By DEBORAH BLUM
The New York Times
February 1, 2013
The laboratory was dark that November evening. The young scientist watched the still body on the table, peering through shadows thrown by flickering candlelight. And then, through the gloom, he “saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open” and its limbs begin to twitch.
Could there be a more classic example of monster-haunted suspense than this scene from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus”? But Shelley’s story runs far deeper than simple horror fiction, and questions of suspenseful artistry are not the ones Roseanne Montillo asks in “The Lady and Her Monsters.” Instead, she delves into the story behind this famously creepy moment: was it simply spun out of the imagination of a brilliantly neurotic young author? Or is it better described as the work of a highly educated woman grappling with the darker implications of early-19th-century scientific research?
Montillo is far from the first author to ponder the real-life influences on Shelley’s iconic tale; these are issues so well discussed that you can find many of them on Wikipedia. But Montillo achieves a freshness through her lively narrative approach and a fascination with long-ago science and its ethics that sparks across the pages.
Her account essentially alternates between the writing of the novel and the experiments that inspired it. Montillo begins with the discovery of electricity’s role in biology. In a classic late-18th-century experiment, the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani hung dead frogs from his balcony during a thunderstorm. The animals were impaled on metal hooks intended to attract an electric charge as the storm flashed its way across town. In response to a lightning strike or a boom of thunder, “their legs twitched in a way that made them seem as if they were ready to hop off the balcony and into the streets below.”
Today, the influence of Galvani’s work is evident even in our lexicon, the way we use the word “galvanize,” to mean startled into sudden activity. And it underlies our modern awareness that living systems naturally generate electrical current as a means of communication among cells (so that we are perfectly designed to respond to a jolt of electricity). But it was his less celebrated nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who most likely brought such ideas to Shelley’s attention. Determined to foster greater appreciation for his uncle’s work, Aldini went to London, where he continued public demonstrations — but this time with human bodies. In one such event, in the winter of 1803, he attached electrodes to the body of a man recently hanged for murder. He then attempted to wake the man from the dead using shocks of battery-generated electrical current. The experiment failed, but descriptions of the body’s responses — the opening of an eye, the turning of the head, the convulsive tremors of the limbs — spread.
As Montillo notes, the Aldini experiments echoed a deep public interest in the idea that science could somehow find a way to bring the dead back to life. There was a reason grave robbers, hired to steal corpses for medical research, were known as resurrectionists. There was hope that as doctors analyzed the body, part by part, they would find the source of whatever power animated this assemblage of bone and muscle, organ and tissue. And as people discussed these possibilities, Montillo writes, they also began to wonder: “Was man a creature created by a God who dished out values and properties according to his fancies? Or was man a machine powered by an internal galvanic fluid, which in turn could be sparked alive by a rush of electricity?”
There seems little doubt that Mary Shelley was aware of this wonderfully tangled knot of science and philosophy. Born in 1797, she was the child of two well-known intellectuals, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (who died shortly after her daughter’s birth) and the political philosopher William Godwin. And her intimate circle, including her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was fascinated by such ideas. Shelley, in fact, experimented with galvanism himself; as a student at Oxford University, he crammed his rooms with electrical machines, air pumps, glass containers, the very stuff of an archetypal mad scientist. Friends described the young scholar cranking up the current to a point that his “long wild locks bristled and stood on end.”
Shelley and Mary Godwin had notoriously eloped in 1814, when he was still married and she was not quite 17. Accompanied by Godwin’s stepsister, they fled to Continental Europe and largely remained there, even after Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide and they were able to wed. It was during this period of transience that they visited George Gordon, Lord Byron, in Switzerland. It was the summer of 1816, cold and gray because of the fallout from a massive volcano eruption in Indonesia. The weather drove the group indoors, where Byron proposed a ghost story competition, and in response Mary Godwin — she married Shelley later that year — invented the story of Dr. Frankenstein.
The young author credited a troubling dream of a scientist and his man-made monster as inspiration for the tale. But it’s the other inspirations that give Montillo’s book its incisive moments, such as when she notes the similarities between Victor Frankenstein and Percy Shelley: “Mary even chose the name Victor as a homage to Percy, who had used that name in his youth because he felt it showed power and strength.” Would Percy have felt honored by this tribute? Frankenstein is a coward of a scientist, repulsed by what he’s created, and his abandonment of the monster leads to a tragically murderous conclusion.
Of course, neither of the Shelleys is particularly admirable in Montillo’s telling. Her portrait of the creator of “Frankenstein” and her short-lived marriage (Percy Shelley died in a boating accident in 1822) is a study of self-absorbed neurotics. There’s more affection here — or perhaps, more interest — in the real-life Dr. Frankensteins, their ethically dubious choices and their attempts to explain the workings of mind and soul.
For it’s this impulse that gives Mary Shelley’s own book its enduring power. The moment Frankenstein’s yellow-eyed monster blinks to life is also the beginning of a renewed quest to understand what that life actually means, what makes human existence something more than the low hum of an electrical connection. As Montillo reminds us, Shelley’s story, written almost 200 years ago, raises questions worth exploring today because we’re still figuring out the answers.