The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece

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by Roseanne Montillo

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The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Motillo brings to life the fascinating times, startling science, and real-life horrors behind Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Montillo recounts how—at the intersection of the Romantic Age and the Industrial Revolution—Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein was inspired by actual

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The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Motillo brings to life the fascinating times, startling science, and real-life horrors behind Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Montillo recounts how—at the intersection of the Romantic Age and the Industrial Revolution—Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein was inspired by actual scientists of the period: curious and daring iconoclasts who were obsessed with the inner workings of the human body and how it might be reanimated after death.

With true-life tales of grave robbers, ghoulish experiments, and the ultimate in macabre research—human reanimation—The Lady and Her Monsters is a brilliant exploration of the creation of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s horror classic.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Deborah Blum
Montillo is far from the first author to ponder the real-life influences on Shelley's iconic tale; these are issues so well discussed that you can find many of them on Wikipedia. But Montillo achieves a freshness through her lively narrative approach and a fascination with long-ago science and its ethics that sparks across the pages.
Publishers Weekly
Montillo’s debut, a macabre romp through 18th and 19th century Europe, illuminates the circumstances and inspiration behind one of gothic literature’s most notorious tales. Walking a fine line between historical fact and logical conjecture, the book deftly weaves details of Mary Shelley’s early life into the cultural and scientific map of the time in which she was writing. Grim body snatchers, cadaver-carving surgeons, and nefarious alchemists litter the pages. In her retelling of the genesis story of Frankenstein, Montillo offers a constellation of personalities that surrounded Shelley during her hasty writing of the tale. Heavily referencing letters and personal journals, Montillo analyzes Shelley’s literary cohorts, providing insight into the motives of her famous literary companions, the haunted Percy Shelley and womanizing Lord Byron. The picture painted provides much room for speculation, stripping long-embellished versions of the story down to the verifiable facts. Who really gave Shelley the technical know-how to write what she did? What were the true origins of her long-standing depression? Fraught with suicides, superstitions, natural disasters, and love affairs, the life of Mary Shelley shares much emotionally with the harrowing tale of her great protagonist, Victor Frankenstein. A delicious and enticing journey into the origins of a masterpiece. Illus. Agent: Rob Weisbach, Rob Weisbach Creative Management. (Feb.)
(Starred Review) - Shelf Awareness
"Enthusiatic prose... A Spirited investigation of the bizarre times that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein."
Kirkus Reviews
A cultural biography that explores how Mary Shelley came to write her gothic classic. Montillo (Literature/Emerson Coll.; Halloween and Commemorations of the Dead, 2009) discusses how Shelley's world, as well as her life, informed the creation of Frankenstein. The basic story of how the novel came to be written--during an informal ghost-story competition among Mary, husband Percy, Lord Byron and assorted friends--is the stuff of legend. Perhaps less known is how the idea of bringing the dead back to life was already common currency. Well before Shelley's birth, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani (source of the word galvanized) was hooking up electrical charges to dead frogs. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took matters further by conducting experiments on a dead felon. Percy Shelley, whose poetry had long been absorbed with immortality, was fascinated by this trend in science, which he would pass on to Mary. Entwined with the history of the idea is the history of the couple, which was tumultuous from the day married Percy met William Godwin's brilliant young daughter; their lives would be rocked by infidelities, jealousies and the early death of a child. "Dream[t] that my little baby came to life again," Mary wrote in a journal, an idea that may have helped inspire her future novel. Resurrection was in the air, both among doctors and artists. Montillo occasionally loses focus, getting a little overly involved in peripheral scandals and sensational tales, but the book is never dull. Mary Shelley lived in dramatic times, when life was too short to be boring. Light fare as cultural histories go, but a pleasant stroll through the Romantic imagination.
Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)
“Enthusiatic prose... A Spirited investigation of the bizarre times that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Discover Magazine
“With a flair for both drama and detail, Montillo breathes her own kind of life into the story of the men determined to discover its very elements.”
Mental Floss
“Spills the dirt on the making of the 19th-century novel—affairs, family drama, a lake house with Lord Byron!—and paints a grimly fascinating picture of the dissections and experiments in “animal electricity” that inspired the gothic tale.”
Wall Street Journal
“Her narrative… rattles enjoyably through a lurid and restless landscape. … Equally a literary and a scientific endeavor.”
New York Times Book Review
“Montillo achieves a freshness through her lively narrative approach and a fascination with long-ago science and its ethics that sparks across the pages.”
The Commercial Dispatch
“Montillo’s book is a welcome tribute to the literary, and especially the scientific, roots of the story.”
The Lady and Her Monsters
“A welcome tribute to the literary, and especially the scientific, roots of the story.”
New Scientist
“Montillo never loses sight of the fact that it was Mary Shelley’s imagination that sewed the pieces together - and provided the vital spark that keeps the tale alive nearly two centuries on.”
Washington Post
“A haunting picture of an era in which science and the arts overlapped, a perfect storm in which inspiration for “Frankenstein” could strike. Like a bolt of lightning.”

