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Le savant fou

Hélène Machinal

Perspectives généalogiques

Frankenstein’s Education: Towards A Gothic Archaeology of the “[Mad] Scientist”

Victor Sage

Texte intégral

  • 1 I take my understanding of the term “savant” from the long article of Rey A. (ed.), Le Robert - Di (...)

1The European formation of the “mad scientist” as a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romantic archetype focuses explicitly on the ethics and the politics of knowledge. More specifically, the denial of communication as an exchange of knowledge is a repeated theme in the presentation of this figure of the “scientist” or “savant”. I shall examine some evidence from the Anglo-Saxon fictional tradition of a tension in the concept of the “savant” or scientist, particularly when considered as an adaptation of an earlier Renaissance or Seventeenth Century idea of the “savant”. Though the common etymological root of the two terms is “knowledge”, the nature of the archaic term “savant” itself is problematic (is “scientist” or “magus” a better translation of it?), irrespective of what the qualifier “fou” or “mad” does to it; and so this is where I want to start my enquiry; namely with an experimental bracketing of the question of madness1.

2One of the features of the romantic stereotype is the isolation of the “ savant ” or scientist. This is, for example, the agonising theme of Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin’s hybrid Gothic romance, St Leon (1799) and there is, in his daughter, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), a set of common preoccupations with the main theme of that earlier novel. I propose to examine these two texts to determine how they handle this question of the isolation of the “savant”.

3Using the rhetorical technique of a headlong confessional narrative, Godwin provides in this novel an ironic critique of the interventionism of his own radical generation, ten years after the French Revolution. Reginald de St Leon, Godwin’s first-person narrator, is a sixteenth-century French knight, who as a boy was present at the inspiring meeting on the field of the cloth of gold near Calais between Francis Ist of France and Henry viii of England in June 1520. Having won a reputation for valour in the disastrous campaigns of Francis ist against the Spanish in the northern plains of Italy in the 1520s, particularly the siege of Pavia, St Leon retires with his sovereign to the disillusioned splendours of the French court and leads a life of dissipation, in which his patrimony is spectacularly wasted and endangered in his addiction to reckless gambling.

  • 2 Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, and she died in that same year, in giving birth to Mar (...)

4St Leon’s only consolation is his marriage to Marguerite, countess of Damville, a woman of infinite wisdom, tenderness and superior rationality, often thought of by contemporary readers as a portrait of Godwin’s recently deceased wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley2. Marguerite’s father, the wise and generous old Comte de Damville, counsels Reginald at the outset of their marriage to shun the glittering public world of the court, to give up his ruinous gaming, and rest in the bosom of the family he has now acquired. The story ruthlessly tracks the shame and ruin, the death and separation, which Reginald’s perversely egotistical drive brings on that family. Gradually, he cuts himself off spiritually from Marguerite, his companion, the “mistress of his soul”, as he calls her, while he is drawn inexorably back into his old Parisian habits; and his guilt and isolation, from his repudiated and alienated children and from the one person who can help him, are confirmed.

5It is at the lowest point of their fortunes, when, ruined by Reginald’s extravagances, they have retreated to a humble and modest life on the shores of Lake Constance, where he makes enough for them to live on by the labour of his hands, and the health of Marguerite has begun to suffer, that Reginald takes in and gives shelter to an ancient ragged stranger, an Alchemist, who eventually imparts to him his secret, the secret of the elixir of life and the limitless manufacture of gold, before dying. This secret, of course, must be hidden from Marguerite, who, however, before dying herself, makes him a frank and totally undeceived speech which forms a turning point in the narrative and raises what has been up to this point a traditional version of the theme of moral isolation to a completely new pitch of corrupted consciousness:

