A cultural biography that explores how Mary Shelley came to write her gothic classic.
Montillo (Literature/Emerson Coll.; Halloween and Commemorations of the Dead, 2009) discusses how Shelley’s world, as well as her life, informed the creation of Frankenstein. The basic story of how the novel came to be written—during an informal ghost-story competition among Mary, husband Percy, Lord Byron and assorted friends—is the stuff of legend. Perhaps less known is how the idea of bringing the dead back to life was already common currency. Well before Shelley’s birth, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani (source of the word galvanized) was hooking up electrical charges to dead frogs. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took matters further by conducting experiments on a dead felon. Percy Shelley, whose poetry had long been absorbed with immortality, was fascinated by this trend in science, which he would pass on to Mary. Entwined with the history of the idea is the history of the couple, which was tumultuous from the day married Percy met William Godwin’s brilliant young daughter; their lives would be rocked by infidelities, jealousies and the early death of a child. “Dream[t] that my little baby came to life again,” Mary wrote in a journal, an idea that may have helped inspire her future novel. Resurrection was in the air, both among doctors and artists. Montillo occasionally loses focus, getting a little overly involved in peripheral scandals and sensational tales, but the book is never dull. Mary Shelley lived in dramatic times, when life was too short to be boring.
Light fare as cultural histories go, but a pleasant stroll through the Romantic imagination.