There is a twist right at the end but it was heavy going. Ackroyd weaves a story about the fictional character Frankenstein which purports to explain how the novel, Frankenstein, was written. The action oscillates between Geneva, Oxford and London. There are deaths, resurrectionists and a certain amount of philosophical discussion about the nature of God's act of creation and how men might 'Play God'.
But it is mostly tedious stuff. In my review of Thames: Sacred River in this wiki I complain of Ackroyd's tendency to list; this present novel seems like a list of all his research (it also advertises a number of his other books!):
- Frankenstein comes from the village of Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc. Mary Shelley visited Chamonix and set an encounter between Frankenstein and his monster here.
- Frankenstein meets Shelley (whom he calls Bysshe) in Oxford shortly before Shelley is sent down for writing (anonymously) "The Necessity for Atheism".
- Subsequently, Frankenstein goes with Shelley to London where he meets Daniel Westbrook and his sister Harriet. Shelley later elopes with Harriet. Harriet was of a much higher class in real life than in the book but she did become Shelley's first wife.
- In London, Frankenstein attends a lecture given by Sir Humphrey Davy, whose work on galvanising cats he has already read.
- Shelley and Frankenstein watch a theatrical production of Melmoth the Wanderer, a gothic novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil for an extra 150 years of life and then spends the time trying to find someone to relieve him of this burden. Oscar Wilde later used the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth after his enforced sojourn in Reading Gaol. Ackroyd has previously written The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.
- Frankenstein hears of famous anatomist John Hunter whose life parallels that of Frankenstein: they both live for some time on Jermyn Street and they both experiment on dogs. Whilst dissecting corpses Frankenstein meets Jack Keat (John Keats) who has consumption. Keats however studied at Guys rather than St Thomas Hospital (as in this book) and Hunter studied at St George Hospital.
- Frankenstein reads Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther", a book about unrequited love.
- On page 165 the monster points at Frankenstein and declaims "Thou art the man" which is the title of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Ackroyd wrote a biography of Poe.
- Frankenstein meets Shelley with new girlfriend Mary Godwin (who wrote Frankenstein) at Marlow. They go boating on the Thames. Mary sees the face of the monster at her window, although she initially thinks this is a dream. Mary asks where the source of the Thames is and a debate ensues. Later she mentions the theory that the Thames and the Rhine were once the same river. Ackroyd researched these in his previous book Thames: Sacred River.
- Frankenstein meets Byron and Dr Polidori. They will be present at the house party when Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein. Polidori writes The Vampyre, the first English vampire novel, as a result of this house party. Byron uses the phrase "The Modern Prometheus" to Shelley; this will become the subtitle of Frankenstein. Polidori talks to Frankenstein about the Golem (a monster made of clay and given life by Kabbalistic incantations); this presumably links to Ackroyd's earlier novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Limehouse is, of course, the district where, in this novel, Frankenstein's laboratory lies.
- The penultimate act of the story takes place in the Villa Diodati where the famous ghost story telling competition is held. Later Shelley is drowned as he was in real life (though not till 1822)
- On page 262, Byron quotes from Paradise Lost. Ackroyd has previously written Milton in America.
A disappointment from a gifted writer. Perhaps he is writing too much these days.
Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein is much better!
May 2009, 296 pages