“An adept and an alchemist is a low character. When I married you, I supposed myself united to a nobleman, a knight and a soldier, a man who would have revolted with disdain from every thing that was poor-spirited and base […]. For a soldier you present me with a projector and a chemist, a cold-blooded mortal raking in the ashes of a crucible for a selfish and solitary advantage. Here is the end of all dignity and the truest generosity of soul. You cannot be ingenuous; for all your dealings are secrecy and darkness. You cannot have a friend; for the mortal lives not that can sympathise with your thoughts and emotions […]. Equality is the soul of real and cordial society. A man of rank indeed does not live on equal terms with the whole of his species; but his heart also can exult, for he has his equals. How unhappy the wretch, the monster rather let me say, who is without an equal; who looks through the world, and in the world cannot find a brother; who is endowed with attributes which no living being participates with him; and who is therefore cut off for ever from all cordiality and confidence, can never unbend himself, but lives the solitary, joyless tenant of a prison, the materials of which are emeralds and rubies! How unhappy this wretch! How weak and ignoble the man that voluntarily accepts these laws of existence!” (SL, p. 210-211)

6Setting aside Marguerite’s attack on his low materialism, Reginald refuses the notion explicitly recommended in this goading speech that truth must be communicable to others, and dooms himself to become a wanderer; everywhere he goes, he seems doomed also to be driven out as a necromancer, because part of his secret seems to leak out, via even the most trusted of servants. This secret can be entrusted to no one; even when Marguerite is plainly dying, he refuses to try to use his knowledge to help her. This fatal reticence becomes a crisis in the narrative itself, because Reginald is even prepared to threaten his relationship with the reader, in order to protect the secrecy of his knowledge. Here’s how he seeks to justify his inability to divulge himself to the reader:

“Some readers will perhaps ask me why, anxious as I was for the life of Marguerite, and visible as was the decline of her health, I did not administer to her of the elixir of immortality which was one of my peculiar endowments. Such readers I have only to remind, that the pivot upon which the history I am composing turns, is a mystery. If they will not accept of my communication upon my own terms, they must lay aside my book. I am engaged in relating the incidents of my life; I have no intention to furnish the remotest hint respecting the science of which I am the depository. That science affords abundant reasons which the elixir in question might not, or rather could not, be imbibed by any other than an adept.” (SL, p. 214)

7Whether this form of isolation is also a form of madness or whether it is merely a form of mental imprisonment in a specious logic, is left ambiguous. Perhaps the latter is a definition of the former; but Reginald does not describe himself as “mad”. Beyond the purely ethical demand for candour, and (after the French Revolution) the political necessity of communication, the self-conscious irony of Godwin’s text at this point seems to suggest that the secrecy of alchemy violates one of the principles of science in a modern sense – the iterative principle – that knowledge is only viewable as “scientific knowledge” when it is “iterable”, or able to be repeated experimentally by another. The step that follows – that such knowledge should become the property of the human race, not of one individual – is also of course impossible to make, if the first step cannot be taken. For Godwin and for Mary Shelley, as we shall see, Alchemy is an ambivalent metaphor: on the one hand, it represents revolutionary vision as a form of intervention in the world; and on the other, for the isolation of the subject, a glass prison, a form of knowledge which is ultimately incommunicable. Godwin acts out this paradox in the apparent breaking of the relation between the reader and the narrator: Reginald keeps his secret here from both reader and character (i.e. Marguerite) alike, but his rhetorical challenge reads like mere rhetorical bluff, because it brings our own reading to the very edge of silence and narrative breakdown, to a point where Reginald’s authority as a narrator, and perhaps indeed even as a “savant”, cannot be maintained without question. The narrative has changed; he has passed over to the other side. We must now negotiate with his self-imposed singularity. He has become “unreliable”.

8After this moment, the narrative puts the reader through a succession of adventures worthy of a picaro, as Reginald, refusing to grow old and increasing his wealth, passes from country to country and prison to prison, seeking to redeem himself by carrying out a radical agenda of social improvement. But his wanderings have a repetitive thread to them: namely, that, each time he seeks to use the wealth gained by his alchemical “secrets” and to intervene discreetly, behind the scenes, in the political and social arrangements of the different countries in which he finds himself, in order to institute what he thinks of as progress and to alleviate the suffering or disadvantage of certain of the inhabitants, Reginald plunges himself into a repeated series of moral perversities and political disasters, mistakes which he alone has committed, and from which he can never hope, – for all eternity in fact, since he is wretchedly immortal – to absolve himself.

