North London Food & Culture

Wednesday Picture: Mary Shelley’s ‘Odious Swamp’

Why did Frankenstein author Mary Shelley call Kentish Town an ‘odious swamp?’ (If it makes you feel any better, local readers, Naples was a ‘paradise inhabited by devils’, her villa on the Italian Riviera a ‘dungeon’).

In 1824 Shelley moved to Bartholomew Place, a rather lovely terrace built with ‘unobstructed views over Holloway and Islington’; now it’s the run-down parade adjoining The Abbey Tavern.

And look (main pic) how the section of high street appeared in James King’s Kentish Town Panorama, around twenty years earlier, when it was still an orchard, no less.

Shelley had grown up in Somers Town, the daughter of privelege, and published her most famous work anonymously six years previously. The move to NW5 was precipitated after her husband Percy drowned in Italy, along with her bezzie mate Jane’s fella Edward.


It’s not quite clear whether the two women lived near or actually with each other, but Shelley biographer Muriel Spark whispers there may have been a sapphic overtone in the relations; was she ‘a little in love’ with Jane? (Her later letters would back this up: ‘Often leaving you at Kentish Town I have wept from the overflow of affection.’)

Love, orchards, gardens with unobstructed views. Sounds idyllic right? Wrong. Not long after, another good mate of theirs, Byron, popped his clogs – and the pair famously watched his passing funeral procession up towards Highgate from the windows of No.5; in The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall imagines them pondering the ‘effects of time and chance and on the premature deaths of their husbands.’

But where did the odious swamp comment come from? K-Town in the 1820s was renowned for its supremely healthy atmosphere. The only explanation would be that Shelley was prone to extreme bouts of depression. After the deaths of three of her children, it was so acute her husband Percy had recorded this: ‘My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone/ And left me in this dreary world alone?’

And in July 1824 she wrote:

‘Here then we are, Jane and I, in Kentish Town…We live near each other now, and, seeing each other almost daily, for ever dwell on one subject…The country about here is really pretty; lawny uplands, wooded parks, green lanes, and gentle hills form agreeable and varying combinations. If we had orange sunsets, cloudless noons, fireflies, large halls, I should not find the scenery amiss, and yet I can attach myself to nothing here; neither among the people, though some are good and clever, nor to the places, though they be pretty.’

(But then again she may have just been having a bad day. You should hear some of the things that topple out of Mrs Kentishtowner’s gob after an altercation on the Crescent).

Mary Shelley did have a bit of va va voom, however, and embraced the unconventional – surely the spirit of NW5 all over. In 1827 – whilst still living in the Swamp – she was party to a scheme that enabled her friend Isabel Robinson and Isabel’s lover, Mary Diana Dods (who wrote under the name David Lyndsay) to embark on a life together in France as man and wife. She showed utmost dedication to their happiness, even obtaining false passports for the couple. A typical night down Annie’s Bar, then.

Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms

Sources: Kentish Town Panorama (James Frederick King, London Topographical Society, 1986), The Fields Beneath (Gillian Tindall, Eland), Streets Of Kentish Town (Camden History Society), The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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The award-winning print and online title Kentishtowner was founded in 2010 and is part of London Belongs To Me, a citywide network of travel guides for locals. For more info on what we write about and why, see our About section.