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.16(w) x 8.36(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Lady and Her Monsters

By Roseanne Montillo

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Roseanne Montillo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-202581-4



The Spark of Life

"Her lips were red, her looks were free, Her locks were yellow as gold; Her skin was as white as leprosy, The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, Who thicks man's blood with cold." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

On Sunday, August 24, 1806, Mary Godwin and her younger stepsister, Jane Clairmont (later Claire Clairmont), hid quietly beneath the couches in the parlor. Their home, a five story brownstone located on Skinner Street, had quickly become a stimulating hub for intellectual discourse, with Mary's father, William Godwin, the celebrated writer and reformer, as its master of ceremonies. The girls had not been invited to join the festivities, and no one knew they were even present in the parlor as a great bustle took place about them. Having snuck in there when no one was looking, they worked hard not to be discovered.

Jane Clairmont-Jane's mother and Mary's new stepmother- had forbidden them from attending these gatherings. Jane believed the conversations that took place among the crowd, on religion, the existence of God, politics, and the so-called principle of life, were inappropriate for young ears. Given her propensity for arguments, the girls often did as told, though sometimes Mary disregarded her stepmother and listened to her father's discussions from atop the staircase.

But on that Sunday, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had arrived on Skinner Street, and Mary knew he would be reciting verses from his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published some years earlier in 1798. She had heard her father speak of it and now wanted to hear it for herself. Learning of her plan, her stepsister naturally followed suit.

Coleridge had met William Godwin in 1794, but like many who crossed paths with the reformer then, he had not been impressed. "He appears to me to possess neither the strength of intellect that discovers truth, or the power of imagination that decorate falsehood," Coleridge had said. "He talked futile sophism." But after meeting Godwin again following the death of Godwin's first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge had changed his mind.

Apparently, her death had mollified Godwin's character, softening his dark edges and making him more tolerable.

As the two girls eavesdropped, Godwin and the rest of the gentlemen gathered in. The wood paneled room had been filled with a great deal of brilliance before: Humphry Davy, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and many others. Now Coleridge took his turn. The poem was a mixture of poetical and popular language that some critics argued had come about as a direct response to the German Gothic horror tales that were now so popular in England. Rime had appeared some years after the publication of Gottfried Bürger's Lenore, which had awakened popular fascination with the macabre. Writing some years later, a reviewer in the Monthly Review tied the publication of the Rime to "a time when ... 'Hell Made Holiday' and 'Row heads and bloody bones' were the only fashionable entertainment for men and women."

Others speculated that the poem had been inspired by the explorations of James Cook, particularly his second voyage into the South Seas. This notion was further bolstered because William Wales, the astronomer on Cook's ship, was also Coleridge's tutor. Perhaps Wales had told Coleridge about those experiences. But others argued that Coleridge, who was often plunged into the depths of great depressions and anxious fits, had found his muse in the massive amounts of opium he had used to relieve these symptoms and that might have worked as a kind of hallucinogenic.

