Dissecting Anatomy LiteratureTim Marshall, Murdering To Dissect: Grave-robbing, Frankenstein and The Anatomy Literature. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 7190 4543 (paperback). Price: £15.99.[Record]

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

A broad spectrum of academic disciplines ranging from literary, linguistic, historical, political and psychological studies form the critical lens through which Tim Marshall views Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its social context. This theoretical framework draws upon Bakhtin's linguistic idea of the sign as bearer of diverse social meaning, Foucault's Crime and Punish and, more importantly, the lesser known 'mass psychology' of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Marshall argues, acquires an 'anatomy storyline' through the historical events which occurred after its first publication in 1818 and surrounded its second and third editions in 1823 and 1831. These historical events of the 1820's witnessed increasing public concern about the science of anatomy and its collusion with grave-robbers. Pressure mounted for legislation to regulate these practices, culminating with the Burke and Hare scandal. Marshall places Frankenstein amidst the 'medical realities of the day', pointing out that John Abernethy, a year after its first edition, argued for the Royal College of Surgeons' "acquisition of unclaimed pauper corpses in order to advance anatomical research". 'The Modern Prometheus', Mary Shelley's subtitle, alludes to an electrical shock treatment for reviving patients, known as Galvanism or 'medical Prometheanism'. For Marshall, Frankenstein is a 'proleptic allegory of the 1832 political marriage between the aristocracy and the upper ranks of the middle class', cemented in the Great Reform Bill of that year, which masked the passing of the Anatomy Act. This study's reconstruction of events before and during the 1820's is indebted to Ruth Richardson's historical analysis in Death, Dissection and the Destitute, emphasising the political significance of the Anatomy Act over the better known Reform Bill. Marshall's account of the social and political climate, which produced the acts of 1832, is not centred solely on Frankenstein, but incorporates a discussion of literary works by Blake, De Quincey, Walter Scott, Crabbe, Dickens and Gaskell. Victor Frankenstein's chosen career as an anatomical surgeon, Marshall reminds us, aligns him with a profession associated with a social stigma in the public mind. For the purpose of dissection, since the 1790's, surgeons had relied upon the gallows as a source for their corpses. The connection between hangman and surgeon was given a further 'punitive dimension' by a Parliamentary Act in 1752, which allowed the Bench, when issuing sentences for death, to order a 'public dissection of the criminal's body in place of a gibbeting'. This background informs Walter Scott's sympathy, in his Journal, over the Edinburgh 'bodysnatching scandal', with the commonly held belief that Dr. John Knox, who benefited from the bodysnatchers' activities, was an "accessory to the crime of murder". The murders Burke and Hare committed are, in Marshall's view, the 'logical conclusion' of the grave-robbing trade. A surgeon's status was ambivalent; on one hand, he was a professional who aspired to social respectability and polite society and, on the other, trafficked in the dark underworld of immorality, grave-robbing and even murder. Marshall reads Knox's silent complicity with the crimes of Burke and Hare into Frankenstein, viewing Victor as 'progressively encumbered by a criminal association which he cannot, or will not, publicly declare' and unable, after the creation, to free himself from the publicly unknown Creature. The Creature represents Victor's involvement with the bodysnatching fraternity, because Mary Shelley's 'monster' is both a multitude of dead bodies and the murderer of William, Clerval and Elizabeth. The Creature's choice of victim transgresses 'class boundaries' highlighting, for Marshall, the 'social hypocrisy' of the Anatomy Act, which advocated using the bodies of the poor for dissection, as 'middle class bodies' would be the '"wrong" class of bodies for …