October 1, 2013

The Lady and Her Monsters, by Roseanne Montillo

There are really two books within the covers of Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters. One is an honest, unflinching portrait of Mary Shelley, her life fraught with tragedy. This sobering story may be familiar terrain for most fans of Frankenstein, but the other part of this book, told in parallel, is more spirited. It deals with the “real-life Frankensteins”, the scientists, the vivisectionists and the experimenters who, like Victor Frankenstein, “pursued nature to her hiding-places”. Montillo’s accounts of body-snatchers, resurrectionists and the galvanists who electrified animal and human corpses in sensationalistic, harebrained experiments and macabre attempts at reanimating the dead reads like a ripping yarn.

Tying the two narratives together is Mary’s lover and husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley who, as a student, indulged in his own experiments with the miracle of electricity. His philosophy would inform Mary and he would become the obvious model for the nerve-wracked Victor Frankenstein.

In the end, the galvanists and the experimenters were not direct influences on Mary’s novel — some of the most spectacular experiments catalogued here were performed well after Frankenstein was published — but, rather, Montillo’s book establishes Frankenstein as being squarely of its time. Mary Shelley’s novel sprang from an era when grave robbers plied their dark trade, executions were public events and morbid medical experimentation was often a spectator sport. In her revelatory book, Roseanne Montillo shows how, for its first readers, Frankenstein’s experiments and his artificial man were certainly extraordinary, but somehow plausible.

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece, by Roseanne Montillo, was published earlier this year by William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 

The Lady and Her Monsters reading guide.

The Art of Frankenstein: David Plunkert

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