The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd

(Of Victor, there’s spoilers.)

The first instances of Lord Byron, the Shelleys and their circle being fictionalised were published during their lifetimes, before Mary Shelley even had time to awake and ‘find myself famous.’  Since Lady Caroline Lamb and Thomas Love Peacock, separately and quite differently, in 1816 many other authors have sought to explore the self-compiled myths of the group.  Many have chosen to conflate their verse and fictions within the group’s complex, tangled relationships, and though the best of these. Tim Powers’ The Stress Of Her Regard takes source from the variations on the mythological Lamia that Keats, Shelley, Byron and even Coleridge evoked, most authors seem drawn to the figure of Frankenstein.  Again this should be no surprise, there were pirated editions and unofficial stage adaptations of Frankenstein within weeks of its publication in 1818, and the vague tale of its supposed origins in a ghost story challenge at Villa Diodati has become legend in itself.

So it is that we find ourselves approaching Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein with mixed feelings, curiosity and apprehension.  Ackroyd is after all, a major chronicler of London, this novel’s setting, of great writers, several of whom feature here, and of the 19th century, wherein these real and fictional events occurred.  Ackroyd’s career, for good and bad, continually works within the ‘spirit of place’ where time, geography and art interact.  This is his reputation, but this is clearly an alternate history/secret history reworking of both Frankenstein and the Shelley Circle myths, so how much knowledge might the reader be expected to bring?  It is hard to conceive of a reader totally unfamiliar with plot or any of the historical figures adapted here.  It may be unfair to expect that most readers know details such as Harriet Westbrook’s background as played out here.  And what of the changes Ackroyd makes, when we notice them are we to assume, given the author’s reputation, that they are significant?

Within the opening pages of The Casebook we are transported from Mary Shelley’s novel to Oxford in 1810, the start of Michaelmas term, when young Victor, rather than study in Ingolstadt, has come to the university and meets, on their mutual first day, Bysshe, an excitable, knowledgeable, passionate fellow traveller it seems.  Victor is inspired at once.  The two immediately fall to discussing Gothic writers, Crookenden, Eisner & Canaris, and alchemy, Paracelsus, Magni, Bacon, and science Galvani & Volta.  Victor also meets Shelley’s friend ‘Thomas Hogg’.  Leaving aside the existence of a fictional character amidst historical figures, the basic premise of the book, this reference is our first subtle clue that something may be amiss.  Thomas Jefferson Hogg, close friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and co-conspirator in many of the poet’s Oxford schemes, was known to his friends not as Thomas, but as Jeff.  A minor point on its own.

Stranger is the dramatic reimagining of Harriet Westbrook, whose brother we meet first as early as page 13, within weeks of Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford on 27 March 1811.  This Daniel Westbrook approaches Shelley at a political meeting and takes him to meet his sister Harriet who is working in seatshop conditions packing spices.  In reality Shelley first met Harriet in 1809 when he visited his sister at school and he sent her a copy of his juvenile gothic novel St.Irvyne that year.  Her father was a retired merchant, one of the new middle class, unlike Ackroyd’s shoemaker.  Why?  This change seems to make The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein a political novel of a different kind, and certainly the Shelley of subsequent chapters is radicalised but in keeping with history.  We also meet Harriet’s sister Emily (renamed from Eliza) at this point, though her role is lesser, she serves to highlight the multiple seemingly trivial changes Ackroyd makes throughout the novel.

Another change is chronological and given so much atention that we are clearly intended to reflect on it.  Shelley & Frankenstein attend the Drury Lane Theatre to see “Cunningham’s latest” Melmoth The Wanderer and the scenes described of the lonely mountain top wanderer echo both Shelley’s life and episodes from the novel Frankenstein.  Yet this is 1811 and the author of Melmoth, actually Charles Maturin, did not publish that novel until 1820, his Drury Lane play was Bertram backed by Byron.  Then as they leave the play Shelley is shaken.

