Frankenstein’s origin of dismemberment by corpse snatchers

Connie Marchal

Connie Marchal

Frankenstein is one of the most profound and substantial novels of the 19th century, as well as one of the most memorable. Drafted in the form of letters, the narrative is told from several different points of view, which means that the reader learns to see events in complex ways not always from the same angle as the narrator. It is probably the first ever science fiction novel, also.

The narrative tells of a scientist so absorbed in his own research that he loses touch with reality. He forges a new life from an assemblage of older body-parts, a monstrous being who nevertheless has a human heart, and who reacts to rejection with gash, anguish and wrath. Several people think they already know the story from films and other dramatizations, but when they come to read the book, they are thumped by how unexpectedly short and compelling it is and how lightly it is to understand, being apart and brilliantly well written. When readers learn that its author was a young eighteen-year-old female, eyebrows tend to rise in disbelief.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of two political philosophers. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of one of the famed feminist text: ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’ William Godwin, her father, was the author of ‘An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.’ She was born in 1797 in Somers Town, an artsy area nearby where the British Library now stands. The house in which she was born and grew up was called ‘The Polygon,’ and stood just north-east of the present British Library site. It has since been wrecked, but a road there is still named after it. Mary Shelley’s mother died of childbed fever soon after her birth. She was buried in the parish graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, just northwest of the British Library.

Overwhelmed, Godwin planted two willows over her grave. Being very close by – a short walk across the fields – it was a favorite place to visit with his little daughter. Later, when she was a youngster, her father wrote a book called ‘An Essay on Sepulchres,’ which argued for the importance of the graves of great writers and artists. At that time, only royalty and the wealthy had monumental tombs: people who died in poverty – however famous – had no gravestones.

Mary had an unorthodox upbringing, being well-educated for a girl of her time. She had unfettered access to her father’s library and was knowledgeable in arts, sciences, politics and languages. She was a generous spirit, and from a young age had enjoyed writing fiction.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley admired the work of both her procreators and it was this high honor that brought him and their daughter together. She was sixteen years old, he was in his early twenties, and already wedded, when they fell passionately in love and eloped unitedly. They would remain together for the next eight years. They traveled collectively, wrote together, revised and commented on each other’s work, espoused, and had children together. Mary Shelley was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822.

Mary Shelley was only eighteen when in the early summer of 1816 she traveled with her poet sweetheart by road south and east through France to meet up with Lord Byron in Geneva, Switzerland. Napoléon Bonaparte had finally been vanquished only the previous June, and the peace following the years of war with France was just becoming established. Byron took a different route to Geneva, via the battlefield at Waterloo (now in Belgium). He arrived at the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in his new coach – modeled on one owned byNapoléon Bonaparte – accompanied by his personal physician, John William Polidori. The Shelleys settled in a smaller house nearer the lake but settled many evenings up at the villa with Byron and the doctor. Polidori came from a literary and artistic family. He had trained in medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland,  and had dissected bodies supplied by grave-robbers. His dissertation had been a study of somnambulism or sleepwalking.

The story of the writing of Frankenstein is well-known – there have even been a few films adapting it. There had been atrocious weather and a spate of electrical storms, and instead of returning home after supper, the Shelleys sometimes stayed overnight at the villa. In one of those evenings, the friends read aloud from a book which opened a circle of friends each agreeing to tell a ghost story. The tales excited “a playful desire of imitation,” and on Lord Byron’s suggestion, the friends at the Villa Diodati each agreed to attempt the creation of a Gothic tale of terror. Neither of the poets of the group – Byron and Shelley – produced anything substantial, but Polidori later elaborated on an idea of Byron’s and wrote his novel ‘The Vampyre,’ thought to be the first manifestation of the vampire story in English fiction, eighty years ahead of Dracula.

[blockquote cite=”Mary Shelley”]… I busied myself to think of a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. …I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir…[/blockquote]

It was this notion that heightened her novel Frankenstein.

There are countless theories about the attractions working upon Mary Shelley’s imagination at the time. We know that she was knowledgeable about scientific developments in London. It seems likely that many thoughts converged in her mind that evening, provoked both by the storytelling, the recent storms, and conversations she afterward described having witnessed:

[blockquote cite=”Mary Shelley”]Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked about the experiments of Dr. Darwin… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.[/blockquote]

The doctor mentioned here was Dr. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) whose home in Lichfield is now a museum. He was a famed medical physician and poet, a renowned botanist and herbalist, who is known to have given lectures on anatomy in the cellar of his own home. The vermicelli had evidently the seeds of some insect in it, which developed after it had been enclosed. The reference to a glass case may have suggested the glass coffins often seen in continental churches, containing human body-parts the relics of Catholic saints. Often the contents of these cases are wax effigies, like the one seemingly writhing with maggots in the acclaimed novel ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Mrs. Radcliffe, which Mary Shelley had probably read, and could have been mentioned during the conversation about ghost stories. Such grisly circumstances were designed as objects of contemplation for the devout, but may have reminded Mary Shelley of something she did not want to think about – the graveyard back home where her mother’s body lay.

Mary Shelley grew up during the era of the body snatchers. At that time, the only legal source of bodies for dissection was the gallows – dissection played an essential part in medical training, helping students to learn about the human anatomy. For centuries, the government had used dismemberment as an additional punishment meted out to murderers, mainly to differentiate murder from the many lesser crimes punishable with death. But there were not enough murderers’ bodies to supply the needs of all the medical students of London. Particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, when more doctors were necessary for the battlefields, there was intense pressure to obtain more. Anatomists offered cash to gangs of body snatchers, who would go out at night to dig up the freshly buried dead.

When Mary and Shelley had been courting, they frequently met up in the churchyard at St Pancras Old Church, which served a large parish, and many dead were entombed there. In those days, the burial ground was much more extensive than it is today, and beside it, there was a second large burial ground belonging to another parish. The setting of this graveyard was quite rural, too, because it was surrounded by the open fields that lay between the northernmost streets of London proper, and the southernmost parts of the newer village of Camden Town.

Being comparatively lonely, St Pancras Old Church yard had a local reputation as a favored place for bodysnatchers. Mary Shelley would have known this: after all, she had grown up in the close vicinity. She may indeed have lived for years with the fear that despite the willows her father had planted there, her mother’s body might have been stolen and dismembered.

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