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The Lady and Her Monsters: Real-Life Frankensteins and How Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece Came to Life

The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.

Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.

Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:

[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.

Mary Godwin — later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein — may also have been born at the moment of lightning, but her mother’s life ended nearly a week later from birthing complications. Young Mary was born into an age of Galvanism, when experiments in electricity had just begun to interest the scientists of the Royal Society. In The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (public library), Roseanne Montillo brilliantly joins the live wires of Mary Shelley’s life and work with those of cutting-edge dissections and electrical experiments.

Mary Shelley, c. 1840, by Richard Rothwell
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.

Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:

an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.

If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.

‘A Galvanized Corpse,’ a political cartoon from 1836 by Henry R. Robinson
Image courtesy Library of Contress

That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.

The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:

No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

BP

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“These emotions … appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea.”

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue,” philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) wrote in her 1792 proto-feminist masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.” Independence became the animating force of Wollstonecraft’s life, and there was no form of it she valued more highly than the independence of the imagination — something her second daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, would come to inherit.

Wollstonecraft saw the imagination as the gateway to liberation, the most vitalizing nectar for the mind, and the most seductive aphrodisiac; she saw love as the domain in which “the imagination mingles its bewitching colouring” — for better or for worse, to enchant into rapture as well as to delude into despair. (A quarter millennium later, philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to write brilliantly about the imperfect union of the two.)

Wollstonecraft found herself afflicted with “the reveries of a disordered imagination,” which frequently caused her embarrassment and dejection — nowhere more so than in the passions of the heart, which coexisted with equal vigor alongside her formidable intellect.

“The pictures that the imagination draws are so very delightful that we willing[ly] let it predominate over reason till experience forces us to see the truth,” she wrote to her sister in a letter found in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library). But a pure love, she believed, was a region “where sincerity and truth will flourish — and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions.”

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan, 1787

In December of 1792, shortly after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a month before the execution of Louis XVI furnished a cornerstone of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left London for Paris. There, she met and became besotted with the American diplomat, businessman, and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Although in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she had renounced sexual passion as complicit in women’s oppression, Imlay awakened in her a magnitude of desire both dissonant with her political views and personally disorienting in far exceeding what she had previously thought herself capable of experiencing.

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter in the spring of 1794, just as Britain was preparing to declare war on France. Imlay had made clear his disinterest in marriage and domesticity but, alarmed by the political turmoil and the danger in which it placed British subjects in Paris, he registered Wollstonecraft as his wife in order to protect her and the baby, even though no legal marriage took place. It was an act more necessary than noble — many of Wollstonecraft’s compatriots in Paris had no such protection and were either arrested or guillotined — but it was also the beginning of the end of their romance. A slow-seething commitment panic began bedeviling Imlay, who eventually left Wollstonecraft heartbroken and alone with an infant amid a raging revolution.

But even in their parting letters, as it becomes clear to Wollstonecraft that her lover wouldn’t return, her beseeching despair is laced with a lucid sense of her unassailable independence. Radiating from them is an awareness of how she had grown infatuated with the fantasy of a man whose reality of character was wholly unworthy of her love. Where her imagination had been the aphrodisiac responsible for her passionate infatuation — a state Julian Fellowes has called “a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers” — Imlay’s lack of imagination became the agent of disillusionment.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

In a letter to Imlay from September of 1794, she makes no apologies about calling out his fatal flaw:

Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination — I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions — animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.

In a letter to Imlay from the following June, as his protracted abandonment drags on, she returns to the subject of the imagination and its role in human relationships. With an eye to the perennial question of telling love from lust — a question to which young E.B. White and James Thurber would provide a most delightful answer a century and a half later — and to the role the imagination plays in it, Wollstonecraft writes:

The common run of men, I know, with strong health and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason. — Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions, over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant; but they do not exist without self-denial.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

And yet for all the personal pain that her intense imagination caused her, it was also the wellspring of her creative and intellectual genius — the very thing that rendered her one of the most influential minds of her era. In a sentiment that echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Wollstonecraft adds:

These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea… I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.

The English political philosopher William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married after recovering from the heartbreak with Imlay and who fathered Mary Shelley, would later edit her posthumous works and laud these very letters as having “superiority over the fiction of Goethe” and being “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe” — perhaps supreme proof the kind of sincere love Wollstonecraft imagined possible, for Godwin transcended the jealous ego’s knowledge that these letters were written to a former lover and instead celebrated Wollstonecraft for the faculty she valued above all else: her imagination.

