BOOK GIVEAWAY: One copy of Making the Monster, first to comment below will win the book!
Kathryn Harkup is the author of the new book Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. She also has written A is for Arsenic. A chemist, she writes a monthly blog for The Guardian. She is based in the UK.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the science behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in your new book?
A: The novel is brilliant in so many ways but as a scientist it is the scientific aspects that fascinate me most about Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley was a teenager with no formal education when she wrote the book so I wanted to know how she could have come up with such a concept, what kind of scientific developments she might have drawn on for inspiration and how she could have found out about the science at a time when women were more or less barred from being active scientists.
Q: In the book, you examine knowledge of alchemy, anatomy, and electricity in the early 19th century. How much do you think Mary Shelley knew about those areas, and how do you think she obtained her information?
A: I think Shelley was very well informed though many of her ideas were very much of her time. She had clearly done her homework into scientific concepts of the day and had a good understanding of the implications of recent discoveries.
When she first came up with the idea for Frankenstein it was after a few days of discussions about science and the nature of life. One of the group involved in these discussions was a recently qualified doctor, John Polidori, who could have told her any number of stories about dissections and anatomy.
Shelley was also very well read and her journals show she spent time researching chemistry while she was writing her novel. Her husband had always been fascinated by science as well as the occult and would have been a ready source of information.
Her father was also extraordinarily well connected and Mary's childhood home was filled with brilliant people discussing a wide range of topics who all came to visit her famous father. Visitors included poets, artists, scientists and actors.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: The research involved reading lots and lots of books, from the books that Shelley read that might have inspired her, to the biographies of some of the scientists she would have known or heard of.
There was of course lots of reading about Enlightenment science, how it developed over the century that led up to the publication of Frankenstein and how the general public, and particularly women, engaged with scientific discourse.
What I was very pleased to find out is how much women at the time were encouraged to be knowledgeable in scientific matters. They might have been effectively barred from laboratories, with a few notable exceptions, but they attended scientific lectures, wrote books about science and did a huge amount to communicate the subject to a wider audience.
Q: Two centuries later, what accounts for the ongoing fascination with Frankenstein?
A: It is a brilliant story and can be read in so many different ways. Some see the book as a comment on the treatment of slaves, or how a human challenged the role of god.
Many people see Frankenstein as an example of how science can go wrong, but I would disagree. Victor Frankenstein's scientific work is enormously successful, it is his lack of care for his creation that results in his downfall. In that respect Frankenstein can speak to us all about how we regard our fellow creatures and how we treat them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: At the moment I am researching my next book. It's more science and more macabre topics but I'm going even further back in history to Elizabethan England. This time I'm going to be writing about the science of all the ways to die in Shakespeare's plays. It's going to be lots of gory fun.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Mary Shelley was a remarkable person, not just because she created Frankenstein. She is credited with creating not one but two genres of fiction, science fiction and apocalyptic fiction. I recommend reading her novel The Last Man. Mary Shelley had an extraordinary life and I would encourage everyone to find out more about her.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathryn Harkup.