The girls huddled closer together as Coleridge began his story of an old ancient mariner who at first had been eager to leave his home in search of new continents. Upon his return from those explorations, he became adamant about telling his tale. While out walking one day, he stopped a man on his way to a wedding and recounted his travails. The man was indulgent for a time and found himself avidly listening and experiencing all the emotions a person went through in a lifetime: he was at times exhilarated, envious, and fascinated, and at others he felt sadness, sorrow, and even anger. And it is possible Mary and Jane, beneath the sofa, also suffered the same shifts in emotions as Coleridge's voice rang out:

The Wedding- guest sat on a stone:

He cannot choose but hear; And thus spake on the ancient man, The bright-eyed Mariner.

Coleridge captivated his listeners as the mariner recounted excitedly what good luck his ship had initially encountered. But it wasn't long before a mighty storm arose in the seas and blew the ship off course, driving it southward toward Antarctica, and the startled crew found relief in the sudden appearance of an albatross, which mysteriously began to guide them away from the bleak land of ice. Naturally, the sailors soon began to think the albatross had brought them much- needed good luck. But, watching from afar, the mariner became disgusted by his crew's show of superstition. Angry, he lifted his eyes toward the albatross and, in a moment of unbridled passion, shot it dead. The crew became distressed and began to wail in despair, and as if echoing their own agony, the spirits swirling around them began to grieve the great abomination that had been committed against nature. To further inflict punishment, the spirits followed the ship through unfamiliar waters.

The poem moved ahead as the vessel did, Coleridge's voice most likely rising and falling as the waves continued to lull the ship; it was then that he described the encounter between the crew and the eerie vessel boarded by Death and the Night-mare Life-in-Death. A struggle ensued, and nature struck back, killing all but the mariner. Filled with guilt for killing the albatross and the consequences of that act, the mariner was left doomed to wander the earth forever, always repeating his tale as a final act of atonement:

He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn.

The girls stayed quiet as the tale ended and the grown-ups began debating the various properties revealed in the poem: the images of life and death; the mysteries of sin, redemption, and the repercussions of guilt; the pursuit of forgiveness and forbidden knowledge; the ache and sorrow that loneliness brings; the belief in superstitions, of atoning for one's sins. A decade later Mary Godwin would use similar imagery in the opening scenes of her most famous novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In it, the fictional character of Robert Walton, a mariner and explorer intent on finding a passage to the North Pole, appears and echoes Coleridge's mariner as he too was traveling into uncharted waters, trying to be the first explorer not only to accomplish such a feat, but to do so while avoiding a mutiny on the ship. Coleridge's mariner is mentioned again when Walton, in writing to his sister Margaret, declares, "I am going to unexplored regions, to 'the land of mist and snow,' but I shall kill no albatross, and therefore do not be alarmed for my safety."

But many others were to inspire Mary Shelley in the writing of Frankenstein, though there was no indication of them yet. That evening she only knew that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner had made a deep impression on her soul, one that would last a lifetime.

On the night of Mary Godwin's birth, August 30, 1797, a storm descended upon the city of London that was later remembered as one of the most awesome displays of thunder and lightning anyone had ever seen. Loud, crackling noises pierced the night air, while jagged yellow lines crisscrossed the inky night sky. It was a wondrous spectacle Mother Nature seemed to revel in, and some were awed by it. The story of Benjamin Franklin's "stealing" thunder from the sky in 1752 was widely known and still played havoc in people's imagination, allowing them to believe in the "testimony to the ability of human reason to bring nature under its sway."

Natural philosophers like the famed Humphry Davy also saw it as a vehicle not only to understand nature, but to "interrogate [her] ... not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments." But others, given their superstitious and religious mind-set, were frightened by nature's so-called wonders. To them, the idea that nature could be made to bow down to man bordered on the sacrilegious. If man could steal thunder from the sky; elicit electricity from the heavens; make dead frogs, sheep, and dogs jump; and impart a certain measure of respiration to the dead, then what need was there for a God who had dominion over everything and everybody? These people believed the angry thunderstorms of August 30 were a sign not of untamed knowledge, not of nature bending down to human will, but of God's wrath. The human race had overstepped its boundaries in some fashion, and God was now seeking His vengeance.

