Linking Mary Shelley with John Thelwall’s Vitality Discourse and its Radicalism

Kimiyo Ogawa (Sophia University, Tokyo)

In the early nineteenth century, debates about the nature of electricity blossomed (involving issues over the relation between body and soul), which was concatenated with the discussion of the properties of revolutionary communication and the mysteries of vitality. Like Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria (1798), while advocating humanitarian reform, John Thelwall’s The Daughter of Adoption (1801) associates the issue of vitality with radicalism. The setting is the French colony of ‘St. Domingo’ where Seraphina, a white Creole has been adopted by an expatriate English philosopher, Parkinson. She imbibes his radical principles, although Thelwall has his heroine experience the limits of such idealism. As the heroine, Seraphina, is brought to England, she comes to understand the physiological ‘springs that set in motion that complicated machine of the human heart’ (259) due to the social disparity between herself and her lover, Henry Montfort. Thelwall’s point is that this physiological ‘motion’ depends on the ‘vitality of the frame’ that constitute the material roots of sympathy — an embodied sympathy that is severed from intentionality, material and contingent yet not wholly passive. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) has also been associated with ‘Galvanism’, or galvanic electricity, which allegedly replaced the spirit or soul that more traditional thinkers associated with an animating life force. Given the powerful creation scene, which is heavily inclined towards material science, Shelley’s novel could be looked on as an exemplar of modernity and secularism. However, a careful observation of medical texts reveals that for Mary Shelley, as it was for many other contemporary writers, the life-giving ‘substance’ remained obscure, although some were happy to allow the suggestion of supernaturalism to haunt the more material precincts of science; in this last respect electricity, or ‘the electrical fluid’, served as a helpfully ambiguous metaphor for the mysterious substance of ‘vitality.’ In this paper, I will examine how Thelwall and Mary Shelley reiterate the themes of embodied subjectivity and the complex nature of ‘necessity’ and ‘agency’ also put forward in the earlier scientific writings by Erasmus Darwin, William Lawrence, John Abernethy and also by Thelwall himself (Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality, 1793).


Short Bio

Kimiyo Ogawa is Professor of English Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo. Her research interests are medical discourses and Romantic writers, and among her recent publications are; “Cross-Channel Discourses of Sensibility: Madeleine de Scudéry, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote and their Romantic Inheritors” in Early British Romanticism in a Continental Perspective: Into the Eurozone. Eds. S. Clark and T. Connolly (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “Nogami Yaeko’s Adaptations of Austen Novels: Allegorizing Women’s Bodies” in British Romanticism in Asia: The Reception, Translation, and Transformation of Romantic Literature in India and East Asia. Eds. Alex Watson and Laurence Williams (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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