In September 1811 the Herschels’ old friend Fanny Burney, by then the married Madame d’Arblay, underwent an agonising operation for breast cancer without anaesthetic. It was carried out by an outstanding French military surgeon, Dominique Larrey, in Paris, and so successfully concluded that she lived for another twenty years. What is even more remarkable, Fanny Burney remained conscious throughout the entire operation, and subsequently wrote a detailed account of this experience, watching parts of the surgical procedure through the thin cambric cloth that had been placed over her face. At the time the surgeon did not realise that the material was semi-transparent. ‘I refused to be held; but when, bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel-I closed my eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision.’
On the subject of pain, and Humphry Davy’s failure to pursue anaesthesia, it is worth considering what Fanny Burney wrote about her terror before this mastectomy operation: ‘All hope of escaping this evil being now at an end, I could only console or employ my mind in considering how to render it less dreadful to [my husband] M. d’Arblay. M. Dubois had pronounced: “you must expect to suffer-I do not wish to mislead you-you will suffer-you will suffer very much!” M. Ribe had charged me to cry! To withhold or restrain myself might have seriously bad consequences, he said. M. Moreau, in echoing this injunction, enquired whether I had cried or screamed at the birth of Alexandre. Alas, I told him, it had not been possible to do otherwise. “Oh then,” he answered, “there is no fear!”-What terrible inferences were here to be drawn!’1
Indeed, she screamed throughout the operation. ‘When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast-cutting through veins-arteries-flesh-nerves-I needed no injunction not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision-& I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still! So excruciating was the agony…All description would be baffled…I felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone-scraping it!’
One of Burney’s many extraordinary reflections was whether extreme physical pain could not only induce unconsciousness-‘I have two total chasms in my memory of this transaction’-but actually force the soul out of the body. She also found that the act of recollection carried its own pain, and that she had taken three months to complete the account, as a letter of nearly 10,000 words to her sister Esther. She had severe headaches every time she tried to go on with it. Once finished, she could not look back over what she had written. ‘I dare not revise, nor read, the recollection is still so painful.’ It is an astonishing record of courage, not least in Fanny’s determination to protect her husband from the trauma of the operation. But it also recalls what the real conditions of surgery were at this period.
Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, medical science had been spurred on by the immediate bloody demands of the battlefield. It became ever more daring and more ruthless. Larrey, for example, had performed 200 amputations in twenty-four hours after the battle of Borodino, and been awarded the Légion d’Honneur.2 But as the conflict wound down, it began to turn again to more speculative enquiries. France was still held to lead Europe in medicine and surgery, and its great state hospitals in Paris, notably the Hôtel Dieu and La Salpêtrière on the Left Bank, still pioneered surgical techniques and anatomical theory. Here Xavier Bichat and Baron Cuvier reigned supreme. Nevertheless, the collapse of the French wartime economy, and the overwhelming demands made on the country’s medical resources by returning veterans and mutilés de guerre, began to hinder its scientific advances.
By contrast, the teaching hospitals of London and Edinburgh were now gaining an international reputation. Ever-vigilant, Joseph Banks was anxious to foster this growing advantage and prestige through elections to the Royal Society. Medicine was fashionable, and the hospitals began to attract a new and gifted generation of medical students and teachers, such as Henry Cline (St Thomas’s), John Abernethy (St Bartholomew’s), Joseph Henry Green (Guy’s) and Astley Cooper (Guy’s).
Banks drew them into the Royal Society wherever possible. For example, he ensured that Astley Cooper’s pioneering operation of piercing the human membrane tympani (eardrum) to relieve potentially fatal innerear infection reached a wide audience by being written up for the Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1801.3 Thanks to Banks, Cooper was elected to the Royal Society and awarded the famous Copley Medal for this work, at the age of thirty-three. Cooper’s students would include John Keats at Guy’s Hospital in 1814. Other medical men made important contacts in the literary world. The radically minded Henry Cline befriended the writers Horne Tooke and John Thelwall, and even acted as a character witness during their trial for treason in 1794. John Abernethy treated Coleridge for opium addiction, and J.H. Green would become Coleridge’s amanuensis in 1818. In 1816 Byron chose as his travelling companion in exile the young Dr William Polidori, newly qualified at Edinburgh Hospital. Polidori secretly contracted with the publisher Murray to keep a diary of Milord’s exploits (perhaps not quite in accordance with his Hippocratic oath).
Banks kept his all-seeing eye on all these too. Among them, he soon became aware of a talented and unorthodox young surgeon, William Lawrence, working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital under John Abernethy. As early as 1802, when Lawrence was a mere medical student aged only nineteen, Banks had spotted him and recommended him to William Clift, the conservator of the Hunterian Collection. ‘Sir, I beg leave to introduce to your acquaintance the bearer Mr William Lawrence, a Comparative Anatomist who is able to give-as well as receive-information. He wishes to see the [skeletons of the] Elephant & the Rhinoceros, & will probably find in the Collection many more things that he will desire to look at.’4 It was Lawrence who would rekindle one of the most disturbing scientific debates of the Romantic period, and stir up the controversy that became known as the Vitalism Debate in 1816-20.
In 1813, Banks had carefully supported the election of Lawrence to the Royal Society, at the strikingly early age of thirty. Two years later, in 1815, Lawrence was given his first academic appointment of real public significance when he was made a Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. Promotion within the medical profession was still largely in the hands of an oligarchy, and the appointment depended on the good offices of his mentor John Abernethy. As Abernethy himself had long held one of these professorships, this was an expression of great personal confidence. A glittering career now opened before Lawrence under the wing of Abernethy.
John Abernethy was a powerful ally, at the height of his powers and influence. Born in 1764, he had originally trained at the world-famous medical schools at Edinburgh, then came south to study under the great surgeon John Hunter (1728-93), working among the bodies at his grim dissecting rooms in Windmill Street. (There is a curious Ackroydian historical resonance in the fact that a century later this became the home of the first English burlesque and nude tableaux shows.) Later he pursued a successful career in surgery, built a highly lucrative practice as a consultant physician in Mayfair, and was appointed senior surgeon at Bart’s Hospital in 1815. At fifty-one he was at the top of his profession, and also held a Professorship of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons.
A squat, sandy-haired figure, Abernethy was a pious, plain-spoken Scot of ‘unconquerable shyness’ in society, but famed for his blunt bedside manner with patients, and his brusque diagnoses.5 Brought up a Calvinist, he had no time for niceties. He made no secret of his opinion that most of the diseases of his richer clients could be cured by cutting back on food and alcohol, and saying their prayers. When consulted by Coleridge in 1812 for a huge range of complex stomach complaints and subtle nervous afflictions (including chronic nightmares), he unhesitatingly diagnosed a simple case of opium addiction, and indirectly helped Coleridge find asylum with the physician James Gillman in Highgate four years later.6
Among the medical students at Bart’s, Abernethy was one of the most popular lecturers of his time, partly because of his cussedness and eccentricity. So there was great interest when in 1814, as Professor of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons, he began the series of annual public lectures known as the Hunterian Orations. He chose a subject for his discourse inspired by his old anatomy teacher: what he called ‘An Enquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr Hunter’s Theory of Life’.
The topic was unexpected. Hunter’s celebrity had been based on his practical-indeed terrifying-skills as a surgeon, and his vast knowledge of comparative anatomy. His characteristic last paper, published posthumously, was ‘A Treatise on Blood, Inflammation and Gunshot Wounds’ (1794). Hunter had established a sophisticated collection of comparative anatomy specimens. After his death in 1793 they were purchased by the state, and in 1800 entrusted to the newly established Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The Hunterian Museum exists there to this day. In a way the collection was an intellectual timebomb, for, sequentially displayed, the specimens visibly demonstrated, to anybody who cared to examine them, how directly and evidently man’s skeletal structures (skull, hands, feet) and internal organs (heart, liver, lungs) had evolved from ‘lower’ animal forms. They were compelling proof of a certain kind of continuous physiological ‘evolution’, and they clearly suggested that man had developed directly from the animal kingdom, and was not a unique ‘creation’.
