If the makers of Downton Abbey want to capitalize on the popularity of costume dramas, they might look for their next Lady Mary in Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Shelley’s life needs no embellishment, complete with preposterous plots and love triangles set in an era of intense scientific curiosity about the human body. In this biography, Montillo explores how the science of that time inspired Shelley’s work.
In her 1831 update of Frankenstein, Shelley wrote that the story she had penned 15 years earlier emerged from a summer telling ghost stories on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Montillo paints a more detailed picture of the book’sorigins.
A key character in the backstory is Italian physician Luigi Galvani, who spent years studying “animal electricity,” the idea that an electric shock or current could restore activity to a dead body. The technique brought Shelley’s fictional monster to life. After Galvanihad sacrificed countless frogs, his nephew Giovanni Aldini set his sights on reanimating a person. He famously tried in London in 1803 with a recently hanged criminal but, of course, failed.
Montillo lays out how the well-read Shelley may have learned of Aldini’s experiments, come across the ideas of Renaissance alchemists Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa that turn up on Victor Frankenstein’s bookshelf, and even perhaps stumbled upon the name Frankenstein. By putting Shelley’s exceptional life story in historical context, Montillo tells a tale more compelling than any soap opera.
William Morrow, 2013, 322 p., $26.99