  • 3 See Holmes R., Shelley: The Pursuit, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson/Harper Collins, 1974, p. 126 (...)

9In this context, I want briefly to move to the account of Frankenstein’s education in chapter 3 of Mary Shelley’s 1831 revision of her 1818 text of her novel, Frankenstein. Victor’s father, wants to send him to Ingolstadt in Germany, in order to get him out of his native town, Geneva, and broaden his mind. This is an unfortunate parental mistake, because, although Ingolstadt has a good reputation for science, it has also been a notorious hotbed of radicalism in its recent past, something which Mary Shelley is likely to have known well. The Elector of Bavaria was moved in 1784 to ban as seditious a notorious secret society of radicals, called the “Illuminati”, led by one Adam Weishaupt, their name a deliberate parody of “Enlightenment”. As his biographer, Richard Homes reports to us, the bible of Percy Shelley in 1812 was the Abbe Barruel’s Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797-1798), which Godwin records that he had also read in his preparatory research for St Leon in the late 1790s3. The ingenious Neo-Platonist Percy Shelley read this paranoid counter-revolutionary tract as a manual of Revolution – an interpretation exactly contrary to the good Abbe’s manifest rhetorical intentions, turning a conspiracy theory into a bibliography of revolutionary ideas and a list of contacts, and thus familiarising himself with the landscape of pre-revolutionary radicalism. It seems more than likely that he communicated this to Mary Shelley; and Victor Frankenstein, due to his father’s desire to broaden his mind, which, in his retrospective narrative, he blames for his “fate”, encounters the decisive moment of his scientific and philosophical education in the alma mater of the banned Adam Weishaupt. Thus the reader’s knowledge of this political geography of the post-revolutionary, European context adds to the ambivalence of values in the retrospective staging of Frankenstein’s education in the novel, particularly around the relation between science, secrecy, and the isolation of the individual.

10In chapter 3 of the 1831 text, when Victor gets to Ingolstadt, he is naively astonished to meet two teachers, Herr Krempe, Professor of Natural Philosophy, “a little squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance”, and the somewhat Rousseauistically named, Herr Waldmann, the man of the forest, the Professor of Chemistry, who are together the bad cop and good cop of the history of science, and who have opposite points of view about the studies which the precocious young man has already been undertaking:

  • 4 Shelley M., « Frankenstein », in Four Gothic Novels, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 482 (...)

“The next morning I delivered my letters of introduction, and paid a visit to some of the principal professors. Chance – or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my steps from my father’s door – led me first to M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy. He was an uncouth man, but deeply embued in the secrets of his science. He asked me several questions concerning my progress in the different branches of science appertaining to natural philosophy. I replied carelessly; and, partly in contempt, mentioned the names of my alchymists as the principal authors I had studied. The professor stared: ‘Have you,’ he said, ‘really spent your time in studying such nonsense?’
I replied in the affirmative. ‘Every minute,’ continued M. Krempe with warmth, ‘every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! in what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies, which you have so greedily imbibed, are a thousand years old, and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albert Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew4.’”

11Frankenstein feels totally discouraged as a result of this encounter; he feels that modern science has lost its way and lost its vision and its ambition. The chances of becoming a “savant” like Paracelsus have historically disappeared with the advent of modernity and the confining empiricism of enlightenment:

“It was different when the masters of science taught immortality and power; such views, though futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the enquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” (F, p. 483)

  • 5 See Shelley M. et P., The Original Frankenstein, Robinson C. (ed.), Oxford, Bodleian Library, Univ (...)

12We know that the last sentence, in which the archaic “savant” is compared to the modern scientist, much to the latter’s disadvantage, was added by Percy Shelley to Mary Shelley’s original draft5.

13But a reversal occurs in the second encounter with Science’s good cop, M. Waldman, the chemist. He too smiles “at the names of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, but without the contempt that M. Krempe had exhibited...” (F, p. 484) He restores the grandeur and the vision to young Victor Frankenstein’s idea of science and vindicates his study of the ancient alchemists, adopting their Neoplatonic language and their notion of the “penetration” of the “secrets of nature”:

“‘The ancient teachers of this science’, said he, ‘ promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.’
Such were the professor’s words – rather let me say such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me.” (F, p. 484)

  • 6 See, for a brief summary of these changes, Sage V. (ed.), The Gothic Novel: A Casebook, Basingstok (...)