But this was not the subject that Abernethy chose. His old master Hunter, like many scientific men towards the end of their lives, had developed certain undefined mystical yearnings. Abernethy had found among his bloodstained and chaotic manuscripts various ill-defined theories of a Life Force or Life Principle, which suddenly seemed of great contemporary interest. Hunter speculated that this Force was somehow associated with spontaneous motions inherent in the human physiology: systolic and diastolic pulses of the heart, the circulation of the blood, healing inflammation, male erection, and female blushing. Above all he believed that blood itself held the secret of Vitality: ‘it is the most simple body we know of, endowed with the principle of life’.7
Building on Hunter’s speculations, Abernethy proposed a theory of human life based on a semi-mystical concept of a universal, physiological life force. Blood itself could not explain life, though it might carry it. This universal ‘Vitality’ was a ‘subtle, mobile, invisible substance, super-added to the evident structure of muscles, or other form of vegetable and animal matter, as magnetism is to iron, and as electricity is to various substances with which it may be connected’. Abernethy further suggested that this theory brought scientific evidence-if not exactly proof-to the theological notion of the soul. If the Life Force was ‘super-added’, some power outside man must obviously have added it.8
In drawing his analogies between Vitality and electricity, Abernethy also called on the authority of Humphry Davy’s Bakerian Lectures at the Royal Society. Like many scientific men of the day he was entranced by the potentialities of the voltaic battery, and its possible connections with ‘animal magnetism’ and human animation. Electricity in a sense became a metaphor for life itself. ‘The experiments of Sir Humphry Davy seem to me to form an important link in the connexion of our knowledge of dead and living matter. He has solved the great and long hidden mystery of chemical attraction, by showing that it depends upon the electric properties which the atoms of different species of matter possess…Sir Humphry Davy’s experiments also lead us to believe, that it is electricity, extricated and accumulated in ways not clearly understood, which causes those sudden and powerful motions in masses of inert matter, which we occasionally witness with wonder and dismay.’9
The lectures excited great interest in the medical profession, but not yet among the general public. This would soon change. In 1816, to his surprise and irritation, Abernethy found his fashionable speculations on the mysteries of the Life Force, and the role of electricity in animating ‘inert matter’, scathingly attacked and denounced. The critic was none other than his fellow Professor of Anatomy, his youngest and most gifted pupil, the thirty-three-year-old William Lawrence.
It was a wholly unexpected blow, though later Abernethy said that Lawrence had been known ‘to decry and scoff’ at his views behind his back on the wards at Bart’s.10 He felt bitterly about it, as Lawrence had been Abernethy’s assistant since the age of sixteen, and Demonstrator at Bart’s from 1803 until 1812, largely under his protection and patronage. He had even lodged with Abernethy for three years, and was considered his protégé.
Clearly, Lawrence felt that none of these claims weighed against scientific truth, and had grown impatient with his old chief. Temperamentally Lawrence was the opposite of his patron. Tall, thin, ambitious, elegant and highly articulate, he regarded medicine as a pure science, with no outside allegiances. European in his outlook, flamboyant and radical in his thinking, he was well read in French and German medical literatures. He knew the writings of the Jena University circle, and had developed strong leanings towards Cuvier and Bichat and the materialist view of human life. If not an avowed atheist, he had little time for conventional pieties.
Unusually for an English medical student, William Lawrence had actually studied anthropology under Banks’s old friend Blumenbach at Göttingen in Germany, where he had been noted for his brilliance and theoretical daring.11 Blumenbach had developed a whole new science of craniology: the collecting, measuring and classing of animal and human skulls. His huge skull collection at Göttingen University was popularly known as ‘Dr B’s Golgotha’, and he frequently wrote to Banks requesting specimens. Craniology was also pursued by Alexander von Humboldt in South America, and the classification of racial types, a particular Germanic concern, had begun.12 At twenty-four, while still acting as Abernethy’s humble Assistant and Demonstrator at Bart’s, Lawrence had translated Blumenbach’s seminal work, Comparative Anatomy, in 1807.
This book was a battle cry of a theoretical kind. It raised new and intensely controversial questions about human racial types, and the hypothetical link between skull shape, brain size and intelligence. Blumenbach introduced the first classic racial divisions between Caucasian, African, Asiatic and Indian types. But, perhaps most significant of all, he tried to define the physical structure of the human brain, and how it produced ‘a mind’. He came within a pace of dismissing the existence of a human ‘soul’, and suggesting the purely material basis for life itself. But having an extremely restricted and expert medical readership, the book caused little immediate stir in England, and it is doubtful if Abernethy himself ever read it.
While Abernethy was consulted by Coleridge in 1812, Lawrence found a much younger but equally demanding literary figure in his consulting rooms in July 1815. This was the twenty-two-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, suffering from a cocktail of nervous diseases including abdominal spasms, nephritic pains, suspected tuberculosis and a writing-block. Lawrence-literate, radically minded and well travelled-quickly gained the poet’s confidence. ‘My health has been considerably improved under Lawrence’s care,’ Shelley wrote with some surprise in August, ‘and I am so much more free from the continual irritation under which I lived, as to devote myself with more effect and consistency to study.’13 A month later, in September 1815, Shelley was drafting his long poem about travel and self-searching, Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, and a series of speculative essays about the nature of life, and also of death, as in his ‘Essay on a Future State’.14
These medical consultations would continue regularly over the next three years, until Shelley and his young wife Mary departed for Italy in 1818. They took place during the height of the Vitalism debate, and not unnaturally they developed a literary as well as a medical aspect. It was Lawrence who recommended the warm, smiling Italian climate as ‘a certain remedy’ for all Shelley’s diseases. It was also Lawrence, with his unusual knowledge of French and German experimental medicine, who helped turn the Shelleys’ joint scientific speculations along a more controversial path.15
The natural tendency of most English doctors and surgeons was to avoid too much theory and speculation. This evidently did not apply to Lawrence, or to his intellectual masters on the Continent. The great French naturalist Georges Cuvier approached all animal life as part of a continuous ‘successive’ development. The celebrated Parisian doctor Professor Xavier Bichat developed a fully materialist theory of the human body and mind in his lectures Physiological Researches on Life and Death, translated into English in 1816. Bichat defined life bleakly as ‘the sum of the functions by which death is resisted’.
