Early nineteenth century literature revisited and reinterpreted is a popular theme with authors these days. Well, revisiting and reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice is a popular theme with authors these days. I heard Waterstones was considering introducing a new shelving category headed “Books In Which Modern Women Fantasise About Mr Darcy (N.B. You Know He Doesn’t Take His Shirt Off In The Book, Don’t You).” In a shocking display of defiance against convention, Peter Ackroyd’s reimagining focuses on an obscure 19th century work known as Frankenstein, written by Mary something.
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is a bit of an oddity. I suppose you could call it a parody of the original, in which Victor Frankenstein and his experiments are dropped into the real world of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his social circle. Frankenstein himself is a contemporary of Shelley, and conducts his experiments in darkest Limehouse (shades of Fu Manchu and The Picture of Dorian Gray). Fact and fiction intermingle as Victor’s attempts to defy death are overlaid on top of Shelley’s life and work. Indeed, there are several points at which things get dangerously metafictional – most notably, Frankenstein accompanies the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori on the trip to Geneva that would inspire Mary Shelley to write the original novel. The death of Bysshe’s first wife is here given a distinctly more gruesome motive. And, bizarrely, the body of a consumptive young man named “Jack Keat” is donated to Frankenstein’s experiments – though it’s not clear how far we’re meant to take this allusion, as few of the character’s biographical details match those of the real John Keats.
The novel as a whole appears to be a tribute of sorts to the Gothic genre – I’ve mentioned that there are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ackroyd also alludes to Dracula and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde at various points. The ending and the final explanation of just what the hell has been going on all this time leaves a lot of questions unanswered, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. To be honest, I found it something of a disappointment as twist endings go, but perhaps Ackroyd is playing with the tendency of the Gothic novel to be ambiguous on supernatural matters.
A major theme, and one that particularly grabbed my interest, was Ackroyd’s exploration of early nineteenth century science. The classic image of Frankenstein is the wild-haired scientist surrounded by electrical coils, lightning flashing all around as he brings his monster to life. Although this owes more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than anything in the original novel (although at one point in the book, Frankenstein is inspired by the power of a lightning strike), Ackroyd runs with the idea that electricity is how things are done.
Indeed, in those days, electricity did have all sorts of strange supernatural abilities ascribed to it. One early electrocution victim reported a distinct whiff of brimstone. Luigi Galvani (from whom we get the word “galvanise”) had conducted experiments in 1786 in which, when touching the nerves of a dissected frog’s leg with metal during a thunderstorm, the muscles would contract. From this, he concluded that electricity was the source of all life. We now know this to be a lot of hooey, but it was taken very seriously at the time, and Ackroyd goes with the idea that Galvani’s assumption was correct. The Shelleys were themselves rather interested in the possibilities of this hypothesis, and had discussed the possibility that it might function as a means of resurrection.
The morality or lack thereof of science is, as per many adaptations of Frankenstein, discussed. Although Mary Shelley never really made it clear how Victor creates his monster, Ackroyd uses the time-honoured “bits of dead people” explanation. This allows him to bring in the Resurrection Men, one of the grottier trades of the era. Long story short, surgeons and doctors needed bodies to carry out their experiments, and the Resurrection Men supplied them. Although hanging victims were the most legit source (apparently it was not unknown for friends of the condemned to have to fight the Resurrection Men off following the execution), bodies might also be sourced from mortuaries, graveyards or even – as per the case of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh – by cutting out the middleman and killing people yourself. Older cemeteries often have a watch house as a reminder of the scale of the problem. But the sad reality was, bodies were needed – were it not for the horrible trade in corpses, many of the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century might never have been made. Frankenstein’s use of such men, and the dodginess of their methods, crops up repeatedly and comes to have an important bearing on the story.
The juxtaposition of the scientist Frankenstein and the poet Shelley raises another factor concerning science of the era. Namely, the fact that science, politics and art were closely intertwined. This was perhaps best illustrated by the friendship of political writer Thomas Paine and steam engine pioneer James Watt, or Benjamin Franklin’s dual role as scientist and politician. The new inventions and discoveries of the era seemed fantastical, and raised certain questions concerning society. What did it mean for the class system if we could have engines to do our work? Meanwhile, the Romantics saw their own restlessness and discontent mirrored in the march of technology, which seemed Faustian or even Promethean. Indeed, the sub-title of Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus. In short, this was an age when everything seemed to be pushing forward, and all fields of endeavour seemed to mirror each other.
Overall, it seems that Ackroyd’s aim here is to use the basic structure of Shelley’s original novel to offer a commentary on the world of the Romantics, both in fact and fiction. If I’m going to be quite frank (har har), I don’t think it’s his best novel, but it’s fairly enjoyable if you have an interest in that world. Otherwise, you may prefer the Mel Brooks version, which has Marty Feldman in it.