14Thus young Victor Frankenstein, the notion of a revolutionary tradition of “Science” in its Renaissance sense restored to him, is drawn into imagining himself a moral singularity; and from that will follow destruction and death. We know, from the revisions to her 1818 text which Mary Shelley made in 1831, that she increased the number of passages like this one in which Frankenstein implies that these chance encounters were in reality a form of fate; and that they were intended to reduce, or even nullify his freedom of choice, supposedly increasing the tragic impact of his story6. The polemic of this book is famously that the isolation of all of its central figures is finally a form of self-destruction. The Romantic stereotype of the “ savant”, the visionary who is utterly cut off from human society, is used in Mary Shelley’s text to present the reader with an ironic post-revolutionary picture of the idealism of her own generation, the male romantic poet’s extreme Faustian egotism, symbolised in the desire to “penetrate” and conquer nature which Frankenstein himself, speaking with the knowledge of hindsight to the young Captain Walton, another isolated male idealist, compares to the destructive progress of imperial conquest:

“A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatever to interfere with his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” (F, p. 489)

  • 7 For example, in the following passage, Frankenstein’s confession to the reader on learning that Ju (...)

15The struggle of this text, as we can see from this example, is a Godwinian one, between knowledge as power, on the one hand, and, on the other, the moral and perhaps rational necessity for the “savant” to make open contact with his fellow-humans without the “secrecy” of knowledge, a transparency which might indeed divert, restrain, or even nullify his scientific activity. This conflict is rendered in the person of Frankenstein himself, and, beyond him, in the very bones of the narrative method of Mary Shelley’s novel: in its dramatic insistence on the mode of retrospective, individual testimony, which famously gives a voice to the Monster, and questions the very label of monstrosity. The irony of this same multiple confessional structure also renders Frankenstein’s own testimony as ironically “fallen” (in the Miltonic sense) by comparison with other points of view in the novel, including that of his creature. Frankenstein’s justification of his reticence in the case of Justine, for example, where, by speaking up to the judge, he might have saved her life, is particularly unconvincing. And it is here that the question of Frankenstein’s “madness” is explicitly, but very equivocally, raised7. In the end it is this multiplication of singularities, expressed in a series of confessional narratives, isolated points of origin that can never add up to a collectivity, can never join the world, which guarantees the destruction of almost the whole cast of characters in Shelley’s novel.

  • 8 For much of what follows, I am reliant on Pagel W., Paracelsus, Basel, Paris, London, New York, Ka (...)

16But what of the real Paracelsus as the model for the scientist? Can we see beyond the romantic stereotype of the Shelleyan Paracelsus and the Godwinian adept, in what we know of the historical figure? What is it that makes Paracelsus so important for the young Victor Frankenstein’s vision of science or version of knowledge8?

  • 9 I have no space for a detailed examination of the evidence for this, but see Clemit P., op. cit., (...)

17The answer seems to be that there are common points between the fictional and historical cases. Walter Pagel, in his standard account of the life and works of Paracelsus, sees Neo-Platonism as the key to the structure of Paracelsus’s scientific method. The Imagination becomes for Paracelsus a form of action: and it is this concept, I think, which recommends him both to Godwin9; and to the neo-Platonist, Percy Shelley; and which conditions Mary Shelley’s staging of the conflict in Frankenstein’s scientific education.

