Book Review: The Lady and Her Monsters

UPDATE, 10/30/13: The Shelley-Godwin Archive, an online collection of materials related to Mary and Percy Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft has just been announced.  First available from the archive, on October 31st, are Mary Shelley’s notebooks with notes and ideas and early drafts of Frankenstein.  A facsimile edition exists, but its small print run and expensive price tag made it a rarity on it’s own.  The project pulls together rare and rarely seen materials from private collections, the New York Public Library and Oxford’s Bodeian Library. 

The_Lady_And_Her_MonstersThis time of year numerous versions of Frankenstein show at horror film festivals and on third tier cable channels.  Have you ever wondered how a teenaged Mary Shelly could have imagined such a tale?

If you were looking for a 19th century equivalent to the Kardashians, look no further than Mary Shelly and her half sister, Claire Clairmont,.  The sisters were certainly scandalous enough and their personal lives were widely reported in British newspapers and gossiped about in the finer circles.  Just half of their antics would have invited derision and ridicule from the general public.

But the sisters weren’t your typical celebrities and Mary Shelly was possessed of a singular intellect.  Their father,  William Godwin and Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, were prominent authors and proponents of some of the most outlandish and progressive ideas of their time.  Mary’s mother died shortly after her birth, and Mary was educated by her father, reading (especially her mother’s writing and her father’s frank memoir of their love and marriage), and the ideas of her father’s intellectual circle – a who’s who of enlightenment and neoclassical scientists, philosophers, and artists of the day.

Tales of Galvanism, grave robbing for anatomical study and other grisly talk fascinated Mary.  All coalesced when she engaged in a ghost story competition with traveling companions in 1816.  Her tale of re-animation has become one of the great horror stories, retold and re-interpreted through the years.

Roseanne Montillo investigates and relates the origins of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, examining the influence of Mary’s personal life, society, and the scientific, philosophic, cultural, and legal ideas and personalities of the time. Montillo sheds light on the often grisly efforts to animate corpses with electrical charges and the shady, but still legal at the time, business of grave robbing to supply “fresh” corpses for experimentation.  She also links the life of the author with her intellectual surroundings to demonstrate without a doubt that only someone with Shelly’s personal and intellectual history could have conceived such a monster.  (Debate still rages over which is the monster – Dr. Frankenstein, or his re-animated corpse.)

Montillo has engaged readers at the nexus of literature and history of science to introduce fans of Frankenstein to the unique world of Mary Shelly and the tale that only Shelly could have imagined. I doubt the Kardashians will offer such an enduring legacy.

The lady and her monsters : a tale of dissections, real-life Dr. Frankensteins, and the creation of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece / Roseanne Montillo.
Publisher New York : Willam Morrow, c2013. Edition 1st ed.  HSL Medical Humanities/3rd Floor WZ 330 M792L 2013


[Lynne M. Fox, Education Librarian]