Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Lady and Her Monsters

The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo
review copy provided by William Morrow
Description from Goodreads:
The macabre meets art in this startling blend of grotesque nineteenth-century science and fascinating literary creation that examines the actual Victor Frankenstein's and the real-life horrors behind Mary Shelley's gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein

A highly entertaining blend of literary analysis, lore, and scientific history, told with the verve and ghoulish fun of a Tim Burton film, The Lady and Her Monsters traces the origins of the greatest horror story of all time-Mary Shelley's Frankenstein-using the novel as a centerpiece from which to explore the frightful milieu in which it was written. Roseanne Montillo recounts how Shelley's Victor Frankenstein mirrored actual scientists of the period-curious and daring iconoclasts, influenced by their predecessors in the scientific age, who were obsessed with the inner workings of the human body and how it could be reanimated after death.

Montillo reveals how Shelley and her contemporaries were products of their time-intellectually curious artists, writers, poets, philosophers, and others intrigued by the occultists and daring scientists appearing across Europe who risked their reputations and their immortal souls to advance our understanding of human anatomy and medicine. But their remarkable experiments could not be undertaken without the cutthroat grave robbers who prowled cemeteries for fresh corpses. The newly dead were used for both private and very public autopsies and dissections, as well as the most daring trials of all: attempts at human reanimation involving electricity-experiments eagerly attended by the likes of Shelley and other onlookers compelled by the bloody and grotesque.

Juxtaposing the monstrous mechanization and exploitation of rising industrialism with the sublime beauty and decadence of Romanticism embodied in the legendary artists who defined the age, Montillo takes us into a world where poets become legends in salons and boudoirs; where fame-hungry "doctors" conduct shocking performances for rabid, wide-eyed audiences; where maniacal body snatchers secretly toil in castle dungeons. The result is a unique, rich, and revealing look into the creation of a classic.

My Take:
I have been interested in the Romantics since college. I took a wonderful class on the later romantics and I just loved it. I was particularly interested in Byron and Mary Shelley. This book filled a gap in information for me.  I was aware in a general way of many of the people and issues discussed in The Lady and Her Monsters, but this book really went into depth and gave some very good background information for better understanding Mary Shelley.

I found the parts relating to her father and her family to be very interesting and helpful in gaining some insight into her life. There will always be controversy surrounding these people - they lived an unusual life and had a different view of many things. I think that for the most part, this book handles the lives it chronicles very well. I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention paid to the effects of Percy's behavior and attitudes toward Mary examined a bit more, but I thought many important issues were addressed. Now, to be honest, I have never like Percy Shelley as a person (though I cannot deny he was a great poet) -- he always seemed like a jerk and too self righteous. I find this a bit stupid considering he persuaded a young girl to run off with him and left his wife and child to do so. This being the case, it would take quite a bit to change my mind about him. I thought that Montillo did a good  job of being fair regarding the different people in the book -- Mary, Percy, Byron, Claire, etc. I mean, this is the stuff of movies and soap operas.

This is one non-fiction book that reads pretty much like fiction. Of course, you can't really do any better than Lord Byron and Percy Shelley for scandal, gossip, outrageous lifestyles, etc.

I was also quite impressed with the research into the scientists, criminals, students, and various other people involved in the trade in corpses. This is an unsavory topic and is gruesome without even trying. This is where the real gap in information was for me - I knew in a vague way these experiments were going on, but The Lady and Her Monsters really explains how this area of study and experimentation changed things and how it could have influenced Mary Shelley.

The Lady and Her Monsters will appeal to both history buffs and literature fans. I was entertained and educated at the same time - and you can't go wrong with that combo.

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