Monstrous intelligence

Pamela Clemit on the electrifying hum of ideas that jolted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to life

July 3, 2008

The title of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is often used as a byword for the dangers of modern scientific research - whether computer technology, nuclear power or genetic engineering. This thought-provoking volume of essays takes a different approach. It examines the scientific culture of Mary Shelley's own times and explores the novel's engagement with contemporary debates about the aims and rewards of scientific research.

A major strength of this collection is its representation of the diversity of what Shelley and her contemporaries would have understood by science. The close of the 18th century was characterised by new levels of confidence in the commercial and social impact of scientific research. Yet people of the time did not have a homogeneous view of science. The term "scientist" was not invented until 1840.

As Patricia Fara argues in a scene-setting essay on 18th-century scientific education for girls, areas that might now seem distinct - such as natural philosophy, travel, military surveying - overlapped with each other, while theology and literature also impinged on the development of science.

The daughter of the philosophical anarchist William Godwin and the feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley was brought up in a vibrant intellectual household that, Judith Barbour reminds us, encouraged both scientific and social speculation. Shelley's early interest in cutting-edge science was reinforced by the influence of her father's protege Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was equally well versed in the scientific literature of the period.

Areas of scientific inquiry that bear most directly on Frankenstein include the French tradition of comparative anatomy, as mediated by the Shelleys' friend, the radical surgeon and physiologist William Lawrence. Anita Guerrini highlights questions concerning the sanctity of life prompted by animal experiments and antivivisection debates, while Melinda Cooper examines the ethical disputes prompted by the study of monstrous or anomalous life forms.

Allan K. Hunter discusses Frankenstein as a representation of the cultural anxieties generated by Erasmus Darwin's evolutionary theories. In this view, Frankenstein's creature, endowed with preternatural learning abilities and extreme powers of endurance, and eight feet tall, threatens to supplant the supremacy of man, "not out of any evil intent, but simply by enacting the natural process described by Darwin".

Jane Goodall and Ian Jackson, in complementary essays, recover the intensity of 18th-century moral debates on research into electricity and document a tradition of socially and politically radical performers of electrical experiments - notably Joseph Priestley's protege Adam Walker, who taught P.B. Shelley at Eton. Such contexts help to explain the dual view of electricity in Frankenstein, where fascination at its exhilarating potential as a life science (which P.B. Shelley seems to have shared) co-exists with horror at its catastrophic consequences.

Other areas of contemporary science scrutinised here include new understandings of geographical space (Christa Knellwolf), spiritualist ideas (Joan Kirkby) and the 19th-century culture of collecting (Christine Cheater). The volume concludes with an essay by Robert Markley looking ahead to the dystopian fantasies of H.G. Wells.

As well as documenting the most relevant areas of the period's scientific knowledge, this volume questions the influential 20th-century view of Frankenstein as straightforwardly critical of scientific aspiration.

Frankenstein's "error" is not scientific ambition per se, but his lack of compassion toward his experimental subject, and his inability to build a moral context for the understanding of the self and of the world made possible by advances in science.

This scholarly yet accessible volume is a valuable resource, not just for students of Mary Shelley but also for all those interested in the history of science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Frankenstein's Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 1780-1830

Edited by Christa Knellwolf and Jane Goodall

Ashgate Press, 240pp, £50.00

ISBN 9780754654476

Published 22 April 2008

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