Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece

The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction

I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Chapter 5 – Frankenstein)
Roseanne Montillo has dug up information about diverse real-world elements that influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of her seminal novel Frankenstein, joined the parts into a cohesive whole and energized them with intelligence, insight and wit, breathing new life into our appreciation of that great tale. She shows also the monster-rich environment that influenced MS, a world that was very well populated with mad scientists, mythical beasts, grave robbers, an actual evil stepmother, and people close to her who had monstrous leanings of their own, long before she added her creation to the list.

Your first experience of Frankenstein probably looked like this.

Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the never-named “wretched creature” of the novel, gave him literal baby-steps and a child-like yearning for love and acceptance. Dramatizations of the character that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote rarely show him possessing the sort of intellectual curiosity and power with which she imbued him. Hollywood is definitely good at keeping things simple and it did so here. Most people think of Frankenstein’s monster as a big, inarticulate lug, who got a raw deal out of life the second time around and succumbed to an angry, pitchfork and torch-wielding mob, like two guys carrying a gay-pride banner at a Tea Party convention. It was not quite that way in the book.
I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
The monster’s plea to his creator shows him to be something other than the grunting fiend of cinema, more of an articulate fiend.

I heartily recommend reading the core material here, before, during or after you take on Montillo’s exposition. In a way, it is like putting on special glasses and seeing the 3d contours of an image when all that one had perceived previously was strictly two dimensional. Or watching a pop-up videos version of a familiar song. You will learn a lot reading Montillo’s book.

The book tells two tales. The first is Mary Shelley’s personal history. The second is a portrait of the world in which she grew up, the external influences on her, and how they contributed elements to her novel. There is, obviously, overlap.

2010 painting of the young Mary by Esao Andrews

Mary Godwin was the daughter of William Godwin, a leading writer and philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), an early manifesto on gender equality. Clearly Mary got pretty high-end brain DNA from both parents. Unfortunately, Mary’s mother died ten days after introducing her to the world.

Mary’s makers

Mary grew up in an intellectually lively environment. As dad was a big cheese in the intellectual world, gatherings at the Godwin manse tended toward the illustrious. Thomas Paine read from his famous work in her home, as did many luminaries of the time, including a well-opiated Coleridge, who read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner while young Mary secretly listened in. This piece of that poem found its way into that little girl’s book.
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Dad remarried four years after his wife died, to Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary’s new stepmother was straight from central casting for any of several tales by the Brothers Grimm. One result of this, some years on, was an attempt to keep Mary away from her father after she hit adolescence, and was a threat to absorb too much of daddy’s attention. MJ saw to it that Mary was banished for a stretch to a distant seaport, residing with a family that was only barely among Godwin’s friends. Mary had opportunities while there to hear many a fish story from local seamen.

Her relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley began when she was in her mid-teens. Shelley was married at the time, which was awkward, but that did not prevent the young couple from cementing their relationship. Shelley found Mary to be a true intellectual equal, which more than made up for her average looks. Scandal pursued them, but the young couple seemed not to care. A circle formed, Mary, Shelley, Mary’s half-sister Claire, who was smitten with PBS, and later, Lord Byron. It got complicated. There are bits from Mary’s relationships that contributed material to the book.

Shelley and Byron

As was common at the time, artists and scientists were not the divided clans they tend to be today. The greatest scientists of the age wrote poetry. And Shelley was renowned at his college for the many dangerous experiments he had running in his room. Shelley taught Mary, who had been home-schooled, a lot about science. They had several children together, only one of whom survived. It may be that one element in her story was a desire to bring back a dead child.

Montillo takes us through the travels of the pair, and later the group, showing the places they stayed, the routes they took, their stops along the way and the stories Mary is likely to have accumulated at various locations on their journey. Yes, there really was a guy named Frankenstein. Another local alchemist sort had been pursued by angry townspeople after some imagined outrage.

Professor Montillo also offers considerable history and color of the time. The era in which Mary Godwin grew up was the Enlightenment. Science, unchained from the restrictions of superstition, was on the move.
The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. (from Chapter 3 of Frankenstein)

Daring scientific experiments were being performed across Europe. There were things in the air at that time that had never been wafting about before. For example, there was a fellow named Galvani, who not only developed a particularly useful battery, but wanted to use his invention to re-animate the newly dead. In fact there was a lot of medical training at the time that required a steady supply of fresh material. As England restricted access to the needed product to the newly executed, that created a considerable market for materials from other sources, giving rise to the growth of so-called Resurrectionists, although flesh-miners might have been a more fitting term. Competition became pretty steep among gangs of grave robbers. The trade was so lucrative that some of the nearly departed were sped on their way by greedy practitioners.

