Review by C.J. Bunce
In Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, chemist and author Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, reveals the results of a thorough investigation into the scientific knowledge available to young author Mary Shelley at the turn of the 19th century when Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel (and basis for the first horror movie), Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The result is a detailed, marvelously interconnected picture of notable minds of the Enlightenment and their theories, a useful history of science and technology, and a worthy supplement to any reading or study of the classic story.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was greatly influenced by noted authors of her era, beginning with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (through her writings), and her long-time companion and eventual husband, the noted author and political thinker Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley lived in a world of scientific improvements, while also at only the barest beginnings of modern chemistry, biology, and medicine. Author Kathryn Harkup looked back to writings of the late 1700s and earlier, where religion, politics, and culture were undergoing a radical shift, with old concepts like alchemy winding down its influence on the thinking world. As Harkup writes, “Dark, discredited, ineffectual alchemy was contrasted with enlightened, rational, powerful science.” She follows Mary Shelley’s travels as documented in letters and diaries Shelley and her contemporaries wrote to locate hundreds of opportunities that could have influenced the author’s story as well as Victor Frankenstein the character inside the world where he would create life from the dead. In doing so the reader will get a snapshot of the world in 1800-1818 and a class in a major chapter of the history of science and technology–what someone in Shelley’s circumstances as a woman among affluent families living among vocal sharers of ideas including the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Byron.
Harkup takes her research a step further in Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, locating the possible influences of not only Shelley but those around Mary Shelley like her father, her husband, and Byron, whose access to cutting edge science and free thought reached across the ocean and nations. She references the ongoing relationships and likelihood of the sharing of ideas among these men and Mary Shelley, all leading to the famous trip during the rainy summer of 1816, where the world was overtaken by darkness thanks to the earlier eruption of Mount Tambora in far off Indonesia. Mary Shelley, age 18, with boyfriend Percy visiting Byron and Dr. John Polidori at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, were hunkered down reading ghost stories to each other from the French book Fantasmagoriana, when Byron suggested each should write his/her own ghost story (Polidori’s story would become The Vampyre, the first vampire novel). Along with the science, Harkup provides a complete background of each step of Shelley’s life before and after completion of her Frankenstein contribution.
The science history is well-communicated to the reader, and Harkup weaves scientific theories behind the elements (as in periodic table, then consisting of only a few dozen), blood, bacteria, human and animal biology, geographic exploration, electricity, medical procedures like transplants, grafting, and other surgeries, and experiments through the ages–many as ghastly as anything in a modern horror novel–used by scientists going back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China.
Harkup sets up the reader first with the background of Shelley, her family, and the culture of Europe, the Enlightenment itself, and her upbringing, elopement, education, and inspirations. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to the science, theories of Victor Frankenstein articulated in the novel as he is influenced by various mentors (based on real-life mentors of Shelley’s contemporaries), a history of using bodies for scientific research (including grave robbers, then a real fear of Shelley’s readers), the difficulties of preserving cadavers (and thereby the difficulties of Victor as he prepared for reanimation), the piecing together of body parts (where Shelley could have assembled the idea), the likelihood of electricity as the source for Shelley’s characters life force (since the author does not reveal the technical method of reanimation in her novel), and those many instances of reanimation stories from history Shelley may have drawn upon.
You’ll find history lessons about several historical figures along the way, including Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, William Harvey, Jane Marcet, Johann Konrad Dippel, William Lawrence, John Polidori, Andrew Crosse, Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Zosimos of Panopolis, Jabīr, James Lind, Humphry Davy, Galen of Greece, William Burke and William Hare, John Hunter, Vesalius, Tsin Yue-Jen, Giovanni Aldini, and Andrew Ure.
Harkup includes a timeline of historical events tied to Shelley and the creation of her novel, plus a bibliography. Altogether, Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will likely be a required reading supplement for anyone in high school or college conducting any kind of research on Frankenstein or early science fiction works. The novel makes for both good entertainment reading and it’s also a brilliantly conceived educational tool for understanding a broad swath of science and technology from the early 18th century.
Written to coincide with the 200th anniversary of publication of Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus in 1818, Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is available from Bloomsbury Sigma Books now here at Amazon in hardcover, and it’s arriving in a paperback edition for the first time November 19, available for pre-order here now. Consider it a must-read for fans of science fiction, horror, literature, science, history, and one of our favorite–and earliest–borg characters.