The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death.

By Sharon Ruston

Far from the fantastic and improbable tale that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein now seems to us, the novel was declared by one reviewer upon publication to have “an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times”.1 Among these were the scientific investigations into the states of life and death. Considerable uncertainty surrounded these categories. So much so that it was not far-fetched that Frankenstein should assert: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds” (ch. 4). He was not alone in considering that the boundary between life and death was imaginary and that it might be breached.

Worried by the potential inability to distinguish between the states of life and death, two doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, set up the Royal Humane Society in London in 1774. It was initially called the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned”; its aims were to publish information to help people resuscitate others, and it paid for attempts to save lives (the Society paid more money if the attempt was successful). Many people could not swim at this time despite the fact that they worked and lived along London’s rivers and canals. There was an annual procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society’s methods, which may well have included people who had intended suicide too. One such seems to have been Mary Shelley’s mother, the feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who after leaping from Putney Bridge into the Thames in the depth of depression complained “I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery”. The pun on her “inhumane” treatment may well refer to the efforts of the Humane Society in rescuing her.2 The spectacular tales of apparent resurrections from the dead by the Society fed the public’s concern that it was impossible to be sure whether a person was truly dead and, consequently, fears of being buried alive grew.
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Tuzzy-muzzy! Does it matter if Mary Shelley was bisexual? 

By Dr Fern Riddell

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual.

Writing to her close friend Edward Trelawny in 1835, Shelley recalled the years of loneliness and longing that followed Percy’s death, saying: “I was so ready to give myself away – and being afraid of men, I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women.” Reading this as a historian of sexual culture, I recognised this as sexual slang – but did this allude to masturbation, or actual relationships?

When I tweeted the quote above, revelations flooded in thick and fast. Jonathon Green, one of our most important historical lexicographers, was able to tell me that “tuzzy-muzzy” as slang for the vagina dates back to 1642. There are also stories of Shelley having a love affair with Jane Williams not long after Percy’s death. She was also instrumental in procuring fake passports for two friends, Isabel Robinson and Mary Diana Dods, to flee to Paris and live there disguised as man and wife.

It wasn’t unusual for women to live or travel together at this time, so they didn’t need to disguise themselves. Rather, there may have been more at play here in terms of sexual and gender identities than you might expect to find in 19th-century history. Which is why it matters that we recognise that Shelley, by her own admission, was bisexual.

As soon as I sent out my tweet, amongst the celebration and excitement that others shared came a consistent push back. Some people saw the acknowledgement of Shelley’s bisexual life as crude and unnecessary, something that detracts from her achievements as a writer.

We know that a socially conditioned, deep and destructive self-loathing is still often suffered by those who grow up knowing that to be gay, queer, trans, bisexual, or anything other than heterosexual, has historically been seen as evil and wrong. What I have found time and again in the archives, is incredible evidence of queer lives being lived throughout the centuries. In the 1880s, science and medicine perfected pathologising sexuality and defined anything outside heterosexuality as a mental disease. But before this, sex, love and identity were very much individual choices. Shelley’s admission that she turned to women for sexual gratification shows us that to her, and many like her, sexuality did not fit the binary boundaries we have projected on to those in the past – and ourselves today. Acknowledging Shelley’s sexuality is very important for bi-visibility, something we still struggle with. But bi-history is everywhere, and now it has a new icon. Long may she reign.

 Dr Fern Riddell is a historian specialising in sex, suffrage and culture in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Source: Does it matter if Mary Shelley was bisexual? | Books | The Guardian

Jack Pierce: Universal’s Monster Maker

While you may or may not recognize Jack Pierce by name, you are most certainly familiar with his enduring legacy. As the head of Universal Studio’s make-up department for almost twenty years, Pierce is responsible for the innovative and iconic looks of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and countless others. With his trademark surgeon’s smock and slicked back hair, Jack Pierce changed the way we think about movie make-up and inspired generations of artists to push the boundaries and never stop experimenting.

In so far as character makeup is concerned, the work of the makeup artist is closely akin to that of a cinematographer. Each is a creative art of the utmost order. – Jack Pierce

Born in Greece in 1889, Pierce made his way to Hollywood in the 1920s and took on a series of roles for various studios including time spent as a stuntman, actor and even an assistant director. It was on the 1927 film The Monkey Talks where Pierce first tried his hand at make-up effects. The realistic chimp disguise he designed for actor Jacques Lerner caught the eye of Universal head Carl Laemmle and opened the door for twenty years of collaboration and renown for both the artist and the studio.

Jack Pierce works on Conrad Veidt in "The Man Who Laughs"
Jack Pierce works on Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs”

Pierce’s first job with Universal was working on the silent melodrama, The Man Who Laughs. The exaggerated smile that he created for actor Conrad Veidt was so unsettling, that it led many to categorize the film as horror. The look quickly became iconic and even inspired the design of Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker.

Following the death of celebrated actor and make-up artist Lon Chaney in 1930, a niche was opened for Pierce to fill. For 1931’s Dracula, Pierce designed a special color greasepaint for lead actor Bela Lugosi. However with a background in theater, Lugosi insisted on applying his own make-up for the film. The two would still go on to collaborate in the future, most notably on the independently-produced White Zombie in 1932 and on the creation of Ygor for 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. After having his input on the look of Dracula rejected, Pierce re-imagined the Count in all future appearances with graying hair and a mustache.

Known for his “out-of-the-kit” techniques, Pierce became infamous for his time consuming, often grueling, method of trial and error. Reluctant to use latex applications, his incredible results were achieved by slowly building facial features with layer after layer of cotton sealed and hardened with collodion, a type of liquid plastic. An overall unpleasant process, it was in the patience and dedication of Boris Karloff that Pierce found a perfect collaborator.

“The best makeup man in the world… I owe him a lot.” – Boris Karloff on This Is Your Life! (1957)

In preparation for his role in Frankenstein, Karloff had a dental plate removed and endured four hours in the make-up chair each day while cotton, collodion, gum, and greasepaint were applied to his face and hands. The result however was universally acclaimed and has since become the cultural standard when visually representing Frankenstein’s Monster. As unpleasant as they were to have applied, Pierce’s applications were also known for their painful removal processes. While playing Kharis is The Mummy’s Hand, actor Tom Tyler commented that the removal of cotton and spirit gum “hurt like the devil”.

Jack Pierce working on Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
Jack Pierce working on Boris Karloff as Frankenstein

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