The Original ‘Frankenstein’ 
by Mary Shelley, with Percy Shelley, edited by Charles Robinson.
Bodleian Library, 448 pp., £14.99, October 2009, 978 1 85124 396 9
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Strongly fancied at the start of 1833 to win the Great Doncaster St Leger, Mr Gully’s bay colt Frankenstein (by Young Phantom, out of My Lady) failed to live up to expectations. Beaten into fourth place at the York Spring Meeting by Muley Moloch, Satan and Lot, in October Frankenstein, by now renamed Deceiver, finished last but two in the worst St Leger the Sporting Magazine’s correspondent had ever seen: ‘There was no necessity to re-name Frankenstein Deceiver; I think his abilities are so bad that he never could possibly deceive any one.’ It’s not clear whether Mr Gully’s Frankenstein was called after Mary Shelley’s novel, its over-reaching protagonist, or his monstrous creation. By the early 1830s, the tendency to confuse Frankenstein and his creature was already well established. Letters to the Times on the 1832 Reform Bill used ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ almost interchangeably as shorthand for an unwieldy and dangerous entity created from ill-assorted bits and pieces. As Charles Robinson notes in his new edition of the novel, such confusion set in soon after the book’s first publication in 1818. In October 1823, at a masked ball in Liverpool, a local newspaper reported: ‘Mr Harris, of Preston, personated (we are told) Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. His appearance was most singular. His dress was of variegated colours, one half dark, the other light. His face was of different hues, the colours running insensibly into each other, and producing an effect at once singular and curious.’

Despite the newspaper’s reference to the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Mr Harris’s costume and make-up probably owed more to stage adaptations of Frankenstein than to the novel itself. Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, which opened on 28 July 1823, ran for 37 performances in London, with Mr T.P. Cooke a great success in the role of –––, as the play called Frankenstein’s creature. Mary Shelley, who went to a performance at the English Opera House on 29 August, and wrote appreciatively to Leigh Hunt about Cooke’s acting, clearly liked ‘this nameless mode of naming the unnameable’. She told Hunt that William Godwin, her father, had brought out a new two-volume edition of the novel on the strength of the interest generated by the dramatisation. Three more stage versions of Frankenstein had opened by early September, including the burlesque Humgumption; or Dr Frankenstein and the Hobgoblin of Hoxton, and the short-lived Presumption and the Blue Demon. ‘In the course of three years, from 1823 to 1826,’ Steven Earl Forry wrote in his 1990 study of the dramatisations of the book, ‘at least 15 dramas employed characters and themes from Shelley’s novel. Whether in burlesque or melodrama, things Frankensteinian were all the rage on stages in England and France.’

In June 1824 Alfred Bunn staged a disastrous one-off benefit performance of Presumption at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Lacking sufficient white canvas to allow Peake’s avalanche ending, Bunn decided to repaint a large canvas elephant left over from a performance of Thalaba the Destroyer earlier that year; on the night, a stage carpenter in the flies let go too soon, as the Birmingham Spectator noted: ‘Avalanche (the Stage Elephant) came down before the cue was given him, so that Franky and his Demon were obliged to seek death from some other source than excessive snow-ball.’

Stage versions of Frankenstein offered numerous sources of death: Henry Milner’s The Man and the Monster; or the Fate of Frankenstein (1826) ends with the monster fatally stabbing Frankenstein before leaping into the crater of Mount Etna; John Atkinson Kerr’s The Monster and Magician; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1826) has Frankenstein and the monster grappling in a boat which is struck by a thunderbolt: ‘the waves vomit forth a mass of fire and the Magician and his unhallowed abortion are with the boat engulphed in the waves.’ Peake’s self-parody, Another Piece of Presumption, staged at the Adelphi Theatre in October 1823, has a tailor called Dr Frankinstitch who kills his nine assistants in order to construct his creature (on the proverbial grounds that ‘nine tailors make a man’); it ends with the nine ghosts demanding their various body parts back, the body of the Hobgoblin disappearing ‘a la Vampire’, and the supposed author of the play, Dramaticus Devildum, admitting candidly to the audience that his drama is ‘a farrago of perfect nonsense’. Yet, as William St Clair wrote in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, ‘Every single night when one of the Frankenstein plays was performed brought a version of the story of the manmade monster to more men and women than the book did in ten or 20 years.’ The London theatres could hold anything from 1500 to 3800 people and theatre seats were available for as little as a shilling; the first two editions of Frankenstein cost 16s. 6d. and 14s. respectively.

