The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is the ninth novel I’ve read by Peter Ackroyd. It was published in 2009 but I picked up a copy late last year in Poundland of all places, and I’m glad that I did, since I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Ackroyd’s work and this was a welcome reminder.
Obviously it’s based on the characters created by Mary Shelley, but at the same time it conflates fiction and history, with Shelley herself a character in Ackroyd’s book.
Swiss citizen Victor Frankenstein, the son of a wealthy businessman, has always been interested in science, anatomy in particular. He comes to Oxford to pursue his studies, befriending the poet Shelley and through him others in various political and artistic circles. Victor believes that electricity is the key to life. He succeeds in reviving a fresh corpse supplied by the resurrection men, but from its reaction realises that he has created a monster, endowed with preternatural strength and incapable of dying. The creature stalks him, committing various terrible deeds. Even after returning to Switzerland, where he sojourns with Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys at the Villa Diodati, Frankenstein cannot overcome his fear and loathing of the monster. Finally he accedes to the creature’s demands, which is when we discover the truth of what has taken place.
This is the best book I’ve read by Ackroyd since the wonderful Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (if you only know it through the film, please check out the book). Ackroyd’s chops as a student of history shine through on every page of this work. He is superb in his evocation of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a time of ferment in the world of ideas, and it is this aspect of the book that comes over especially well, with its portrayal of the fervour for science, the conflict between embedded beliefs and those who will accept no limitations to human knowledge, and a similar intoxication in politics, morals, and philosophy. There are fascinating diversions into the science and arts and political movements of the time, with a wealth of detail that adds to the overall feeling of verisimilitude.
Ackroyd brings his world to life with a similar skill as regards the physical aspects, with the beauty of the Swiss countryside playing counterpoint to the grime and fog of London, the miasma of ugliness that seems to hang permanently over the city. And then there are the people, the resurrectionists with their pariah status and the crowds who gather at the gallows to see the entertainment of public execution. Percy Bysshe Shelley is a larger than life character, one who is typified by his enthusiasm for everything that is new and revolutionary. Both first wife Harriet and second Mary are bright, intelligent women whose potential is limited by their gender, something they strive to rise above. Byron has much of Shelley’s personality about him, but he is much more the alpha male type, dominating others, insisting on my way or the highway. And then there is Byron’s personal physician Polidori, who comes across as a snake of a man, an obnoxious and ingratiating fellow who is not to be trusted. Even Frankenstein’s manservant, the ebullient Fred, and his hectoring mother are beautifully drawn. Finally we have Victor Frankenstein, a man whose devotion to science and ambition to wrestle life from the jaws of death leave him unable to contemplate failure, and it is this stubbornness and determination which lays the groundwork for the shock waiting in the book’s final, frantic pages, a sea change that I simply did not anticipate for all that it was beautifully foreshadowed and which completely alters the reader’s understanding of this masterly novel.
Ackroyd has taken familiar material and reinvented it in a way that opens up the story and sends it charging off in another direction entirely to that of Mary Shelley’s original. I loved the book for the new heart and other body parts it brought to the dissecting table and for the respect it showed to the source material, but most of all I loved it for the brilliant execution, the depth and physicality of the world Ackroyd captures so vividly on the page.
Now then, what else has Peter Ackroyd produced since I lost touch with his writing career back at the turn of the century? And how do I order up more hours in the day to read them all?