“Bysshe was openly contemptuous of the regimen of the university, and attended no lectures. I was unsure, in fact, what studies he was meant to be pursuing. To him they did not matter in the slightest. There was one task that we were assigned by rote, that of translating each week an essay from the Spectator into Latin. This he accomplished with the greatest ease, and indeed he could write Latin with as much facility and fluency as he wrote English. He told me that the secret was to imagine himself a Roman orator in the first years of the Republic. This inspired him with such fervour that the words came naturally to him in their proper order. I did not doubt it. His imagination was like the voltaic battery from which lightning issued forth.”— Peter Ackroyd, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: A Novel (2008)
Today’s 225th anniversary of the birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley near Horsham, Sussex, England not only gives me the chance to comment on the short, stormy life of this Romantic poet but to extol the many virtues of The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. The main character of this marvelous historical novel and horror fiction is, as the title indicates, the obsessed creator of a monster who embodies the worst fears of science gone horribly wrong. But Peter Ackroyd, an astonishingly prolific and astute novelist, biographer and critic, pairs the scientist with a real-life character with a power every bit as compelling as the work he left beyond: the husband of Mary Shelley, who wrote the 1818 novel to which the novelist pays tribute.
In more than one of his novels, Ackroyd engages in meta-fiction, or the self-referential practice of parodying or alluding to another work—and this marvelous work (which I wish would be adapted to film or television) is no exception. At one point, Dr. Frankenstein accompanies the Shelleys and their friends Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori to Switzerland, the site of the late-night 1816 fireside contest where the group related horror stories they had written. (Frankenstein was, of course, the product of that villa game.) Earlier, Ackroyd has the scientist reanimate the corpse of an acquaintance, a gentle young consumptive medical student named “Jack Keat”—an unmistakable reference to Shelley and Byron’s equally star-crossed friend John Keats.
But the paragraph above is a nice microcosm not only of the themes of this novel and even of the life of Shelley, but also of what has compelled Ackroyd’s attention across a career devoted to limning the glories of the English language. Befriending the conventionally religious student Frankenstein at Oxford, the charismatic Shelley almost literally throws off sparks. The last sentence’s simile of “the voltaic battery” gives the atheistic Bysshe the dubious co-credit of inventing the monster by means of electrical experimentation.
His Oxford experience is very part and parcel of how Bysshe will flout convention not only within the confines of the university but in the world at large. His rebellion begins before the tract, The Necessity of Atheism, that results in his expulsion from the school. Even the practice of attending classes is anathema to him. Indeed, his brilliance is such that he’s beyond all that, in the same way that he will persuade Frankenstein that the scientist, as part of a larger movement toward “our principles of truth and freedom,” is beyond the bounds of convention.
Translating effortlessly is the means by which Shelley suggests his immense literary talent. That trait illustrates a theme that Ackroyd analyzed in intriguing depth in his broad-based literary canvass Albion, about the wellsprings of the English language and imagination. In that work, he underscores translation as a crucial formative influence on the writings of Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Wordsworth. Translation enabled those writers as well as Shelley to range across and blend cultures.
Not content with religious skepticism, Shelley became sharply critical of the old political order. In having him imagining himself as “a Roman orator in the first years of the Republic,” Ackroyd is alluding to Shelley’s well-known claim that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley’s method was examining, like a medical student, the diseases of the body politic, as in this famous conclusion to his poem “England in 1819”:
“Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.”
I don't think even he could ever have realized how unintentionally frightening that word "Phantom" would become because of the literary monster created by his wife.
Finally, perhaps the crucial word of this paragraph, slipped in casually, is “secret.” It implies more than just the major running theme of Shelley’s reckless youth—secrets that, when brought to life, resulted in scandal (e.g., the discovery that he was the author of that notorious essay on atheism, or the clandestine affair conducted with the teenaged Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin that led to the suicide of the poet’s first wife). It also hints at the solitary pursuit that will bring Victor Frankenstein even more inner division and torment here than in Mary Shelley’s landmark horror novel: the quest for the ungodly “secret springs of life.”
One last point I can’t help but recall about Shelley, given a central preoccupation of this blog: In the mid-1930s, while having a short affair with a North Carolina nurse, F. Scott Fitzgerald provided her with “required reading.” Among the more than 20 items on this list, alongside Dreiser, Chekhov, Maupassant, Hammett, and Proust, was John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works—something that had transfixed him and his friends at Princeton, in the same way that Shelley had absorbed past masters effortlessly at Oxford.