Monthly Archives: September 2019
Where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein
My daughter, Beth, took this photo earlier this year on a visit to Bath.
This shop used to be TOVEY OPTHALMIC OPTICIAN, the business started in 1888 by my great grandfather, Frank Ivor Tovey. Great grandfather and his family lived above the shop and I was told that my grandmother was born in those rooms.
The shop front seen in these photos was newly installed by my great grandfather in 1906, designed by Alfred J. Taylor.
The current shopkeepers told Beth that Mary Shelley had lived there.
This was a surprise to me, but a little bit of research reveals that it is true. The rooms above the shop were rented by Percy Shelley and occupied by Mary’s step sister, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Shelley’s son, William, and his nurse, and Mary used this address, 12 New Bond Street, for her correspondence during that period from autumn 1816 to January 1817, although she also had other rooms in a boarding house near the Pump Room and Roman baths.
It was a dark time for Mary; Shelley was hardly ever there, and Mary and Claire were keeping out of the public eye because Claire was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child.
In addition, Mary and Percy Shelley’s first baby, Clara, had recently died in infancy while they were abroad and Byron’s relationship with Claire had gone sour. Shelley had run out of funds to support himself, Mary and Claire on their travels and they had returned to England on a low with winter coming. Mary felt deeply the rift with her father, but she determined to write the novel that she had started after a nightmare vision during their stay with Byron.
As if things couldn’t get worse, tragedy came with the suicides of Mary’s half sister, Fanny, and of Shelley’s wife, Harriet. It is hard to imagine how wretched life must have seemed on a dark, wet, winter day.
Out of all this came Mary’s ground breaking novel, Frankenstein.
(There are links to buy the books, Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour, and Frankenstein, below.)
My mother, Winifred Tovey, wrote about her first visit to Tovey Opticians in her book, Strangers in Chaotung …
‘Frank’s grandfather, Frank Ivor Tovey, was descended from a family of watch and clock makers. He had qualified as an optician and set up the business in New Bond Street, Bath. It was here that Frank’s father, Ernest Tovey worked. Ernest trained as an optician when courting Nellie and had to change his name from Short to Tovey by deed poll when he married her, the eldest of the three Tovey daughters.
Frank’s auntie, Irene Tovey, also worked at the shop in Bath. She was the middle sister to Nellie and May and the first woman to qualify as an optician in England, for which she was awarded the Freedom of London.
During the weekend I spent a fascinating afternoon in the shop. I met all the staff members and then was taken upstairs into the workshop where spectacles were prepared for individual customers. At that time, 1947, spectacle lenses were made of glass and arrived in squares. First of all the lens had to be centred. If they were cylindrical the axis was marked with a blue pencil, then the lenses were cut, using a template, and bevelled to fit the spectacle frame. If bifocal correction was required, this was added as a segment, which was stuck onto the lower part of the lens. It needed great skill and care to obtain a good result. I found it fascinating.
Frank, of course, knew all about my background and had visited our house frequently, but I was slightly worried about what his family expected of me because of my working class background. Quietly, I was overwhelmed. Despite the fact that in view of our family circumstances I had successfully worked my way through to obtain a responsible post with a good salary, I did wonder whether Frank’s father would be happy to accept me as a suitable partner for his son.’