The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, By Peter Ackroyd
Sunday 12 April 2009
The mileage in reinventing old stories or fictionalising the lives of real people from the past often begs the question: and the point is? One answer is that the novel allows for the possibility of imaginative truths, the kind of truths that biography has to forgo. Here, Peter Ackroyd has merged the real lives of Shelley and his wife, Mary, with that of Victor Frankenstein, who was, of course, Mary's invention. But why?
Frankenstein is a young student at Oxford, fascinated by physics and anatomy, when he forms a bond with fellow student Percy Bysshe Shelley, discussing atheism, liberty and the importance of nature. Shelley is sent down for writing an atheist tract, and heads for London, where Frankenstein soon joins him. Shelley meets the oppressed Harriet Westbrook, with whom he elopes before marrying her. Frankenstein, ever more obsessed with the notion of creating life from electricity, starts paying men known as the resurrectionists for, in anticipation of Burke and Hare, fresh corpses on which to experiment.
One young man he brings back to life is, as in Frankenstein, a murderous creature, soon responsible for the death of Harriet and others. The creature haunts Frankenstein's every move, even following him to the Villa Diodati with Shelley and his new friend Byron – the villa where, of course, Mary first thought of her story.
The kind of game Ackroyd is playing with real life (Harriet did indeed drown, but it was, sadly, a suicide), mixing fictional narrative with the biographical, isn't nearly radical or subversive enough here to justify what he's doing. Why not simply read Mary's original? Ackroyd isn't telling us anything she didn't, and what he does tell us about Mary's husband, Shelley, is partly true, partly made up. This is a self-indulgent game showcasing someone's literary knowledge, when it could, and should, have been something else entirely.
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