The popularity of the dramatisations ensured Frankenstein’s inclusion in Bentley’s Standard Novels series, a recent and very successful publishing venture. Mary Shelley received £30 for the copyright of Frankenstein, which Bentley’s published in 1831 at 6s.; St Clair says that this was ‘the last financial benefit she or her family was ever to receive’ from the novel. Bentley’s required their authors to make revisions and provide a new introduction; this wasn’t just a selling point but a way of creating a new copyright. Mary Shelley was very happy to do this; she had wanted to rewrite parts of Frankenstein in any case. Indeed, she had made numerous autograph corrections and additions in a copy of the 1818 first edition which she gave to a Mrs Thomas of Genoa in 1823; Nora Crook’s 1996 edition of Frankenstein includes these changes, as well as those from the editions printed in 1823 and 1831, in her extremely useful appendix on textual variants. She identifies the changes to the two-volume 1823 edition as almost certainly Godwin’s work, since he is unlikely to have known about the impending dramatisation of Frankenstein before the start of July and would have had little chance to consult his daughter about the new edition before she set out from Italy later that month. Mary Shelley nevertheless retained most of the 1823 changes in the 1831 edition and made other substantial revisions that produce a markedly different novel from the three-volume 1818 Frankenstein; this new version, complete with Mary Shelley’s account of her story’s genesis, would be the one most often reprinted until the late 20th century.

Though her introduction claimed that ‘the alterations I have made … are principally those of style,’ scholars and critics over the last three decades have tended to see the 1831 version as a tamer, more conservative work. In her edition of the 1818 text Marilyn Butler traced the ways in which the 1831 version retreats from the earlier text’s troubling associations with controversial aspects of contemporary science and adds a more orthodox Christian moral dimension to Frankenstein’s outlook. Whereas Percy Shelley’s preface to the 1818 edition had immediately proclaimed the book’s links with Erasmus Darwin and contemporary debates about the origin of life, Mary Shelley’s new introduction focused on imagination and ‘the origin of the story’. The burning question became not how or whether science can usurp the deity’s power of bestowing life on inanimate matter, but as Mary Shelley was so frequently asked, ‘how I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea’. Where the 1818 preface spoke dismissively of ‘a mere tale of spectres or enchantment’, the 1831 introduction made much of the ghost story competition between Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati near Geneva, in the cold and rainy summer of 1816, as the occasion of Frankenstein’s birth. In this light, the pedigree of Mr Gully’s Frankenstein – by Young Phantom, out of My Lady – seems very apt. Mary Shelley’s narrative of Frankenstein’s origins would become almost as celebrated as Frankenstein itself: her thwarted determination ‘to think of a story … which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror’; her struggles with writer’s block, ‘that blank incapacity of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship’; and her hypnagogic vision, inspired by Byron and Shelley’s speculative conversation about reanimation, galvanism, and the possibility of constructing a creature and bringing it to life:

I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, vital motion … His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken.

Although Mary Shelley’s initial ‘transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream’ does not survive, most of the expanded version that Percy encouraged her to produce exists in manuscript form, in the Bodleian Library’s Abinger Collection. Robinson describes how he and the specialist librarian Bruce Barker-Benfield painstakingly reconstructed the disbound notebooks containing most of the Draft and part of the Fair Copy of Frankenstein, ‘by inspecting each leaf of the manuscript and by attending to torn edges, glue residue, ink blots, pin holes, watermarks and other minutiae’. In the Clarendon Building, visited by Mary and Percy Shelley in 1815, and by Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval during their short stay in Oxford, ‘the historical and the fictional pasts were intertwined … the library became a laboratory, and the “hideous progeny” of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein once again came to life.’ Robinson’s two-volume edition of The Frankenstein Notebooks, published in 1996, provided a facsimile and transcript of the manuscript in parallel with a transcript of the 1818 edition. With its extensive scholarly apparatus and an enormously detailed chronology, The Frankenstein Notebooks remains an invaluable resource for understanding the process by which Mary Shelley’s novel came into being. Originally published at $340, it is out of print, and most of those who wish to consult it must do so in scholarly libraries. As its catchy short title, The Original ‘Frankenstein’, and low price suggest, the Bodleian Library’s new edition aims to make the fruits of Robinson’s scholarship available to a much wider audience: a good deed in a naughty world.

The volume presents ‘two new texts of Frankenstein’; first, a corrected reading text of the Draft manuscript with Percy Shelley’s words printed in italics, and then ‘an uncorrected representation of that same Draft that removes as nearly as possible all of Percy’s editorial interventions in the novel. This uncorrected text attempts to reproduce what Mary originally wrote before giving the Draft manuscript to her husband for his pen and pencil alterations and editorial advice.’ Robinson sees collaboration as ‘the hallmark of the Shelleys’ literary relationship’: Mary transcribed Percy’s poems; he contributed lyrics to her mythological dramas Proserpine and Midas; they played poetic games of bouts-rimés in which Mary provided the rhyme-words and Percy filled in the rest; their jointly written History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, published in November 1817, went through proof stages at the same time as Frankenstein, and overlapped with it in some of its descriptions of journeys and scenery. The Draft manuscript of Frankenstein, Robinson argues, ‘enables us to imagine the ways in which the Shelleys passed the notebooks back and forth’; the evidence is not simply that of handwriting, but of ‘ink shade and density’, difference of pen nibs, and ink blots, including corrections in both their hands where the ink has run together.