Even more radical were the ‘Machine-Man’ theories of the French physiologist Julien de la Mettrie. He argued that the theologian, with his ‘obscure studies’, could say nothing intelligible about the soul, and that only physicians and surgeons were in a position to study the evidence. ‘They alone, calmly contemplating our soul, have caught it a thousand times unawares, in its misery and its grandeur, without either despising it in one state or admiring it in the other.’16
William Lawrence was only waiting the opportunity to bring such radical ideas to bear. As part of his new professorship he was required to give the series of public lectures at the Royal College, starting in spring 1816. These immediately followed on the series given by Abernethy. It was the custom that one Hunterian Lecturer would preface his remarks with an appropriate salute to the endeavours of the previous incumbent. But on entering the lecture hall, after a few elegant throwaway compliments, Lawrence began roundly to attack Abernethy’s theories. He stated bluntly that there was absolutely no such thing as a mysterious Life Principle, and that the human body is merely a complex physical organisation. In a phrase that became notorious, he claimed that the development of this physiological organisation could be observed unbroken, ‘from an oyster to a man’.17
Lawrence’s references to Abernethy became steadily more aggressive and sardonic. ‘To make the matter more intelligible, this vital principle is compared to magnetism, to electricity, and to galvanism; or it is roundly stated to be oxygen. ‘Tis like a camel, or like a whale, or like what you please…’ This last was a contemptuous, and deliberately literary, allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet mocking the foolish old Polonius. Other smart literary quotations came from the poems of Alexander Pope and John Milton.18
Lawrence eventually went on to broaden his attack. Science, he argued, had an autonomous right to express its views fearlessly and objectively, without interference from Church or state. It must avoid ‘clouds of fears and hopes, desires and aversions’. It must ‘discern objects clearly’ and shun ‘intellectual mist’. It must dispel myth and dissipate ‘absurd fables’.19 The world of scientific research was wholly independent. ‘The theological doctrine of the soul, and its separate existence, has nothing to do with this physiological question…An immaterial and spiritual being could not have been discovered amid the blood and filth of the dissecting room.’20
Finally he attacked the very nature of the religious, mystifying or unscientific philosophy which Abernethy appeared to be promulgating: ‘It seems to me that this hypothesis or fiction of a subtle invisible matter, animating the visible textures of animal bodies, and directing their motions, is only an example of that propensity in the human mind, which had led men at all times to account for those phenomena, of which the causes are not obvious, by the mysterious aid of higher and imaginary beings.’21♣
As the controversy became more public, Lawrence was accused of personal betrayal, ingratitude and atheism. Between 1817 and 1819 he and Abernethy continued to exchange increasingly vitriolic views in their Royal College lectures, and student groups of supporters formed round each. Abernethy was the senior figure, but Lawrence would not back down, and published his lectures in a book that became notorious, his Natural History of Man (1819).
It became clear that this was no ordinary academic wrangle, but that the subject in contention was the fundamental nature of human life. The larger implications were clearly social, political and even theological. There was also a strong overtone of imperial controversy: foreign versus British science. Thus Vitalism was the first great scientific issue that widely seized the public imagination in Britain, a premonition of the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, exactly forty years later.
In fact Vitalist ideas had been stirring for over a generation. Ever since the 1790s the new developments in Romantic medical science and theory had begun to raise fundamental questions about the nature of life itself. What distinguishes organic from inorganic (’dead’) matter, or vegetable life from animal life? Was there some form of animating power throughout nature, and if so, was it identical to-or analogous with-electricity? These led on, inevitably, to an enquiry about the nature of mind, spirit and the traditional concept of ‘the soul’: how could this be explained or defined in scientific terms, or should it simply be dismissed?
Such questions, traditionally the province of theologians and philosophers, were now increasingly considered by physicians, science writers, and those who studied what Coleridge called ‘the science of mind’.22 They had already been the subject of ingenious scientific experiments in Europe, which gave rise to increasingly fierce debates surrounding the work of Luigi Galvani in Italy and Franz Anton Mesmer in France. By 1792 Galvani’s supposedly ‘magnetic’ frog experiments were proved to be erroneous by Alessandro Volta: the mysterious ‘vital electrical fluid’ came not from the animal itself, but from the chemical action of the metal plates to which it was attached during experiments.
Similarly, the French Académie des Sciences had appointed a scientific commission in 1784, headed by Franklin and Lavoisier (both experts in electrical phenomena), to examine the claims of ‘animal magnetism’. They set up a series of elegant ‘blind’ trials, in which mesmerists were asked to identify objects that had been previously filled with ‘vital fluid’, including trees and flasks of water. They signally failed to do so. The commissioners then went on to examine the supposed curing of ‘mesmerised’ patients. As with the Montgolfier trials, Franklin wrote in detail to Banks of their findings. With impressive precision, the commission concluded that some ‘mesmerised’ patients did actually show marked signs of improved health. But this was not because of any ‘magnetic’ influences or ‘vitalising’ electrical fluids. It was simply because the patients believed they would be cured.♣
But speculation continued to flourish in Germany, where a group of young writers, gathered at the University of Jena, began to explore the philosophical ideas of Friedrich Schelling and what he called Naturphilosophie. This doctrine, perhaps best translated as ‘science mysticism’, defined the entire natural world as a system of invisible powers and energies, operating like electricity as a series of ‘polarities’. According to Schelling’s doctrine, the whole world was indeed replete with spiritual energy or soul, and all physical objects ‘aspired’ to become something higher. There was a ‘world-soul’ constantly ‘evolving’ higher life forms and ‘levels of consciousness’ in all matter, animate or inanimate. All nature had a tendency to move towards a higher state.
So carbon for example ‘aspired’ to become diamond; plants aspired to become sentient animals; animals aspired to become men; men aspired to become part of the Zeitgeist or world spirit. Evolutionary, idealist, electrical and Vitalist ideas were all evidently tangled up in this system, which had an obvious appeal to imaginative writers in the Jena circle like Novalis, Schiller and Goethe, as well as experimental physiologists like Johann Ritter.23 It had its attractions, not least in its optimism and its sense of reverence for the natural world. But it also constantly teetered on the brink of idiocy. One of its wilder proselytisers, the Scandinavian geologist Henrick Steffens, was said to have stated that ‘The diamond is a piece of carbon that has come to its senses’; to which a Scottish geologist, probably John Playfair, made the legendary reply: ‘Then a quartz, therefore, must be a diamond run mad.’24
These ideas gradually crossed the Channel to Britain, though not of course escaping the sceptical, all-weather eye of Banks. In January 1793 the radical journalist John Thelwall gave a hugely controversial public lecture on ‘Animal Vitality’ organised by the Physical Society at Guy’s Hospital, under the auspices of the surgeon Henry Cline. The topic was so popular among the medical students that discussions were renewed over five subsequent and increasingly rowdy meetings.25 ‘Citizen’ Thelwall had become known for his wish to ‘demystify’ various forms of authority and received opinions, and the following year, in May 1794, he was to be prosecuted for political sedition, a charge which carried the death penalty. It was partly the support of Cline, and the young Astley Cooper, which saved him from the gallows.26
Attacking what he saw as the potential mystifications in Hunter’s theories, Thelwall proposed an openly materialist thesis that no ‘spark of life’ was divinely conferred, and that no soul was implanted by some external source. Yet he did not believe, like Hunter, that a ‘life principle’ could be simply explained by blood passing through the lungs. On the other hand he also maintained that ‘Spirit, however refined must still be material.’ But what then was its source, if not blood-and not God?
Here Thelwall raised the Vitalist question which haunted a whole generation of Romantic writers. ‘What is this something-this vivifying principle?-Is it atmospheric air itself? Certainly not…It has been proved by experiment, that in the arteries of the living body there is no air. Something, however, it must be, that is contained in the atmosphere, and something of a powerful and exquisitely subtle nature.’27
Attempts to define this exquisite but powerful ‘something’ deeply concerned the young poets Thelwall came to meet after his release from prison, when he fled with his wife to the West Country in 1797. But for them it still seemed more a psychological than a physiological question. Coleridge in his conversation poems was exploring the metaphysical notion of a ‘one Life’ that unified all living forms; while Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ wrote tentatively and beautifully of ‘a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns’. Both writers, at this most radical point in their lives, were trying to avoid an explicit reference to God, while retaining their intuitions of a ‘spiritual’ power-whatever that might be-both within man and within the natural universe. It was a balancing act that, perhaps, could only be performed in poetry.
