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Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Science: Roseanne Montillo's Thoughts on Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

I won The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo from Booktrib , a website that was originally  solely devoted to book giveaways, but now also has chats with authors and reviews. I've won a number of books from Booktrib, but this is the first book I won from that source since I started this blog.

 I've always had a fascination with the contest among  Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr. Polidori  whose most enduring literary result was Frankenstein.  So I was delighted that I won it.  My review is below.


The background of Frankenstein is scientific as well as literary. I am largely familiar with the literary aspects.  I learned from this book that Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had a tremendous interest in the theory that electricity could resurrect the dead, and so did Byron's physician, John William Polidori. This was Victor Frankenstein's goal in Mary Shelley's novel.

 I recently finished reading The Shadow Conspiracy , an anthology of alternate universe steampunk stories that partly dealt with Byron and Polidori  pursuing a Frankenstein type of immortality by various means. Would Byron have aspired to that goal?  Although Montillo believes that Byron played no role in inspiring Frankenstein, a Lecture on Byron, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein by Professor Charles E. Robinson  from 2000 quotes from Byron's work showing his interest in Frankenstein's themes. Montillo's argument derives from Polidori's journal which shows that Mary Shelley didn't really spend time with Byron.  Yet she had definitely read Byron's work, and it might easily have influenced her.

What stood out for me in Montillo's extensive discussion of the science behind Frankenstein was Giovanni Aldini's belief that electricity could benefit depressed mental patients.   In 1801 his experiment on the severely depressed Luigi Lanzarini  was successful.  Lanzarini recovered completely.  This means that Aldini was actually the first to utilize electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) otherwise known as shock treatment.  I found no mention of either Aldini or Lanzarini  in histories of ECT on the internet.  Although I did find an Article on Luigi Aldini  by neurobiologist Andr√© Parent which appeared in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Science in 2004.  Parent's article does credit Aldini with being the first to use a precursor of ECT.  I admit that I have not been a fan of the practice.  The side effect of memory loss has caused me to wonder if the main reason why ECT  is successful is because people subjected to it have forgotten what made them feel depressed.  I viewed medical historian Sherwin Nuland's TED Talk dealing with his own experience with ECT as part of my research for this review.  Nuland is very persuasive, but I asked myself whether he's had permanent memory loss and what he might have forgotten.  He didn't mention Aldini or Lanzarini in his discussion of the history of ECT either, but Nuland did refer to ECT as a kind of resurrection.  This ties ECT in with Victor Frankenstein's dream.  Dr. Polidori was actually depressed.  He committed suicide in 1821 which was five years after he helped to inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.  I don't know if Giovanni Aldini could have cured him with electricity.

My primary interest in this book was the science, but I  made a discovery on the internet concerning the literary connections side of this book.  I learned that  Ianthe,  Percy Bysshe Shelley's daughter by his first wife Harriet Westbrook, kept a book of Shelley's unpublished early poems that was handed down to her descendants called  The Esdaile Notebook

Readers who know less than I about Percy Bysshe Shelley (not a son of a Bysshe, but actually the grandson of a Bysshe), Byron, Polidori and Mary Shelley's antecedents may find revelation after revelation in this book.   So I would recommend The Lady and Her Monsters as an introduction to the milieu that precipitated Frankenstein. Anyone who wants to know more can find plenty of material whether your interests are literary or scientific.

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