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Why only Mary Shelley could create Frankenstein

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The Lady and Her Monsters

By Rosanne Montillo

William Morrow, 336 pages, $29

VOLUMES dealing with classic literature can be informative, but they're not usually accused of being overly entertaining. This volume is an exception.

The subtitle is A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece, which is fair warning, since the actual writing of Shelley's tale is only referred to briefly, in passing.

The Lady and Her Monsters is the first book by American academic Rosanne Montillo. She begins by setting the scene. The early 19th century in England was rife with scientific exploration. One trend was experimenting with the theory of galvanic electricity.

Our introduction is complete with stories of gruesome experiments on frogs and other creatures. The holy grail for some scientists became the ability to reanimate a dead creature and bring it back to life. These experiments weren't always private -- at times they were public exhibitions of the phenomenon.

Researchers soon tired of frogs and the like, moving on to human corpses when possible. Combined with the growing need for anatomical dissections in medical schools, these activities made the business of grave-robbing a booming industry.

Moonlight raids of cemeteries continued unabated in England for many years, until two infamous murder cases, carried out by those who decided to skip the graveyard, and procure their own freshly murdered corpses instead, led to changes in the English laws.

For most novels, we don't have an explanation from the author regarding the events that led to the genesis of their work. However, for any student of Frankenstein, the horror story contest forms part of the work itself.

Mary Shelley was spending a rainy summer in Switzerland with her lover and eventual husband, Percy Shelley, among others, when Lord Byron issued the group an invitation (or a challenge) to write a horror story.

Dr. John Polidori eventually published his story, The Vampyre, which gave rise to the modern vampire tale. Mary's story -- Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus -- was begun when she was only 19; and published anonymously when she was 21 in 1818.

Often, it's easy to forget that historical figures were real people with familiar problems, including bad relationships, inconvenient pregnancies, blended families, broken hearts and untimely demises. When Montillo discusses Mary Shelley's life, and the circumstances behind the novel's creation, it may feel like dishing the dirt, but it also brings the people and the time to life.

It's fascinating to read the details about how these individuals lived, which is usually not the focus in a literature class. We learn about Shelley's tragic entry into the world, since her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died after giving birth to her.

We get a glimpse of her early home life, which included her father, stepmother, older half-sister and stepsister. Her stepsister Claire may (or may not) have had an affair with Mary's husband, Percy, and may (or may not) have given birth to his child.

We find out what the scandalous Byron really thought about Polidori, and what eventually happened to Percy's first wife (whom he had dumped for Mary).

The various tidbits that Montillo has assembled may seem insignificant (yet entertaining), but collectively, they go a long way towards a greater understanding of how and why only this particular young woman, Mary Shelley, could envision a creature who originated in the charnel house, was born without a mother, and was ultimately rejected by his creator.

Donna Harris edits the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba newsletter. She wrote her master's thesis on The Role of the Mother in Selected Works of Science Fiction -- including Frankenstein.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J9

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