Still working through my reviews from 2021, I come to the Biography for the reading challenge. This is an interesting one in that, while it does surround the life of Mary Shelley, it puts a particular focus on the influences surrounding her creation of her most famous work, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. In doing so, Montillo discusses the lives and work of notable scientists and doctors who were experimenting with electricity and reanimation of cadavers. Many people see Victor Frankenstein as a fictional character without realizing he was the embodiment of the vision of greatness in the minds of many a real man. He achieved in fiction what the most ambitious scientific dreamers were attempting, reanimating the dead.
This introduction of a rather odd period of scientific progress does two things for the book. It introduces a moderate amount of “Ewwwww” but also a little humor in a pretty twisted and sick way. I mean, science is a trial and error kind of thing. Will you successfully reanimate a body and bring a man back to life or will his head explode and splatter the rich people in the front row? NOBODY KNOWS!
There are serious overtones to this book. Number one, it brings to light some issues with the criminal justice system during this time period. Many of the bodies acquired by scientists for their experiments came straight from the gallows to the lab. This was a brutal time in which civil liberties weren’t at all considered. Men, sometimes mere boys, were hanged for crimes that would today receive not much more than a slap on the wrist. Often they were innocent. If not from there, they came through the lucrative and mafia-esque criminal enterprise of grave robbing. There was a very fine line separating the realm of science and the seedier shadow world of European society.
All of this historical scientific information was juxtaposed with the details of Mary Shelley’s life, which was far from a happy one. It was one full of loss and strife and containing blatant skepticism from male members of the scholarly community for her intellect and literary achievements. She was ridiculed and rejected by polite society for her bohemian lifestyle, just as her own mother was in her day. Sure, Frankenstein is a marvel of achievement in science fiction, but it’s also a novel rich with emotional depth. Scholars often only focus on the predominantly male aspects in the text, the creation through science, intellectual achievement, a piecing together of dead flesh and reanimation to something with breath and vitality. They often ignore the presence of the female, natural creation through birth, loss of the self, of the humanity of a nameless creature who will never experience love or the nurturing touch of a parent. I in no way mean to imply these two spheres exist solely within the realms of the two sexes, but merely that the scholarly thought at the time distinguished them as such.
Mary Shelley would give birth to five children. She would bury four of them and lose another to miscarriage that almost claimed her life. We’d be remiss to ignore the fact that Mary Shelley’s grief is a haunting presence in this story. Her nameless creature is a reflection of the nameless child whose birth and death preceded the writing, that the rejection of the creature is a manifestation of the motherly guilt that comes with not being able to follow your baby into the frightening world of the unknown. This guilt is totally unjustified, but any mother who has lost a child will tell you its presence is felt just the same.
When we focus on the creature as being a monster, we see him as a villain. I’ve never read the creature as a villain, but rather a lonely and desperate individual whose experiences with nothing but rejection pushed him further into despair. The torment Victor endures after rejecting his creation is a manifestation of the torment felt by a parent who loses a child. In many ways, it’s a novel about mental health, both that of the creature and the creator. It’s about loss and the fundamental change that a person experiences when living through loss so deep it alters every aspect of the self. This is something Mary Shelley understood far too intimately, and Montillo does delve into the depression that afflicted Mary Shelley’s years following the publication of her novel. This depression that was magnified every time she experienced the loss of yet another child.
Writing her masterpiece was a catharsis that could only have come from her own mind, despite the prevailing thought at the time that a woman couldn’t have penned such a work. It was originally published anonymously, nameless authorship in homage to the nameless tragic hero of its text. Many would assume her husband, Percy, was responsible for its writing. Well, the joke is on them, because the average person probably couldn’t name even one thing a bunch of those famous men of the time wrote, but literally everyone is familiar with the name Frankenstein in some capacity, even if they only know that stupid green Halloween caricature that bears no comparison to Mary Shelley’s tragic hero. Her revolutionary work was the perfect blend of the masculine and feminine spheres of society, thus proving that the human self is not complete without the merger of the two. Not to mention, she created a whole new damn genre. No man would be publishing science fiction today had a woman not paved the way for him. Take that, you sexist assholes of the 1800’s.
Ok, wow… I totally stopped talking about the book I’m reviewing and moved to Mary Shelley, because she’s amazing. Frankly, I wish Montillo had discussed her a lot more in this book and focused a lot less on her relationships with the men, like Percy and Lord Byron. Given the fact that we got very little information about Shelley’s writing process, the two parts seemed a bit disjointed. This is largely because much of the theory behind it is conjecture on the part of the author merely because it makes sense. Of course Mary Shelley was influenced by the work of scientists of the time, because her masterpiece reflects their prevailing thoughts and mirrors the experimentation that permeated the scientific community. However, from what I could tell there isn’t really a whole lot that we have to actually tie those two things together besides that conjecture. Perhaps there’s just not much in the written record showing that Mary Shelley actually communicated with or studied the work of scientists. In that respect this book felt a little bit like ping-ponging back and forth between the science stuff and the biography stuff and they didn’t really feel very connected unless you did some mental stretching.
This is an extremely fascinating concept and a very unique perspective on Mary Shelley’s life. For anyone with an interest in Mary Shelley and her most famous literary duo, this is a great start even if it could have been a bit more well executed. The research concerning the science at the time seemed a lot more thorough than the research into Shelley. The things I discussed here in my review were merely alluded to by Montillo and not actually discussed, which I feel was a mistake. Frankenstein is not just a novel about science, it’s a novel about what it means to be human. Overall, 3 stars for this one. Enjoyable but missed the mark in certain ways.
Published February 4, 2013 by William Morrow. Paperback published October 22, 2013. ISBN 006202583X. 336 pages.