“when the girl threw herself into the lake, and lifted her arms above her head.  that seized me with a frightful rush of terror.  I am at a loss to explain why.” p36

The reader with passing knowledge will recognise this as a premonition of Harriet’s suicide by drowning in The Serpentine in November 1816.  Further supposed foreshadowing comes within pages as Victor returns to his studies and meets a young man training as a surgeon.  His name is Jack Keat, who had “given up his trade as an ostler on the City Road to become an apprentice surgeon” and he is immediately characterised by a fit of coughing.  Jack Keat is clearly intended to be John Keats, the son of an ostler on the City Road, though in 1811 he was training as an apothecary, switching to surgeon in 1815.  His tuberculosis implied by that ominous fit of coughing probably arose in 1817 after he nursed his dying brother.  The contraction of chronology to omit Keats’ apothecary training is an understandable simplification, foreshadowing his death makes literary sense despite historical inaccuracy, but what is the relevance of the minor yet glaring name change?  What, indeed is going on here at all? Next Victor’s sister Elizabeth dies, Shelley elopes with Harriet and further historical personages are thrown into the mix.  Victor’s grief and the coincidences of his accidental encounters drive his researches in the familiar direction of Mary Shelley’s original, but the history only muddies things.

The nature of a novel like this, Alternate History or Secret History or literary game, always begs questions of veracity.  When historical characters are dropped in almost as shorthand to create historical context, what are we to make of incongruities and errors that acheive the opposite?  When Ackroyd has Shelley write to Victor from Keswick in 1811 of meeting Southey and Wordsworth it is period detail, but though invited Wordsworth didn’t come up from Grasmere, and the two never met.  The detail is an error.  If we tie the chronology to Shelley then the first third of the book occurs in 1811, which makes Keats and Coleridge’s appearances anachronistic.  Later Polidori, Byron’s much-maligned physician, is around when Victor learns of Shelley’s death, though really he poisoned himself a year earlier.  The account of Shelley’s funeral here told in a letter from Mary to Victor is a complete mess owing more to popular illustrations such as Louis Fournier’s 1889 painting.

Lord Byron formally recognised the body.  I could not do it.  Bysshe was wearing the double-breasted jacket and nankeen trouser he purchased in Geneva.  Do you remember them?  The officials here demanded that he should be buried where he was found, with his grave filled with quicklime, but Byron and I revolted at such a coarse procedure.  For once I felt grateful to Byron for assuming the manner and authority of lordship.  We were given to cremate poor Bysshe on the sea-shore.  two servants of the house, together with Byron, built up a funeral pyre on the beach…

…I could not look, but Byron plunged his hand into the fire and took out Bysshe’s heart still intact. (p286)

For every mention of Byron (or Albee as Mary would more likely have referred to him) in that paragraph read Edward Trelawny and note that Byron himself watched whilst swimming out to sea and Mary stayed away entirely, remaining in Pisa.  Perhaps Ackroyd felt that these details might confuse the less informed reader or be an unnecessary distraction, but it jars badly for the reader with any familiarity with the history (and there have been multiple best-selling works on all of these figures in recent years to make that familiarity commonplace.)

So little of this makes sense, major historical changes in a novel like this have to serve a purpose.  Pace of storytelling might be a valid purpose excusing the excision or conflation of minor persons or events, but it isn’t enough to justify such wholesale game-playing.  which begs the question, what is Ackroyd’s game?  When the unfortunate Jack Keat dies of consumption (a decade early) it is his fresh corpse that Victor re-animates, to what purpose?  What significance is there in any friend of Victor playing the creature, and in particular the poet Keats?  I’ve read and re-read The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein four times now, and despite knowing the twist in the plot, still so much of it makes no sense.  Yes, when Harriet drowns it is at the Creature’s hand, but Daniel is blamed echoing the fate of young William and Justine in Frankenstein.  Yes, Victor’s servant Fred, initially a Cockney caricature, replaces the unfortunate Henri Clerval.  But of other changes I can only surmise their possible intent.