Dissections were often open to the public

Also a lot of this medical work for which the sack-‘em-up-men labored so lustily was done in public fora. Popular entertainment was different in form from what we have today, but I expect the content is particularly consistent. Anatomists vivisected bodies in front of audiences of medical students and the public. Think of it as a monstrous live theater version of CSI. Public hangings were major social events, attended by large throngs ever eager to revel in the misfortune of others, or an early version of reality TV. And of course there is always room to amp up the excitement level, particularly when some of the edgier medical sorts had LARGE ambitions. Giovanni Aldini, nephew to Galvani, performed a particularly gruesome re-animation attempt so shocking that Galvani ultimately had to find some other way of making a living. It does, however, bear remembering that every time the paddles are applied and a doctor yells “Clear” we have mad scientists like Aldini to thank for the many cardiac patients who have been, literally, reanimated by the application of electricity. It’s enough to make you want to scream “It’s Alive!

Montillo also goes into some of the history of alchemy, as Mary makes plentiful reference to practitioners of that art in her book. There is a particularly curious description of how to create a homunculus. (no mention of blond hair and a tan ) Montillo also brings in the obvious connection between Mary’s creation and folkloric notions of golems.

One of the fun bits in the book is a description of a London emporium that sought to capitalize on the growing popular interest in the possible uses of electricity. The Celestial Bed and the Temple of Health was begun by a medical quack interested in the potential benefits of electric stimulation. But the place cloaked its true nature under the guise of providing medical care. I suppose The Celestial Bed did offer plenty of sparks, but the heavenly electricity generated within its walls was produced at least as much by its patrons as by galvanic devices.

The greatest benefit of The Lady and her Monsters is that it lays out many of the elements that Mary was or might have been exposed to in her few years on earth before she took pen in hand to write her contribution to a group ghost-story contest. There is indeed some interesting material offered on Mary’s life after the 1818 publication, most particularly her decision, when revising some years later, to alter Victor’s mode from Promethean arrogance to tool of the gods, reflecting her own denial of responsibility for the events of her life. But other material having to do with the time after publication was not as interesting as that concerning events that inspired the book. Her subsequent life was not a happy one, and I am not sure how much we gain by learning that.

Nevertheless, The Lady and her Monsters is a delightful book, both informative and entertaining. It does a high-voltage job of bringing the story of how Mary made her monster to life.

The trade paperback version came out on 10/22/13

==============================EXTRA PARTS

This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.

A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?

Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg

3/17/18 - MIT Press has produced an annotated version (Print and on-Line) of Mary Shelley's classic novel. It is intended for use by STEM students, raising scientific and ethical questions from the original work. The comments are joined from diverse sources, particularly in the on-line version, with some by scientists, and some by students. The print version sticks to annotation articles by professionals. A fun way to approach this book if you have not yet had the pleasure, or a nice pathway back if you are returning for a visit. It is called, appropriately, Frankenbook. You can find the digital version here.
152 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Lady and Her Monsters.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

March 26, 2013 – Started Reading
March 26, 2013 – Shelved
March 30, 2013 – Finished Reading
April 9, 2013 – Shelved as: nonfiction

Comments Showing 1-50 of 62 (62 new)

message 1: by Dolors (new)

Dolors I'm honored to be the first person to "like" this informative review... I read a bit about Shelley's life in the introduction of Frankenstein (Penguin Edition, I think) and I was fascinated...
Oh and by the way, this rock (&rolls) even if it's only one review! :)

message 2: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Derus Extra Parts heh.

That was fascinating, Will. Thanks.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael Great review, up to your fine standards. Making us smile along with the tour: "like two guys carrying a gay-pride banner at a Tea Party convention". Always wondered how a proper woman came to write this precursor to so much sci fi. I guess she wasn't so proper; and she missed her child. Would be a nice complement to follow up with this after enjoying The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Holmes has a whole chapter on Shelley, as he tries to account for what you point out "artists and scientists were not the divided clans they tend to be today".

message 4: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King You've excelled yourself Will. Great review.

Will Byrnes Michael wrote: "Great review, up to your fine standards. Making us smile along with the tour: "like two guys carrying a gay-pride banner at a Tea Party convention". Always wondered how a proper woman came to wr..."
Thanks Michael. I have had the pleasure of Richard Holmes' work. It is a great book! And Mary Shelley was anything but proper.

message 6: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I've been looking for a good biography of Lord Byron because I'm interested in that crowd (taking suggestions), but perhaps I'll start here. Such a fascinating era. Great review, Will.

message 7: by Caroline (new)

Caroline What a great idea for a book, given the wealth of relevant background information. A wonderful review too.

message 8: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Brilliant review, Will -- informative and fun, and great illustrations. Bravo.

message 9: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Will:

Mary's Makers; amped up, plenty of sparks, can you dig it? Very clever, friend. I particularly loved the way you wove slang into your review of a book which is almost 200 years old. Nicely done.

