The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo

A spirited investigation of the bizarre times that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


On its surface, Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters is an exploration of the genesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Montillo clearly rejoices in meandering through the volatile times that gave life to Shelley’s gothic classic, and her multifaceted literary study expands to include discussions of anatomy and alchemy, suicides, ghoulish dissections of men not quite dead and the dramatic death of Percy Shelley at sea.

In the early 19th century, Europe grew increasingly fascinated with life, death and man’s ability to control nature. Grave robbers known as “resurrectionists” provided subjects for human dissections that were conducted both in medical schools and for the general public’s entertainment. Scientists and imposters experimented with the capacity of electricity to restore life. Into this environment, Mary Shelley was born to Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin, a famous reformer of the day. Percy Bysshe Shelley was her lover and eventual husband; her sister was lover to Lord Byron. The foursome were traveling in Italy, telling the ghost stories with which Percy Shelley was obsessed, when–as Mary Shelley and legend have it–a human monster appeared to Mary in a waking dream. It was also in Italy that she may have first heard the surname Frankenstein, tied to the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as to Sir George (he who killed the dragon). In Montillo’s enthusiastic prose, such diverse and macabre subjects make for a lively survey, not only of Shelley’s masterpiece, but of an odd and colorful time in European history.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the February 8, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 volts.

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