Who knew that when I decided to join in Marg @Books in Bloom’s #Frankenfest as my #CCdare choice for October, that I would be opening up a can of worms simply by reading the Preface!
I’m reading the 1999 Wordsworth Classics edition that includes the original 1817 Preface by Percy Bysshe Shelley as well as the 1831 Author Introduction by Mary Shelley (it also have an Introduction by Dr Siv Jansson that I will save for the end to avoid spoilers). The book was originally published on the 1st January 1818.
This is my first time with Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. I have never read or seen any movie versions of the story. I have a vague notion of the story – the creation of a man-made creature by a mad doctor that runs amok – is the best synopsis I can provide at this point. And most of that comes from my knowledge of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – the modern, sexualised spin-off.
I was therefore blissfully unaware of the controversy that has surrounded the novel since its publication about who actually wrote the book. How did I not know about this?
How did this controversy even happen?
Actually I know exactly how it happened.
It’s the same thing that successful, intelligent, creative women have had to struggle against, in what feels like forever. It’s why women published book anonymously or under a male pseudonym. It’s why women like Mary Shelley got slut-shamed and lived a life of isolation for daring to run off and have babies with a married man, while the man gets high-fived for being such a smooth dude.
From Mary’s Author Introduction in the 1831 edition we learn that –
- Mary was born to two ‘distinguished literary celebrity‘ parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She grew up in a literary, philosophical, modern thinking world where women (her mother, anyway) could write and be published (under her own name).
- She ‘scribbled‘ and wrote stories throughout her childhood.
- She spent most of her childhood in Scotland (where part of the book is set).
- Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary discussed the latest scientific thinking, shared stories and ideas.
- She and Shelley edited and assisted each other with their creative efforts.
- Frankenstein was born from a ghost story telling session in Switzerland with Shelley, Byron and others. ‘I busied myself to think of a story – a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.’
- Mary has a believable and fairly common tale of the origin of the idea for her book ‘My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.’
- ‘At first I thought but a few pages – of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea to greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it is presented to the world.’
The 1817 Preface by P.B.S was written as if he were the author, although he provided none of the origin details that Mary did in her introduction.
In a letter to Walter Scott from 2nd January 1818 P.B.S. wrote about the book he had enclosed for Scott to review by saying –
My own share in them consists simply in having superintended them through the press during the Author’s absence.
Yet Scott still attributed Frankenstein to Percy. A letter from Mary to Scott on the 14th June 1818 tried to rectify the mistake –
I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine; to which – from its being at an early age, I abstained from putting my name – and from respect to those persons from whom I bear it.
Over the years people have scoured letters and hand writing samples to try and prove one way or the other who wrote Frankenstein or how much input P.B.S may have had in the creative process. Curiously I didn’t find very many articles on how much input Mary may have had on Percy’s creative process except to acknowledge her posthumous role as editor of his poems.
Since this time we have had a gay rights activist claim that it had to be P.B.S who wrote the book because it was actually all about homosexuality. This claim was then counteracted by Germaine Greer in one of her fairly typical back-handed ways by saying it had to be written by a woman because it was so bad!
Frankenstein is a masterpiece; masterpieces are not written by self-educated girls and therefore Frankenstein cannot have been written by Mary Shelley. If Frankenstein is not a masterpiece, the thesis collapses. Though millions of people educated in the US have been made to study and write essays about Frankenstein, it is not a good, let alone a great novel and hardly merits the attention it has been given, notwithstanding the historic fact that its theme has inspired more than 50 (mostly bad) films.
This has only whetted my appetite for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and the rest of her work. And I think it’s also time that I jump into the bio about Mary and her mother, that has been skulking on my TBR pile for ages, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon.
A list of the various texts discussing the authorship issue are:
- James Rieger, “Introduction.” Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.
- E. B. Murray, “Shelley’s Contribution to Mary’s Frankenstein.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, vol. 29, 1978, pp. 50-68.
- Anne Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. Methuen, 1988.
- Marie Hélène Huet, Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, 1993.
- Charles E. Robinson, “MWS and PBS’s Collaboration in The Frankenstein Notebooks.”
- John Lauritsen, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein. Pagan Press, (2007).