Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  


Kindle:  

Audio download:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

Hothouse Earth - Bill McGuire ****

There have been many books on global warming, but I can't think of any I've read that are so definitively clear about the impact that climate change is going to have on our lives. The only reason I've not given it five stars is because it's so relentless miserable - I absolute accept the reality of Bill McGuire's message, but you have to have a particularly perverted kind of 'I told you so' attitude to actually enjoy reading this. McGuire lays out how climate change is likely to continue and the impacts it will have on our lives in a stark way. Unlike many environmental writers, he is honest about the uncertainty, telling us 'Despite meticulous and comprehensive modelling, we just don't know how bad things will get, nor can we know.' But any climate change deniers seeing this as an escape clause entirely miss the point. The uncertainty is over how bad things will be, but not over whether or not things will be bad. As we are told, 'tipping poi

Philip Ball - Four Way Interview

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H 2 O: A Biography of Water, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour , The Music Instinct , and Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is also the author of The Modern Myths . He lives in London. His latest title is The Book of Minds . Why science? As the pandemic has shown, there has never been a time when an understanding of science is essential for making informed decisions. But Covid-19 has also revealed the process of science in action, with