Mary Shelley herself wrote that she ‘certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.’ Robinson calculates that Percy ‘contributed at least 4000 to 5000 words to this 72,000-word novel’, but insists that ‘the novel was conceived and mainly written by Mary Shelley.’ Assumptions that Percy Shelley himself wrote Frankenstein began as early as its anonymous publication in 1818; perhaps misled by its dedication to Godwin and its unattributed inclusion of some lines from Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Mutability’, Walter Scott certainly believed him to be the author when he reviewed the novel for Blackwood’s. A reviewer in Knight’s Quarterly in 1824, disappointed by the inferiority of Valperga to Frankenstein, wondered whether Shelley had written Frankenstein, ‘though it was attributed to his wife’. The publication in 2007 of John Lauritsen’s The Man Who Wrote ‘Frankenstein’ indicates that scepticism about Mary Shelley’s authorship is alive and well (or at least periodically reanimated). Since Anne Mellor’s analysis of the Frankenstein manuscript in her 1998 biography of Mary Shelley, ideas about Percy’s input have often been shaped by assumptions about the Shelleys’ relationship, the differences in their education and the balance of power between them. Though Mellor acknowledges that some of Percy’s changes are improvements, she also thinks he ignored or distorted some of his wife’s ideas, and obsessively replaced her more colloquial phrasing with more Latinate words and constructions.

By presenting the two texts separately, Robinson makes it much easier to compare them. (Mary Shelley’s unedited version is printed with the corresponding page numbers of the edited Draft at the foot of each page.) Percy’s contributions range from minor corrections of spelling, punctuation and capitalisation, through slight alterations to increase clarity or tighten up phrasing, to the insertion of remarks on philosophy or politics; Robinson’s use of italics for Percy’s additions makes it easy to see their effects. Mellor’s complaint about Percy’s preference for more elaborate phrasing is a fair one: ‘before it was safe’ becomes ‘before the danger of infection was past’; ‘my children are out’ becomes ‘my children are from home’; and even ‘I sprung on him that I might destroy so hateful a monster’ becomes ‘I sprung on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the existence of another.’ Some of his interpolated sentences add to the sense of the sublime which early reviewers praised, as in the description of Mont Blanc: ‘The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in sunlight over the clouds.’ Others are more awkward and sometimes ill-judged, such as the digression in the letter from Elizabeth, who becomes Frankenstein’s wife, to Frankenstein about the place of Justine Moritz in their family:

The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. Hence there is less distinction between the classes into which human beings have been divided: and the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, are more refined and moral. A servant at Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France or England – Justine was thus received into our family to learn the duties of a servant, which in our fortunate country does not include a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being. I daresay that you now remember all about it, for Justine was a great favourite of yours.

Even if Frankenstein needs to be reminded of Justine’s history, which, given the last sentence, seems unlikely, he shouldn’t need lecturing on the difference between Switzerland and other countries, or what it means to be a servant in these societies. ‘This letter ought to be re-written,’ Mary Shelley noted in the copy she gave to Mrs Thomas, but her revision of the letter for the 1831 edition doesn’t delete Percy Shelley’s additions.

Although Mellor sees Mary’s acceptance of Percy’s changes as revealing ‘her own authorial insecurity, her deference to what she saw as Percy’s more legitimate literary voice … and above all the hierarchical relationship that existed between her husband and herself’, Mary did not adopt all of his suggestions. Here, Frankenstein’s creature recalls his response to an emotional scene between Agatha de Lacey and her blind father:

the poor creature leaving her work knelt at his feet he raised her & smiled with such kindness & love that I felt my own hard nerves move and I was obliged to withdraw from the hole.

the poor creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her and smiled with such kindness and love that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never experienced either from hunger or cold, or warmth or food; and I withdrew from my station unable to bear these emotions.

Robinson notes that in this passage ‘PBS cancelled MWS’s phrasing, pencilled in his suggested revisions, some but not all of which MWS inked over to accept. In effect, MWS edited PBS’s prose after he edited her prose.’

