Saturday, 22 August 2015

12 The Suicide at the Mackworth, 1816

12. The Suicide at the Mackworth (photos: Mackworth, Shelley, etc) - 22 August 2015

Near the top of Wind Street, at the junction with Green Dragon Lane, stands Idols, formerly Swansea’s Head Post Office which had opened in December 1901.  It was built on the site of an old coaching inn called The Mackworth Arms Hotel, demolished in 1898. 

The Mackworth Arms in Wind Street was described by a Rev. Richard Warner as “the best inn in the place”, and the 1802 Swansea Guide stated it was “admirably adapted for the accommodation of the more stylish traveller”.  The painter J.W.M. Turner stayed there, as did Lord Nelson, accompanied by Sir William and Lady Hamilton, when visiting Swansea in August 1802.

But nearly two centuries ago it was the scene of a tragedy, when in October 1816 a 22-year-old single woman named Fanny Imlay took an overdose of laudanum in a first-floor room.  Her suicide note was printed in the weekly newspaper “The Cambrian”, whose premises were directly opposite, where The Bank Statement is now.  Perhaps Fanny Imlay felt the title of Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance” described her, yet she was connected to four notable people whose portraits hang together upstairs in the National Portrait Gallery, and whose books are still in print after two centuries.  

Fanny Imlay’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft was a remarkable woman who wrote the influential “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792; her step-father William Godwin was a radical philosopher and author of “Political Justice”, which challenged the forms of government in those undemocratic times; her half-sister Mary Shelley wrote the much-filmed novel “Frankenstein”, while her future brother-in-law was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.    

Fanny was born out of wedlock in Le Havre in 1794, but three years later her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died in London after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley.  Fanny grew up near St Pancras, in a household beset by financial problems.  Her step-father Godwin married a “Mrs” Clairmont, who brought into the family her two children by different fathers, and Fanny became the eldest of five children in a household where none had the same father and the same mother: dysfunctional families are nothing new. 

From 1814 they were visited by the 22-year-old as yet unknown poet Shelley, who admired the radical ideas of Godwin and of Mary Wollstonecraft.  The atmosphere in the Godwin household deteriorated further when Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife to elope with Fanny’s 16-year-old half-sister Mary! 

Fanny had hoped in vain to escape the repressive Godwin household through employment at the Dublin girls’ school run by her aunt.  For in spite of her good character, to employ anyone linked with the scandalous behaviour of Shelley and Mary could jeopardise prospects of attracting pupils to a fee-paying girls’ school. 

Probably the final straw was some remark from her stepmother about Fanny’s illegitimacy, for she packed her few belongings and took the mail coach to Gloucester, and from there the Cambrian coach to Swansea – to get as far from London as she could afford, to distance the family from her intended suicide. 

A letter to her half-sister Mary said “I depart immediately to the spot from which I hope never to remove”, which caused Shelley to hurry from Bath to Swansea, though too late to avert a tragedy.  He managed to keep Fanny’s identity out of the newspaper, and she was buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church (subsequently rebuilt as St Matthew’s, near High Street Station).  

Remembering their recent final meeting at Piccadilly Circus, Shelley wrote:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,

Yet knew I not her heart was broken

From which it came, and I departed

Heeding not the words then spoken.

Misery - O Misery,

This world is all too wide for thee.

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