About This Book

This book, Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is the only book in our exhibit that is not an edition of Frankenstein, but its inclusion is not unwarranted. Published in 2018 and written by chemist and science writer Kathryn Harkup, the book offers an overview of Mary Shelley’s personal history as well as the sociopolitical context in which she was born into. Harkup also delves deep into the tenets of the enlightenment, which were a great influence on Shelley.

According to Harkup, during Shelley’s time science had become popularized and democratized in a way that had never before been seen. Tools such as microscopes could be purchased for a very small sum, and kept in family houses for personal experimentation. Additionally, science took on a rather fantastical narrative, and many scientists studied galvanism (the study of electricity produced by chemical action, but more often than not in the eighteenth century included electrocuting corpses in public science displays to study the effects of electricity on the human body) and spontaneous generation (the idea that organic material could be produced from inorganic material). The basis for the theory of spontaneous generation was, according to Harkup, most likely founded in the observation of the way maggots appear on the corpse of a dead animal. These two scientific ideas were very likely largely influential on Mary Shelley; Shelley notes in her own diary that during the time at Villa Diodati with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley (now famous for the “ghost story challenge” that prompted Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein) the company discussed Enlightenment scientific ideas such as galvanism and spontaneous generation.

During the eighteenth century, electricity was considered to be a substance in an of itself, and not a consequence of chemical reactions and a property of the interactions between atoms and electrons (It wasn’t until the 1890’s that physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the presence of electrons within the atom). Because of this misunderstanding, electricity was seen almost as an element itself, which was understood to be stored in the muscles of animals, according to chemist Galvani, for whom galvanism is named (Harkup 219).

Harkup also discusses how electricity was already being used to revive people who had been drowned during the eighteenth century. And in much more macabre cases, such as with Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini, corpses of criminals would be taken and stimulated with electricity for the entertainment of crowds. The dead faces would display grimaces, frowns, and smiles when shocked. Eventually, these sensationalist shows were outlawed in Germany, since there were more clearly meant to display the fascinatingly grotesque and had little scientific merit.

It was into this culture that Victor Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley, was born. The sensationalist scientific demonstrations, the potential for electricity in medical revival, and the Enlightenment all contributed to the creation of Victor’s monster.

The book itself has a sleek, modern presentation with Gothic artistic influences. The book is hardcover and uses black, red, and white in the cover art, depicting tools such as those that Shelley might have imagined Victor Frankenstein using to make his creature. Many of the illustrations on the outside of Making the Monster have come from archives from the Wellcome Library in London and from the Houghton Library at Harvard. They are printed in greyscale and appear to be woodcut printing for the most part. Sections are separated by small, black drawings of tools (the same seven as are displayed on the cover). The effect is simultaneously whimsical and ominous.