Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece, by Roseanne Montillo

The Lady and Her Monsters: 

A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece 
Author: Roseanne Montillo 
Publisher: William Morrow (HarperCollins) 
Publication Date: February 5, 2013 
On one hand, I found this book fascinating and it made me want to learn more about nineteenth-century London and the events that lead up to the writing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On the other hand, the reason this book made me want to do more research is that the research that went into this book is so poorly referenced.

Roseanne Montillo starts FAR too many sentences with "many believed" or "some have said" or "critics argued" without properly referencing WHO believed, WHO said, or WHO argued. This may not have been such a big oversight if so many of her claims weren't so fantastic. For instance, at one point she seems to suggest that the myth of the golem, a Jewish monster animated into human form, may have actually happened. I'm sure she doesn't really believe that...does she? She makes similar claims when talking about various experiments done by the "mad scientists" of the 19th century, those who tried to create or resurrect life with human body parts and electricity. While I understand her point that these experiments had a strong influence on Mary Shelley's writing, she sometimes presents the "success" of these experiments in ways that stretch credulity. And her footnotes--if you can call them that--are merely notes for further reading, broad suggestions about which books she used for which chapters, without giving specifics about sources, page numbers, etc. I know sometimes publishers ask that footnotes be cut for brevity, but these were actually longer than if she had just properly annotated her research. Plus, according to her acknowledgements, a lot of her "research" involved conversations she had with people before writing the book.

None of that makes it a bad book, per se. It's just not a history book. It's more of a long one-way conversation with Roseanne Montillo about the things she's heard about Frankenstein, 19th-century experiments, body snatchers, and Mary Shelley. To call it a history book would be like calling an Impressionist painting a photograph. And like an impressionist painting, it gives an approximation of the story she's trying to tell, approaching it in a series of anecdotes, the connections among which is not always immediately clear. Reading it was like spending an afternoon on Wikipedia and clicking all the links I came across. I learned a lot of things, most of which I'll want to verify from more reliable sources, even if I went off on a lot of tangents.

According to the author's page on, she has a reputation at Emerson College (where she teaches literature) as being a lecturer who encourages a lot of class discussion, almost exclusively. I've never met Montillo, but based on her book, that doesn't surprise me. It's a lot like a conversation about the subject, rather than a history book. Still, it's an entertaining read (just don't cite it in essays without double checking your sources).

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from Edelweiss. I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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