18Incidentally, another aspect of this tradition, in which Neo-platonism plays a role, has already independently transmitted some of these speculations to the German Romantics, like Goethe, Tieck and Hoffmann, through the notion of “signatures” in the writings of Jakob Boehme, for example. (Paracelsus writes of “seals” on the body.) Here is how Pagel summarises this aspect of Paracelus’s thinking. He quotes Plotinus on the imagination: “In Nature to contemplate is nothing but to be something and to do something. [In natura quidem intueri nihil aliud est quam esses tale et tale quiddam facere]” (P, p. 225) and then shows us how this maxim works through all of Paracelsus’s empirical revisions of the Aristotelian tradition:

“The Intuitus – contemplation – intrinsic in Nature thus occupies a rank similar to that of the Sensus Rerum – a dim unconscious psychic force present in all objects of nature, plants and even stone and rubble. It is also comparable to Imagination. This leaves its seal on the body, thus indicating the power of the spirit in directing the course of nature.
The Neo-Platonic trend in the concept of Nature supplies the over-riding doctrinal basis for the work of Paracelsus. The supremacy of the spirit, the flow of action into matter from it through the power of imagination as a force distributed over the universe and all its parts – these ideas form the principle which Paracelsus follows up through all realms of nature. He thereby filled the conceptual framework of neoplatonism with a wealth of naturalistic observations and allegorical interpretations of natural phenomena – and it is all this that gives his work its original flavour.” (P, p. 226)

19Here, the analogy with the Neo-Platonic conception of the Imagination as a form of intervention gives a relation between Frankenstein’s education at Ingolstadt and the thinking of Paracelsus. Walter Pagel is very clear about what we can recognise as “modern” about Paracelsus. He shows, for example, just how much Paracelsus managed to renovate knowledge: for example, he managed to completely reverse the relation between the disease and the patient: the theory of humours assumed that the patient was part of the disease, but Paracelsus regarded the disease itself as a dynamic with its own “body” – i.e. its own natural life – subject to the action of certain chemicals – and these chemical entities – salt, sulphur, and mercury – replace the humours; disease is “sited”, like a parasite or a live foreign body, in the body of the individual.

  • 10 See, for example, Charles Nichols’s account of alchemy in King Lear, in The Chemical Theatre, Lond (...)

20Thus Paracelsus seems to have invented medical chemistry, by reducing reactions in the body (wrongly) to these three elements and substituting them for “humours”. But as Pagel shows, this invention is inseparable from his adoption of an alchemical set of procedures. He saw the presence of “metals” in the human body, in the stone, which he called “Tartarus” – and he regarded the organs as bodies in themselves, accepting and rejecting the chemicals that were fed to them, a form of activity which he referred to as the “Archeus”. The Archeus he said was “Vulcan” operating inside objects (“der inwendig Vulcanus”); – its function is one of separation, a chemical operation in which Nature imitates the alchemist. (P, N106). Pagel shows how it is Paracelus who began to experiment with poisons, with arsenic and mercury for syphilis, having understood that the poison can be a cure, if administered in certain doses. He seems thus to have discovered and used the homeopathic principle, but discovered it perhaps, it has been suggested, through the inspiration of certain ancient Jewish rabbinical texts. (P, N217) He concentrated, not on combining but separating chemicals, and this may be related to the alchemical habit of “sublimating” metals. It is he who first used the term “alcohol”, from the Arabic word for a fine powder, transferring it to the spirit of wine produced by distillation: and sometimes he seems not to distinguish between “spirits” in their chemical and theological senses. Like Shakespeare, who had probably read him or heard him being talked about, he saw these things in a continuum10.

21Pagel’s conclusion is ambivalent; having excited his reader about the “proto-modernity” – i.e. the anticipatory nature of his subject’s scientific discoveries –, he ends on a warning note, lest we begin to see him in too simple and progressive a light:

“Science can be fully communicated to everybody. Its results can be repeated, confirmed, refuted and indexed, independently of the person who first conceived and discovered them. Not so the scientific insight of Paracelsus. For it forms part of a personal revelation. This relates to the cosmos as a whole and the creator. Its aim is knowledge that enables the philosopher to ascend, to transcend and commune with the universe outside himself – a knowledge that liberates him from the fetters of passion and predestination. It is personal wisdom rather than scientific and indeed intellectual knowledge – a personal and not transferable possession.” (P, p. 349)

  • 11 This is M. Waldman’s phrase ; originally Mary Shelley wrote “pretty”. It seems “pretty” was change (...)

