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‘Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ — book review

Not the first on the subject, but is it the best?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818/1831) is often regarded as the first work of science fiction. As a result, it might be surprising to learn that it’s only in recent years that academic studies of the contemporary 18th and 19th century science that would have informed Shelley’s fiction have started to come into existence.

Marilyn Butler’s 1993 essay, “The First Frankenstein and Radical Science,” is usually credited as the first exploration of the topic, but it was Martin Willis’ 2006 book on 19th century sci-fi literature, Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines, that really argued the lack of any in-depth study of the scientific world at the time of Frankenstein’s appearance seriously undermined a  scholar’s ability to understand Shelley’s classic, a circumstance which Willis blamed on the strict division between the sciences and the humanities in modern universities.

It would be nearly a decade before Roseanne Montillo, a professor of literature at Emerson College, would finally heed Willis’ call with her splendid book, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (2013).

Now a second, quite similar book has appeared, in chemist and writer Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in hardcover in 2018 and out in paperback this month. How exactly do Harkup and Montillo’s Monsters compare? Is the emerging field of what might be called the “history of literary science” big enough for two such works, or is Harkup, like Dr. Frankenstein, guilty of re-animating a corpse?

Harkup’s book manages a seamless integration of her subject matter.

Like Montillo, Harkup uses the dramatic story of Mary Shelly’s life to frame her exploration of the various developments in 18th and 19th century science. While Montillo’s accomplished this by stitching together the disparate genres of literary biography and science history, alternating from one to the other between chapters, Harkup’s book manages a much more seamless integration of her subject matter. Making the Monster reads like a true biography of Mary Shelly, so much so that whenever she stops to explain or examine a particular scientific idea, it rarely feels like a digression but rather like a good writer simply adding additional context to the reader’s understanding of Shelly and her world.

Much of the material featured in Making the Monster does of course overlap with what’s previously covered in Montillo’s book. Both authors discuss Italian scientists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta’s pioneering work with electricity, and their often shocking and gruesome attempts to reanimate dead, dissected, and dismembered animals. Likewise, both authors also devote much ink to the unsavory subject of body snatching, and how it related to the pioneering world of early medicine and the study of anatomy.

Considering Harkup’s background in chemistry, I expected her book to surpass Montillo’s in its discussion of alchemy. In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein cites the famous alchemists Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Paracelsus as early role models. While Montillo only really spent time discussing Paracelsus, Harkup looks at all three of these men, though she ultimately agrees that Paracelsus is undoubtedly the most important, with his interest in creating an artificial man or homunculus.

Both authors also discuss another alchemist, Johann Konrad Dippel, who, while not mentioned in Shelly’s novel, was first connected with it by Romanian historian Radu Florescu in the mid-1970s. Dippel was a resident of the real-life Castle Frankenstein located outside the city of Darmstadt, Germany, and was rumored to have performed experiments that involved the transplanting of the human soul. Harkup concludes that while it’s known that Mary passed by Castle Frankenstein while on a European tour with her future husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, there is no evidence they ever visited it or that they heard any rumors concerning Dippel’s actions centuries before.

Harkup’s book does manage to explore territory which Montillo’s doesn’t. I’ve long been fascinated by the possible role which American founding father Benjamin Franklin’s legendary electrical experiments may have played in influencing the myth of Frankenstein’s Monster, an idea which was first somewhat playfully suggested by neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin in a 2011 comic drawn for Scientific American  magazine by Jorge Cham. While such notions are barely mentioned by Montillo, Harkup gives what I’m calling the “Franklinstein Hypothesis” considerable attention, concluding that such a contention may be quite plausible.

Equally provocative is Harkup’s connecting of Frankenstein to the infamous Illuminati, the secret society beloved by conspiracy theorists to this day. The real-life Illuminati were founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt who wanted to use Enlightenment ideals to overthrow the Catholic Church. Those who have read Frankenstein may recall that Ingolstadt is also where Dr. Frankenstein obtains his education. Harkup writes that Shelley knew of the Illuminati from her husband’s reading of Barruel’s History of Jacobinism (1798) – a work which purported to expose the Illuminati conspiracy – and undoubtedly decided to send her burgeoning mad scientist there because of its association with the group.

Equally provocative is Harkup’s connecting of Frankenstein to the infamous Illuminati, the secret society beloved by conspiracy theorists

While both Montillo’s and Harkup’s books feature indexes for quick referencing, Making the Monster unfortunately lacks footnotes or any citations, while Montillo’s at least features a notes section in which the sources for certain facts are given. Both books also feature extensive bibliographies and numerous black-and-white reproductions of various period illustrations of famous persons, places, and scientific developments. Making the Monster also includes a timeline divided into two columns, one containing important developments in the history of science, and the other featuring major events in Mary Shelly’s life.

Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend either Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections. Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece over the other. While much of the material is the same, both writers have nevertheless managed to conjure up very different creations. Fans and scholars of Mary Shelley’s immortal horror novel and the modern myth it’s generated would do well to add both volumes to their collections.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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