The lives of the Romantics are filled with fascinating coincidences. It’s curious that Mary Shelley should have written a classic novel featuring evil doubles (and a central character whose body is found washed up on the shore) when her own husband would later have his suspicious death at sea predicted by his doppelganger. It’s equally as strange that Shelley’s friend Keats, whose surgical background also connects him tenuously to Frankenstein, and whose epitaph read “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, should have been present, through his poetry, at Shelley’s death by drowning. But none of these peculiarities go anywhere- and Peter Ackroyd has, in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, constructed an entire novel around them.
In Ackroyd’s novel, Frankenstein is a London student of the sciences and a friend of Shelley, who fits neatly into the role of Henry Clerval from the original, and, indeed, who will eventually invite him to an Alpine holiday with his new wife and a few choice friends. In the meantime, however, Victor is living a secret life accepting bodies from the city’s grave-robbers- and eventually he succeeds in reanimating the corpse of a young Cockney poet who has recently died of consumption.
If that’s made you groan, then this is not the book for you. Ackroyd’s skill, and even, audacity in reshaping the past has given him a name as an author, as well as a historian: his best novel, Hawksmoor, depicted the eponymous London architect as a devil-worshipping genius. But that (much better) novel played on our ignorance of history, forcing us to realise that while Hawksmoor’s works are a familiar and comforting part of our daily lives, we, the average reader, know next to nothing about the man himself or his motives. The first, most obvious blunder here is that every literate human being knows the stories of Frankenstein and the Romantics; the source material is close to being over-familiar. Ackroyd, however- and perhaps we must accept that historical minds sometimes fail to distinguish the popular knowledge from the expert- makes obvious references to the original with the pride of a man who thinks he has constructed enigmas which will “keep the professors arguing for centuries”. Some of these nudges are subtle; not everyone will pick up on Victor’s flight through London by a “frightful fiend” of shadow, just as not every reader will understand why the Creature (“Keat”, as he is known) is aquatic. But it’s hard to suppress a groan when Victor muses,
“I could no more prepare myself for society than if I had spent the past months in the frozen wastes of the Arctic.”
Or when Mary Godwin gasps,
“I wonder, Mr Shelley, that you keep a boat in this dreadful weather.”
Friedberg and Seltzer, the film-makers responsible for the string of awful ___ Movie movies, have been jeered by critics everywhere because their ‘spoofs’ reference celebrities and films without actually having a perspective on them. It’s a similar fault here; why, for instance, does Polidori read out a section of Dracula in Switzerland, rather than the real story of Lord Ruthven? And sometimes Ackroyd just gets things wrong, as when Shelley discusses the “pale Galilean.” It’s a peculiar error from a historian, but then this is a book full of peculiar errors- not least the title, which calls upon the cliché of the original title though losing its succinctness.
The other real issue here is that, as this is essentially a rewrite of an already bizarre novel, Ackroyd has to somehow avoid seeming weak in comparison. He attempts this through excess – the first action of the Keats-Creature is to masturbate – and through odd little plot twists. Some of these are fine; I liked the fact that, in place of Universal Studios’ hunchbacked assistant, Victor’s experiments are aided by a cheerful Cockney lad called ‘Fred’. Others are directly detrimental to the novel’s themes. Elizabeth, Victor’s incestuous bride, dies of natural causes early on, eliminating any possibility of Frankenstein’s wanting a non-sexual method of reproduction. And while Shelley is prominent, the theme of “the Modern Prometheus” is all but wiped out because Ackroyd has his Creature read, in place of Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe. Even the characters suffer. The original Victor studies the works of the dark magicians Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa because, he tells us, he longed for secret knowledge, hidden from the masses. Ackroyd’s Victor studies the same authors because his friend Shelley recommends them.
This is an exceptionally infuriating book. It doesn’t lack intelligence exactly so much as the wisdom not to flaunt its own intelligence- I was reminded of the passages in The Da Vinci Code where characters quote encyclopaedia facts at random to seem well-informed (which isn’t a comparison Ackroyd would want put on the dust-jacket). There are some pleasures to be had. An absurdly Byronic Byron turns up late on, enlivening the proceedings with dazzling breakfast repartee such as,
“I thought you were about to bugger him. Where are the kidneys?”
The book is probably better-written than the original Frankenstein, in general. But the rawness of Mary Shelley’s novel, much like Dracula, is heightened by its tendencies to melodrama as a sort of emotional nightmare. Ackroyd’s Victor may no longer be a sententious bore, but he is instead so measured and sane that it’s impossible to take him as a man straining towards godhood. And there are still patches of crass rhetoric;
“I did not ask to come into this world. Am I monstrous? Are you monstrous? Is the world monstrous?”
The real crime of this pointless curiosity of a novel is that it saps, vampire-like, at the worth of everything it touches upon. Mary Shelley, whose victory was surely to have risen above the novel’s three posturing masculine voices, is reduced to a damsel-in-distress within the narrative. Shelley’s death loses something of his tragedy with the suggestion that he was dragged underwater by a zombified, aquatic Keats (if only there was something in the novel to suggest that Ackroyd meant this to be funny). Even the Whitbread-winning Hawksmoor suffers, because Victor, now urbane and cat-torturing, has been lifted straight from the earlier character. And we begin to wonder; is Peter Ackroyd’s success in nothing more than referencing hidden knowledge to form atmosphere? After Shelley’s death- the natural climax- the whole thing falls apart. There are a few apparently random references to Dostoyevskyan freedom from morality, and the final twist – if I can use the word ‘twist’ to describe such an aging, feeble plot device- will be a surprise to nobody who has read the original.
I can only recall one moment when the author finds a new perspective on this very, very familiar story. An innocent man, hanged for a crime committed by the Creature, is left to the mercy of the grave-robbers, who, it is suggested, will sell the body to more experimenters like Victor himself. It makes a pretty good allegory for the state of both the Frankenstein tale and the history of the Romantics, dug up again and again in different forms and wearing ever more peculiar masks.