|Jan/Feb 2009 Book Reviews|
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.
Random House. 2008. 296 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 701183 50 9
That may seem a strange question to ask, since up to now it has always been believed that Mary Shelley, at the age of nineteen, invented Victor Frankenstein as a character in the horror story she concocted one dark and stormy night in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. The poet, Percy Bysse Shelley (Mary's husband to be) was there, so too were Alfred, Lord Byron, his physician Dr Polidori, and Mary's step-sister, Claire Claremont. Two of the stories told that night eventually became books: Mary's Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampire.
Peter Ackroyd, however, seems to have come across an autobiography written by Victor Frankenstein in which he tells us how he met and befriended Percy Bysse Shelley and, so, came to meet Mary, Byron and Polidori. So, who are we to believe?
Maybe reading Victor Frankenstein's "casebook", as Ackroyd calls it, will solve the mystery. Or maybe not, since Ackroyd is well known for re-inventing the lives of famous people—Dickens and Defoe, to name just two.
Ackroyd's Victor Frankenstein, like Mary's, was born in Switzerland. He speaks (or writes) with almost the same voice and he, too, creates a monster. Some of the things he tells us about himself are the same as in Mary's book: his obsession with the source of life, his experiments with electricity, his horror when his creature comes to life, the murders, the false accusations, the confrontation with his creature and its demands—all these are re-told but there are startling differences.
Victor Frankenstein's visit to Oxford on his tour of England becomes, in Ackroyd's book, a much longer stay which is of major importance in his life. Enrolled as an undergraduate at Oxford University, he meets "Mad Shelley" and is able to provide us with a vivid account of the poet and his 'libertarian' friends and activities. Fact and fiction become ever more entangled in The Casebook as Frankenstein follows Shelley to London, meets the poet's first wife, Harriet (a poor factory worker whom Shelley rescues from a life of drudgery in this account), and becomes familiar with various aspects of nineteenth century London life. He sees the low life of poverty, squalor and inequality, and the high life of theatres, intellectual debate and the power of money. He is taken to meetings of the radical libertarian Popular Reform League, attends a lecture by Humphrey Davey on electricity, and searches out "sack-'em-up men" (resurrectionists) who supply him with cadavers for his experiments. He buys an old Thames-side warehouse in Limehouse Reach (an area of London docks for which Ackroyd seems to have a particular fancy in his books), and here he does his gruesome experimenting and, eventually, brings his monster to life.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is sparing in his descriptions of what he actually does in his experiments and he passes swiftly over the moment when his creature comes horrifyingly to life. Ackroyd's man, however, tells us all in gory and terrible detail.
All this is inventive, imaginative and entertaining, and Ackroyd is expert at re-creating the atmosphere of nineteenth century London. There are times, however, when he seems to be more intent on doing this, and on having fun playing games with fact and fiction, than in getting on with the story. And the story, in broad outline, is Mary Shelley's. Ackroyd has tinkered around with the chronology of events and with some of the characters, and he has inserted and invented biographical details of some real historical figures.
Some might say this is plagiarism: others might call it post-modern trickiness. Whatever it is, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is an ingenious, light-hearted horror story, with a touch of Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde about it for good measure. It has little of the thought-provoking psychological and social depths of Mary Shelley's masterpiece though and it is unlikely ever to become as famous. But it does have a much more startling ending!