Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: The Monsters

by Rachel Baker on November 20, 2008

I have been mulling over, for about a week, how to review this book.  I should start by telling you reading The Monsters was an interesting experience.  The book read like a novel and was one of the easiest-to-read biographies I’ve ever read; and while the subject was not one I was particularly interested, I was engrossed from start to finish.

I’m going to do this a little bit different, mostly because I find myself in a conundrum over how to write this review. Please, dear readers, I implore you to bare with me as I sort out my thoughts on The Monsters

The blurb on the back of The Monsters does the book a great injustice.  I have to tell you, I really dislike when this happens. The blurb says the book is about the night Lord Byron challenged his four friends to write a ghost story.  Out of this challenge came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s story, which turned out to be the first vampire novel ever.  Obviously, I’ve paraphrased this, but the point is this is NOT all The Monsters is about.  In fact, this ‘curse of Frankenstein’ night is a very small insignificant part of this book, in my humble opinion.

The Monsters begins with this intriguing paragraph:

“This story begins, as many tales do, with a love affair.  It involved two brilliant yet very odd people who seemed utterly unsuited for each other.  William Godwin was painfully shy, given to intellectualizing, and apparently a virgin at the age of forty, when he fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was passionate to the point of recklessness, heedless of the opinions of the world, and insistent that she never take second place to anyone, male or female.  What brought them together was their common interest: revolution.”

Okay, we have possibilities for intellectual unity, sexual exploration, revolution, and hints of early feminist politics…Who are these people?  Well, William and Mary (ha!) were Mary Shelley’s parents.  Both were ‘inspired by the French Revolution’.  Mary Wollstonecraft turned the public upside down with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and William Godwin wrote Political Justice.  The first chapter gives a brief history of both, and ends with the Mary’s death eleven days after the birth of their daughter (you know, the one who wrote Frankenstein).  Mary Wollstonecraft’s death could very well have been the catalyst for a major theme in Frankenstein.

The book then goes on to discusses the relationship between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (daughter).  Their whole relationship was scandalous and ended in tragedy.   The authors lay out in meticulous detail the events of Mary Shelley’s life leading up to and after the publication of Frankenstein; and its important to realize she’s the central subject of this biography.  The book also discusses the couple’s relationship with Lord Byron and other prominent writers during the Romantic period. We meet some of them; though more often we hear about their influence on Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

After reading this book, I had to do a little research on the Romantic period.  In literature, this was the advent of the lyrical ballad.  Some of the big players during this period were William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon aka Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.

Lord Byron wrote Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage during the time period he knew the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner had a profound affect on Mary Shelley.

Since reading The Monsters, I have become obsessed with Frankenstein.  I believe we can learn a great deal about the underlying meanings of a specific book or set of books by really looking at the author’s life.  This is especially important if the author is dead.  The Hooblers (authors) posed some very interesting ideas about what Frankenstein is actually about.  They surmise Frankenstein is not just a scary monster story.  Frankenstein is also an exploration into some of the new scientific discoveries of the day and what can go wrong if the scientists are not concerned with the possible consequences, and a story about societal isolation and parental abandonment.  I have never read the 1818 version (and I’ve become quite obsessed with getting my hands on a copy).  I’ve only read the 1831 version and truly did not get any of these assertions.  Apparently, there are some pretty significant changes between the two publications.  In the original publication (1818), Victor Frankenstein could be either her father William Godwin or Percy Shelley, and Mary could possibly be portrayed as the monster.  In the secondary publication, (1831), Percy had died and her relationship with her father was mending.  According to the Hooblers, Mary Shelley created a ‘new’ image of Percy after his death through the publication of his poetry.

Here are a few points of pure wonderment from my reading The Monsters:

  • Is it possible that Victor Frankenstein was the true monster in this book?  First, he’s a scientist who creates a being but has no regard for the consequences of his ‘experiment’.  Secondly, if he is in fact a representation of Percy Shelley, then is it possible that Mary felt Percy was a monster?  He seemed to be emotionally inept when it came to Mary, much like Victor was with the Monster.
  • Is it possible that in the monster’s isolation, Mary was portraying how she felt in her relationship with Percy, and quite possibly her father?  She was looked down upon by society because of the scandalous nature of her relationship with Percy.
  • Mary Shelley incorporated some incredible science into Frankenstein (http://www.sciencetimeline.net/1651.htm)
    • Franz Joseph Gall speculated that the cerebral cortex represented the highest level of the brain and that its development characterized mammals.  His aim was to localize cerebral functions by introspection, i.e., phrenology, and theorized that abstract mental functions, such as secrecy or mother love, occur in discrete areas of the cerebral cortex.  He further believed that each mental function, that is, each bump on the cortex, would grow through use, on analogy to muscles.
    • In 1800, Marie François Xavier Bichat published the first of several books dealing with the pathology of tissues.
    • Humphrey Davy’s was working with the science of healing and rekindling live through electrical current (he wrote: Elements of Chemical Philosophy)
    • Galvanism is named for the Italian anatomist Luigi Galvani, who discovered that bioelectric forces exist within living tissue. Demonstrations were carried on in the early nineteenth century by Luigi’s nephew Giovanni and were popular in both Europe and England. “The Prince and Princess of Wales attended such a demonstration in 1804, involving not just animals, but the decapitated heads of people who had been executed,” says Susan Lederer, exhibition curator and professor of the history of science at Yale University. “These were very public demonstrations–social events with scientific content.” 
  • The Romantic Period in history seemed to have been a very sexually promiscuous time.
  • Why exactly did Percy fall in love with Mary, was it just because of who her parents were?  Was Mary aware of this towards the end of their tumultuous relationship?
  • If Lord Byron was bisexual, would it be presumptuous to question whether there may have been some sort of sexual relationship between Percy and Lord Byron? (did I just go over the edge on this one?)
  • Its a wonder Mary Shelley didn’t commit suicide with all the loss she experienced at such a young age.

All that said, I love when I put a book down and ponder the relationships presented; the why’s of the characters actions; and feel a deep desire to research the time period.  In this case, I’ve read a ton of poetry this week, put the 1818 version of Frankenstein on my wishlist and read critical theory on the Romantic Period in Literature.  This inspiration in the quest of knowledge and understanding makes The Monsters a really good book.   I am not going to tell you everything in this book is completely accurate – because I don’t know.  I will tell you, I have a desire to delve deeper into the lives of some of the people presented.

Will everyone enjoy The Monsters?  Probably not.  Its a biography, not a whole lot of readers like this type of book.  However, The Monsters also reads like a novel, which may appeal to people who like fiction.

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