What Mary Knew: Patricia Fara Explores the Scientific Education of Mary Shelley and How a Work of Early Science Fiction Inspired Her Best-Known Novel Frankenstein

By Fara, Patricia | History Today, May 2010 | Go to article overview

What Mary Knew: Patricia Fara Explores the Scientific Education of Mary Shelley and How a Work of Early Science Fiction Inspired Her Best-Known Novel Frankenstein


Fara, Patricia, History Today


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Ever since Boris Karloff's striking performance in 1931, Mary Shelley s Frankenstein (1818) has symbolised everything that seems bad or frightening about science--the atomic bomb, genetically modified foods, luminous transgenic animals. But, when the teenage author dreamt up her plot and her characters, she was commenting on her own experiences rather than designing a manifesto for the future. As one early reviewer commented, Frankenstein 'has an air of reality, attached to it, by being connected with the favourite passions and projects of the times'. Unlike now, science was not central to society--even the word 'scientist' was not coined until 1833 (by William Whewell, future master of Trinity College, Cambridge). Frankenstein was published in that key formative period of the early 19th century before professional science became established in the Victorian era. Conventionally deemed a work of fiction, this gripping novel offers an exceptionally fascinating insight into scientific issues of the day.

When Shelley (1797-1851) was growing up, many teachers--women as well as men--still believed that girls' emotional natures made them incapable of understanding the cold reason of science. But attitudes were changing. Shelley's own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), had been a famous advocate of female education and by the end of the 18th century enlightened parents ensured that their daughters studied geography, mathematics and chemistry. In consequence, although educated women were excluded from laboratories, they made important contributions to science by writing popular primers disguised as fictional dialogues. Because these imaginary conversations aimed not to make girls into scientists, but to help daughters become better wives and mothers, their scientific concepts were interspersed with moral homilies about good behaviour. Set in cosy domestic surroundings, these chatty books made science appear safe.

The most famous didactic female writer was Jane Marcet (1769-1858), a well-educated woman of Swiss origins who belonged to a London circle of eminent scientific families. As a child, Shelley may have read Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex, published anonymously in 1805, in which a knowledgeable mother called Mrs B. encourages her two daughters to think and to experiment. This imaginary family might well have been based on the real one of Margaret Bryan (fl. 1795-1816), an author and headmistress who taught girls scientific topics usually reserved for boys. Marcet's books were often republished and translated in the first half of the 19th century, reaching young men as well as women--most notably, Michael Faraday, discoverer of electromagnetism. The son of a blacksmith, Faraday was a bookbinder's apprentice, who taught himself chemistry by reading Marcet's Conversations in the evenings after work. Long after he became one of England's leading scientists, Faraday sent Marcet copies of his scholarly articles and praised his first teacher for giving him great pleasure as well as factual information.

Like Marcet, Bryan and their female colleagues, Shelley used fiction to present recent scientific discoveries. Most obviously, she drew on the latest research on electricity to tackle the most controversial issue of the day--the nature of life. In addition, she read many books and articles to make sure that she kept up to date on a variety of topics, including chemistry, evolution and Arctic exploration. For instance, in only the second paragraph of Frankenstein, the narrator, a polar explorer named Robert Walton, echoes real life expectations of the time by proclaiming that at the North Pole he hopes to find:

... the wondrous power which attracts the needle ... you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation ... by ascertaining the secret of the magnet ... …

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