All these Vitalist speculations were dramatically brought back to life, ten years after Thelwall’s lecture, by an astonishing and brutal series of public experiments performed in London on 17 January 1803. The perpetrator, as Banks noted grimly, was another Italian, the Professor of Anatomy from Bologna, Giovanni Aldini. Banks had received earlier reports from Charles Blagden in Paris of Aldini ‘experimenting on animals’ with voltaic batteries the previous year, but remained dubious about his authenticity. There were unconfirmed rumours of Aldini dazzling the Galvanic Society with his ‘re-animation’ exhibitions, but also of what Blagden called his ‘excessive puffings and pretensions’.28 In London, surrounded by eager publicity, Aldini attempted to revive the body of a murderer, one Thomas Forster, by the application of electrical charges six hours after he had been hanged at Newgate.
His demonstrations were graphically and melodramatically reported in the press: ‘On the first application of the [electrical] arcs, the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened…The conductors being applied to the ear, and to the rectum, excited muscular contractions much stronger…The arms alternately rose and fell…the fists clenched and beat violently the table on which the body lay, natural respiration was artificially established…A lighted candle placed before the mouth was several times extinguished…Vitality might have been fully restored, if many ulterior circumstances, had not rendered this-inappropriate.’29
That small, grotesque detail of the opening eye may well have caught a young novelist’s imagination. Later experiments involved oxen’s heads, dogs’ bodies, and another human corpse which was said to have laughed and walked. The reports eventually caused such a public outcry that the experiments were banned, and Aldini forced to leave the country in 1805.
So when Abernethy and Lawrence began to clash in 1816, it was not entirely surprising that their angry exchanges quickly revived the old Vitalism debate in renewed form. For all its misgivings, the Royal College of Surgeons must have been glad to have raised a subject which brought such publicity. The exchanges were now closely followed by such serious literary journals as the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review. At its base there lay a theological question: whether the ‘super-added’ force, if it existed, was the same as a spirit or soul, or some ‘intermediary’ element between body and spirit, or some form of ‘vital’ electrical fluid? By 1819, and the publication of both Abernethy’s original lectures and Lawrence’s Natural History of Man, the issues had also become heavily politicised. Here was humane, pious English science fighting against cruel, reductive, atheistical French science.
The conservative Quarterly Review found a more personal line of attack: ‘We at the Quarterly Review, would ask what is it that Mr Lawrence, who is generally in the habit of smiling at the credulity of the world, modestly requires us all to believe? That there is no difference between a man and an oyster, other than that one possesses bodily organs more fully developed than the other! That all the eminent powers of reason, reflexion, imagination, and memory-the powers which distinguish a Milton, a Newton, and a Locke,-are merely the function of a few ounces of organized matter called the brain!…Mr Lawrence considers that man, in the most important characteristics of his nature, is nothing more than an orang-outang or an ape, with “more ample cerebral hemispheres”!…Mr Lawrence strives with all his powers to prove that men have no souls!…Mr Lawrence has the sublime confidence to tell us that it is only “the medullary matter of the brain” that thinks or has spiritual consciousness!’30
As such questions caught the public imagination, they also spread among writers and artists. The influential idea that the group of writers first known as the ‘Lake Poets’ (with the later addition of the ‘Cockney School’) were particularly opposed to all scientific advance seems to have begun at precisely this time. This gradually hardened into the dogma that the ‘Romantic poets’ (as they eventually became known) were fundamentally anti-scientific. The myth can be observed forming on one signal occasion at a dinner party hosted in his north London studio in December 1817 by the painter and diarist Benjamin Haydon. This subsequently became known as the ‘Immortal Dinner’ (though it was in fact an extended, rather drunken luncheon). Indeed, it has been thought to exemplify the permanent, instinctive, deep-seated antagonism between Romantic poetry and science. But the truth seems rather different.
The poets present included Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and John Keats (but not, significantly, Coleridge, Byron or Shelley). Its aim was to celebrate the first stage of Haydon’s enormous oil painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, upon which he had been labouring for three years, and which would take him another three to complete. His subject was the dominion of religion over the arts and sciences. Haydon had laid his dinner table directly beneath the huge rectangular canvas. A triumphant, youthful, bearded Christ rides at evening through the ancient city of Jerusalem, surrounded by a mob of enthusiastic disciples. The whole crowd sweeps downwards towards the viewer. But in one remote corner, set apart at the right of the picture, appear unmistakeable portraits of Wordsworth, Newton and Voltaire. Newton here represents analytic science, Voltaire godless French philosophical scepticism, and Wordsworth natural English piety. Haydon, perhaps provokingly, had dressed his old friend in a kind of monkish robe. There is one other striking figure just behind them. The young John Keats, his mouth wide open with a kind of shout of wonder, appears in animated profile from behind a pillar.
During the increasingly rowdy dinner-table discussion that developed, the painting provoked a debate about the powers of Reason versus the Imagination. The destructive and reductive effects of the scientific outlook were mocked. Warming to the theme, Lamb mischievously described Newton as ‘a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle’. Keats joined in, agreeing that Newton had ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism’. Haydon jovially records: ‘It was impossible to resist them, and we drank “Newton’s health, and confusion to Mathematics.” ’31
Keats was wittily referring to the classic experiment in Newton’s Optics, already much criticised in an essay by Goethe, in which a shaft of sunlight was passed through a prism, and separated out into the rainbow light of the spectrum. In fact the point of the experiment was that when the separated rainbow colours were individually passed through a second prism, they did not revert to white sunlight, but remained true colours (that is, in modern terms, they remained at the same wavelength). The rainbow was not a mere scientific trick of the glass prism. It genuinely and beautifully existed in nature, through the natural prism of raindrops, although paradoxically it took a human eye to see it, and every human eye saw it differently. It seems unlikely that Keats did not know this; but perhaps he did not wish to admit (in that company) that Newton had actually increased the potential ‘poetry of the rainbow’, by showing it was not merely some supernatural sky-writing, as asserted in Genesis: ‘I do set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.’
This playful and eventually drunken attack on the reductive effects of science was orchestrated and eagerly recorded by Haydon in his diary. Unlike the others, he was a passionate fundamentalist Christian, and believed that most science was inevitably godless, and probably blasphemous. His view is often linked with what Wordsworth wrote in his poem ‘The Tables Turned’:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.
‘Murder to dissect’ was certainly already a poets’ rallying cry. It was exactly this poem that was quoted by Southey in his 1801 letter to Coleridge about Davy’s apparent rejection of poetry. Here the attack moved from physics to medicine. Yet there was evidently much popular misunderstanding of what anatomical ‘dissection’ actually involved, equating it more with Aldini than with Hunter. Although it necessarily began with the opening up of a corpse (an act still surrounded by many unconscious taboos), it was not in fact mainly a procedure of ‘cutting up’ with scalpels. The important instruments were forceps, rounded metal probes, and the surgeon’s own fingers. The essential process was one of separating out tissue and organs, and laying bare the various independent systems, such as the heart, the lactating breast, or the reproductive system, for meticulous study. These were often the object of the most exquisitely refined and delicate anatomical drawings (though these too could arouse horror).
Yet the act of dissection could also be seen as one of profound attention and reverence for nature. This is how John Abernethy described his teacher John Hunter at work: ‘He would stand for hours motionless as a statue, except that with a pair of forceps in either hand he was picking asunder the connecting fibres of some structure…patient and watchful as a prophet, sure that the truth would come: it might be as in a flash, in which, as with inspiration, intellectual darkness became light.’32
Wordsworth’s brief poem had been written nearly twenty years earlier, and does not really express his considered view of Newton, the heroic, voyaging figure of the later Prelude. If either Coleridge or Shelley had been present at the dinner (they were both in London), one imagines the conversation would have taken a rather different tack. Shelley had already baited Haydon for his ‘religious superstitions’ on an earlier occasion, remarking on ‘that most detestable religion, the Christian’, and always defended progressive science,33 while Coleridge had made his own experiments with prisms in the Lake District, and really did understand the formation of the rainbow, both poetically and scientifically. He knew it was a refraction of light through a fleeting curtain of raindrops, but also saw it was a powerful mythological symbol.
