Book review: ‘The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein’

Modern film treatments of ‘Frankenstein’ – don’t forget that Frankenstein is the scientist and not his ‘Creature’ – have tended to concentrate so much on the elements of the gothic, horror and suspense, that it is easy to forget (if we ever knew) that the original novel behind the franchise is arguably the protype for the science-fiction genre. It’s also an extraordinary tale that weaves together vast ethical themes related to the artificial creation of life with a young woman’s understanding of an emerging frontier of scientific thought. Sharon Ruston’s ‘The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein’ (Bodleian Library, £25, ISBN 9781851245574) is a superb examination of the confluence of early-19th-century objective discovery and the subjective Romantic imagination.

Mary Shelley’s novel was published two centuries ago, at a time when developments in science and medicine were coming thick and fast. Its central idea – that a living being could be artificially created and animated in laboratory conditions – was, as Ruston explains, “a live scientific issue at the time”. Not only did the book emerge from the author’s almost constant relationship with tragedy and bereavement, but it also has its roots in a scientific ambience vibrating with the discoveries of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley and Luigi Galvani.

Shelley mentions galvanism in her book, which was then understood to be a type of unique electrical ‘spark of life’ that living animals possessed. Meanwhile, at the Royal College of Surgeons, the likes of John Abernethy and William Lawrence were debating what life was, what were its boundaries, when an organism could be said to be living or dead. The great Romantic poets of the age Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley (who was Mary’s husband) discussed “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of it being discovered and communicated”. Back in Mary Shelley’s day the scientific buzzword was electricity and her protagonist Victor Frankenstein, on seeing a tree destroyed by lightning, abandons his interest in the pseudo-science of alchemy in favour of an altogether more enlightened approach to scientific discovery.

But, says Ruston in her lavishly illustrated and highly entertaining investigation into the technological truth behind everyone’s favourite monster, don’t be led down the garden path by the flashes of electricity that have become a trope in the movies (from James Whale’s 1931 version of events to Kenneth Branagh’s in 1994). This is because Shelley never once explicitly tells us how the Creature is made. One of the great strengths of the book, Ruston contends, is that this “absence of explanation allows us to read our own contemporary anxieties about science and technology through the novel”.

It’s stayed with us all this time. Indeed, the prefix ‘franken-’ has found its way into our lexicon to denote anything modified in a scientific way we instinctively dislike.