The subtitle is what drew my attention to The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece. I love knowing what goes into notable works of art, be they books, paintings, music, or any other creative endeavor. Because Frankenstein is one of those books that I have started reading at least three times and have never finished for one reason or another, I thought that maybe Roseanne Montillo’s book would inspire me to give this “masterpiece” another go.
Montillo does not only focus on Mary Godwin Shelley’s background and life around the time of writing her novel, but also on the scientific and political happenings occurring in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her argument is that so many environmental factors go into an author’s work, whether they are conscious or not, and that Mary Shelley’s writing could have very well been different had it not been for several pivotal points in her history.
On the night of Mary Godwin’s birth, August 30, 1797, a storm descended upon the city of London that was later remembered as one of the most awesome displays of thunder and lightning that anyone had ever seen. ["¦] But others, given their superstitious and religious mindset, were frightened by nature’s so-called wonders. To them, the idea that nature could be made to bow down to man bordered on the sacrilegious. If man could steal thunder from the sky; elicit electricity from the heavens; make dead frogs, sheep, and dogs jump; and impart a certain measure of respiration to the dead, then what need was there for a God who had dominion over everything and everybody? These people believed the angry thunderstorms of August 30 were a sign not of untamed knowledge, not of nature bending down to human will, but of God’s wrath. The human race had overstepped its boundaries in some fashion, and God was now seeking his vengeance.
However, Mary Godwin was not born into an overly superstitious home. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a noted intellectual and feminist writer, and her father, William Godwin, was a “celebrated writer and reformer” who often hosted parties with other similar people, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Like the eventual novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the story also dealt with the nature of life and death, the hubris of the human race, and atoning for one’s sins. Although Mary Wollstonecraft died of infection shortly after the birth of Mary Godwin, and although William Godwin’s second wife, Jane Clairmont, did not like the girls (Mary’s half-sister was also named Jane) participating in such evening salons, they would eavesdrop anyway. Mary yearned to be among them, out in the world, and Jane (later to call herself Claire), wanted anything to do with Mary.
Prior to Mary’s birth, the scientific world had become interested in the idea of “galvanism,” named after Luigi Galvini, a physiologist and obstetrician from Bologna, Italy. Galvini had long conducted experiments with dead amphibians where he attempted to reanimate them through jolts of electricity or the injection of opiates. On August 17, 1786, “he wanted to prove a different theory, using a method that in part resembled Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment: he wanted to see if he could elicit movements in the frogs’ legs by employing atmospheric phenomena.”
In the early 1800s, the distinction between a scientist, an artist, a political reformer, and a man of letters was not as clear cut as it later became. The disciplines intertwined, the interests overlapped. As such, scientists like Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin not only studied the topics of electricity and vitalism but also wrote poems and essays on the subjects, which were published and well received by the public at large. Poets such as Percy Shelley experimented with galvanic electricity, poisons, and gases, later jotting down long poems and odes that mused on the sublime mysteries of the natural world and the awesome powers of lightning and thunder.
Public dissections and experiments on bodies were quite popular entertainment at the time, and bodies were obtained either through those who had been sentenced to hang, by grave-robbers paid by scientists, or through more direct means – murder providing a steady stream of body-income. (This made me think of another book I’ve recently read, The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair, in which “undesirables” were killed for their interestingly-shaped skulls.) Remember, this was the time when people would camp out by the gallows with the kids, picnic basket in tow, as though they were a modern family watching TV. The crowds grew even larger for the more famous criminals, and the same would happen at the public dissections.
Mary Godwin met Percy Shelley through her father, as Shelley used to be friendly with William Godwin. That is, until Shelley and Mary became romantically involved. Percy Shelley was married to a woman, Harriet Westbrook, who lived elsewhere and “some people said she was not as intellectual as Shelley wanted.” However:
Shelley enjoyed playing a rescuer. Before marrying, Harriet lived at home with her father and an unmarried older sister ["¦] When she met the dashing poet, she quickly fell in love. In turn, after seeing her situation, Shelley promised to care for her. But that promise was seemingly made in the heat of the moment ["¦]
Meeting Mary, daughter of two interesting intellectuals, living at home with her father and unmarried sister, along with a disagreeable step-mother – well, that was a more potentially pleasurable “rescuer” situation. Percy Shelley was also a fan of scientific study and artistic conversation with his peers, something Mary found irresistible. Eventually, the two – accompanied by Jane (Claire) Clairmont – left William Godwin’s home and began traveling together. It was in this environment that the details of Frankenstein began to coalesce.
Roseanne Montillo does a good job weaving together all these different bits of information, but sometimes her attempts at novelization can feel exaggerated or like a little too much conjecture. There are lines like “[so-and-so] must have…” or “Drenched, undoubtedly lonely, and surely frightened, Mary [Wollstonecraft] walked up and down the wooden bridge, allowing the rain to soak her clothes.”
Montillo has a whole appendix where she cites her sources and has additional notes, but something about the novel-like details didn’t sit right with me. I know that all these people were in the regular habit of writing letters and keeping journals, but maybe it’s the cynical side of me that wonders if some of the details were imagined just for the sake of “better” setting the scene. I liked the book a lot better when it was more straightforward and it was clear from where the information came.
Still, The Lady and Her Monsters is a decent book as far learning more about Mary Shelley and the time in which she lived. It’s somewhat of an atypical biography mixed with a more general history book, and I enjoyed that. Perhaps I favor a more textbook approach by comparison, but I am still glad I read it, and it did convince me enough that I should eventually try, once again, to read Frankenstein.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow publishing company sent me this book as an advanced readers’ copy, so my pull quotes may vary slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.