Friday, August 2, 2013

Nonfiction: The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo

I became interested in Roseanne Montillo's book mostly because of the full title, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece. Anyone who has read Frankenstein knows what a harrowing and fascinating, although surprisingly hard to follow story it is. And the common story about how a young Mary Shelley came up with the idea only adds to the story's powerful presence. I was curious to know a little more about the scientific discoveries being made during the time Shelley wrote her story, and also about her own life before and after she created her masterpiece.

The Situation: The book begins in the late 1700s when scientist start to earnestly look into the reanimation of corpses. The experiments start will small animals, but soon curiosity, as it usually does, leads scientists to test their theories out on dead human beings. It would soon become common practice in London for a criminal to be sentenced to death by hanging, and then for his body to be used for public dissection or experimentation. And other scientists as well as medical students were not the only ones interested in seeing these public dissections or reanimation experiments. Just as people would crowd around the gallows and watch criminals be executed, they would also attempt to crowd lecture halls to watch them be cut open and/or experimented upon. It would be these sort of practices that would find themselves in the pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The Problem: As these sorts of experiments and demonstrations grew in popularity, it became harder to find suitable corpses, and competition between medical and academic professionals was fierce. This soon led to body-snatching, a practice which was, of course, illegal. But those willing to risk robbing graves for fresh corpses found it to be an incredibly profitable endeavor, as scientists and doctors were willing to pay quite well for their next subject. All sorts of methods were employed to keep the graves of loved ones from being violated, but the best body-snatchers always found a way. To make matters worse, in the early 1800s, one pair decides to skip the grave-robbing part altogether and began killing people themselves in order to sell the bodies for profit, and they wouldn't be the only ones. The public wanted to see the latest experiments and dissections, and the scientists wanted to perform these acts for them, but how were they to keep up a supply of bodies without resulting to body-snatching?

The book also provides an in-depth exploration of Mary Shelley and the people around her, and she wasn't without her share of problems. For most of her life she remained estranged from her father and stepmother (her birth mother died in childbirth), as she was the mistress of Percy Shelley for a number of years, and her family didn't approve. Mary and Percy would have married if he wasn't still legally joined with his first wife and mother of his first two children. Throughout their life together the two would travel all across Europe looking for a place to settle, and scandal would follow them. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that not only tells of the life of Mary Shelley with a focus on the creation of Frankenstein, but it also goes into great detail regarding the scientific discoveries of the time, particularly those involving dissection and reanimation. Scientists and doctors were very interested in the idea of bringing something that was once dead back to the land of the living, and it is this idea that becomes the base storyline for the now classic literary tale. Chapters switch focus between Mary's life, and the advances of science, giving almost equal focus to each. And as the reader learns about Mary, it is natural to also end up learning about other notable literary figures such as her eventual husband, Percy Shelley, as well as Lord Byron, who became an intimate friend for a great while. 

My Verdict: This is an incredibly well-written book that ends up being part biography and part research paper. At first I feared that the stories about the dissections and experiments were going to bore me, but once Montillo introduces Mary Shelley's story and how it intertwined with what was going on in the world of science, the book becomes incredibly interesting and, at many points, quite fascinating. I was mostly just interested in learning more about how a young girl came up with such an idea for a book, but I was given much more than that and am glad for it. Montillo gives the reader a peak into the life of times of a girl that is much more troubled than I had even imagined. And while there is body snatching in Frankenstein, I had no idea that it was as big a problem in Mary Shelley's Europe as it actually was. Anyone who has read Frankenstein or is at all interested in the scientific practices of 19th century Europe would most likely enjoy this book.

Favorite Moment: It is hard to pick a favorite moment when much of the book speaks of Mary's unhappiness, or the gruesome practices of scientists and doctors with dead corpses, but I did enjoy any part that gave a glimpse into Mary's real character, particularly her lack of patience and mood swings. It just wasn't how I imagined the creator of Frankenstein to be.

Favorite Character: Again, this is hard, because most everyone is unhappy or just detestable. For instance, Lord Byron is a fascinating man, but he was a womanizer and incredibly vain, and didn't care when people thought or assumed the worst of him. But as I said, he is fascinating, and the parts of Mary's life with him in them were probably the most interesting.

Recommended Reading: It almost goes without saying that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is my recommendation for this week. Be warned though: it is one of those books that is only a little over 200 pages long, but for some reason takes as long to read as a 400 page novel. The language is just so dense and the epistolary format is so exhausting that it takes true effort to get through every page. 

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