Complement this particular portion of The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library) with Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace, whose own ascent as a woman of intellectual accomplishment was shaped by Wollstonecraft’s legacy, on the imagination’s three core faculties.

BP

Patti Smith on the Two Kinds of Masterpieces and Her Fifty Favorite Books

“Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.”

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exhales within the pages of M Train (public library) — her astonishingly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss, embedded into which is an affectionate memoir of reading. Half a century after Susan Sontag extolled the rewards of rereading as rebirth, Smith journeys to the final resting places of great writers, photographing their tombstones and the ephemera that survived them — Virginia Woolf’s cane, Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Robert Graves’s straw hat, Samuel Beckett’s spectacles — as she revisits her most beloved books. Through the devotional culvert of memory, she looks back on a lifetime of reading and communes with the authors who most animated her inner life.

After finding herself under a monthlong spell of obsessively reading nothing but Haruki Murakami, Smith considers how great books bewitch the human spirit:

There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.

Leo Tolstoy’s bear, Moscow (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Much like the lifelong reading list extracted from Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, I’ve assembled a reading list of the books Smith mentions in her memoir — some in direct and effusive homages, others obliquely, all lovingly. What emerges is a self-portrait of a creatively voracious mind, passionately painted on the canvas of literature.

  1. After Nature (public library) by W.G. Sebald
  2. At one time the three lengthy poems in this slim volume had such a profound effect on me that I could hardly bear to read them. Scarcely would I enter their world before I’d be transported to a myriad of other worlds. Evidences of such transports are crammed onto the endpapers as well as a declaration I once had the hubris to scrawl in a margin — I may not know what is in your mind, but I know how your mind works.

    Max Sebald! … He sees, not with eyes, and yet he sees. He recognizes voices within silence, history within negative space. He conjures ancestors who are not ancestors, with such precision that the gilded threads of an embroidered sleeve are as familiar as his own dusty trousers.

    […]

    What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself.

  3. The Thief’s Journal (public library) by Jean Genet
  4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  5. A Wild Sheep Chase (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  6. Kafka on the Shore (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  7. Dance Dance Dance (public library) by Haruki Murakami
  8. 2666 (public library) by Roberto Bolaño
  9. Roberto Bolaño’s chair (Photograph: Patti Smith)
  10. Amulet (public library) by Roberto Bolaño
  11. The First Man (public library) by Albert Camus
  12. A photograph of Albert Camus hung next to the light switch. It was a classic shot of Camus in a heavy overcoat with a cigarette between his lips, like a young Bogart, in a clay frame made by my son, Jackson… My son, seeing him every day, got the idea that Camus was an uncle who lived far away. I would glance up at him from time to time as I was writing.

  13. The Divine Comedy (public library) by Dante Alighieri
  14. The Story of Davy Crockett (public library) by Enid Meadowcroft
  15. The Little Lame Prince (public library) by Rosemary Wells
  16. Ariel (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  17. My copy of Ariel [was] given to me when I was twenty. Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart. With little effort I visualized my Ariel perfectly. Slim, with faded black cloth, that I opened in my mind, noting my youthful signature on the cream endpaper. I turned the pages, revisiting the shape of each poem.

  18. The Master and Margarita (public library) by Mikhail Bulgakov
  19. Winter Trees (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  20. Four Major Plays (public library) by Henrik Ibsen
  21. After-Dinner Declarations (public library) by Nicanor Parra
  22. Letters from Iceland (public library) by W.H. Auden
  23. The Petting Zoo (public library) by Jim Carroll
  24. Essential to anyone in search of concrete delirium.

