History and Science in Mary Shelley’s World

by Hilary Rappaport

Mary Shelley lived at a time of political, social, and scientific revolution and her creation of Frankenstein, published in 1818, was influenced by this upheaval.

The 18th century is known as the “Age of Enlightenment,” a time when prominent thinkers questioned religious authority and examined how radical principles might bring about social improvement. The century preceding her birth was a time of political unrest when much of Europe moved towards modern notions of statehood and during the first 17 years of Shelley’s life Britain was at war with France almost continuously.

In the 1700’s there was also political revolt in America and slavery became a major issue. The Shelleys deplored the slave trade and many scholars interpreted Frankenstein as a commentary on slavery as it examined the treatment of a race of humans visibly different than those around them. (The novel also focuses on the emotional relationship between creator and creation, referring to them as master and slave and recognizes that the power dynamic between the two can shift.)

The 18th century also witnessed a secularization of intellectual attitudes toward science and the understanding of the physical universe. Experimentation and experience became acceptable methods of producing knowledge. Scientists designed increasingly complex instruments for use in research. Science became the fashionable philosophy of the day. Experiments were performed in social settings and the general public attended and participated in discussions of science. In 1801 the Royal Institution in London opened lectures on the latest scientific discoveries to the public.

By the beginning of the 19th century, in the world of Shelley’s childhood, chemistry had become a prominent branch of science and many discoveries emerged from an understanding of electricity. The number of medical students was growing, as was a fascination with the human body. These interests combined and brought about experimentation in Galvanism, the use of electricity to stimulate muscles. Luigi Galvini tested the effects of electrical currents on dead animals in the 1790’s and in the early 1800’s his nephew, Luigi Aldini continued his work with a public demonstration of Galvanism, using the body of a recently executed murderer. People debated whether electricity was a possible life force and could perhaps reanimate the dead.  In the preface to the 1817 edition of her novel, the only science Shelley references is the influence of Erasmus Darwin, physician, inventor, and grandfather to Charles Darwin who had put forward tentative early theories of evolution. In her introduction to the 1831 edition she refers to a conversation between Byron and Shelley during their time in Switzerland about the nature of life itself and the use of galvanism.

Though the character of Victor Frankenstein can be seen as a model for the now famous concept of “the mad scientist,” it is worth noting that no one was yet identifying themselves as a scientist because that word had not been invented.

Though challenged to write a “ghost story,” Mary Shelley created something entirely new. Her plot does not depend on supernatural powers, but on ideas that were plausible in their day. Shelley has been called “the mother of science fiction” because her work relied on scientific concepts of her time.

Sources:

Paul Hunter, (ed.) Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, A Norton Critical Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Kathryn Harkup, Making the Monster, The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018.
Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Frankenstein, A Cultural History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.
Esther Schor (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, 200

 

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