Consequently a major question arises, that of ownership.  Mary Shelley is here removed from participation in the creation of her work.  Percy Bysshe Shelley is absolved from blame in his first wife’s suicide, and is seen as a naive child ‘enlightened’ by her husband (not entirely inaccurately but simplistically) and likewise Byron plays no part in Polidori’s death.  Each of the women here are taken taken from their true context and minimalised in the narrator, Victor’s eyes, yet not fully replaced.  Ackroyd’s changes are neither constructive nor wilfully destructive, simply confusing.

Finally on the very last page Ackroyd starts to explain, or does he?  The creature is within Victor, it is he who kills Fred, who refuses to save Daniel, and when challenged by Polidori he lashes out and ‘destroys’ his accuser too.  And there it ends, bar a coda revealing the preceding has been the confession of Victor Frankenstein to the Superintendent of the Hoxton Asylum on November 15, 1822.  It was all a psychotic delusion?  Or merely a lazy cliche to extract Ackroyd from a sloppy and careless story he lost control of?  The allusions to Prospero and Caliban, to James Hogg’s Confessions of A Justified Sinner, Goethe’s Sorrows Of Young Werther, etc may be clues or red herrings. The only tenuous clue is the title, perhaps this is not the Casebook by Victor Frankenstein, but the Casebook about Victor Frankenstein.  It makes sense of the whole before it, but hanging the entire 296 page novel on a title and the last line really isn’t successful.

Notes:

1. I have highlighted dates here to demonstrate how Ackroyd rather than developing from creative anachronism has merely produced a confusing mess.  Frankenstein itself is impossible to place in historical context, Captain Walton’s letters home if correctly dated could not have come from the same year.  Although Mary Shelley uses the contemporary convention “17__” Walton’s quoting The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner makes it either 1798 or 9, neither of which allow for the dates he uses.

2. I used the following works as sources to confirm my doubts on many occasions in analysing Ackroyd’s historical verisimilitude or its absence.

  • Foot, Paul : Red Shelley
  • Hay, Daisy: Young Romantics
  • Holmes, Richard: Shelley The Pursuit
  • Rees, Joan: Shelley’s Jane Williams
  • Shelley, Mary: The Annotated Frankenstein ed Leonard K Wolf
  • Sunstein, Emily W: Mary Shelley Romance  & Reality
  • Todd, Janet: Death & The Maidens

3. Arguably the first work of fiction about any of the Byron & Shelley circle was Byron’s own Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1812 but otherwise the honour is shared between Caro Lamb’s superbly bitchy roman a clef, Glenarvon and Thomas Love Peacock’s witty Crotchet Castle, both of which are worth reading.  Over the next two centuries there have been many others, succesful and otherwise, in print and on film.  The less said about Ken Russell’s Gothic the better, but works by Brian W Aldiss, Amanda Prantera, Henry James, Emma Tennant, Jim Williams and Anne Edwards are notable.  Best of the lot though are Tim Powers fantasy bringing the lamia of the poets work to life in vivid drama The Stress Of Her Regard  and Theodore Roszak’s Tiptree Award winning The Memoirs Of Elizabeth Frankenstein with its intense reassessment of the sexual politics at play.

4. I currently have around 100 volumes of biography, essays, and criticism on the Shelley Circle (Byron, the Shelleys, Clairmont, Trelawny, Hunt, Williams, Hazlitt, Peacock, Polidori, Keats, Severn, and others,)  but I’m always interested in others.  If you come across any you think I may not have, do get in touch.

About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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One Response to The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein – Peter Ackroyd

  1. Erin says:

    Thank God I’m not the only one who had an issue with the timeline! I’m actually doing a project on this book as an interpretation of Frankenstein as we speak…

    Also, your name sounds a lot like a kid I went to high school with.

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