Like one of his literary heroes, the great seventeenth-century physician and essayist Sir Thomas Browne, Coleridge did not accept any contradiction between the two modes of vision. He wrote in his Notebooks: ‘The Steadfast rainbow in the fast-moving, fast-hurrying hail-mist. What a congregation of images and feelings, of fantastic Permanence amidst the rapid change of a Tempest-quietness the Daughter of Storm.’ Coleridge accepted that the rainbow was produced by refraction through the ‘hailmist’, but also that its paradoxical effect on the observer of beautiful steadiness amidst terrifying chaos had a powerful psychological and poetic symbolism. The ‘quiet Daughter’ is perhaps a reference to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Cordelia could even be understood as Lear’s rainbow during the storm on the wild heath, the steadfast and reassuring symbol of love seen through the prism of tears.♣
At Highgate, Coleridge and his doctor and confidant James Gillman had decided to intervene actively in the Vitalism debate, and collaborated on a paper, ‘Notes Towards a New Theory of Life’, which tried to steer a metaphysical path between the two extreme positions. Coleridge, anxious to reconcile science with a sacred concept of life, argued that the soul existed, but had no analogy with ‘electricity’. While denying that life was purely physical organisation, he rejected the idea of some mystical life force with dry humour. ‘I must reject fluids and ethers of all kinds, magnetical, electrical, and universal, to whatever quintessential thinness they may be treble-distilled and (as it were) super-substantiated!’34
He also discussed the question with his learned friend J.H. Green, who was a member of the Royal College. Green’s speciality was eye diseases, and he was a Demonstrator at Guy’s Hospital while Keats was training there. It was Green who made the historic introduction between his young student and the ageing Coleridge on one of their walks across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood, ‘in the lane that winds by Lord Mansfield’s park’, in spring 1819. One of the many subjects that Keats remembered from this long, oracular perambulation-besides ‘Nightingales’-was ‘First and Second Consciousness’.35
Green later became Coleridge’s full-time amanuensis at Highgate, and continued adding to the ‘Theory of Life’ and discussing the implications of the Vitalism debate over several years, though nothing was ever published in his lifetime. Coleridge’s position remained that the ‘life principle’ certainly did exist, but had nothing to do with physiology. It consisted in an inherent drive towards ‘individuation’, which moved up the chain of creation, and finally manifested itself in the unique form of human ‘self-consciousness’, which included the moral conscience and the spiritual identity or ‘soul’.
This of course was a metaphysical, not a medical explanation. It was clearly an adaptation of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. But it did have the crucial effect of suggesting that the real subject of the Vitalism debate was the mysterious nature of this ‘consciousness’ itself: how it began, how it grew, to what degree it was shared with animals, and what happened to it when the body died. How exactly the physical brain itself ‘generated’ this consciousness Coleridge did not presume to say. Green pursued the problem long after Coleridge’s death, and after he became President of the Royal College of Surgeons he published some of Coleridge’s speculations as Spiritual Philosophy (1865).
The nature of ‘consciousness’ remains a major challenge to modern neuroscience, and one of the great abiding scientific mysteries. The French physiologist Pierre Cabanis, much admired by Lawrence and deprecated by Abernethy, suggested that ‘just as the stomach, liver, and other glandular organs produced their typical secretions, so also did the healthy brain secrete moral thought’.36 Coleridge dismissed such suggestions as mechanistic, and his ‘Theory of Life’ is also interesting because it represents the nearest he came to suggesting the evolution of human intelligence, an argument that he was otherwise inclined to dismiss as the ‘absurd orang-utang theory’.
Indeed, it is still sobering to read Coleridge-one of the outstanding minds of his generation-on the subject of evolution. As he wrote to Wordsworth: ‘I understood you would take the Human Race in the concrete, have exploded the absurd notion of Pope’s Essay on Man, [Erasmus] Darwin, and all the countless believers-even (strange to say) among Christians-of Man’s having progressed from an Ouran Outang state-so contrary to all History, to all Religion, nay, to all Possibility-to have affirmed a Fall in some sense.’37
Keats’s two years of medical training at Guy’s (1816-17) under Astley Cooper and J.H. Green are recorded in his extensive Anatomical and Physiological Notebook, together it must be said with many doodlings of flowers and faces in the margins. So he undoubtedly knew more about medical, chemical and dissection procedures-as well as the Vitalism debate itself-than anyone else at Haydon’s dinner party. His witticism at Newton’s expense could be seen as the typical knowing humour of a clever medical student.
Yet Keats did appear to make a later attack on the cruel and ‘demystifying’ aspects of science in his ornate narrative poem ‘Lamia’, written in 1820. This poem appears to be very different in spirit from his earlier sonnet praising Herschel, the inspired scientific ‘watcher of the skies’. It was based on a strange misogynist medical ‘case history’ he had found in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, in which a beautiful, seductive woman is revealed by a wise physician-philosopher, one Apollonius, to be a terrifying snake, or ‘lamia’. In Burton’s version, Apollonius’s ‘diagnosis’ saves Lamia’s infatuated young bridegroom Lycius, just in time, on his wedding night, ‘although Lamia wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent’.38
Keats changed many of the details of Burton’s story, not least that his Lycius is so heartbroken at the loss of his lovely Lamia-whether she be a serpent or not-that far from thanking the scientific Apollonius, he retreats to his bed in misery and dies at the end of the poem. Keats prepares for this dénouement in a striking passage in which he refers to the icy touch and ‘cold philosophy’ of science, which destroys the beautiful mystery of all natural objects, like the rainbow-or, indeed, like the serpent-woman.
…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings…
Unweave a rainbow, as it erstwhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade.39
But is the serpent-woman a natural object? Or is she something artificial and lethal, an alien life force which will prove fatal to man, and particularly to her naïve young bridegroom, who is innocently besotted with her? This is the question that Keats seems to pose by the end of his poem. What is the role of science (represented by the fierce old sage Apollonius) in protecting man from seductive but destructive delusions?
The Lamia poem is the one in which Keats himself said he had made ‘more use of my judgement’-meaning his powers of intellectual analysis-than any other. It is in fact full of intellectual provocations-not least about the nature of sexual attraction, and the indiscriminate drive of the life force-and is replete with chemical and surgical imagery. There is another passage, far less known, in which Keats describes the Lamia herself, before she is transformed into a woman. Here she is presented not as some conventional erotic anaconda (as Humboldt might have encountered in the Amazon forest), but as if she were the result of some astonishing new chemical or biological combination, producing a gleaming, seductive but utterly alien new life form.
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barred;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolved, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries-
So rainbow-sided, touched with miseries
Her head was serpent, but, ah bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete.40
This extraordinary creation is both sexually alluring and yet clearly menacing and ‘demonic’. By using the term ‘rainbow-sided’ of her body, Keats even seems to be recalling his old Newtonian joke, and inventing his own mysterious biological rainbow, a living creature who is both a spectre and a spectrum. There are many other passages which play with medical and scientific imagery in the poem-for example Hunter’s theory of ‘inflammation’ as proof of vitality. When Lycius desperately grasps Lamia’s chilly hand, ‘all the pains/Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart’.41
But most memorable and disturbing is the passage in which Lamia the snake changes into Lamia the woman, ‘a full-born beauty new and exquisite!’ This new birth is described in semi-scientific terms, as if Keats were observing a violent chemical experiment in a laboratory, or a surgical procedure (like Fanny Burney’s), or one of Aldini’s electrical trials. It is agonising. Lamia’s serpentine body begins to convulse, her blood ‘in madness’ runs through her length; she foams at the mouth, and her saliva ‘so sweet and virulent’ burns and ‘withers’ the ground where it spatters. Her eyes ‘in torture fixed’ become glazed and wide. The ‘lid-lashes’ are seared, and the pupils flash ‘phosphor and sharp sparks’.