This is one of several instances in which Percy Shelley added detail and complexity to the creature’s account of his early sensations and understanding of the world. From the first, critics and adapters found the creature’s impressive command of language implausible: the Quarterly Review remarked that ‘the monster, by the easy process of listening at the window of a cottage, acquires a complete education: he learns to think, to talk, to read prose and verse; he becomes acquainted with geography, history, and natural philosophy, in short, “a most delicate monster”’, and even Scott’s generally sympathetic Blackwood’s review balked at this part of the novel:

The most material part of his education was acquired in a ruinous pig-stye – a Lyceum which this strange student occupied, he assures us, for a good many months undiscovered, and in constant observance of the motions of an amiable family, from imitating whom, he learns the use of language, and other accomplishments, much more successfully than Caliban, though the latter had a conjuror to his tutor.

The monster’s literary sensibilities and his reading list also drew ridicule. In Another Piece of Presumption, the theatre manager complains to Devildum, ‘But in your piece there are such abominable inaccuracies – Who taught that damn’d Demon to read?’, to which Devildum replies: ‘As I said before – he had a tailor’s head on – and that Tailor subscribed to a Circulating Library!’ Scott found the monster’s learning to read and becoming acquainted ‘with Werter, with Plutarch’s Lives, and with Paradise Lost’ as improbable as if he had ‘acquired, in the same way, the problems of Euclid, or the art of book-keeping by single and double entry’. Frankenstein’s pretext is that the monster eavesdrops as Felix de Lacey teaches a young Arabian woman, Safie, to speak and to read his language. Robinson notes that Safie, whose name suggests Sophia, or Wisdom, appears ‘at the very centre of the narrative’ and ‘reminds us that this novel is about the dangerous consequences of the pursuit and the expression of knowledge’. Learning to read introduces the monster not just to Goethe, Plutarch and Milton, but also to the knowledge of his origins when he reads Frankenstein’s journal of his creation. Yet the account of Safie’s arrival at the de Laceys’ cottage and what he learns as a result of her presence there does not survive in Frankenstein’s manuscript: there are pages missing in the Draft precisely at the point where the creature begins to grapple with the idea of reading: ‘by degrees I discovered that he’ – Felix – ‘uttered many of the same sounds when he read as when he talked; I conjectured therefore that he found on the paper signs for speech which he understood And I ardently longed to comprehend these also; but how was’. The words that follow are missing from the Draft, which stops in the middle of this sentence and doesn’t pick up again until the end of the following chapter. Robinson has to reprint the published text of the 1818 edition to fill the gap, since most of the Fair Copy does not survive either.

The same is true of the beginning of the novel: the Draft starts part way through Frankenstein’s narrative to the polar explorer Walton, who has rescued him from an ice floe. Robinson conjectures that Walton and Safie didn’t exist in the ur-text of Frankenstein, but the absence of these parts of the manuscript makes it impossible to know how they were first introduced. Walton’s search for knowledge has often been seen as paralleling Frankenstein’s own, and it seems ironic that the arrival in the text of Walton and Safie, who in different ways represent knowledge, is one of the things we cannot know about. Given the absence of the Draft’s first pages, it is also impossible to reconstruct the decisions Mary or Percy or both took about the novel’s title, subtitle and epigraph. Readers of the 1818 edition would have been confronted by a series of different and possibly conflicting indications: the Germanic or Gothic resonances of ‘Frankenstein’; the implications of ‘or the Modern Prometheus’; the epigraph from Paradise Lost suggesting both the biblical and the epic. These cultural resonances are heard again when the creature finds a leather satchel containing Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther, Plutarch’s Lives and Paradise Lost, but that repetition would have been lost to readers of the 1823 and 1831 editions, where the epigraph was dropped from the title page. It’s not clear why, whose decision it was, or what we should make of it.

Reading The Original ‘Frankenstein’ reminds us how material considerations shape literary texts. As St Clair writes, publishers preferred the three-volume format, which was more popular with circulating libraries since the volumes could be hired out separately; the 1818 Frankenstein just about stretches to three slim volumes, the result of a ‘radical restructuring of the novel’ at the fair copy stage, as Robinson notes. The Draft shows a faster-paced, two-volume novel with 33 shorter chapters rather than 23 longer ones, and so more opportunities for dramatic chapter endings: the creature’s threat to Frankenstein that ‘I shall be with you on your marriage night,’ which ends Volume II, Chapter 12 in the Draft, loses its dramatic emphasis in the 1818 text. The restructuring also affects the balance of interest between Frankenstein and his creature. Volume II of the Draft begins with the opening words of the creature’s narrative; Volume II of the 1823 edition starts with the chapter in which the creature’s loss of innocence through reading and self-recognition is about to take place. What these two-volume versions have in common, however, is their structural emphasis on the creature’s narrative and perspective; the three-volume version foregrounds Frankenstein’s own sensations and preoccupations. Whose decision it was to restructure the novel remains a mystery. We now know as much as we are ever likely to know about the manuscript of Frankenstein, thanks to Robinson’s extraordinary labours; but the fascination of what we do not know remains undiminished.

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