Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2/5/2013
One dark and stormy June while vacationing on Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley was possessed by Frankenstein in a dream. Traveling with a party that included Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron (he came up with the idea for a writing contest), Mary struggled to outline some plausible plots for a ghost story. Then, she woke from this particularly inspired dream.
In the introduction to her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Shelley details the acute mental imagery in her dream. A creature cobbled together from grave-robbed body parts is stirred to life by his creator with a galvanic arc of electricity.
Macabre inspiration for a novel and the thread of the ghost story contest are part of Roseanne Montillo’s riveting literary analysis in The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece.
Montillo conducted research on Frankenstein for an Emerson College lecture class called Forbidden Knowledge, which became the basis for this wonderfully readable book. She made good a conscious decision to write the book in an amenable narrative form rather than with the gravitas of a heavy academic style. The Lady and Her Monsters results in a fascinating story of the influential figures and inspiration for the novel Mary wrote at the age of 19.
Mary’s greatest intellectual influence was her father, William Godwin, a reformer who held stimulating gatherings of scientists, poets and writers at the family brownstone on Skinner Street.
Mary and her step-sister Claire would eavesdrop at the top of the stairs to listen in on scientific and literary discussions in their father’s salon and in one of those instances she overheard Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
The macabre poem’s themes of alienation and taboo inspired Mary, who quotes whole verses in her novel about nature-defying life awakened in a forlorn monster.
The novel’s topic of reawakening the dead and references to galvanic battery experiments, alchemy and the occult are attributed to the influence of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Not to mention the ghost story contest Lord Byron initiated.
According to Montillo, Mary must have heard legends of the von Frankensteins on a return trip to London by way of the Rhine. The would-be elopers had run out of money, so while the boat docked in the area of one small town with a castle, Mary and Shelley went exploring.
Montillo imagines that Shelley’s interest in the occult might have encouraged the locals to retell the stories of Burg Frankenstein. Mary would have heard tales of bloody battles to defend the castle against Vlad the Impaler or about a Frankenstein family member embodied in a dragonslayer legend.
“It was said that following a fierce battle, Sir George managed to pierce the dragon’s heart with his lance, but not before the dragon’s tail found an opening in Sir George’s armor and inflicted a deadly wound.”
Montillo’s readable prose also shows how Frankenstein exposed the dark side of medical research, lectures, demonstrations and the demand for cadavers in 19th century London. Gangs of resurrection men plied their trade legally from the gallows as well as illegally by extracting bodies from graves.
“The doctors had an uneasy relationship with the resurrection men. They needed their help to procure bodies, but they were appalled by their inhumane actions.”
A scandal involving a gang of body snatchers who went so far as to murder their victims for profit outraged the public and spurred passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.
Montillo suggests that body snatchers selling cadavers may have only evolved somewhat since Mary Shelley’s time. She tells the story of celebrated broadcaster Alistair Cooke and his death of lung cancer in 2004. Montillo writes of the duplicitous method body snatchers used to procure the bones from his remains to sell to a tissue transplant company without the consent of his family.
The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo is a highly worthwhile read for a riveting literary analysis of Frankenstein and the story of the influential figures in Mary Shelley’s life.
Category: Nonfiction, History