The Lady and Her Monsters: A Review

Posted by Laura Kremmel on October 17, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Montillo, Roseanne. The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece. New York: William Morrow, 2013.

Mary Shelley was, of course, no stranger to death and its effects on the body. From a love affair begun beneath the shadow of her mother’s grave, to a husband who idolized suicide, and a friend who was the youngest physician to graduate from Edinburgh, she was a fitting cornerstone of one of the most infamous circles in English Literature. Her well-loved product of the Shelley circle’s ghost story contest, Frankenstein, is still one of the most frequently discussed novels in Literary, Gothic, and Romantic Studies. That a girl in her late teens could create such a work of scientific and philosophical depth is a subject of mystery and admiration. Roseanne Montillo’s new book, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece, intermingles the histories of science, medicine, and literature with informed conjecture and entertaining story-telling techniques to recreate the context in which Mary Shelley created her monster.

Montillo’s text digs into the history of body-snatching, dissection, and reanimation of the dead, as well as a biographical overview of Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys. It follows in a long line of books and articles that meld issues of medical history with Frankenstein and its author’s life. Many of these works[i] lean heavily towards either a historical analysis of the science or an extensive investigation into the biography, though neither is complete without at least a mention of the other. Montillo covers both equally, a move that allows her to cover a wide range of time periods (1500s to 2000s) and to maintain a broad argument while prioritizing narrative. She claims in her prologue that “Mary Godwin Shelley truly combined the urgency of scientific endeavors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the lure of forbidden knowledge, and the power of literary interpretation in her masterpiece…” (10). Mixing chapters on medical figures throughout history with chapters on the relationship dynamics of Shelley’s life, Montillo claims that Mary Shelley was well-informed about science, medical theory, and the debates on dissection and reanimation because of her intellectual environment, dispelling doubt about the extent of her authorship and adding an extra dimension to the novel. Though she does not directly state it, Montillo insinuates that Frankenstein is more than a work of fiction: its complex background makes it indicative of advanced medical thinking and scientific controversies of the time. “Thus, it is no surprise, given all Mary Shelley had at her disposal, that she was able to create the archetype of the famed, mad, brilliant scientist of the nineteenth century…” (10).

The prologue begins with a scene of Luigi Galvani and his family experimenting with animal electricity and dead frogs during a storm in 1786, and it extends to include Galvani’s lasting influence and the wider nineteenth-century obsession with reanimation. The mixture of micro- and macro-narrative style continues throughout the text as Montillo moves from this introduction to the importance of literature in the Godwin family at the time of Mary Godwin Shelley’s birth. The first chapter details the atmospheric and familial storms that set the scene for this event and that followed Mary Godwin through her early adolescence, including an overview of her famous parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. The second chapter jumps back to a more thorough discussion of Galvani and the anatomy theater, as well as the history of dissection beginning with the experimental work and corpse-collecting of Andreas Vesalius in the sixteenth century. Chapter three picks up with Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, and richly illustrates the role of physicians, surgeons, and resurrectionists in England within the context of the Murder Act (1752).

The next chapter continues on the vein of medical history to the accomplishments and alchemy of Paracelsus, who boasted a recipe to stitch together a man called a homunculus, much like Frankenstein’s creature (96). Montillo points to Victor’s obsession in the novel with alchemists like Paracelsus, as well as to the similarities between the factual and fictional scientists’ work in order to understand Mary Shelley’s awareness of both past and contemporary medical experimentation. Montillo claims that Shelley gained this information chiefly from her husband, who frequently corresponded with Byron on exactly these subjects. Such a juxtaposition of Percy’s knowledge and Mary’s writing does make sense, and is the primary methodology through the text. While interesting, however, it does draw attention away from Mary Shelley herself in order to make informed assumptions about those around her. The proceeding biographical narrative of Mary’s relationship with Percy and the circle of personalities he would accumulate dominates the second half of the text, with occasional segues into the Anatomy Act (1832), galvanizations, and Burke and Hare.

Though the topic and arguments of Montillo’s book are not new, her approach certainly is. In May, Jill Wilson reviewed a historical-fiction novel inspired by the dramatic lives of the Shelley circle, A Treacherous Likeness, just another example[ii] of the prevalent fascination with this history. Though there is no mistaking The Lady and Her Monsters for fiction, the book does read like a novel and draws on the same imaginative potential of these literary lives. Crossing into the realm of popular history, this is a book that wants to tell a good story, and there is plenty of fodder for this purpose to be found in the facts. A quick and thoroughly-enjoyable read, Montillo’s book is written in a mixed style that feels like a documentary: she combines recreated scenes with more formal histories, quotations, images, and documents to create a multidimensional narrative. That it is well-researched is evident in the details of the text, the range of knowledge, and the extensive bibliography, but its purposes do not appear to be purely academic. The reader might find it difficult to keep track of the chronology and straight facts in such a fluid narrative, without a prior knowledge of the Shelley circle or medical history. Each chapter does include a section of endnotes at the back of the book, but they are not as extensive as readers might want from the juicy insinuations of the text. Nonetheless, they do provide some direction for further study, and I found the index is helpful in navigating the text for specifics.

Equal attention to both biography and history of medicine is admirable and will appeal to the increasing interest in this topic in academia. However, I found that the two subjects often felt isolated from one another, leaving the reader wanting more frequently-made connections. The one consistent connection seems to be a repetition of statements like, “[Mary Shelley] had heard of Giovanni Aldini’s experiments” (10). Such links sell the research short by neglecting both the need for additional concrete support and the implications of making claims for Shelley’s knowledge. Montillo makes her most coherent connections in chapter four when she puts Victor Frankenstein’s education next to Mary Shelley’s intellectual environment. Though Montillo’s alignment of the author’s history with her novel and also with societal interest in dissection makes for a convincing story on the surface, the meandering nature of its structure prevents her from making direct claims with solid evidence. As a popular history text, however, this may not be its most pressing purpose.

So, what are the implications for Frankenstein as a well-informed text rather than a work of complete fiction and fancy? Perhaps this question indicates a potential use of this text in the classroom: a way of encouraging students to find connections themselves, even if they are only conjecture. I can see this book working well at the end of a course on Romantic or Gothic literature. It would appeal greatly to academics looking for a smart holiday read or an enjoyable supplement to research that can point to areas of further study. Filling her book with images that compliment her imaginative prose, Montillo does a masterful job of turning history and literary studies into an accessible read that maintains the joy of research, learning, history and medicine.

[i] These texts include Murdering to Dissect, by Tim Marshall; “‘Unconceiving Marble’: Anatomy and Animation in Frankenstein and The Last Man,” by Anne McWhir; Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth Century Britain, by Janis McLarren Caldwell, to name just a few.

[ii] See Ken Russell’s Gothic for a cinematic tribute to Frankenstein’s creation.

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