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The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 5, 2013
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A Look Inside The Lady and Her Monsters
*Starred Review* Scores of books and movies have retold the infamous tale of the ghost-story contest that gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but Montillo digs deeper (so to speak) in this dual history of literature and science. Half the book is simply one of the most readable biographical portraits you’ll find of Mary Shelley—the standoffish, spiteful, but brilliant daughter of a famous feminist mother and philosopher father, and whose torrid love affair with the wild poet Percy Shelley (aka “Mad Shelley”) kicked off with premarital midnight sex in a cemetery and only got weirder from there. Alternating with Mary’s narrative is the hellacious history of the rock-star anatomists of the 1700s, who enthralled Percy, and, by extension, Mary, with their grotesque forays into “galvanism,” the manipulation of dead muscle via electrical current. Both plots come lumbering at each other like, well, monsters until that fateful summer in Geneva when Mary stitched her various influences together into a single literary beast. Montillo is an academic but unafraid of salaciousness, injecting into her tale an invigorating solution of sex, gore, and gossip as we reach both the end of Mary’s woeful life and the end of the anatomists’ grave-robbing free-for-all as it ceded to the Anatomy Act. Sick, smart, shocking, and spellbinding. --Daniel Kraus
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This was a very scattered book. An interesting one, sure, and a well-researched one, but not very focused. It bit off much more than it needed to chew. The root of the book is the study of Mary Shelley and her motivations when writing "Frankenstein," but I don't think this book pulled many conclusions that a second-year literature student could not do with a few primary sources and a good Norton edition of the book.
The narrative follows two paths--a scientific one and a personal one. The science revolves around the historical interest in bringing dead bodies back to live through galvanism (a word which I have often used but did not know the roots of until this book). This is the section that held less interest for me, only because I didn't find it very shocking. It is a natural human instinct to be curious, and I understand if that curiosity extends to our bodies after death. I feel like Montillo wanted us to think the men of science like Galvini and Davy were somehow dark and sinister for their work, which I think is unfair. They had a lot of failures, but they were also pioneers. Would we fault a medical examiner or funeral director for keeping an emotional distance from their work today? Probably not, so I would extend the same line of thinking to the men who cut up bodies to see what was inside.
However, I didn't finish this novel without learning quite a bit. I had no idea the history of anatomist's dissections or the grave-robbing culture that blossomed from the demand for bodies. I especially liked the part about Burke & Hare and how they tried to profit off bringing (very fresh) bodies to medical researchers for cash. As a true crime fan, I was interested in the aspect of grave-robbing and body dissection that is not a victimless crime. Unfortunately, this is all supposed to be tied back to "Frankenstein," which I wasn't really buying. I never found lack of respect towards human remains to be the prevailing theme of the novel--an important one, yes, but not the main one of the narrative.
The personal aspect of the narrative was about author Mary Shelley. It wouldn't be a reach to say this really was two different books--Shelley herself never really crossed paths with the science aspect of bringing a body back to life besides hearing secondhand accounts from her husband or father. To claim she got her idea mainly from this scientific trend diminishes what is obviously a troubled and creative mind--of course she got ideas from the world around her, but in the end, she was an author of fiction, which requires an imagination.
I've always been drawn to the Romantic writers in the same way I'm drawn to Sylvia Plath and Death Cab for Cutie--they're all touted as morbid and "emo," but they're still endlessly fascinating. They were also all utterly intolerable in their pretentiousness. You almost need a sense of humor when you read about them--how couldn't have Shelley with her tragic past not written a novel like "Frankenstein?" There are a lot of intersections between the sort of "melancholy" Shelley was known to have and modern conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder that are treated in a much more serious matter. It also isn't a stretch to think that the theme of "man as god" was glossed over for so long in the book because it was written by a teenage girl, not a well-established man of letters. I appreciated the parts of the book that highlighted how unfairly Shelley was treated. She deserves this kind of study and recognition, scattered as it may be.
I think modern readers will be a little bored by this book. We're sympathetic to both female writers of the past and the early scientific community. We tend to have a more nuanced view on what constitutes body and soul and how those are tied together. This is a clumsy narrative with some decent info sprinkled throughout, and the writing itself was solid, but it just made me want to read different, more focused bios on Mary Shelley and her work.
Poor Mary Shelley. She herself was not treated very well by the society in which she lived or by her own family. I am not much of a historian; so this book taught me a lot about the time during which she lived. She experienced the terrible instant global climate changes that occurred in 1815-1816 that brought such suffering to people of the time. It was during a part of history when for some odd reason, women were considered brainless and incapable of accomplishing much. I think she accomplished a lot under difficult circumstances.
Roseanne Monttillo wrote the perfect book for me; enough history to present the background of the period that produced Ms. Shelley without being so detailed as to become dry and uninteresting.