The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein
408 pages • Vintage • September 4th, 2008 [HB]
In his passion for London (some might call it an obsession) Peter Ackroyd is the Dickens de nos jours. Arguably, no other living writer has captured the Capital as vividly and viscerally in all its dark and melancholy splendour, its squalour, and frenetic vitality. Throughout Ackroyd’s writings, as with Dickens’, London is so often the real protagonist. Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges this by entitling his magisterial history of the city London, the Biography (2000). London, for Ackroyd, is a living entity, though be no means a benign one.
In The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein Ackroyd once again delivers his trademark blend of fact and fiction presented as a contemporary document, without ever falling into the trap of empty pastiche. He evokes his chosen era – in this case the early 19th century at the height of the Romantic Movement – with a sureness of touch that comes from total mastery of his material.
The main character (apart from London itself) is Victor Frankenstein, the fictional creation of Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley in her 1818 ‘Gothic’ novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The genesis of this novella during a fraught house party at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816 is well-known. In Ackroyd’s version of events, the real-life characters involved – namely Mary herself, her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and his physician, Dr Polidori – are convincingly introduced into the life of the fictional Swiss scientist, who now lives and experiments in London, having previously studied at Oxford with Shelley.
Of course, there can be no Frankenstein without a ‘monster’ and Ackroyd does not disappoint. Here the hapless creature is chillingly yet movingly drawn, with Ackroyd giving life to it as decidedly as Frankenstein, though exhibiting greater sympathy in so doing. There are echoes, both in setting and subject matter, of Ackroyd’s own Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994)and also more than a nod to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Ackroyd’s Frankenstein leads a reclusive existence in London the better to carry out his grotesque experiments, but he selects a thirteen year-old street porter, chirpy Fred Shoeberry, to act as his factotum or ‘general boy’, keeping his house and running errands for him. The relationship between master and servant is possibly the closest, most human and tender in the entire book although, given the gruesome fate that befalls several of Frankenstein’s close acquaintances, one can only worry for poor Fred’s future.
No-one could accuse Ackroyd (as they so often do Dickens) of being a sentimentalist. His outlook on humanity is unshakably bleak, if not actually misanthropic, and he casts a clear but lugubrious eye over its folly, vanity and pretension. Although Dickens has a kindlier, more indulgent view of mankind, he does not either shrink from harsh reality – think of the brutal death of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sykes, for example. In this, Ackroyd and Dickens share something more than a fascination with London – both demonstrate a deep understanding of the spirit of their age and a sure judgment when it comes to challenging the too-comfortable assumptions of their respective readerships.
Bishop Heber, a contemporary of Byron, Shelley et al, wrote of a world where ‘…every prospect pleases and only man is vile’. Perhaps the human condition has not changed greatly for the better since his time but the good Bishop assuredly believed man to be redeemable. Whether Ackroyd shares this belief is altogether more doubtful.
“Reason? What has reason to do with this? The pact between us is of fire and blood.”