The colours all inflamed throughout her train,
She writhed about convulsed in scarlet pain:
A deep volcanian yellow took the place
Of her milder-moonèd body’s grace;
And as the lava ravishes the mead,
Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;
Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,
Eclipsed her crescents, and licked up her stars…42
Keats never lets his reader forget this traumatic birth, and what it has cost the serpent to become a human being. His extraordinary invention, perhaps the most brilliant and thought-provoking of all his narrative poems, engages many of the moral issues surrounding Vitalism, the nature of life, and the notion of human consciousness. Above all, perhaps, it asks if the beautiful Lamia has a soul.
But the most singular literary response to the Vitalism debate was Mary Shelley’s cult novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). In this story, originally thought to have been written by a male author-either Walter Scott, William Godwin or Percy Shelley-a sort of human life is physically created, or rather reconstructed. But the soul or spirit is irretrievably damaged.
Mary Shelley’s preliminary ideas for the novel can be dated back remarkably early, to the year 1812, when her father William Godwin took her to hear Humphry Davy give his public lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution. She was then only fourteen. Her young Victor Frankenstein would also begin as an idealistic and dedicated medical student, inspired by the lectures of the visionary Professor Waldman at Ingolstadt. Mary Shelley would eventually draw directly on the published text of Davy’s famous ‘Introductory Discourse’, in which he spoke of those future experiments in which man would ‘interrogate Nature with Power…as a master, active, with his own instruments’.43
Waldman’s lecture on chemistry expands Davy’s claims, and has an electric effect on the young Victor Frankenstein.
‘The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers: they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadow.’
Such were the Professor’s words-rather let me say such the words of Fate-enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being. Chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done!-exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein: more, far more will I achieve! Treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation.44
When Mary eloped with Shelley to France and Switzerland in 1814, their shared journal indicates that they were already discussing notions of creating artificial life. As they returned penniless, by public riverboat down the Rhine, they remarked on the monstrous, inhuman appearance of several of the huge German labourers on board, and noticed that they sailed beneath a lowering schloss known as ‘Castle Frankenstein’.45 On their return Shelley began writing the first of his series of speculative and autobiographical essays, mixing scientific ideas with psychology, under such titles as ‘On the Science of Mind’, ‘On a Catalogue of the Phenomenon of Dreams’ and ‘On Life’. He evidently discussed these disturbing ideas with Mary, for she remembered on one occasion how he broke off from writing one of them, ‘overcome by thrilling horror’.46
Mary’s brilliance was to see that these weighty and often alarming ideas could be given highly suggestive, imaginative and even playful form. In a sense, she would treat male concepts in a female style. She would develop exactly what William Lawrence had dismissed in his lectures as a ‘hypothesis or fiction’. Indeed, it was to be an utterly new form of fiction-the science fiction novel. Mary plunged instinctively into the most extreme implications of Vitalism. In effect, she would take up where Aldini had been forced to leave off. She would pursue the controversial-and possibly blasphemous-idea that vitality, like electricity, might be used to reanimate a dead human being. But she would go further, much further. She would imagine an experiment in which an entirely new human being was ‘created’ from dead matter. She would imagine a surgical operation, a corpse dissection, in reverse. She would invent a laboratory in which limbs, organs, assorted body parts were not separated and removed and thrown away, but assembled and sewn together and ‘reanimated’ by a ‘powerful machine’, presumably a voltaic battery.47 Thus they would be given organic life and vitality. But whether they would be given a soul as well was another question.
This extraordinary fiction was begun at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, in a holiday atmosphere of dinner parties and late-night talk, but very different from that at Haydon’s ‘Immortal Dinner’. The talk was quick, clever, sceptical, teasing and flirtatious. Mary Shelley records that she, Shelley and Byron, inspired by Dr Polidori (himself only twenty-two), discussed the galvanic experiments of Aldini, and various speculations about the artificial generation of life by Erasmus Darwin. They then, famously, set themselves a ghost-story-writing competition.
Byron scrawled a fragment about a dying explorer, ‘Augustus Darvell’ (dated 17 June 1816); Shelley composed his atheist poem ‘Mont Blanc’; Polidori dashed off a brief gothic bagatelle, ‘The Vampyre’, which he later tried to pretend was actually Byron’s (so he could sell it), while Mary Shelley wrote-but very slowly, over the next fourteen months-an intricately constructed 90,000-word fiction, which gradually became, draft crafted upon draft, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. She handed in the completed manuscript to Lackington, Allen & Co. in August 1817, just three weeks before her baby Clara was born on 2 September.
The actual writing of Mary’s novel can be followed fairly closely from her journal in Switzerland, and then back in England at Great Marlow on the Thames. What is less clear is where she gathered her ideas and materials from, and how she created her two unforgettable protagonists: Dr Frankenstein and his Creature. One is tempted to say that the Creature-who is paradoxically the most articulate person in the whole novel-was a pure invention of Mary’s genius. But in Victor Frankenstein of Ingolstadt she had created a composite figure who in many ways was typical of a whole generation of scientific men. The shades of ‘inflammable’ Priestley, the deeply eccentric Cavendish, the ambitious young Davy, the sinister Aldini and the glamorous, iconoclastic William Lawrence may all have contributed something to the portrait.
Yet Frankenstein is essentially a European figure, a Genevan-perhaps of German Jewish ancestry-studying and working at Ingolstadt in Germany.48 The importance of the German connection, and the experiments already done there, was pointed out by Percy Shelley in the very first sentence of his anonymous ‘Preface’ to the original 1818 edition of the novel. ‘The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed, by Dr Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not impossible of occurrence.’
