William Godwin

William D. Brewer, The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley

William D. Brewer, The Mental Anatomies of William Godwin and Mary Shelley. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2001.  246pp.  $39.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8386-3870-8).

Reviewed by
Judith Barbour
University of Sydney

There is no denying the dramatic interest and thematic pertinence to the fictional writings of William Godwin and Mary Shelley of the metaphor of the "mental anatomy" (Introduction 15–17 and passim), which gives the title to William D. Brewer's critical monograph, and contours its extended comparison of this father-and-daughter pair of authors. An anatomy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (in the old form of the word "an atomie") is a violent delapidation of an organic unity. In the primitive conditions of hospitals and morgues contemporary with the Godwin-Shelley writers, only cadavers could be anatomized and made intelligible, dissected and made visible, the veins, nerves, and musculature traced, flayed, and probed. The metonym of the eye—its "terrible aspect"—is hegemonic in Enlightenment cultural politics. In one pathetic instance, the dead foetus, or as it was officially called the abortion, could by now be anatomized in situ in the dead gravid uterus, as the "naturalistic" optics and perspective machines of graphic artists gave the burgeoning male profession of scientific obstetrics its first breakthrough. Incidentally, "abortion" was one of the key words inserted by Percy Bysshe Shelley into the manuscript-in-the making of his pregnant lover's and soon-to-be-wife's Frankenstein (1818).

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