Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mary's monster also is a product of his times

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, literature, history, biographies, gothic horror

A favorite recreation during the Age of Enlightenment was attending scientific and philosophical lectures and demonstrations. Late in the period, popular fancy shifted towards anatomy and dissections. Then, as Volta and Faraday and others were elucidating the nature of electricity, the experiments of Galvani on dismembered frogs led to a huge interest in using electricity to resuscitate the dead. It wasn't long before dissections were accompanied by electrical demonstrations upon corpses, which temporarily restored certain kinds of activity, and seemed on the verge of restoring life.

The great demand for corpses led to multitudes of "resurrection men", grave robbers who sold corpses to doctors and demonstrators, even as morticians employed by the better-off struggled to invent devices to prevent the extraction of bodies from coffins and mausoleums. It was only in the 1830s, after some such as William Burke and William Hare in Edinborough and John Bishop and Thomas Williams in London were convicted of murdering indigents and prostitutes to feed the trade in corpses, that an Anatomy Act was passed in Parliament, and later in other nations. Under such an atmosphere, and with many stories on such themes already in print, it was simply a matter of time until someone would write the ultimate horror story of obsession, grave robbing, galvanism and scientific hubris.

Also in such an atmosphere, the gloomiest of the gloomy seemed to gather themselves around one Percy Shelley, such that on a stormy night in a poorly-kept inn near Lake Geneva, he and others, including the supremely dissolute Lord Byron and Shelley's mistress Mary Godwin, passed the time by embarking on a challenge to write the best "ghost story". Mary began to write a short story, but then spent a number of weeks writing a book, which after a bit of struggle was published as Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.

The tenor of the early 1800s and the attitudes and personae of the Shelley/Godwin circle are ably captured in Roseanne Montillo's biography of Mary, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece. The book is based on epic amounts of research into the lives, not only of the Shelleys and Byron, but everyone associated with them and those who formed the milieu in which they moved, the atmosphere of their minds.

Mary and Shelley married a few months after returning from Geneva to London, after Shelley's wife killed herself. Six years later he died in a boating accident, aged not quite 30. Their association lasted but 8 years. Yet it was a productive period for them both. Percy Bysshe Shelley is still considered the finest lyric poet of the English language. Pity that lyric poetry is about a century out of style; he is nearly unknown today.

I cannot recall anyone mentioned in the book who lived anything like a usual life span, as we consider it today. With child and infant mortality in the 50% range, and adult longevity somewhere in the 50s or less, people seemed to pack more into the years that they had.

If you combine everything from all the films with "Frankenstein" in their title, you'll have less substance than you'd find by reading Mary Shelley's novel. Far, far from the grunting horror of the original film, Mary's creature, produced and vivified by Victor Frankenstein, became literate and well spoken, but he was so badly made (V.F. was no artist!) that he was horrible to look upon. Driven out by all who saw him, his only friend was blind. I, and many of my contemporaries have read Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. I wonder if anyone under about 40 years of age has done so. If you haven't read Frankenstein, read that first. Then come back and read The Lady and Her Monsters. It will mean a great deal more. Oh, and if you don't know why Prometheus is important, at least a nodding acquaintance with Greek mythology is in order.

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