So who had Mary Shelley been thinking of? The outstanding young German physiologist known in British scientific circles at this time was Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810). His work at the university of Jena had been reported to Banks regularly at the turn of the century, and his election and move to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1804, when still only twenty-eight, was closely followed.49 Banks and Davy kept a particularly keen eye on his work, since Ritter had anticipated Davy’s improvements on the voltaic battery, had invented a dry-cell storage battery, and had followed up Herschel’s work on infra-red radiation from the sun, by identifying ultraviolet rays in 1803. He was also known for certain undefined ‘galvanic’ experiments with animals, which were the talk of the Royal Society, although amidst a certain amount of head-shaking.50 But among his colleagues at Jena he was regarded as a portent. The young poet Novalis (Frederick von Hardenburg, also a mining engineer) exclaimed: ‘Ritter is indeed searching for the real Soul of the World in Nature! He wants to decipher her visible and tangible language, and explain the emergence of the Higher Spiritual Forces.’51
In September 1803 Banks received a confidential report from the chemist Richard Chenevix, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the recipient of the Copley Medal in 1803, who was on a scientific tour of German cities. Writing from Leipzig, Chenevix noted that the ‘most interesting’ work at Jena was being done by Ritter, who was using a huge voltaic battery to obtain ‘most capital results’, having ‘a very powerful effect upon the animal economy’ but without damaging ‘the most delicate organs’. Apparently holding back further details for a separate paper, Chenevix added to Banks: ‘In communicating these experiments to you who are at the centre, they will immediately find their way to other Philosophers of London. Mr Davy I am sure will be particularly interested.’52
But by August of the following year, when Ritter had moved to Munich, Chenevix’s reports had taken on a rather different tone. ‘Ritter the galvanist is the only man of real talent I have met with; and his head and morals are overturned by the new philosophy of Schelling. I have declared open war against these absurdities.’53 Chenevix’s final report, of 7 November 1804, while still praising Ritter, now has an openly sarcastic edge, and ends on a disturbing note, as if he had witnessed something terrible which he cannot quite bring himself to describe: ‘You may remember that I mentioned to you Ritter’s experiments with a Galvanic pile…Ritter is experimenter in chief, or as they term him, Empyrie of the New Transcendent School. I saw him repeat his experiments; and they appeared most convincing. Whether there was any trick in them or not I cannot pretend to say…Ritter with a large body of Professors and pupils, is gone from Jena; and Bavaria is now enlightened by their Doctrines. It is impossible to conceive anything so disgusting and humiliating for the human understanding as their dreams.’54
That these ‘dreams’ are related to those of the fictional Dr Frankenstein seems more than possible. Experiments that had been forbidden by the Prussian government in Jena were taken up again when Ritter moved to the traditionally more libertarian atmosphere of Munich. From his desultory and posthumous memoirs, Fragments of a Young Physicist (1810), it would seem that in Munich Ritter fell fatally under the influence of one of the wildest of the Naturphilosophie practitioners, a certain Franz von Baader. Experiments that began with water divining, ‘geoelectrical’ mapping and ‘metal witching’ turned to the revival of dead animals by electrical action, and possibly the ‘disgusting and humiliating’ revival of dead human beings, although there is no definitive evidence of this. At all events, Ritter’s Bavarian colleagues were gradually alienated, his students abandoned him, and his mental stability became increasingly fragile. He neglected his family (he had three children), withdrew into his laboratory, and grew increasingly remote and obsessive. Finally, his promising career was destroyed, and he died penniless and insane in 1810, aged thirty-three. In other circumstances his Memoirs might have been those of young Victor Frankenstein.55
Ritter’s tragic story was clearly known to Banks, to Davy, and very probably to Lawrence after his time in Göttingen with Blumenbach. Whether it was known to Dr Polidori, and whether it was he who told it to the Shelleys in 1816, is speculation. But they clearly knew from some source about ‘the physiological writers of Germany’. Moreover, the novel owes something else to Germany. Mary Shelley chose to narrate Frankenstein’s act of electrical reanimation, or blasphemous ‘creation’, in a gothic style that owes nothing to the cool British manner of the Royal Society reports, but everything to German ballads and folk tales.
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open. It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the Wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!-Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath. His hair was lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness. But these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as his dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.56
As her novel developed, Mary Shelley began to ask in what sense Frankenstein’s new ‘Creature’ would be human. Would it have language, would it have a moral conscience, would it have human feelings and sympathies, would it have a soul? (It should not be forgotten that Mary was pregnant with her own baby in 1817.) Many of Lawrence’s reflections on the metaphysics of the dissecting room and the theory of brain development seem to be echoed in ideas and even complete phrases used in Frankenstein. Here again it seems that Shelley, who was attending medical consultations with Lawrence throughout spring 1817, and may sometimes have been accompanied by Mary, made an opportunity for all three of them to explore these specialist themes.57
Mary Shelley’s idea of the mind was, like Lawrence’s, based on the notion of the strictly physical evolution of the brain. This is how Lawrence was provocatively challenging his fellow members of the Royal College of Surgeons in his lectures of 1817: ‘But examine the “mind”, the grand prerogative of man! Where is the “mind” of the foetus? Where is that of a child just born? Do we not see it actually built up before our eyes by the actions of the five external senses, and of the gradually developed internal faculties? Do we not trace it advancing by a slow progress from infancy and childhood to the perfect expansion of its faculties in the adult…‘58
Frankenstein’s Creature has been constructed as a fully developed man, from adult body parts, but his mind is that of a totally undeveloped infant. He has no memory, no language, no conscience. He starts life as virtually a wild animal, an orangutan or an ape. Whether he has sexual feelings, or is capable of rape, is not immediately clear. Although galvanised into life by a voltaic spark, the Creature has no ‘divine spark’ from Heaven. Yet perhaps his life could be called, in a phrase of the medical student John Keats, a ‘vale of soul-making’.
Almost his first conscious act of recognition, when he has escaped the laboratory into the wood at night, is his sighting of the moon, an object that fills him with wonder, although he has no name for it: ‘I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees.♣ I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly, but it enlightened my path…It was still cold…No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears and on all sides various scents saluted me…Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds, but was unable. Sometimes I wished to express sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again…Yet my mind received, every day, additional ideas.’59
From this moment the Creature evolves rapidly through all the primitive stages of man. Mary’s account is almost anthropological, reminiscent of Banks’s account of the Tahitians. First he learns to use fire, to cook, to read. Then he studies European history and civilisation, through the works of Plutarch, Milton and Goethe. Secretly listening to the cottagers in the woods, he learns conceptual ideas such as warfare, slavery, tyranny. His conscience is aroused, and his sense of justice. But above all, he discovers the need for companionship, sympathy and affection. And this is the one thing he cannot find, because he is so monstrously ugly: ‘The cold stars shone in their mockery, and the bare trees waved their branches above me, the sweet voice of a bird burst forth amidst the universal stillness. All, save I, were at rest…I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathised with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.’60
On the bleak Mer de Glace glacier in the French Alps, the Creature appeals to his creator Frankenstein for sympathy, and for love. ‘I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator would not call it murder, if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts…Oh! My creator, make me happy! Let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of one existing thing. Do not deny me my request!’61
This terrible corrosive and destructive solitude becomes the central theme of the second part of Mary Shelley’s novel. Goaded by his misery, the Creature kills and destroys. Yet he also tries to take stock of his own violent actions and contradictory emotions. He concludes that his one hope of happiness lies in sexual companionship. The scene on the Mer de Glace in which he begs Frankenstein to create a wife for him is central to his search for human identity and happiness. The clear implication is that a fully human ‘soul’ can only be created through friendship and love: ‘If you consent [to make me a wife], neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again. I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man. I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty.’62
The Creature is here offering to go westwards to South America or the Pacific, and to return to that primitive Edenic state glimpsed by Cook and Banks. He and his mate will live as vegetarians, kill nothing, cook nothing, build nothing, and reject everything that European civilisation stands for. They will become, in fact, Noble Savages.
In response, Frankenstein goes to London (rather than Paris) to study the latest surgical techniques. He consults with ‘the most distinguished natural philosopher’ of the day in this ‘wonderful and celebrated city’, though this man is not named.63 He then sets up a second laboratory in Scotland, in the remote Orkney islands, where he plans to create a second Creature, a woman. Her companionship will satisfy the male Creature.
But Frankenstein is overcome with doubts. ‘Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the New World, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the Demon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated on earth…Had I the right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?’64 His eventual decision to destroy his handiwork is perhaps the grimmest scene in the novel. The laboratory is revealed as a place of horror and blasphemy: ‘I summoned sufficient courage, and unlocked the door of my laboratory. The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the flesh of a human being…With trembling hand I conveyed the instruments out of the room, cleaned my chemical apparatus, and put the relics of my work into a basket with a great quantity of stones.’65
There is something more than deathly about those stones. It is as if Frankenstein is burying scientific hope itself beneath the earth.
