This was the second book in my birthday haul from my mother this year. The first was… not as good as I had hoped. Happily, this did not fall into the same trap.
The idea behind Harkup’s book is to look into the science that was happening around the time of Shelley writing Frankenstein, to explore what ideas influenced her. I was slightly concerned that this could go down the route that Russ identifies of suggesting Shelley was nothing but a conduit for the ideas of the time, but she does nothing of the sort. She does look into what sorts of things Shelley’s husband, father and friends were into, but only to suggest that this is how Shelley herself could have found out about these things: with Percy interested in electricity, for instance, it makes sense that they may have talked about some of the ideas being discussed by scientists, and so on. So I was relieved that this book is very much about how Mary Shelley herself knew what she did, and how she might have accessed knowledge of galvanism and resurrectionists and all of those other things that are so vital to the development of this story of the modern Prometheus.
As well as being an investigation into the science of the early 19th century, this almost inevitably also becomes a biography of Shelley – where she was when, who she encountered, how different places gave her access to ideas or inspiration, and so on. There’s also a discussion of how popular culture has dealt with the story, and the ways that film versions in particular have percolated through the popular Western mindset – and how these are often quite different from Shelley’s actual story.
Electricity, preservation of flesh after death, skin grafts, the circulatory system, evolutionary theory, blood transfusions, batteries… all of these things were being discussed in the early part of the 19th century and had an impact on Shelley’s writing. This is a fascinating introduction to the science of this period as well as being a fascinating way of thinking about Frankenstein. Harkup also does justice to Frankenstein as a way of interrogating science, and scientists.
I don’t adore Frankenstein – I’ve only read it once – but I really enjoyed this historical context.
I have now read Frankenstein. I’ve never had the impetus to read it before; I never studied Gothic literature, and it’s just never been bumped up the to-be-read list. But a few weeks ago someone at church read it, and waxed so lyrical in wanting to have a pop-up book club to discuss it (as a sequel to one last year on The Book of Strange New Things) that I agreed… and here we are.
I do not like Victor Frankenstein.
I had a general knowledge of the story – that Victor created the monster, who then implored his creator to create a mate for him, and then the monster killed Victor’s bride. I knew there was something to do with the Arctic but I didn’t know why. So to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to be particularly surprised by the novel. And in the broad outlines, I wasn’t, but in some of the details I certainly wasn’t.
I had no idea that the story was structured as a story within a story, with Victor relating his tale of woe to Robert as they sat stuck in the ice in the far reaches of the Arctic, who is then relating it by letter back to his own sister. I don’t think that particularly changes the story itself but it’s intriguing to see Shelley using this conceit as the excuse for why, and how, the story is being told – that she wasn’t just writing a third-person omnipotent narrator watching and relating all the events. Instead, this allows Victor to include his passionate remonstrances and remembrances, and for Robert to include his own reflections at beginning and end.
Side note: I would have liked more about Robert. Did he get home? Why was he so passionate about finding what was in the extreme north? I wanted more than just what he told his sister!
And so Victor. Continue reading →