frankenstein was published, but I want to put the two in a room together, maybe have them sitting down to tea and cakes, and see how they get on. And now it’s become an obsession. Two years ago I took my ‘noise opera’ about Arthur Machen to the Edinburgh Festival. And now I have a new project: to produce and perform ‘Mary and Jane’, even though, as yet, it is no more that a niggle, an itch, a series of notes on a scrap of paper and have no idea what it will become. At the same time I quite like the idea of recording its development here, from vague first idea, to finished show.

To give the idea some sort of tangible existence, I wrote a short story, it’s here.

Postscript: Bath has since relented on its willingness to commemorate Shelley, maybe because the old movies no longer eclipse the book to the extent that they once did. A plaque has been placed in front of the Pump Rooms and a new  ‘immersive experience’ is about to open in the city: ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Truly horrific.

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