Historical Context in The Mortal Immortal
Cornelius Agrippa and Alchemy: Originating in the Middle East and Asia centuries earlier, alchemy became popular in Europe in the 14th century. Among its chief concerns was the the manufacturing of an elixir of life, a substance that would allow its drinker to live forever. Alchemists actively conducted experiments, foreshadowing the empiricism to come with the Enlightenment. Although not known for his interest in alchemy, Cornelius Agrippa is a famous historical figure. As a well-known German theologian and occultist, his writings on the subject of magic and scientific theory survive to this day; for Shelley to portray him as an alchemist is not too far of a stretch from historical accounts of his life.
Historical Context Examples in The Mortal Immortal:
The Mortal Immortal
"set at liberty the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from soaring from this dim earth to a sphere more congenial to its immortal essence...." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
A popular conception of the duality of mind and body at the time of the story’s publication was that the body was an imperfect thing that must be cast off by the divine, everlasting mind. Though the body would decay, the mind would live on forever in some form once free of its material prison. Notice how Winzy associates the separation of his mind and body as pleasant: the only thing that will grant him long-term peace.
"atoms..." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
Though the electron would not be discovered for a few more decades, the idea of matter being made up of units called “atoms” was an old idea originally posited by Greek philosophers. Scientist John Dalton’s groundbreaking paper on atomic theory was published in 1805, renewed scientific interest in the concept.
"whether suicide would be a crime..." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
In many major religions, suicide is frowned upon as a wrongful and sinful act. Furthermore, until the Suicide Act of 1961, suicide was considered a crime in the United Kingdom, meaning that those who attempted and failed suicide could be prosecuted, and the families of those who succeeded could also be charged with a crime.
"I should be burnt as a dealer in the black art, while she, to whom I had not deigned to communicate any portion of my good fortune, might be stoned as my accomplice...." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
Although punishment of witchcraft or sorcery—also known as the “black art”—was no longer law when Shelley published this story, witchcraft was punishable by a variety of horrific punishments following Cornelius Agrippa’s death in 1535, including burning at the stake. Sometimes, those who were close to suspected sorcerers were punished as well.
"cloven foot..." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
In literature and art, the Christian devil has traditionally been depicted with hooves instead of human feet, emphasizing its otherworldly nature.
"I felt as if Satan himself tempted me...." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
The notion of Satan, the Christian devil, tempting unsuspecting souls to hell is a common motif in European literature. In order to gain short-term rewards, like wealth, humans are often required to sign over their souls. That Winzy views Agrippa’s offer as similar to a deal with Satan sets an menacing tone for the rest of their interactions and creates a sense of dread in readers as they wait to see if the deal is as terrible as Winzy believes.
"All the world has heard of Cornelius Agrippa...." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
This is likely not too exaggerated; the scholar’s writings had made an impact on Europe and would eventually be translated into many languages. Agrippa was born in 1486 and made lasting impacts in the fields of theology, the occult, alchemy, and scientific critique. Famous during and after his death, his inclusion as a character constitutes an element of historical fiction.
"The Wandering Jew?..." See in text (The Mortal Immortal)
The Wandering Jew is another immortal figure from Christian and medieval myth. Though the exact origin of the legend is unknown, it is thought to come from the Bible. For some offense—perhaps for taunting Jesus—this figure was cursed to wander the world for eternity in penance, and the legend of this figure has contributed to anti-Semitism.