The Lady and Her Monsters is a companion monograph of literary, cultural and scientific history to Frankenstein , the masterpiece written by a 20 year old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (hereafter MWS). Starting, in its prologue, with late 18th Century Italian anatomists, it proceeds chronologically to add layers to the foundation on which MWS built her novel. Although many of these events and stories (grave-robbing, resurrectionists, infamous criminals like Burke and Hare, the setting of the composition of the novel in Switzerland) are well known to students of Frankenstein, the author adds less well known details and narrative flourish, ending with the 1831 edition and the remainder of Mary Shelley’s life following the death of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (hereafter PBS).  

The book begins with a prologue describing, narratively, the most proximate scientific influences on Mary Shelley.  The experiments of Aldini and his nephew Galvani form a significant portion of the backdrop for Shelley’s famous literary experiment approximately 30 years later, as famous for its product as it is for its lack of description of materials and methods.

Summary of chapters 1 through 9:

Chapter 1: “The Spark of Life”: biographical information about William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the early years of MWS

Chapter 2: “Waking the Dead”: a return, with more detail, to late 18th C Italian anatomists and scientists using electricity to stimulate dead animals and their tissues: Vesalius, Galvani, Volta, Aldini

Chapter 3: “Making Monsters”: more on Aldini and the rise of resurrectionists in late 18th C and early 19th C England

Chapter 4: “A Meeting of Two Minds”: Paracelsus and Agrippa as antecedent scientists of interest to PBS and MWS; the couple’s romance

Chapter 5: “Eloping to the Mainland”: the famous story of the trip of the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori to Castle Frankenstein in Switzerland

Chapter 6: “My Hideous Progeny”: more on the literary history behind the creation of Frankenstein and the continuing soap opera of the lives of the Shelleys, Polidori, Claire Claremont and Lord Byron

Chapter 7: “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”: suicide of Fanny Imlay (half-sister of MWS), marriage of Shelleys, publication of Frankenstein

Chapter 8: “The Anatomy Act”: more 19th C body snatching; Burke and Hare; and the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the U. K., controlling the supply of bodies to anatomy labs

Chapter 9: “A Sea Change”: death of PBS and Lord Byron

Epilogue: modern day (2004) grave-robbing; remainder of MWS’s life

Following the epilogue are notes to the chapters, a bibliography and index.


The author is a professor of literature at Emerson College with an MFA from the same institution.

This volume adds enriching contextual details of the scientific and specifically anatomical milieux in which MWS came to write Frankenstein. Montillo has a talent for finding pertinent but less well known members of the supporting cast in the fascinating drama of Frankenstein and dramatizing their stories quite successfully. For example, the back stories of Giovanni Aldini and Johann Konrad Dippel are rich additions to the narrative of Frankenstein and inspire the reader to investigate these historical alleys further. Additionally, the book has ample and entertaining illustrations.

Unfortunately, this book is marred by surprising critical commentary, a style that may not appeal to some readers, and a remarkably absentee editorship. Specifically, the comment (page 201) that it should have been obvious to the readers of the day that the author was a woman is strikingly out of focus. In 25 years of reading criticism on Frankenstein, I have never encountered that conclusion. If it was obvious to Professor Montillo, it was obvious to her alone. Of less import is the author’s discursive style. Wandering somewhat far afield from the relevant influences on Frankenstein, Montillo contributes to the well known story of Frankenstein the story of George Foster, who murdered his wife and daughter, and his fate as a post-execution corpse designated for state-legislated anatomical dissection. Too, she enlivens the weird triangle amongst Thomas Jefferson Hogg, PBS and MWS. Although I would understand some readers’ antipathy toward such excursions, this reader ultimately surrendered to Montillo’s exuberant desire to include all the intermeshed connections of the late 18th C and early 19th C anatomic and scientific communities that represented a potent inspiration for MWS’s novel.

The unfortunate lack of competent editing in this book leaves the reader both surprised and saddened. Why anyone would allow a monograph of literary criticism to use lowbrow diction like  “have sex with" (page 153), or “badmouthing” (page 261) or “morphed” (pages 136, 268, 274, 277, and 283) is a question I would not begin to try to answer. A simple Google search would have translated correctly "oneirodynia" (page 174) which means "painful dreaming", i.e., nightmare, NOT a waking dream. The most egregious editorial sin, however, is not once, not twice, but thrice misquoting prominent poets: Byron’s “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage” (page 123), Plath’s “Lorelei”, (page 132-3), and Shakespeare’s “Tempest” (page 250). A related sorrow is the lazy and frustrating system utilized in this book of annotating endnote references with vague sources such as Davy’s Collected Works, and, as far as I could determine, crediting none of the images in the book to identifiable sources. One can only hope that future editions will remedy these deficiencies.

Nonetheless, The Lady and Her Monsters represents a very good chronicle of the various scientific, literary and biographical backgrounds of Frankenstein. It will serve admirably as a parallel text to other works in our database, such as The Anatomy Lesson by Ina Siegal, The Resurrection Trade by Jack Coulehan, The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, and Body of Work by Christine Montross.


William Morrow

Place Published

New York, NY



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