22Paracelsus for Pagel is a “‘Magus’ who forged a new synthesis from personal experience”. Part of him remains, that is, outside the role of the “petty experimentalist11”, always at a point prior to the transference of knowledge. Hence the ambivalence of St Leon and Frankenstein towards the notion of the “scientist” or “savant” is encapsulated in the ambivalent historical figure of Paracelsus, who subordinated his own empirical discoveries to an interventionist Neo-platonic model of knowledge. Frankenstein, then, is both right, and wrong, to cite Paracelsus as his chosen mentor: right because he provides the revolutionary spark for intervention in the dead world of nature; and wrong because, though knowledge may be transferable, wisdom is not.



Godwin W., St Leon, Clemit P. (ed.), Oxford, World’s Classics, 1994.

Holmes R., Shelley: The Pursuit, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson/Harper Collins, 1974.

Nichols C., The Chemical Theatre, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Pagel W., Paracelsus, Basel, Paris, London, New York, Karger, 1982.

Rey A. (ed.), Le Robert – Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise, Paris, 1998.

Sage V. (ed.), The Gothick Novel: A Casebook, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1990.

Shelley M. et P., The Original Frankenstein, Robinson C. (ed.), Oxford, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2008.

Shelley M., Frankenstein, in Four Gothic Novels, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.


1 I take my understanding of the term “savant” from the long article of Rey A. (ed.), Le Robert - Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Paris, 1998, t. 3, p. 3042, where I note some interesting points in the historical application of the term: Montaigne, in 1588, seems to be the point at which it begins to get something of its modern sense: “personne qui a de vastes connaissances.” From then on, the development of the word’s meaning seems tied to the development of scientific specialization, and it is, as a result, progressively rendered archaic : “Dès le XVIIe s., par une spécialisation qui s’est répandue au XIXe s., le nom désigne une personne qui, par ses connaissances et ses recherches, contribue au progrès d’une science ; [dans son sens] contemporain, il s’applique normalement à des scientifiques du passé : il est employé dans le discours journalistique ou de la fiction pour parler de contemporains, mais il a vielli par rapport à scientifique, chercheur ; il emporte en général l’idée d’une grande notoriété.” It seems that there is a tension in the term “savant” itself, which the term “scientist” in English does not quite have, and that tension has to do with the ambition and reach of the “savant” who combines a vast range of knowledge with the rigour of modern experimental science. The notion of a pejorative sense arises as one pole of this tension, within the notion of “savant”, and causes the need for a more neutral term in French to describe one who has scientific knowledge without any mythical or Faustian self-aggrandisement (euphemistically referred to in the phrase: “l’idée d’une grande notoriété”). But there is, interestingly, no cultural analysis here of early romantic stereotypes of the scientist. This is at least in part because the Robert historical dictionary is a dictionary, not of culture per se (whether popular or literary), but of language. On the Anglo-Saxon side, however, the Oxford English Dictionary takes for granted the currency of “scientist”. There is no archaism in the term; “Mad Scientist” is a sub-section of the entry “Scientist”. Here, there is some cultural analysis, but the OED seems completely unwilling to go back before the Second World War for its references to the stereotype; vol. ix, quoting nothing prior to 1940, and giving, under the heading “Scientist”, the following sub-category: “A scientist who is mad or eccentric, esp. So as to be dangerous or evil: a stock figure in melodramatic horrorstories...” And amongst its references, the article cites: “1940, N. Blake, ‘Malice in Wonderland III’, xviii, 282: A sort of ‘mad scientist motive for the whole series of outrages’; 1963, G. Bagby, ‘Murder’s Little Helper’(1964), iv, 36: ‘The whole idea smacked too much of some mad-scientist fable out of a comic strip’; 1972, B. Turner, ‘Solden’s Women’, ix, 82: ‘He would have passed for the mad scientist in one of those films which star giant insects.’” Perhaps the discrepancies between this account and the French tradition can be explained by the different nature of the dictionaries I have consulted: in the OED, for the term “scientist”, we lack a pre-history in the Renaissance, and yet we have a firm reference to the Gothic stereotype of the “mad scientist”, but in twentieth-century popular culture only. There is also no mention of Frankenstein or any other obvious texts from the Romantic tradition, such as, say, Goethe’s Faust. The OED’s citations refer vaguely to popular tradition in film and comic strip: perhaps The Fly (i.e. “those films which star giant insects”), and perhaps the American comic strips of the 1940s. These seem determinedly post 1930s, but they don’t gloss the notion of “madness” with accounts of Faustian overreaching, or even references to James Whale’s Universal film of Frankenstein (1931), which one might expect them to. Instead, it’s the cold war comics of the 1950s, the Eagle and Captain Marvel, and in the cinema, The Incredible Shrinking Man (giant insects), that we are encouraged to think of. But the stereotype cannot be historically limited in quite this way, if we think of literary representations, and particularly of the tensions in the transmission of the figure of the “savant” or the “scientist”, in the period between the end of the xviiith century and, say, the 1830s.