Knowing you were reading this, I picked up Mary Shelley's classic today.

The links added another dimension to an already fun review. Your contemporary and creative review breathes life to this book and how MS could create such a fellow as Frankie. Again, nicely done.

message 10: by Mark (new)

Mark Great review Jeffrey. I live in Poole, about 4 miles from Bournemouth and it is in a Churchyard at Bournemouth that Mary Shelley's tomb lies in which is also the transferred remains of both Godwin and Wollstonecraft.
It always strikes me as an intriguing little quirk that it was Mary Shelley's wish to have her parents buried alongside her.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Jeffrey?

message 12: by Mark (new)

Mark Will wrote: "Jeffrey?"

Oh I am so sorry Will. I do apologize. I have been reading loads of the reviews which I had fallen behind on and you and Jeffrey are two of the men I have been burrowing through. No excuse but really sorry. Its still a great review by the way !

message 13: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Jeffrey? LOL.

message 14: by Cathleen (new)

Cathleen That's quite a title :)

message 15: by Mikey B. (new)

Mikey B. GREAT REVIEW Will! And fascinating illustrations!! The first time I read Frankenstein I too was surprised at how serious a "monster" he was - compared to all the Hollywood versions.

A few years go I read this rather intriguing book on dissections of the human body called Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab where the author is a pathology student.

message 16: by Steve (new)

Steve Great review, _______! (This is now text I've programmed into function keys -- F4 for Jeffrey or F5 for Will.)

This really does sound interesting, with context being such an important factor. I liked your point about how back in that day there was less separation between science and poetry. I'm sure there are polymaths around today who do both, but it's hard to come up with examples. Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist and author of Godel, Escher, Bach is an accomplished translator of poetry (e.g., Pushkin's Eugene Onegin), but he seems exceptional.

message 17: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Thank goodness for Mary Shelley. If she hadn't written Frankenstein, we wouldn't have this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co6-tY....

message 18: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer Fascinating and informative. I've been eyeing this book some time. You've definitely nudged me along. Here's to long life, an inquisitive mind, and regular eye exams. Now, where did I put my Centrum Silver?

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Suzanne wrote: "Thank goodness for Mary Shelley. If she hadn't written Frankenstein, we wouldn't have this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co6-tY...."


message 20: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Will wrote: "Jeffrey?"


Well it is probably time to come clean.
This is all about a moonlight ride out to the crossroads. Will and I were two of the worst reviewers on GR. We wanted more. We wanted the accolades, the ticker-tape parades, the adoration of people from all over the world, the piles of cash, the cheap drugs, and the rock and roll lifestyle that comes with being a top reviewer on GR. We made a deal with Lilith. Ahh yes I remember her pale skin framed by the blackness of her soul. For those of you that haven't met Will. He is a Greek God.
Yeah. Well pretty close anyway.
Lilith was so turned on she had to have him right there in the road. So while I counted stars and listened to her panting exertions I could feel the power of reviewing flowing into my fingertips syncing with my brain and somehow, maybe it was the cloying heat coming off their copulation like an Amazonian jungle, Will's brain and my brain melted together. This does create a lot of static.
When he is writing a review it blips into my brain, I suggest changes. He changes it back. We mentally wrestle over word choices. It can get to be rather confusing. Sometimes I don't know if it is his review or mine.
Anyway we have five years of living the high life as top GR reviewers before Lilith comes to collect. So give us likes and encouraging comments because we sold our souls to bring you these reviews.
Damn it Will it is my turn to write a review. You go wash clothes or go for a walk or you just sleep. I'll take this one from here.

message 21: by Steve (new)

Steve This explains so much, Will/Jeffrey. Hope you enjoy your 5 years! (Note, this is way more than Andy Warhol would have granted you, but then you're both so worthy.)

message 22: by Will (last edited Jun 22, 2013 03:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I'd respond, but I am exhausted. A guy can produce just so many lightning bolts in a short period of time. I need a cigarette. Think I'll slip into something clean and have a nice sit. Can't believe I was only 25 when we met that bitch. Carry on, JK.

message 23: by Cathleen (new)

Cathleen Will wrote: "I'd respond, but I am exhausted. A guy can produce just so many lightning bolts in a short period of time. I need a cigarette. Think I'll slip into something clean and have a nice sit. Can't believ..."

