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Frankenstein, Convicts, and Wide-Awake Geniuses: The Life and Death of Charles Brentani

28 Jul
Frankenstein 1837

Originally published as

Douglas Wilkie, ‘Frankenstein, Convicts and Wide-Awake Geniuses: The life and death of Charles Brentani’, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 1, June 2016

Extract:

In 1838 Alexander Maconochie, private secretary to the Van Diemen’s Land Governor, Sir John Franklin, wrote a damning report on the state of prison discipline in the colony. Maconochie’s report led Sir William Molesworth to describe to the British parliament a community where honest settlers were continually ‘surrounded by crime, and haunted by the spectacle of cruel and degrading punishment’; where ‘gangs of wretched beings in chains, displaying all the outward tokens of misery’; where shopkeepers in the main street had ‘probably been convicted of swindling’; where women were, ‘at best, drunken prostitutes’; and the men ‘hardened ruffians’.

In Van Diemen’s Land, although there was widespread criticism of Maconochie’s report, questions arose as to whether such a community of criminals, if it existed, was in fact the monstrous creation of misguided British government policy. The stage version of Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus had been performed at the Theatre Royal in Hobart in February 1837, and thus the analogy drawn between the creation of a local community of criminals and Shelley’s monster seemed appropriate and timely, and it had become common to refer to the creation of anything unpleasant or unintended as a Frankenstein monster. Indeed, as the Hobart Town Courier said:

 We do not blame Captain Maconochie that the condition of this colony should be looked upon at home with horror from the frightful iniquities, which are supposed to abound in it, and the fearful degree of vice, which it is imagined stalks abroad with impunity. Bent on the reformation of the present system of transportation, and with the best intentions for the welfare of mankind, he looked but to the worst side of the picture, until, like Frankenstein, he grew frighted at the monster of his own creation. This vision of his imagination has pursued, and will pursue him still.

But Victor Frankenstein’s monster, like many of the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land, though loathed by those who saw only the worst attributes, also had feelings.

I am content to suffer alone, while my sufferings shall endure; when I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment … But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No crime, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. … But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation: I am quite alone.

Mary Shelley’s description of how Frankenstein’s creature lamented his existence may well have reflected what some Vandemonian convicts felt about the way society vilified and punished them, even beyond the term of their sentences. But not all Vandemonian convicts suffered, or were vilified, in this way.

This is the story of one whose entrepreneurship freed him from his convict origins…


 This is an extract from the original article which can be downloaded here.

 

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