The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein by Sharon Ruston

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Review by Annabel Gaskell

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, her novel conceived during that momentous trip to Geneva in 1816 during ‘the year without a summer’, is supremely concerned with the subject of life and death. Writing it required more than a passing knowledge of how far science and medicine had reached then in order to extend it plausibly into the realms of science fantasy. Mary succeeded in this so well, readers were scared into believing that you could resurrect bodies, even ones sewn together from parts. Add the philosophical and ethical dangers of daring to play God with life into the plot, and the thought-provoking Gothic horror was assured. 

Frankenstein still speaks to us on many levels. Since early experiments with skin grafts and corneal transplants in the early 1900s, transplantation of donated organs took off in the 1950s. More recently, microsurgery has allowed the reattachment of limbs and led to their transplantation too, and even that of faces. We have the new challenges posed by genetic engineering too. The ethical dilemmas haven’t gone away, and the philosophical questions raised by Mary Shelley are still there.

Ruston, who is Chair of Romanticism at Lancaster University, however, begins by taking us back to the 1800s, to explore where science and medicine were heading and how the key thinkers of the day would influence the young writer. 

Mary’s parents were Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin; she only knew her mother through her writings, but was spurred on by them and the many scientists with whom her father conversed, so her education in science began early and fuelled a riposte to those who would question that an 18-year-old girl could write such a book.

There were still no female physicians, as Wollstonecraft had hoped there would be in the future, but Frankenstein broached the science of life and death with confidence and insight. It’s topicality is demonstrated by one contemporary reviewer declaring that the novel had ‘an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times.’

After introducing us to Mary and Percy Shelley, and recounting the tragic circumstances of losing their first child, Ruston moves on to discuss the Royal Humane Society’s promotion of techniques to revive those who had suffered a near-death accident – particularly drowning and suffocation, which led to many worrying about being buried alive! 

It was widely agreed that there were two kinds of death: ‘incomplete’ and ‘absolute’. 

In her diaries, Mary writes of a dream in which they revived her baby. 

Ruston continues on to discuss how life and death were portrayed in romantic literature including works by Percy Shelley, Byron and Polidori, and others like Coleridge and ETA Hoffman. Then we move onto the science proper, in chapters on air and electricity beginning with more on the Humane Society’s methods and the knowledge that we need air to live. At this point it is appropriate to refer to the extensive section of colour plates included in the book (32 pages) in which Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump from 1768 features. Other monochrome pictures can be found throughout the text too, including engravings illustrating Luigi Galvani’s experiments on frogs’ legs. 

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, National Gallery

The fourth chapter is on the ‘vital principle’ that makes the material body live. Here, Ruston talks about the vastly differing views of superstar surgeons Abernethy and Lawrence, whose disagreements caused a sensation in the medical world and beyond. This is fascinating stuff. 

The final chapter takes us to the subject of ‘Raising the Dead’, and the first page is faced by an illustration of the saws and blades of the surgeon’s trade. This is where the body-snatchers come in and we have the gory discussion of what happens to the dissected bodies of murderers, limbs lost on the battlefield and so on. 

In the short afterword Ruston brings her subject back to the present to sum up with parallels to present-day discussions on life and death, and the eternal nature versus nurture debate. She notes Mary’s rather modern sentiment:

…when I teach this novel, students are unanimously on the side of the Creature. They are convinced that he only acts in the way he does because of the way he is treated. Frankenstein teaches us that character is moulded by nurture not nature.

This short and lavishly illustrated volume is absolutely fascinating. Ruston’s enthusiasm for the subject makes for a lively read that would appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of medicine, (Lindsay Fitzharris’ 2017 book, The Butchering Art on the career of Joseph Lister would make good companion reading). I particularly appreciated the importance of chemistry to the life and death debate – Frankenstein is about so much more in its scientific basis than just the body assembly surgical bits. 

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Annabel is Co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Sharon Ruston, The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein (Bodleian, 2021). 978-1851245574, 152pp. plus 32pp. illus., hardback.

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  1. Sounds fascinating Annabel! Frankenstein is great as a work of fiction, but the science behind it must be interesting too!

    1. I meant to add a bit in my review about how so many of the writers and poets were polymaths in that sense, being interested in the science of things, not just the philosophy – but I obviously got sidetracked!

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