When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818, it immediately captured the public’s attention. Two centuries later it remains a canonical work, despite—or perhaps because of—numerous Hollywood bowdlerizations that often have relegated a serious, philosophical novel to the realm of horror or even kitsch. Roseanne Montillo restores some of the luster to Shelley’s masterpiece in The Lady and Her Monsters, a work of literary history that explores the origins of the book through the lens of the writer’s melodramatic life and the times in which she lived.

Montillo intertwines three narrative threads in this engaging book. First, there is Shelley’s own story, which has become legend. While still a teenager, Mary Godwin ran off to Europe with her married poet-lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The trio settled into a Swiss chateau with Lord Byron and a young doctor, John Polidori (author of another horror classic, “The Vampyre”). A storytelling competition among these friends and lovers spawned Frankenstein. As with all legends, Montillo shows, this one has been romanticized. Mary Shelley certainly achieved greatness with this literary work, but it was a long time germinating, and grew out of the zeitgeist of an age fascinated by notions of the regeneration of life.

Montillo explores the origins of Frankenstein through the lens of Shelley's life.

Experiments in “galvanism,” pioneered by the 18th-century surgeon Luigi Galvani, make up the second part of Montillo’s story. Often attended by a public hungry for sensational entertainment, these attempts to raise the dead using electricity could not be carried out without corpses. This inescapable reality provides the impetus for Montillo’s third thread: grave-robbing. Montillo supplies a thorough account of this gruesome practice, which sometimes even led to serial murder, and caps it with a curious coda from our own century involving the remains of beloved broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

Yet, despite the ghoulish charms of these well-researched and well-told portions of the story, it is the antics of Mary Shelley and her cohorts that drive the book. From a modern perspective, these young artists were little more than a band of Regency-era hippies, traipsing around Europe, scrounging for money (except for the well-heeled Lord Byron), experimenting with mind-altering substances, partaking in free love and bearing children out of wedlock. It was all very scandalous, but as Montillo shows, often tragic, especially for the women (there were a number of suicides within the extended group). As the daughter of the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the progressive writer William Godwin, Mary Shelley was herself a freethinker and, as Frankenstein proves, deeply intelligent and talented. But she was not always happy with her unconventional domestic situation, Montillo suggests, and the romantic version of events she left us with in her introduction to the 1831 revision of Frankenstein hides some ugly truths.

With all the other principals of the story dead, Montillo says, “There was no one to contradict Mary, no one to say the events she was describing had not taken place or hadn’t taken place in the sequence she remembered.”

With a few revisionist strokes, Shelley created not only the myth of Frankenstein’s monster, but the myth behind the novel as well. Montillo’s clever blend of history, science and biography makes The Lady and Her Monsters a closer version of the truth.

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