Digestif

I recently reread Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, in a new annotated edition from The Belknap Press of Harvard. This reprints the original 1818 edition, with samples from the 1831 edition, and MWS’s introduction to that later version. In this intro, she tells the famous genesis of the story, reaching back to that rainy summer of 1816, during the ghost story smackdown in Switzerland with Percy, Byron, and Polidori. The boys were speaking of Dr. Darwin’s “piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” Wha-ut? Galvinized pasta? I knew this was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles’s grandfather, an interesting natural philosopher (and character) in his own right who had proto-evolutionary thoughts before his son had a son. This Darwin — a complete lunartick, c.f. the Lunar Society in Birmingham — wrote up his views of the world in long poems with titles like The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society: A Poem and Zoonomia, but animated noodles?

A note provides more detail. A mark of a fine book is a festooning garland of curious foot- or endnotes; your blogger is a footnote fetishist. Vermicelli literally means “little worms,” but the word seems confused with vorticella, microscopic animals, who, when re-hydrated, came to life after being dried out.

“It’s alive, it’s alive!” as the great Colin Clive says in James Whale’s Frankenstein of 1931, a film with very little to do with the book, like almost all adoptions of Shelley’s Gothic Romance/Philosophical Novel.

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