These posts just made me laugh out loud :)

¤Leila | The Fiction Pixie¤ This review is phenomenal! Great job!

message 25: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Loved your review,Will....

message 26: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Steve wrote: "Great review, _______! (This is now text I've programmed into function keys -- F4 for Jeffrey or F5 for Will.)

This really does sound interesting, with context being such an important factor. I ..."

Funny, Steve, and great idea. For variety, I'll change the F4 for Will and the F5 for Jeff. I'll always give you credit the the idea though.

message 27: by Steve (new)

Steve Think of the keystrokes we'll save, Cathy. I figure it'll end up adding hours of quality time to my life given how often I type those exact words. :-)

message 28: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Steve wrote: "Think of the keystrokes we'll save, Cathy. I figure it'll end up adding hours of quality time to my life given how often I type those exact words. :-)"

LOL...I know they both will appreciate your creativity and the extra time spent on your own life. :-D You're funny, Steve.

message 29: by Alejandro (new)

Alejandro I watched a documentary about the creation of the book some years ago and certainly it's as interesting as the book itself. Indeed in my mental list to read.

message 30: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura great review Will, I won't miss this one, thanks for the tip.

message 31: by Sookie (new)

Sookie When an authoritative perception of the author and the context that led them to write their work is provided, their creation offers a dimension that we wouldn't have seen before. Like how "The Bell Jar" becomes an even more fantastical study if Sylvia's memoir during the same timeline is read, this book is probably a great read for anyone who admires the book Frankenstein.

From your review I feel this book gives an intimate view into life of Mary Shelly; her interaction with people, the conversations and the books she read would all reflect in her works.

Wonderful review!

message 32: by Algernon (new)

Algernon amazingly informative review. i don't usually try to dig deeper into the sources and inspirations for novels, but I like to discover that imagination is often based on scientific research and on the daily affairs of the society the writer is a part of.

message 33: by Laima (new) - added it

Laima Another wonderful review, Will!

message 34: by Dustin (new) - added it

Dustin Utterly fascinating review, Will!! I've actually wanted to re-read Shalley's classic for a few years now (read it in H.S., for class,) and when I do, I definitely plan on reading Montillo's book afterward. Thanks, man!

message 35: by Hayat (new)

Hayat Fantastic well detailed review, Will! I really enjoyed reading your review and I'm definitely going to check out this book before doing a reread of Frankenstein.

Michael Fierce Fantastic review, Will. One of my favorites of yours!

message 37: by Claire (new) - added it

Claire Bull Thanks for letting me know about your review of this book, Will. Wonderful...have added it to my endless list of books I want to read. Your review is excellent as usual and made me chuckle " In parts" and interesting to understand the Jeffrey connection. This book sounds fascinating. I need to finish "The Martian" (yes I Did read your great recent review of that one too but had already started the book) ....off to read

message 38: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Great review Will. Thanks

message 39: by T.N. (new)

T.N. Suarez Striking review! 2 years too late, but I chuckled at few of the posts below.

message 40: by Carmen (new) - added it

Carmen Cocar I'm looking forward to reading this.

message 41: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King How splendid Will to see your ravishing (no other word for it) review in my feed just now!

message 42: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Lynne wrote: "How splendid Will to see your ravishing (no other word for it) review in my feed just now!"

We make what we can with what's available

message 43: by William (new)

William Wow, what a wonderful history. Thanks, Will !

message 44: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes :-)

message 45: by Malia (new)

Malia Great review, Will! Though this discussion is almost as entertaining as the book sounds;-)

message 46: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Malia wrote: "Great review, Will! Though this discussion is almost as entertaining as the book sounds;-)"
Thanks. It really is a wonderful, informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining book.

The_Paperback_Peruser Wonderful review! So much information I wasn't aware of. I especially loved the qhole bit about Resurrectionists. Good job!

message 48: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes The_Paperback_Peruser wrote: "Wonderful review! So much information I wasn't aware of. I especially loved the qhole bit about Resurrectionists. Good job!"
For reviewers, this book offers what Donald Trump provides for late night talk show hosts, a vast store of material to work with, but even better, as there is literary history and merit in the book.

message 49: by Nick (new) - added it

Nick If I wasn't sold on this book already, you sir have not only put this on the top of my 'to read' list but weaved a tale of information and intrigue in the review alone. Or some reason I had always found information on Mary Shelly quite stark, I must've been looking in all the wrong places. Thank you very much! Now the true challenge is to enjoy the book as much as this review!

message 50: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, guys. I really loved this book. I strongly advise reading Frankenstein before reading this one, for the best effect.

« previous 1
back to top