2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus. In the intervening two centuries, Shelley’s novel, originally published anonymously, has become her most famous and well-known work and an international icon. The name Frankenstein has become shorthand for both mad scientists running amok and their monstrous creations (which also tend to run amok!). So, it is fitting that during this bicentennial year, Dr. Kathryn Harkup, a UK based scientist and writer, would investigate the woman behind the novel and the science that impacted and influenced her work in Making The Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
In the early 1800s, gothic romances and tales of strange, supernatural occurrences were commonplace. With Frankenstein, Shelley shunned the supernatural and referenced known contemporary scientific theories as the basis for her novel. This set the novel apart because, for contemporary readers, Frankenstein seemed possible. Harkup, a chemist and established science writer in the UK, explores those theories, and how over the centuries, they have fallen by the wayside or been developed into new(er) scientific ideas and disciplines. She also explains, step by step, the various methods and avenues available to Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein for the completion of his “project” through chapters with names like “Preservation,” “Construction,” “Electrification” and “Reanimation.” For example, in the chapter called “Collection,” Harkup addresses the question of how and where Victor would obtain the parts necessary to assemble his creature. She describes the availability of bodies for the burgeoning science of dissection, the schools that secured bodies for study, and the gentlemen from whom they purchased them. She also explores what those gentlemen were paid and how some may have become a bit too anxious while waiting for individuals to be available to fulfill the increasing demand for cadavers. Sometimes creepy, but always informative and entertaining, Harkup provides context and understanding to all of the scientific aspects to Shelley’s novel. She also does an admirable job of providing a biographical sketch of Shelley, her parents, siblings, husband and other influential individuals who played a role in the creation of her masterwork.
Part biography, part literary analysis and part scientific examination of the principles and theories that impacted and influenced Shelley while writing the novel, Making the Monster is a fascinating and compelling exploration of the creation of one of the most important novels of the last two hundred years.