Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Lady and Her Monsters

A book review from the Wall Street Journal:
Much of Ms. Montillo's journey is familiar, since Mary Shelley was quite explicit about the sources for "Frankenstein," especially in the revised 1831 edition. She recorded her debt to the daring speculations of Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, about the spontaneous creation of life, and to the electrical researches of Aldini's uncle Luigi Galvani. She cited Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," with its frozen polar wastes and specters of "Nightmare Life-in-Death," which as an 8-year-old child she had heard the poet recite in her father's parlor, and she made several dark allusions to the alchemical experiments of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, two Medieval figures with whom Percy had become obsessed during his studies at Oxford.

Finally, Mary Shelley recalled the stormy summer night in 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland with Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori, when she first saw Victor Frankenstein and his creature in a waking dream: "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." Once her authorship of the anonymous text became known, it would become impossible not to read the tale also in the light of her own tribulations: her forced exile from England; her wanderings in Europe; the loss of her baby in 1815 and the premature deaths of Shelley and Byron that were shortly to follow.

Tracing the genesis and themes of "Frankenstein" has long been a thriving field of study. In the past five years alone, the galvanic experiments of Aldini and others have been thoroughly examined by Iwan Morus in "Shocking Bodies" (2011); Andy Dougan has exposed the murky hinterland of autopsy and bodysnatching in "Raising the Dead: The Men Who Created Frankenstein" (2008); and Daisy Hay has retold the tangled tale of the Shelleys, Byron and their overheated milieu in "Young Romantics" (2010). Roseanne Montillo lists none of these titles in her short bibliography and breaks little fresh ground either in detail or interpretation; she aims at a lively tour d'horizon for the reader coming to the story for the first time, and she chases down its familiar strands with macabre relish.

This is equally a literary and a scientific endeavor: Much of the fascination with the roots of "Frankenstein" lies in the dazzling polymaths of Mary's social circle, who in no way observed the modern divide between science and the humanities. Humphry Davy composed florid romantic poetry as well as discovering sodium and potassium; Coleridge studied chemistry and wrote that when he attended Davy's scientific lectures, his "motive muscles tingled and contracted" with excitement. William Godwin was the most radical political theorist of his day, yet owed much of his public reputation to his novels and children's books. Percy Shelley burned the midnight oil over not just sonnets but galvanic batteries and "strange and fiery liquids." "Frankenstein's" subtitle, "the modern Prometheus," pays tribute to Percy's self-declared mission to bring the fire of the gods to humanity by any means necessary, whether science or sorcery, poetry or revolution. (Read entire review.)

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