But in the Godwin home in the Somers Town district of London, neither idea was truly being contemplated. Those living within it thought of the powerful show outside their window as just a storm, a vicious storm that coincidentally was occurring on the night of the baby's arrival.

Mary Wollstonecraft's labor pains had begun earlier that day, when she retired to her bedroom just before two p.m. Feeling a nagging ache in the lower portion of her back, she slowly hiked up the staircase, aware of what to expect. Having gone through a pregnancy and childbirth before - her firstborn daughter, Fanny, was now three - she knew what would happen in the hours ahead. No male doctor would be present at the birth. Instead, she had decided to have only a woman midwife to "sit by and wait for the operation of nature."

Her husband, William Godwin, waited downstairs. He had been a bachelor until the age of forty-one, and his rigid and somewhat inflexible manners had changed only upon the second meeting with, and subsequent awakening of his affection for, Mary Wollstonecraft. In his early forties he became a husband, a step-father to Fanny, and a father-to-be. As they settled into a life together, Godwin Godwin tried to find his way among his new roles, though he still had a certain measure of inadequacy about him. When Mary's labor started, he was happy to remain below.

As the afternoon and evening progressed, the storm intensified, much as Mary's labor did. Both, it seemed, were gathering momentum, and at about nine o'clock Mrs. Blenkinsop arrived to serve as midwife.

Mary's labor progressed relatively normally, and at twenty past eleven a baby girl was born. As the etiquette of the time required, William Godwin was asked not to enter his wife's room until all stages of labor and delivery were over. He waited patiently but anxiously watched the hours slowly ticking away, night ebbing into dawn. Eventually he heard the midwife's footsteps rushing toward him; she told him "that the placenta was not yet removed." Unable to continue on her own, she advised Godwin to search for another doctor, this time a male one.

The storm outside continued to rage on as a frightened Godwin rushed to call on Dr. Poignand, who arrived at the house several hours after the baby was born.

The eighteenth century was a remarkably difficult time for mothers and their infants. Infections, mistakes, malnutrition, and lack of care before, during, and after a pregnancy all resulted in a surprisingly high number of deaths. Dr. Poignand was a typical physician of the era and did what he could under the circumstances. Arriving in Mary Wollstonecraft's chamber, he made a few disparaging comments about delivering a child without the aid of a male physician nearby. Then he rolled up his sleeves, raised the dampened sheets that covered Mary Wollstonecraft's sore body, and, without latex gloves, inserted a hand between her naked legs. Slowly, the doctor removed Mary's placenta piece by bloody piece, pushing his dirty hand several times within her vagina.

He then became convinced that he had removed the entire placenta-and assured William Godwin that everything would be okay. Writing afterward, Godwin recalled "the period from the birth of the child till about eight o'clock the next morning ... full of peril and alarm. The loss of blood was considerable, and produced an almost uninterrupted series of fainting fits."

Dr. Poignand had been incorrect when he said he removed all of the placenta; a chunk had been left behind in Mary's womb and was now festering. A new doctor, Dr. Fordyce, arrived later and said Mary's condition was so grave it was not safe for her to nurse the new baby. Puppies had to be brought in to "draw out the milk" from her swollen and painful breasts.

For the next several days, she lingered between this world and the next. At certain times William Godwin felt hopeful, but during Mary's shivering fits, despair overwhelmed him, and he knew "every hope was extinct." At one point, he asked Mary what direction "she might wish to have followed after her decease."

What did she wish for her two small daughters? William approached the subject carefully, proclaiming that she was very ill and would take a considerable time to recover. But Mary knew what he was asking.

"I know what you are thinking of," she replied with little strength. She did not go any farther.

On September 10, at 7:40 a.m., Mary Wollstonecraft, the first and most influential feminist and the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died of puerperal fever at the age of thirty-eight, in the same bed where eleven days earlier she had given birth to her daughter Mary Godwin, later to become Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft was buried on September 15, 1797, in the old St. Pancras churchyard.

Excerpted from The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo. Copyright © 2013 by Roseanne Montillo. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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