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Communing with radical spirits

posted on 01 May 2017

Communing with radical spirits

In the two or three days after Easter I was lucky enough to spend time in Bournemouth when spring was springing and the sun was delightful. As well as a visit to the marvellous Russell Cotes Art Gallery ( if you haven’t been make it a priority) I took the opportunity to visit the graveyard of The Parish Church of Saint Peter which is to be found right in the centre of town. You can meander through its grounds as you head up from the seafront in the general direction of the railway. Many of the graves here are old but kept well – not overly manicured but clean and tidy and what I think of as natural. It’s a thoroughfare for many people heading up and down but it’s clearly respected and it repays that respect by being shady, leafy and serene.

It would have been a lovely place to visit without its claim to fame and this place has a very notable claim to fame because it is the resting place of some of the greatest names of the Romantic literary and philosophic tradition. In a single well-kept plot lie the remains of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and, with his wife, the heart ( yes, just the heart) of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I didn’t quite know what to expect. I have seen ‘celebrity’ graves elsewhere and they have been festooned with the memorabilia of visitors paying pilgrimage and I expected that to be the case here. However, I was delighted to find that there was nothing of the sort – just one discreet clutch of flowers laid in front of the modest monument. I was touched by the dignity of the scene – no histrionics, no slogans, no-one claiming them as their own.

So what are these four giants of the radical tradition doing in sleepy old Bournemouth? This is pretty much all down to Mary Shelley’s son – also a Percy –who, following his mother’s wishes, agreed to bury her with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and her mother’s husband William Godwin. However, Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s grave was in St. Pancras in London and was facing a terrible fate - being dug-up to accommodate the new railway. So to avoid this the young Percy and his new wife had the bodies moved to St. Peter’s in 1851 when Mary Shelley eventually died. All three were then buried together – close to her son’s new home in Boscombe.

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The story of Shelley’s heart is famous and extraordinary. Having drowned off the coast of Italy at the tender age of 29 – just one month before his 30th birthday – his body was cremated on the beach and his ashes buried in Rome. However, there were persistent rumours that his great friend Edward Trelawney had pulled his heart from the cremation fire before it burned and that he had delivered it to Mary. It is this that is buried in the St Peter’s crypt. No-one knows definitively whether the story is true but I don’t think this really matters – it’s true in spirit and that’s what really counts as far as I’m concerned.

For a short time on one morning in April 2017 I stood and contemplated the lives and deaths of writers who have been important to me in my life. Somehow the two and a half centuries that separated us didn’t seem such a long time.

 

Terry Potter

May 2017