Erasmus Darwin and the Frankenstein “Mistake”

Mary Shelley refers directly to Erasmus Darwin in the “Introduction” to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. She says:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of  Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.

Mary acknowledges that they were not discussing  the accurate details of Darwin’s experiments, and she then goes on to describe a piece of pasta (vermicelli) that was reported to have come to life. As Desmond King-Hele has recently noted, Mary’s strange account of Darwin may derive in part from a passage in the notes to The Temple of Nature (1802) where Darwin describes “vorticellae” (not vermicelli). Here is that passage from Darwin’s note on spontaneous generation: “Thus the vorticella or wheel animal, which is found in rain water that has stood some days in leaden gutters . . .though it discovers no sign of life except when in the water, yet it is capable of continuing alive for many months though kept in a dry state” (add. notes 7).
Even closer to Mary Shelley’s “vermicelli” however, may be an earlier description in the same note of a “recipe” that does produce seem to produce life out of a sort of “pasta”; Darwin writes, “in paste composed of flour and water, which has been suffered to become acescent [sour], the animalcules called eels, vibrio anguillula, are seen in great abundance; their motions are rapid and strong” (add. notes 3). Darwin concludes: “even the organic particles of dead animals may, when exposed to a due degree of warmth and moisture, regain some degree of vitality” (7). Clearly, Mary’s conception of the reanimation of a “corpse” and subsequent creation of a “creature” owes an important debt to Darwin’s belief in spontaneous generation, and his accounts of tiny creatures that do seem to come to life out of dead matter.  (A.N.)

This entry was posted in More Topics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.