Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall (eds.), Frankenstein’s Science

Frankenstein’s Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780-1830, ed. Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2008), xi + 225 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-5447-6

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

This welcome collection of essays rightly places its emphasis on the scientific contexts in which Frankenstein was written and read, rather than on conjectural readings of this most-interpreted of all novels. As long, then, as the reader does not expect to discover detailed readings of Shelley’s fiction, s/he will derive much enlightening information from it about the reception, popular and intellectual, of scientific discourse in the Romantic period.

The volume opens with an essay by Patricia Fara that is concerned with the relationship of Frankenstein to Shelley’s childhood reading of what we now call science fiction and to mythological fantasy. She suggests that much of what women learned about science came, owing to their exclusion from formal study of science and medicine, from popularisations and fantastical novels. In Shelley’s case, this reading surfaced in Frankenstein which, ‘although fictional  . . . is a historical document packed with information about attitudes towards science and women in the early nineteenth century’ (p. 29). Specifically, Fara explores Ludvig Holberg’s novel about a journey through a subterranean world, William Godwin’s children’s version of the Greek myths of Prometheus and Pandora, and, less-convincingly, Edmond Halley’s fascinating speculations about the earth’s interior. Her conclusion is well-argued:

There were no firm boundaries separating natural philosophy from theology, fiction and exploration. Halley had formulated his conjectures about the earth’s internal structure because he needed to establish his religious orthodoxy. Never committing himself to his elaborate scheme, he justified it by rhetorical devices, such as arguing from analogy and posing unanswerable questions with the silent assumption of an affirmative answer. Holberg and Shelley both wrote social commentaries which were informed by Halley’s theories, yet which – like Poe’s Pym – posed ambiguously as novels presented in the guise of factual travel accounts. (p. 28)

Judith Barbour continues the examination of Shelley’s childhood reading in the second essay. She discusses Godwin’s ‘The Orang-Outang; or Wild Man of the Woods’ (1800), an article on the Dutch chemist and physician Herman Boerhaave, and his translation of The Swiss Family Robinson—canvassing an unrecognised source for Frankenstein’s monster in these writings, with their striking illustrations of bestial black men, racial others thought by some to be not fully human.

Christina Knellwolf explores the symbolic significance of space in the novel. Beginning by noting the ‘insistent parallel between geographic and imaginary space’, she attempts to ‘map the inner geography’ that Shelley investigates in materialist, external, terms (p. 49). Anna Guerrini then considers the vivisection experiments and the animal welfare debates that constitute a context for the novel. She recounts, in fascinating detail, the priority dispute between Francois Magendie and Charles Bell over who discovered the roots of the nerves which are associated with sensation and with motion. She details Bell’s reluctance to ‘do these cruelties’ (p.74) of experimenting on live animals, and assesses the public reception of Magendie’s experiments in London, revealing how that reception altered in 1825 as a bill to abolish bear-baiting was debated in parliament. Impugned by MPs, Magendie became a byword for inhumanity to animals and may have stood behind Victor Frankenstein as he appears in the second edition of the novel.

Melinda Cooper examines the reception of French comparative anatomy in Britain, focusing on the new ‘science’ of teratology (study of monsters) and its resonances in Shelley’s novel. She revisits the work of Marilyn Butler on the surgeon-anatomist William Lawrence, a friend of Shelley and the importer into Britain of the anatomical studies of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, whose theories about aberrant generation find echoes in her fiction. Cooper’s clear and compelling case makes better and more exact sense of the issue of generation and monstrosity in the novel than I have seen elsewhere.

It is important to draw out the subtlety of Geoffroy’s understanding of the technical manipulation of life. What he dismisses out of hand is the (implicitly theological) premise that any attempt to intervene in, modulate or refashion the process of material generation might somehow be morally wrong. For Geoffroy, there is no inherent illegality in the technological recreation of life–it is clear that he considers such experiments neither contrary to the laws of nature nor (by implication) to the ideal laws of the democratic state. On the contrary, Geoffroy inscribes the possibility of transforming life at the very core of his understanding of natural law. The one principle that unites all forms of life in Geoffroy’s scheme of things is the tendency towards self-transformation. Crucially, this is a law that unites the whole of nature–one life-form cannot move without the other, we might say. In this sense, Geoffroy’s understanding of the technological is materialist but not reductively mechanistic or Cartesian. Contrary to the Cartesian tradition, where the mind of the creator intervenes from the outside to manipulate the passive animal-machine, Geoffroy suggests that one cannot intervene in the transformation of nature without being oneself implicated in the process. If the human (mind and body) is connected to the whole of nature, then the teratologists cannot manipulate the monster without intervening in the reproduction of his or her own nature. Here we have an interesting connection to the novel Frankenstein, since Shelley’s depiction of the materialist scientist also seems to point to the limits of the purely mechanicist, materialist position. Dr. Frankenstein thus initiates his experiments in a highly mechanicist state of mind only to find his entire life, his connection to family and friends and even sanity, irretrievably transformed by the coming to life of ‘his’ creature. (pp. 91-2)

