Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein. This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup. I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein. The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily. Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century. It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later. Harkup, however, is a scientist. Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.
Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time. Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things. There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible. There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity. There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented. There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution. It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.
Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel. What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end. It takes me several days to read books. What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion. Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers. The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science. Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however. Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon. It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human. And the monsters left behind endure.