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Making the Monster - Kathryn Harkup ****

Subtitled 'the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein', what we get here is a mix of a biography of Mary Shelley and historical context for the various aspects of science that feature in Frankenstein, from electricity to preserving organs after death. I found this a much more approachable work than the annotated Frankenstein - in fact the perfect title would probably have been a combination of the two, with annotation based on Kathryn Harkup's words plus the text of the original.

I have given the book four stars despite some reservations, because the good bits were very readable and interesting. The biographical sections filled in a lot I didn't know about Mary, her parents and her relationship with Shelley and his family. What's more, Harkup manages to make this engaging in a way a lot of the 'life story' parts of popular science tend not to achieve. The other chapters that really engaged me were the straight science ones - for example, the chapter on electricity, now so central to the Frankenstein story (though apparently it's not clear in the book that this is what was used) both gives a lot of detail on how electricity was gradually understood and on the way it was treated as a mix of entertainment and science at the time.

The medical sections I enjoyed less - partly because I'm no fan of books on medical topics and partly because they were far less of a direct link between the fiction and the medical experience of the time, given that what Frankenstein does is so ridiculously far from possibility. One of these section - covering Hunter and others dealing in human dissection - was a tad slow, as there seemed to be a lot of repetition. Too much detail for me, certainly.

My reservations otherwise tend to be in small details. Harkup seems not to understand science fiction. She comments 'Frankenstein is often cited as the first science-fiction novel [hyphenated? really?], but there is much scientific fact to be found within its pages,' as if it is unusual for science fiction to feature factual science. If there weren't any science, it would be fantasy.

There is also something of a tendency to overplay things. We are told that Mary was brought up in a family with 'very restricted income' - which, bearing in mind her brothers went to boarding school and Mary had 'tutors in music and drawing as well as a governess' would probably have been considered a little far-fetched by her working class contemporaries. Similarly, there is too much weight given to the importance of alchemy. And at one point Harkup appears to confuse Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon.

One last observation - Harkup never says how turgid Frankenstein is to modern eyes. I know the aim here isn't lit crit, but the novel is a painful slog to read now. The ideas are marvellous, but the writing style has not aged well.

Nonetheless, Frankenstein is important in the history of science fiction, and there is genuinely interesting biography and science to be found in Making the Monster. Mary's achievements do seem remarkable, given the difficulties she endured from her late teens onwards. I'd recommend this book for anyone who wants to put the novel into context.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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