Cooper also develops an interesting argument about the critical view that Shelley takes of Victor’s generation experiments. Noting that it is less the experiment itself than Victor’s disgusted refusal to take care of the monster he creates that Shelley criticises, Cooper shows that this may have been her response to Lawrence’s personal life–he kept a brain-damaged boy in his household to aid his studies of monstrosity.

Joan Kirkby studies Shelley’s interest in spiritualism: the range of discourses that were labelled as ‘animal magnetism, somnambulism, clairvoyance, spirit apparitions, foreknowledge, trances, medium, thought transfer, second sight, posthumous survival and thought transference between the living and the dead’ (p. 100). Kirkby summarises the impact of Swedenborg and Mesmer sketching Swedenborg’s impact on the young Immanuel Kant. She is not able to show, however, that Shelley made significant use of these bodies of knowledge in her fiction.

Jane Goodall discusses electrical experimentation and its reputation in the radical 1790s and considers the impact of this Promethean power on writers and experimentalists such as William Godwin and Joseph Priestley, former Calvinists for whom rebellious power was tinged with the guilt and sinfulness accorded it during their Calvinist youth.

Allan K.Hunter, like Goodall, provides an essay best read as an update to Anne K. Mellor’s excellent nuanced readings of Shelley’s science in Mary Shelley, Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988). Hunter discusses Erasmus Darwin’s notion of evolution as a perpetual improvement.

Ian Jackson considers the popular practice of staging spectacular electrical demonstrations: sensational shows of the life force or divine energy that visualised what was normally invisible. He details the work of itinerant lecturer/showman Benjamin Martin and Percy Shelley’s teacher Adam Walker who boasted ‘I have electrified two regiments of soldiers, consisting of eighteen hundred men’ (p. 154). Jackson concludes of such performers: ‘they combined spectacular demonstrations with a set of precepts, strongly expressed in Newtonian terms that emphasised the significance of electricity by portraying it both as an active force of nature, like light or gravity, but also as something altogether more mysterious: a force akin to life itself. In doing so, they helped to make science available to those, including women, dissenters and above all those in the provinces, who were excluded from the conventional institutional structures’ (pp. 161-2).

Christine Cheater explores the obsessive pursuit of nature in which Victor Frankenstein indulges as an escape from his anatomical experiments. She sets Victor’s wanderings in nature in the context, though, not of Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, but of the avid collectors of natural history curiosities. She offers two case studies: the collecting careers of Sir Ashton Lever, destroyed by his obsession, and of John Gould, ornithologist and illustrator. This is a valuable essay that illuminates the changing culture of collecting–its commercialisation and democratisation–as Lever put his objects on show to anyone able to afford an admission ticket, and used his income to buy-up the objects brought from the Pacific by Captain Cook’s third voyage. Broken in spirit when finances forced the sale of the collection, Lever killed himself. Gould, on the other hand, flourished by illustrating birds in publications aimed at the middle classes. It’s an intriguing story, but one that is scarcely related to Frankenstein at all. The same charge can be levelled at Robert Markley’s otherwise interesting essay on Laplace, Lowell, the nebular hypothesis and Victorian anxieties about life on Mars. Culminating in a reading of H G Wells, Markley’s essay ends the book on an anti-climactic note, being simply too remote from its avowed subject-matter and historical period. It is a pity to end an otherwise eclectic and thought-provoking volume on too discordant a note, but perhaps this is symptomatic of a certain disparateness and lack of focus. We are engaged by the many scientific contexts the book features, but few of them bring much new insight into Shelley’s novel, which becomes more elusive as the book goes on–a central figure who is described by the other actors but rarely seen on stage.

Tim Fulford, Nottingham Trent University

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