Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, written when the author was 19 and published in 1818, was so ponderous a departure from traditional Victorian fare that it shocked not just the nerves but also the sensibilities of staid British society. The outrageous tale of a monster sprung from inanimate matter — and capable of quoting Milton and Goethe — who then turns against his creator, heralded a brave new voice.
From there to the 1931 cinematic adaptation by James Whale, in which a menacing, unforgettable simulacrum of our nightmares is brought to haunting life by Boris Karloff, Frankenstein has, through the ages, plumbed the familiar God-versus-science divide to argue against technology ruining our best instincts.
It’s a classic tale, not to be lightly meddled with, so when the prospect of a revision –for why else would anyone adapt it–presented itself, I was less than enthused. Rewritings of classic novels are always a fraught business. The only reason one can justify their presence is to let us in on the story from a new perspective, a voice hitherto silenced.
It is strange, then, that Peter Ackroyd, who has made an art of fictionalizing reality and dripping fiction in realism, re-imagines the original Modern Prometheus with nary a shift in perspective/voice. Barring a few modifications in plot, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is an almost straight lift of the Mary Shelley classic.
Following his penchant for interweaving diverse sources, Ackroyd introduces a host of real-life characters in the narrative: from Mary Shelley (née Godwin) herself to her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, here an enigmatic influence on Victor, the narrator and creator of the eponymous monster (indeed, “Frankenstein,” popularly believed to be the monster’s appellation, is actually the name of its creator). Then there are Lord Byron and his physician, Dr. Polidori.
Victor, pushed forth by the heady dynamism of youth, arrives at Oxford from Ingolstadt in Germany to indulge his lifelong passion for the wondrous “force instilled within the most minute organisms, making them move and meet.” A closet poet, Victor can verbalize from memory poems of high complexity. An admirer of Bysshe (as Percy Shelley is called here), Victor becomes friends with the atheist poet.
Their easy companionship is tested when Bysshe is asked to leave Oxford for his “strange ideas” and “libertarian activities.” He returns to London, and in his wake, follows Victor. This is the point where the novel picks up, and we see 19th-century London through Ackroyd’s eyes — as much the poverty and squalor of the slums as the glamor and stimulation of the arts scene.
London is also where the first dark shadows of Victor’s passion find support. Like in the original, he is intent on studying the effects of galvanism on the body’s electric fluid in his drive to create a better and nobler man. And the sprawling metropolis provides him just the inspiration. The resurrectionists supply him cadavers (“nice and fresh”) for his experiments and he attends lectures by physicists that bolster his beliefs. Finally, he gets himself a run-down warehouse by the Thames and begins his experimenting in earnest.
The Casebook is largely true to Mary’s original except in the details of the monster. Here the creature is a brought-to-life corpse, a medical student called Jack Keat, who died of tuberculosis. While there is apparently no relation to the John Keats who also died of tuberculosis and whose spirit, if reawakened, can be expected to haunt the boulevards of Moorgate, Ackroyd does make his monster sufficiently literary to quote at random from Shakespeare.
Besides, Ackroyd’s monster, seeking to avenge his pendulous life-versus-death state, does not murder his master’s wife, since there is none in this version. Rather, his fury directs itself at victims far removed.
It is a mark of Ackroyd’s masterly research that he is able to mingle real-life events with the narrative without compromising the story. When Victor first arrives in London, he comes across one Harriet Westbrook, a young girl found slogging in a spice factory, because her father has very definite notions of how girls ought to be raised. Bysshe, all a-glitter with his idealism, takes it upon himself to rescue her. He promises her father to pay for Harriet’s education and later marries her (Harriet was really Bysshe’s wife before Mary). All this would be of little relevance to Victor’s monster, but for the fact that Harriet, who committed suicide at the Serpentine in actual truth, becomes the monster’s first victim — also at the Serpentine. The crime being murder in his retelling, Ackroyd sends Harriet’s brother to the gallows.
The scene then shifts to Marlow where the famed trio — Byron, Bysshe, and Mary — spend their days in an easy camaraderie until Victor too, in a bid to dodge his creation, lands there. Darkness beckons as the monster, in perpetual trail of his creator, arrives just as (in another curious mishmash of fiction and reality) Polidori, Byron’s physician, finishes the first vampire story in English.
It is uncanny how Ackroyd brings together the dramatis personæ in this fashion — an echo of Mary’s assertion that her inspiration to write Frankenstein came after horror stories were exchanged on a stormy night she spent in the company of Byron, Bysshe, and Polidori on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Mary, in Ackroyd’s version, is herself a possible victim, chancing upon a face in the window, “crumpled, creased…like a sheet of paper hastily thrown away,” which vanishes after she screams, setting the stage for another brutal crime.
Given all that, however, there is a certain labored quality to the terror wreaked by the monster. The ballast of Mary Shelley’s original, derived from our mortal fascination with — as well as fear of — eternal life, loses its sheen in retelling. Ackroyd’s familiarity with the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian England allows him to burnish his tale suitably, but it is an ultimately stale cherry.
Even so, the ending manages to spring a genuine surprise, and it is here that we can locate the true fruits of Ackroyd’s seemingly unrewarding efforts. The idea of eternal life, so shocking two centuries ago, is, thanks to scientific advances, more acceptable today. Yet, the fate visited upon Victor in the search of perfection is a reminder of what messing around with God, as that term may be understood in a postmodern, post-Dawkins sense, can entail. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, in the final analysis, is a cautionary tale to remind us that tampering with nature, no matter the nobility of the aims associated with it, can have widely unexpected and drastic consequences.
And, perhaps, that holds equally true for classic works of literature.