“Relevant and riveting” – The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein by Sharon Ruston

IMG_9Dec2021at003355The problem with science in 1818 was that it raised a huge number of questions without really being able to answer them.  Most shortfalls were in the field of medical science. Picture, if you will, the inconvenience of not actually being sure whether a person was dead or living. Burials in the early nineteenth century were fraught with stress. Was the corpse in fact dead? Could it yet breathe, could it be persuaded to a grimace? Such things seem obvious to us now, but The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein abounds with examples of anxious physicians second-guessing pronouncements of death in the morgues of nineteenth century Britain.

Attempts to reanimate victims who had potentially passed away often led to the administering of quixotic procedures. English physician William Hawes gave his hapless drowned patients tobacco enemas because “rectal infusions of tobacco smoke were thought to provide warmth and stimulation, deemed the most necessary qualities for life”. What was he thinking? I hear you ask. The medical profession of our day tries assiduously to stop people from smoking and there was Dr Hawes positively channelling it into people’s bottoms. At least this study shows us just how far we’ve come.

Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, was so in tune with the zeitgeist of its day that to its readers in 1818 the story seemed entirely plausible. The novel recounts the grisly tale of early scientist Victor Frankenstein, who stitches together a new man from the body parts of dead criminals, brings his creature to life then ultimately rejects and abandons it. There have been many adaptations of this literary classic into film – most recently featuring Kenneth Branagh as a feverish Victor Frankenstein – and although the idea of electrically infusing life into an assembly of body parts seems a little old fashioned to us now, it does still resonate in many other ways with contemporary audiences.

The question, should we be allowed to play God with life, is as relevant today as it was in 1818. A human clone is the not too distant cousin of Victor’s monstrous creature, and genetic engineering presents the same ethical challenge today as the ‘science’ of resurrection did for Victor and his monster. Author Sharon Ruston has written widely on the nineteenth century literature of the Romantic period, and The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein is relevant and riveting, bringing history and literature to bear on the major scientific subjects of our time.

Undoubtedly Mary Shelley saw deep meaning in her premise of resurrection. Was nature or nurture responsible for the creature’s violent inclinations? The argument continues to this day; genetics has been found to play a far more significant role in the determination of personality than was once thought, but in the nineteenth century these matters were the subject of even greater conjecture. Does Frankenstein’s monster kill because he is made from the body parts of murderers, or does he kill because his creator has abandoned him? In this way Shelley’s novel provides an interesting example of science that still hasn’t entirely understood how the forces of life and death play out on the physical and spiritual planes.

As Ruston says in her introduction to the book, referring to medical science in the nineteenth century,

“It was widely agreed that there were two kinds of death: ‘incomplete’ and ‘absolute’. If you were unlucky enough to experience the latter, there was a real chance that your body would be dug up and sold by grave-robbers for medical demonstration”.

If the former, the chance that you’d be buried prematurely was a constant source of worry.

“In Manchester the brother of a wealthy woman called Hannah Beswick was almost buried prematurely. A mourner at his funeral noticed that his eyelids were flickering just as the coffin lid was about to be closed. After investigation he was revived and lived for many years after this date.”

Any Cop?: Cosy Christmas reading. Perhaps not the ideal gift for an elderly relative or smoker.

Lucille Turner

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