The most famous Romantic scientist, Victor Frankenstein, set out to reject the old practice of natural philosophy for the new practice of chemistry. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Victor refers to each of these practices as a “science,” but the meaning of that word changed radically during what is now called the Romantic period (roughly 1780-1830). Young Victor’s fascination with sixteenth-century works on alchemy, cosmology, and medicine merely increases when his father rejects these antiquated writings as “sad trash” (Shelley 1818: 67). Only his professor, M. Waldman, manages to persuade Victor that “modern chemistry” is more powerful than the occult science of the Renaissance (76). Equipped with Waldman’s inspiring lectures and two years of intensive training, Frankenstein embarks on a project that nevertheless harks back to the pagan and magical elements of early modern natural philosophy: creating human life. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preface to his wife’s novel already registers what has proved to be a long-standing concern with the plausibility of Victor’s undertaking in the context of modern science. The preface cites Erasmus Darwin and other authorities to support the idea that Victor’s discovery of a means of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (80) could be an “event … not of impossible occurrence” (47). The practice of galvanism, as Shelley suggests in her own introduction to the
novel in 1831, might also be seen as corroborating Frankenstein’s ability to endow his Creature with the “spark of being” (84) – memorably imagined as a jolt of electricity in various ﬁlm adaptations. The popularizer of galvanism, Giovanni Aldini, made a murderer’s corpse twitch violently by subjecting it to electrical shocks in a celebrated public experiment in London in 1802, when Shelley was ﬁve. Despite these and many other traces of the novel’s engagement with issues belonging to the history of modern science, the fact remains that Shelley provocatively collapses the boundary between pre-modern and modern science. Professor Waldman and his real-life counterpart, the chemist Humphry Davy, distinguish carefully between modern chemistry and the mystical practices of the alchemists who came before them. Nonetheless, Frankenstein fails to make that distinction, or loses sight of it, when he conceives his overweening, metaphysically tinged experiment.