March 6, 2013 2:15:47 PM
In the brilliant parody Young Frankenstein, the laughs all but stop during the sequence where the monster is raised to the roof ready to receive the bolts of lightning that will give him life. It is as if the moment of the spark of life must be handled reverentially, even by Mel Brooks. Roseanne Montillo, in The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece (William Morrow), mentions Brooks's movie, and although she doesn't mention the reverence of the moment, she would be fully ready to explain it. Mary Shelley wrote her enduring masterpiece at a time when scientists were doing serious investigations of how electricity could reanimate bodies, and thus were pushing limits of philosophy and religion. Montillo examines these efforts, and the macabre side issues such as the grave-robbing that made bodies available for postmortem voltage, to help us understand Shelley's inspiration and to appreciate the peculiar and the universal meanings of the Frankenstein story.
Montillo tells two stories. One is about Mary Shelley's life, her marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the famous composition of the Frankenstein tale during a ghost story competition proposed by Lord Byron. The other is about the scientists that were busy applying electricity to dead frogs and dead men, experiments that Mary Shelley would have known about because they were part of the intellectual currency of her time. She was the daughter of a couple of intellectuals, the philosopher William Godwin and the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley's poet husband had been fascinated by ideas of electricity and its effect on living creatures. He had experimented as a student in Oxford with electrical machines and air pumps, and friends remembered how he would fire himself with enough electricity that his beautiful hair would stand on end.
In 1786 in Bologna, the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani hung dead frogs out on his balcony during a thunderstorm. He had become fascinated with the way "animal electricity" could seemingly reanimate dead tissues, and indeed, though his carefully skinned and eviscerated frogs had no apparent life in them, the muscles could still work, showing, as Galvani wrote, "hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning." We still speak of someone being "galvanized" into sudden activity. Galvani's nephew Giovanni Aldini determined to spread the knowledge about his uncle's work, and went to London where he did public demonstrations to show how electricity could give some sort of vitality to dead flesh. Frogs were all very well, but in 1803, Aldini got a boon, the body of a man fresh from the gallows. Before observers, he powered up his battery and applied electricity to ghoulish effect: "... on the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened." (One official watched these demonstrations wordlessly, and afterwards went home and died, reportedly of fright.) Aldini moved his arc to other areas, using the body almost like a life-sized marionette. The heart, however, remained inert, even when the chest was opened and electricity applied directly to it. If only we had had more power, Aldini insisted, the corpse would have reawakened.
This sort of experiment was widely discussed in England; it was not just Aldini who had curiosity about bringing the dead back to life. Anatomists, armed with their new electrical tools, hoped to find the central source of the power that made the difference between a pile of bones and muscle and a living, breathing creature. The experiments covered huge philosophical arenas: Are humans machines powered by some sort of internal galvanic fluid? What is the difference between life and death? And, of course, what role did God or free will have do with it all? The proposed answers at the time, involving a spark of electricity that could make dead tissue alive again, seem na´ve now, but Montillo does a nice job of showing how it was cutting-edge science in its time, and even imparts a bit of heroism to the galvanic experimenters.
The literary characters turn out to be less admirable. Percy Shelly and Mary Godwin eloped from England in 1814. She was barely seventeen, and he was still married to his first wife, Harriet. While they were on the continent, Harriet killed herself, enabling the couple to wed. Montillo supposes that as they traveled though Europe, Mary Shelley would have had been within the shadow of the castle of the real Frankenstein family, and had perhaps heard the legends of Sir George Frankenstein, who had slain a dragon but not before the dragon had inflicted a mortal wound upon him. Perhaps also she heard of the fifteenth-century attacks on the castle's region wreaked by Vlad the Impaler, who would go on to be an inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Burg Frankenstein was also the home of Johann Dippel, a religious alchemist who was disliked by the populace that spread rumors that he was the devil's minion and was creating life, as well as manufacturing gold. The Shelleys, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, wound up in Switzerland in 1816, where they visited Lord Byron. It may have been summer, but the weather was cold and dismal because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia (one of the many interesting sidelights which Montillo throws in). Byron proposed the ghost story competition, and Mary Shelley attributed her inspiration to a dream that overtook her: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." A year and a half later, her vision was published, and it has been making people shiver and think ever since.
The Shelleys are not an attractive couple, self-absorbed and neurotic. Percy was to die in a boating accident in 1822, and although Mary continued to write, and to promote her husband's posthumous reputation, she will always be remembered for her creation of the troubled Victor Frankenstein (she may have given him the name because Percy had used it during his youth) and his creation of the possibly human monster. Montillo's book is a welcome tribute to the literary, and especially the scientific, roots of the story. We may not be trying to shock corpses into life anymore, but we still have our worries about life, worries which these days are more manifest with genes and the biochemistry that provide a mechanism for life as we fret that maybe there is nothing else to it. Montillo pointedly reminds us, too, that we are not rid of our fretting over grave robbers, although that, also, takes a new form these days, as in the brigands who illegally take and then sell body parts of the recently deceased. In the gloom of candlelight, Victor Frankenstein "saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open." Its limbs began to move, and almost two centuries later, we cannot escape the monster.