2 Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, and she died in that same year, in giving birth to Mary Shelley. He was already influenced by Wollstonecraft’s conversation and her writings on the subject of the necessity of domestic affections and human attachments, revising his radical treatise Political Justice in 1796, and adding his thoughts on the necessity of tempering human isolation. In his loving memoir on Wollstonecraft, which he published in 1798, there is a crucial passage, which he then used as part of the “Preface” to St Leon in 1799:“True wisdom will recommend to us individual attachments, for with them our minds are more thoroughly maintained in activity and life than they can be under the privation of them; and it is better that man should be a living being, than a stock or a stone. True virtue will sanction this recommendation, since it is the object of virtue to produce happiness, and since the man who lives in the midst of domestic relations will have many opportunities of conferring pleasure, minute in the detail, yet not trivial in the amount, without interfering with the purposes of general benevolence”. Clemit P., “Introduction”, in Godwin W., St Leon, Clemit P. (ed.), Oxford, World’s Classics, 1994, p. xv-xvi, for this passage, and further detailed comment on its currency in Godwin’s intellectual development. From now on, the reference to St Leon will be indicated in parenthesis, following the mention SL.

3 See Holmes R., Shelley: The Pursuit, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson/Harper Collins, 1974, p. 126-127 and footnote p. 127. For Godwin’s research, see Clemit P., op. cit., p. xviii-xx.

4 Shelley M., « Frankenstein », in Four Gothic Novels, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 482. From now on, the reference to this text will be indicated in parenthesis, following the mention F.

5 See Shelley M. et P., The Original Frankenstein, Robinson C. (ed.), Oxford, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2008, p. 71, where Percy’s Shelley’s emendations to Mary’s manuscript are recorded.

6 See, for a brief summary of these changes, Sage V. (ed.), The Gothic Novel: A Casebook, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1990, p. 170-172.

7 For example, in the following passage, Frankenstein’s confession to the reader on learning that Justine has been wrongly condemned for murder is very hard for the reader to sympathise with, because it reveals Frankenstein as a coward and an hypocrite, a savant who fears the charge of “madness” towards himself more than he values the life of another human being whom he knows to be innocent: “This was a strange and unexpected intelligence: what could it mean? Had my eyes deceived me? and was I really as mad as the whole world would believe me to be to be, if I disclosed the object of my suspicions?” (F, p. 510).

8 For much of what follows, I am reliant on Pagel W., Paracelsus, Basel, Paris, London, New York, Karger, 1982. From now on, the reference to this text will be indicated in parenthesis, following the mention P.

9 I have no space for a detailed examination of the evidence for this, but see Clemit P., op. cit., p. xxviii-xxix, for the connection between Godwin’s doctrine of perfectibility, and his attraction to the original visions of the occultists in the Hermetic and Paracelsian traditions.

10 See, for example, Charles Nichols’s account of alchemy in King Lear, in The Chemical Theatre, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

11 This is M. Waldman’s phrase ; originally Mary Shelley wrote “pretty”. It seems “pretty” was changed to “petty” between the draft notebook and the 1818 edition and then remained unchanged throughout all subsequent editions. See Robinson C., op. cit., p. 73 and note 25.


Professeur émérite de littérature britannique, university of East Anglia

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