New life for a monster myth

Share this article

BOOK Review



Chatto, 304pp, 16.99

PETER ACKROYD'S NEW NOVEL works on so many levels, it's difficult to know where to begin. As pacy thriller, it delivers assured, edge-of-seat, action. As historical fiction, it abounds in authentic detail: the sights and smells of Regency London are portrayed with complete conviction. As homage to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, it brings both invention and wit. So convincingly has Ackroyd recaptured the urgent, confessional tone of Shelley's that the book reads like an unsettling sequel.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Victor Frankenstein, transposed into a historical character via a neat conceit that sees him befriend Percy Shelley as a student at Oxford. In Ackroyd's story, both men embark on a frenzied enquiry into the nature of the creative principle that takes them from the London stage to the scientific demonstrations of Humphrey Davy, where electricity is counterpoised as nature's answer to the creative imagination: a force that literally fires stuff into life.

From here, Frankenstein beats a lonely trail towards his goal of breathing life into a human form, labouring by night in makeshift workshops – a barn in secluded Headington, then a deserted Thames-side factory at Limehouse. Particularly vivid are various scenes set in the netherworld of morgues and dissection rooms, where wayward men of science contract brutish "resurrectionists" to procure them dead bodies from gallows and graves. Amid all this dead matter, Frankenstein is himself de-humanised, undergoing a moral unclothing that aids him in revivifying the body of a medical student called Keat (a consumptive, like his poetic original).

When Frankenstein's "creature" is set loose in the world, intent on vengeance – "I did not seek life, nor did I make myself" – all manner of mayhem is unleashed. Not least by the author, who plays fast and loose with fact and fiction.

The creature's first victim is Harriet Westbrook; in reality the daughter of a well-to-do coffee merchant and Shelley's first wife, she drowned herself in the Serpentine after the poet abandoned her for Mary. Ackroyd's Harriet is, by contrast, a Whitechapel waif and her death comes long before Mary appears as another character in the narrative. Walk-on parts by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Byron's personal physician John Polidori (here transformed into a Czech Jew to bring the golem myth into sharper view), add to the enjoyable confusion. But the culmination of the plot, complete with new twist, takes place at the Villa Diodati, where the Gothic crew famously gathered to recite ghost stories. Mary's Frankenstein was born at Diodati.

Ackroyd's purpose in rewriting the Promethean myth is unclear. Unlike Mary, who had men like Davy, Faraday and Franklin firmly in her sights when she wrote her backlash against overreachers (and usurpers of the female prerogative), Ackroyd has no beef with today's gene-splicers and stem-cell researchers.

His intent is more playful. He knows the old myths still have legs . More interesting to him is how one phantasm blends into another – the golem, the Promethean creation, the doppelganger.

His Frankenstein suffers frequent over-the-shoulder intimations of being watched, or accompanied, by some powerful "presence". He is beset by his own shadow.

Ultimately, Ackroyd's Frankenstein is himself a doppelganger, a worthy shadow to Mary Shelley's creation, roaming with impish disruption between the pages of history, biography and literature.