Making the Monster by Kathryn Harkup
“Frankenstein” has entered our consciousness as an undead monster in a curious confusion of roles. Frankenstein was actually Victor Frankenstein, the man who created the monster in Mary Shelley’s eponymous masterpiece. Books, television, and movies have kept the story alive and thriving across a broad spectrum of cultures and languages. In Making the Monster, Kathryn Harkup has brought the story of how Shelley created the creature and the science which supported the “truth” of Frankenstein’s creation to life.
A curious experiment took place in 1818, the year that Frankenstein was published. Electrical wires were attached to the corpse of an “athletic, muscular man.” The current was triggered, and the body convulsed. When the current was adjusted, “full, laborious breathing commenced … one finger extended and appeared to point.” Two scientists, “Aldin and Ure, made the dead move using electrical devices.” It was a time of serious scientific exploration of new ideas, new lands, and even the heavens. “The global met the provincial in Henry Cavendish, the reclusive scientific genius who weighed the world in a shed in his garden on Clapham Common.”
The workings of the human body were becoming a proper avenue of study. It was “the resurrection men who stole corpses from graveyards in the middle of the night” to supply material for the “anatomy schools and graveyards that provided … Frankenstein with the raw materials for his creature.” The creation of just such a creature seemed to be a logical step to the inquisitive minds of that time.
Harkup provides vital, informative background information on Mary Shelley’s families. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, grew up with a drunken father who beat her mother and squandered such money as they had. Leaving home at 19 to make her way in the world, she eventually became a celebrated writer. Among her works in response to the French Revolution was A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Two years later “she explored the Revolution’s implications for the other half of the world’s population in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Pregnant, married, and divorced, then pregnant and married again to William Godwin, she gave birth to Mary six months later and died a few days after from puerperal fever. Godwin proved a devoted but stern father. He and a new Mrs. Godwin were of a literary bent, and Mary was an early reader and writer.
Home education with tutors in music and drawing combined with a voracious reading habit (She sometimes read 16 hours a day!) to give Mary an education superior to most girls of her time. Plus, medical men, scientists, artists, politicians, and philosophers passed through their home and small publishing business. Wordsworth and Coleridge were among those “who stopped by for supper.” Mary would later recall how she and her sister Claire “hid under the sofa to hear Coleridge recite his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Mary Shelley’s childhood, whether witnessing a great storm, hearing a great poem, listening to scientists in her home, or taking a six-month trip to Scotland, contributed directly to her invention of Victor Frankenstein, his journey, and the creation of an unforgettable monster. Then, at ages 16 and 17, Mary met the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley and they embarked on a relationship worthy of a television reality show.
Having delineated the forces that defined the young Mary, Harkup goes on to detail the various scientific efforts, including Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity and the growing use of cadavers for anatomical research, that formed the basis for Shelley’s astounding creation of her monster. Harkup’s research is meticulous and she tells the story with verve. The sub-title captures the thesis: “The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Making the Monster is a fascinating story that is sure to capture the imagination and appreciation of those who have grown up with the various iterations of the Frankenstein story. It is not to be missed.