Feature of the Month: Frankenstein at 200

Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818
[S.L.] I [Shelley, M.- 1818]


Frankenstein is not only Mary Shelley’s first and best novel, but is the best-known fiction of the Romantic era, and the first work of science fiction in the English language. First published in January 1818, it had been dramatised by 1823 (Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Brinsley Peake). George Canning alluded to it in Parliament in 1824, arguing that freeing the West Indian slave ‘in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passion, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance’. Further parliamentary allusions were to follow, as were more than one hundred stage productions; numerous film versions, from 1910 onwards; multiple translations, covering Japanese, Arabic, Urdu and Malayam as well as most European languages; simplified versions for children; and even a comic book.

The novel’s genesis is well known, detailed vividly by Shelley at her publisher’s request and in response to wider curiosity: first printed in the introduction to the revised version of the novel that appeared in 1831, it has frequently been reprinted or referred to since. As a child Shelley had enjoyed both writing stories and inventing unwritten stories, or ‘waking dreams’. She and her husband were in Switzerland over the wet summer of 1816, where they spent time with Lord Byron. After the Shelleys, Byron, and the writer and physician John William Polidori (author of the short story ‘The Vampyre’) had read ghost stories together, Byron suggested that they should all write one. The others agreed. After initial problems in thinking of a tale, the idea of Frankenstein came unbidden to Mary Shelley one night, and her husband urged her to develop it. And so she developed the tale of a nameless monstrous being created by an ambitious Swiss student who, spurned by mankind and frustrated by the student Frankenstein’s refusal to give him a female counterpart, turns against humans and commits several murders before destroying himself. The only thing Shelley does not mention in her explanatory account is the influence of her father, the philosopher William Godwin, who had trained her in a programme of historical reading in the tradition of Enlightenment cultural comparativism, reflected in her choice of just four books which constitute the monster’s education. Godwin may also have influenced his daughter through his novel St Leon (1799), which anticipated  Frankenstein in its plot, in themes of science and gender, and in its central figure, who, like Frankenstein, forewent domestic happiness and marital love for scientific knowledge, success, and power.

Published anonymously, Frankenstein was assumed to have been written by a man, and was ascribed by Sir Walter Scott to Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the basis of the dedication to William Godwin. It received harsh criticism for describing a man as a creator, and for amorality. John Croker, writing in the Quarterly Review (January 1818), called the novel ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity’ which would please only readers with ‘deplorably vitiated tastes’. Writing for the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, another reviewer disliked ‘its gloomy views of nature and of man, bordering too closely on impiety’. Heeding criticism, Shelley altered the work for its republication in 1831. She described the changes as being principally stylistic and linguistic, and occurring almost exclusively in the first volume. Whilst many changes do indeed polish and refine the style, Shelley also added religious morals and judgements, and cancelled or reinterpreted the science of the first version to give a softer effect. The one-volume 1831 revision is the more frequent basis for subsequent editions, although some modern editions follow that of 1818.

The Sterling Library boasts three copies of Frankenstein: the three-volume first edition, formerly owned by the Scotsman John Scott of Gala (a relative of Sir Walter Scott); Mary Shelley’s revision of 1831, and an edition printed by the Limited Editions Club in 1934, illustrated by the American illustrator, painter and advertising artist Everett Henry (1893-1961).

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