John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018
Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?
Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.
Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.
Sutherland bases his commentary on the 1818 published text (though the 1831 edition has a part to pay) but begins with 1816, the so-called year without a summer, and the literary circumstances that gave rise to the novel. Alongside Mary we have her half-sister Claire, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, his friend Lord Byron and milord’s physician John Polidori, all holed up in a villa in Switzerland. From the ghost stories the assembled company tell each other Mary later continues to work on and bolster up her contribution, with editorial assistance from Percy.
Sadly that editorial assistance doesn’t account for how unlikely many of the details are — how does Victor Frankenstein collect up and store body parts in his student’s garret, how does his eight-foot creation subsequently escape detection or gain language and philosophy in so short a time, how is that the French Revolution makes no impact on the plotline, where does Victor get body parts for a second creature on an isolated Orkney island, how do Victor, his childhood friend and the Creature all separately arrive at the same point of the Irish coast at the same time? and so on and so on.
Along the way Sutherland wittily discusses subjects as diverse as vitalism and materialism, occultism and spaghetti, hypochondria and homoeroticism, the Creature’s clothes and whether he sports a penis, why he appears to be a vegan and the availability of firewood at the North Pole with which the Creature can build a pyre for himself. He also discourses on Frankenstein’s Creature in film, porn and comedy and Mary’s literary successors, who included Gaskell, George Eliot, Dickens, Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Brian Aldiss. I would also add to his tally Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan: here too is a savage giant who has to survive in the wild, teach himself reading and writing, and seek for a female companion (in Tarzan’s case, Jane), though in the case of the apeman things generally don’t turn out so tragically. Burroughs, incidentally, may have seen the Edison company’s film treatment of Frankenstein when it came out in 1910: Tarzan of the Apes was published not long after, in 1914.
This is such an enjoyable read as well as being informative. Chapters have jokey questions as headings (What is the point of Captain Robert Walton? Does the Creature have a passport? The sewing machine: a girl’s best friend?) and quizzical commentary (“On what vessel two giants without luggage or money, requiring a diet of berries will get passage across the Atlantic is hard to imagine”); but I also learned much about how Mary Godwin’s particular circumstances and her relationship with Shelley gave rise to this singular work.
Frankenstein’s Brain is also a quick and easy read, another quality to recommend it! And it’s good to revisit (virtually anyway) places as diverse as Bavaria and Britain, Switzerland and Ireland, from the Alps to the Arctic.