Lancaster University: New book reveals the life and times of Victor Frankenstein

The fictional character of Victor Frankenstein was actually a chemist and not, as popular belief would have it, a medical doctor.

‘The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein’ by Professor Sharon Ruston, of Lancaster University, is steeped in current scientific and medical thought.

It is the first book to compile the many attempts in science and medicine to account for life and death in Mary Shelley’s time.

It considers what Mary Shelley’s contemporaries thought of air, blood, sunlight, electricity, and other elements thought to be the vital principle, or the most essential thing needed for life.

It also explores how her contemporaries thought of death and the relation between life and death. Mary Shelley’s (and her circle’s) knowledge of science and medicine is set out fully.

A number of key scientific and medical thinkers are considered in this book, including John Abernethy, James Curry, Humphry Davy, John Hunter, William Lawrence, Joseph Priestley, and some organisations, such as the Royal Humane Society.

The book, published by Bodleian Library Publishing, shows what Mary Shelley knew of the advice given by medical practitioners for the recovery of people who had drowned, been hanged, or strangled.

And it explores the contemporary scientific basis behind Victor Frankenstein’s idea that life and death were merely ‘ideal bounds’ he could transgress in the making of the Creature.

Professor Ruston, an expert in the relationships between science, medicine and literature of the Romantic period, brings her expertise to bear on the novel, finding that it explores and challenges contemporary held views of life and death.

“Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein emerged from a climate of fear,” she says. “As scientific knowledge increased and new resuscitation techniques were widely reported, the public worried that the boundary between life and death was not as definite as had been thought.

“This book shows how Shelley understood and capitalised in her novel on the uncertainty caused by new scientific and medical ideas of life and death.”

Unlike other critical accounts of Mary Shelley’s novel, which emphasise the gothic or supernatural elements of the novel, this book finds the novel firmly rooted in contemporary scientific and medical theory and practice.

Frankenstein is hugely and perennially popular as a novel. It is taught at A-level and on English Literature degrees at university.

The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein by Sharon Ruston, Bodleian Library Publishing, £25 out 12 November 2021.

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