  25. Tractatus Logico (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  26. A Dog of Flanders (public library) by Ouida
  27. The Prince and the Pauper (public library) by Mark Twain
  28. The Blue Bird (public library) by Maurice Maeterlinck
  29. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (public library) by Margaret Sidney
  30. Little Women (public library) by Louisa May Alcott
  31. Through the Looking-Glass (public library) by Lewis Carroll
  32. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (public library) by Betty Smith
  33. The Glass Bead Game (public library) by Hermann Hesse
  34. Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (Photograph: Patti Smith)
  35. The Journey to the East (public library) by Hermann Hesse
  36. Lolita (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov
  37. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (public library) by César Aira
  38. A Night of Serious Drinking (public library) by René Daumal
  39. Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (public library) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
  40. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (public library) by Arthur Conan Doyle
  41. Orphée (public library) by Jean Cocteau
  42. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (public library) by Bertram David Wolfe
  43. Anthology (public library) by Artaud
  44. The Confusions of Young Törless (public library) by Robert Musil
  45. The Women of Cairo (public library) by Gérard De Nerval
  46. Black Spring (public library) by Henry Miller
  47. The Setting Sun (public library) by Osamu Dazai
  48. No Longer Human (public library) by Osamu Dazai
  49. Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov
  50. Hawk Moon (public library) by Sam Shepard
  51. A Scarcity of Love (public library) by Anna Kavan
  52. Moby-Dick (public library) by Herman Melville
  53. Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus (public library) by Mary Shelley
  54. Wuthering Heights (public library) by Emily Brontë
  55. The Beach Café (public library) by Mohammed Mrabet, translated by Paul Bowles
  56. The Sheltering Sky (public library) by Paul Bowles
  57. I was first introduced to Bowles in a serendipitous way. In the summer of 1967, shortly after I left home and went to New York City, I passed a large box of overturned books spilling out into the street. Several were scattered across the sidewalk, and a dated copy of Who’s Who in America lay open before my feet. I bent down to look, as a photograph caught my eye above an entry for Paul Frederic Bowles. I had never heard of him but I noticed we shared the same birthday, the thirtieth of December. Believing it to be a sign, I tore out the page and later searched out his books, the first being The Sheltering Sky. I read everything he wrote as well as his translations, introducing me to the work of Mohammed Mrabet and Isabelle Eberhardt.

    Three decades later, in 1997, I was asked by German Vogue to interview him in Tangier. I had mixed feelings about my assignment, for they mentioned he was ill. But I was assured that he had readily agreed and that I would not be disturbing him. Bowles lived in a three-room apartment on a quiet street in a straightforward fifties-modern building in a residential section. A high stack of well-traveled trunks and suitcases formed a column in the entranceway. There were books lining the walls and halls, books that I knew and books I wished to know. He sat propped up in bed, wearing a soft plaid robe, and appeared to brighten when I entered the room.

    I crouched down trying to find a graceful position in the awkward air. We spoke of his late wife, Jane, whose spirit seemed to be everywhere. I sat there twisting my braids, speaking about love. I wondered if he was really listening.

    —Are you writing? I asked.
    —No, I am no longer writing.
    —How do you feel now? I asked.
    —Empty, he answered.

    I left him to his thoughts and went upstairs to the patio on the roof.

    […]

    Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.

Patti Smith with Paul Bowles, Tangier, 1997 (Photograph: Tim Richmond)

After her Murakami-induced meditation on the two types of masterpieces, Smith herself attempts to compose a deliberate list of her favorite books. But, overwhelmed by the volume of potential candidates and bedeviled by the difficulty of drawing the line between a “masterpiece” and a book that is “merely beloved,” she eventually resigns. Shoving the piece of paper into her pocket, she concludes:

The truth is that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.

M Train is nothing short of a masterpiece. Devour a richer taste of it here, then revisit the lifelong reading lists of David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

For more of Smith’s reflections on a lifetime of affectionate reading, treat yourself to her wonderful conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber:

You think some things will go on forever — your children will always be small, your husband will always be alive — but time passes… Memory is our most fertile souvenir.

BP

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Maya Angelou’s Courageous Children’s Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

A priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones, and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Maya Angelou’s Courageous Children’s Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

Fear is the enemy of creativity, the hotbed of mediocrity, a critical obstacle to mastering life. Few embody the defiance of fear with greater dignity and grace than reconstructionist Maya Angelou, who has overcome remarkable hardships — childhood rape, poverty, addiction, bereavement — to become one of today’s most celebrated writers. Like a number of other celebrated “adult” poets and novelists who have also written for children — including Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — so has Angelou: The 1993 gem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library), conceived and edited by Sara Jane Boyers, pairs Angelou’s simple, strong words with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses.

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Hear Angelou read the poem herself, which she says she wrote “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits”:

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is an absolute treat in its entirety, a priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us. Complement it with Angelou’s stirring meditation on home, belonging, and (never) growing up.

BP

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