Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and it is often read as a gothic horror story and a prophetic warning about the dangers of taking science too far.
Author Suzanne Burdon, however, argues that the book can teach us a lot about science’s early optimism.
The first thought that comes to most peoples’ minds when you mention Frankenstein is the image of the monster played by Boris Karloff in the 1940 movie with the monobrow and industrial sized bolts through his neck.
Those of a literary bent may quickly rationalize that recollection with the knowledge that Frankenstein was the name of the monster’s creator. Victor Frankenstein the scientist (‘mad scientist’ is the tempting annotation).
In fact, in 1816 when Mary Shelley, who was all of 18 at the time, wrote Frankenstein, she never spoke of her hero as a ‘scientist’. The term didn’t exist until nearly two decades after the book was published.
Englishman William Whewell, a gifted polymath, and wordsmith coined the word in 1833; up until then gentlemen who dabbled in science thought of themselves as ‘natural philosophers’. Their objective was to explain or describe nature.
Victor Frankenstein epitomized the changing attitude toward science in the early 19th century.
In Shelley’s story, until he went to university, Victor Frankenstein was fascinated by the classical experiments of the alchemists, who attempted to turn base metal into gold and find the elixir of life.
His chemistry professor, however, directed his imagination away from the classical to the fascinating new and modern world where the experiments were more pragmatic and focused on more tangible aspects of daily life and the environment.
They appeared no less magical for all that, however. Indeed they were perhaps more so because they implied that there were far more possibilities.
Shelley puts these words, which reflect the thinking of her day, into the mouth of the professor:
‘The ancient teachers of this science promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera, but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.’
‘They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.’
It is little wonder that these possibilities were the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein’s megalomaniacal experiment to manufacture a living being.
Shelley had been brought up in an atmosphere of social and political reform.
Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a feminist hero, and her father was William Godwin, author of a radical social commentary called Political Justice.
Shelley was imbued from an early age with the concept of social engineering and might have been expected to write a novel that explored social and moral issues. Frankenstein can certainly be read that way with its themes of social and individual responsibility.
However, as I discovered when researching my book on Shelley, Almost Invincible when she met her lover and future husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, there were two elements of his character that influenced how she would eventually present her novel’s themes. Percy Shelley was also a political radical and in particular a radical atheist.
The idea of a man playing God was a natural extension of his ideas. He was also embroiled in the science of the day, in all aspects of natural philosophy.
Percy Shelley the poet was also a new age man. He had been inculcated with a love of science when he was at Eton. A master, James Lind, captured the imagination of a boy who was drawn to every new intellectual pursuit with Galvani’s experiments with bioelectricity, especially making a frog’s leg twitch by passing an electric current through it.
When she eloped with him, Mary hadn’t realized the depth of Percy’s passion for chemical experiments, nor the effect it would have on their working papers, table tops, and cushion covers, as smoke rose and glasses full of foul-colored liquid shattered.
Wires and crucibles of liquids appeared on the parlor table alongside the solar microscope and an extremely thumbed and stained copy of The Elements of Chemical Philosophy by notable Cornish chemist and inventor Sir Humphrey Davy.
It didn’t add to their acceptability to landladies, but it did inspire the scientific thinking for Mary’s book.
In the Regency period, the Industrial Revolution had already begun to dramatically transform Western civilization.
Science appeared to be moving at a cracking pace and gentlemen like Percy who wanted to keep up had to work hard at it.
Davy was using the new science of electrochemistry to discover more and more chemical elements. Medical science gained notable strides with the invention of the stethoscope and galvanometer.
Joseph Constantine Carpue conducted the first rhinoplasty and Davy discovered the analgesic effect of nitrous oxide. In 1814, when Mary and Shelley eloped, George Stephenson built the first public steam train.
The iron, coal, and cotton industries flourished during this period, propelled by the use of the steam engine as a source of power.
Percy was particularly fascinated by steam and a few years later in Italy, would work with a friend, an engineer, to try and develop a commercial steamboat.
In the early 19th century, the magic of science appeared to be a mystery that, with the right tools, might be exposed and controlled by man.
In the excitement, science became performance. There were often public demonstrations or lectures, where a ‘professor of natural philosophy’ would display what he claimed to be his experiments into science.
In London, Percy introduced Mary to the shows of Monsieur Garnerin and his Theatre of Grand Philosophical Recreations. The show was spectacular, using electricity to mimic a thunderbolt and produce fire from water.
There was a phantasmagoria in which there appeared to be a lady with many heads. It finished with a wonderful display of fireworks which produced neither smell nor smoke. Percy was riveted and went twice.
Every day The Times advertised practitioners such as Dr Clutterbuck giving lectures on experimental philosophy, astronomy, ‘theory and practice of physic’, ‘animal chemistry’, ‘materia medica’, ‘therapentics and notany’, ‘electrical philosophy with application to the improvement of chemical science and its application to natural phenomena’. The public lapped it up.
These people were not necessarily men of science, often closer to conjurers, but there were many serious lectures to be had as well, especially at the Royal Institution, which became open to the public in 1811.
At the Royal Society, Davy put on exhibitions of his experiments that were not only explosive but made all the women swoon. He was a very good public speaker, with considerable charisma and the ability to make science seem understandable.
There were theatres of anatomy giving lectures and lessons on dissection for medical students which were open to the general public.
It was in this environment of attainable wonder that Mary caused Victor Frankenstein to say:
‘Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.’
Mary talked about a nightmare as the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster, and Percy, Lord Byron, Mary and Claire, her step-sister, loved to sit up late around the fire, with storms raging outside, reading gothic tales, which undoubtedly informed the tone of the novel.
The year Mary began to write Frankenstein, 1816, was also known as the year without a summer.
A volcano, Mount Tambora, erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.
Almost 100,000 people died, and a massive amount of volcanic ash was sent into the atmosphere, affecting weather patterns around the world.
Europe’s skies were dark, and some foretold end of the world: a perfect environment to inspire a gothic tale, and another instance of the magic of scientific reality.
Mary Shelley’s novel is often taken to be a criticism of unbridled scientific experimentation. The issues it raised have, of course, not gone away. How much should we experiment with gene modification? What might the consequences be?
Nearly 200 years on from the publication of Frankenstein, however, perhaps we should be reminded of the wonder and the magic of science.
What science fiction writers imagine often comes to pass. Arthur C. Clarke imagined a virtual reality in 1958, in a story called The City and the Stars. Edward Bellamy envisaged credit cards in 1888, and Jules Verne a moon landing in 1865.
Genetic engineering featured in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932 and Stanislaw Lem described the eBook in 1961.
New research on cloaking devices may make H.G.Wells’ 1897 Invisible Man a reality. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s electrical stimulation of the body springs to mind when watching someone use a defibrillator.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley refers to a quote attributed to Sir Isaac Newton:
‘I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’
The wonder and magic of science are that there is still so much more to imagine, and so much more to learn.
Author Bio: Suzanne Burdon is the author of Almost Invincible: A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein.
*This article was originally published at www.abc.net.au By Suzanne Burdon.