In his grief and fury the Creature revenges himself on his creator by destroying Frankenstein’s friend Clerval, and then his bride, Elizabeth. From thenceforth both are locked in a pact of mutual destruction, which eventually leads pursuer and pursued to the frozen wastes of the North Pole-the antithesis of the warm, Pacific paradise. In a sense, both have lost their own souls. Drawing on the Miltonic imagery of Paradise Lost, both see themselves as fallen angels, doomed to eternal solitude and destruction. The dying Frankenstein remains unrepentant as he gasps: ‘All my speculations and hopes are as nothing. Like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in eternal hell…I have myself been blasted in all my hopes…Yet another may succeed.’66
But the Creature has attained a kind of self-knowledge, and even humility: ‘When I call over the frightful catalogue of my deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty of the world. But it is even so. The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation. I am quite alone…He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish…I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks.’67
Victor Frankenstein’s experiment in soul-making had ended in disaster. The novel itself disappeared into temporary obscurity, and fewer than 500 copies were sold of the first edition. But it was made famous, if not notorious, in the 1820s by no less than five adaptations for the stage. These caused widespread controversy. The first was staged in London in July 1823, at the English Opera House in The Strand. It was entitled portentously Presumption: or The Fate of Frankenstein. From the start there was sensational publicity:
Do not go to the Opera House to see the Monstrous Drama, founded on the improper work called FRANKENSTEIN!!! Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!-The novel itself is of a decidedly immoral tendency; it treats of a subject which in nature cannot occur. This subject is PREGNANT with mischief; and to prevent the ill-consequences which may result from the promulgation of such dangerous Doctrines, a few zealous friends of morality, and promoters of the Posting-bill (and who are ready to meet the consequences thereof) are using their strongest endeavours.68
The part of ‘The Creature’, which was cleverly and sinisterly left blank in the programme, made the actor T.P. Cooke famous (despite his terrible gout)-just as it later made Boris Karloff famous. Over the next four years there were fourteen separate productions, mounted in London, Bristol, Paris and New York.
Presumption made several fundamental changes to Mary Shelley’s novel, all without her permission. Nor did she receive any copyright fees. Curiously she did not seem to mind, and when she herself went to see the play in September 1823 she loved it. ‘But lo & behold! I found myself famous! Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama at the English Opera House…Mr. Cooke played the “blank’s” part extremely well-his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard-all he does was well imagined and executed…it appears to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience…in the early performances all the ladies fainted and hubbub ensued!…They continue to play it even now.’69
Yet the changes have influenced almost all subsequent stage and film productions. They altered the scientific and moral themes of the book, and shifted it permanently towards a mixture of gothic melodrama and black farce. Victor Frankenstein is made the archetypal mad and evil scientist. He has stood for this role ever since. But in the original novel he is also a romantic and idealistic figure, obsessive rather than evil, and determined to benefit mankind. His demoniac laboratory becomes the centre of dramatic interest, with fizzing electrical generators, sinister bubbling vats and violent explosions. But no such laboratory is described in the novel: Frankenstein works by candlelight at a surgical table. He is also given a comic German assistant called Fritz, who adds gothic farce to the whole proceedings. There is no such assistant in the novel: Frankenstein’s work is essentially solitary and dedicated, like that of an artist.
But the most important change of all is this. Mary Shelley’s unnamed Creature is transformed into the ‘Monster’, and made completely dumb. He is deprived of all words, whereas in the novel he is superbly and even tragically articulate: ‘And what was I? Of my creation and my creator I was absolutely ignorant…Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing…I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome. I was not even of the same nature as man…When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a Monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? I cannot describe the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me…Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat!’70
William Lawrence’s experiment ended in an altogether different way. At the end of 1819 he withdrew his Natural History of Man, yielding to pressure from the Royal College of Surgeons and a number of medical institutions. But he continued to speak out in favour of scientific freedom. ‘I take the opportunity of protesting, in the strongest possible terms…against the attempt to stifle impartial enquiry by an outcry of pernicious tendency; and against perverting science and literature, which naturally tend to bring mankind acquainted with each other, to the anti-social purpose of inflaming and prolonging national prejudice and animosity.’71
Lawrence allowed the radical publisher Richard Carlile to reissue a pirate edition of the Natural History in 1822, which ran to nine editions (Carlile also successfully pirated Shelley’s Queen Mab). Carlile wrote his own pamphlet, Address to the Men of Science(1821), in which he urged Lawrence and others to retain their intellectual independence. When Carlile died, in a final gesture of support, he gave Lawrence his corpse for dissection, an almost unheard-of bequest.72
Lawrence was also supported by Thomas Wakley, mercurial editor of the newly founded medical journal the Lancet. In scintillating and lively articles, Wakley attacked the old guard of the Royal College, and satirised the attempts of Abernethy and others to bring theology into the surgical theatre. Whenever they dissected some haemorrhaging organ, or pulsating artery, Wakley mocked, they would exclaim ‘with uplifted eye, and most reverentially contracted mouth: “Gintilmen, behold the winderful evidence of Desin!” ’73
But in 1829 William Lawrence stood for the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons, a body famous for its conservatism. Silently renouncing his radical and ‘materialist’ views, he went to see his old patron and enemy John Abernethy. It was not a meeting on the Mer de Glace. After long discussions, Lawrence received forgiveness and wholehearted support from his old mentor. Lawrence was unanimously elected, and when his old comrade-in-arms Thomas Wakley came to protest on behalf of the Lancet, Lawrence helped to physically manhandle him out of the Council chamber. Sir William Lawrence finished his career as Surgeon-General to Queen Victoria, and was created a baronet. But perhaps he had lost his own soul.
♣ This is a line of argument that has a long scientific footprint, and can be found being used to great rhetorical effect today by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Against this, it is interesting to read the defence of the necessary and dynamic notion of ‘mystery’ by Humphry Davy in his lectures (see my Prologue), or by the great twentieth-century American physicist Richard Feynman in The Meaning of it All (posthumously published in 1999). Though not a religious man, Feynman believed that science was driven by a continual dialogue between sceptical enquiry and the sense of inexplicable mystery, and that if either got the upper hand true science would be destroyed. See James Gleick, Richard Feynman and Modern Physics (1992).
♣ This is possibly the first scientific identification of the famous ‘placebo effect’, although it would not be properly tested and defined until the 1950s. It has been claimed that over 30 per cent of all patients show a ‘placebo’ response, most notably in cases of depression, heart disease and chronic muscular pain. This figure has recently been questioned, since the earlier trials may have been methodologically flawed (they lacked a neutral ‘control’ group of patients); and the definition of ‘cure’ itself is open to a high degree of subjective distortion. e.g. Who is to say when a depression is cured, or how to measure if a severe pain is reduced to a milder one? This is similar to the problems Davy encountered when trying to describe objectively the effects of nitrous oxide. Nevertheless, the 1784 commission’s work indicates why Vitalism raised genuine scientific questions, and also drew attention to that mysterious area which Coleridge (again) would define as ‘psychosomatic’-the mind-body interface. There is an elegant passage in his notebooks wondering what causes men to blush, and the female nipple to become erect. Shelley composed an intriguing poem, ‘The Magnetic Lady to her Patient’ (1822), and Thomas De Quincey wrote a fine reflective essay, ‘Animal Magnetism’, for Tait’s Magazine in 1834, investigating this subject, which remains alive in the continuing debate about ‘alternative medicine’.
♣ Richard Dawkins has praised this passage from Coleridge as ‘good science’, in his remarkable study of Science and Romanticism, Unweaving the Rainbow (1998, Chapter 3, ‘Bar Codes in the Stars’). The whole chapter gives a scientist’s lively view of Haydon’s dinner party, to which Dawkins, the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, would clearly have liked to have been invited-as would I.
♣ Mary Shelley adds as her own footnote in the novel: ‘* the moon’.