Friday, October 31, 2008

The Birth of 'Frankenstein'


The Birth of 'Frankenstein'

A new edition of the novel sheds light on the Shelleys' collaborative relationship

Nobody shouts "It's alive!" in the novel that gave birth to Frankenstein's monster. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, does not feature mad scientists messing around with beakers in laboratories, nor does it deliver any bug-eyed assistants named Igor. Hollywood has given us those stock images, but the story of the monster and his maker owes its essential power to the imagination of an 18-year-old woman and the waking nightmare she had by the shores of Lake Geneva one rainy summer almost 200 years ago.

If, that is, you believe that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley really was the genius behind one of our most enduring tales of existential horror. Almost from the moment that it was published anonymously on New Year's Day 1818, Frankenstein had readers and critics arguing over its origins. Early rumor held that it wasn't Mary Shelley but her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who deserved the credit. (Or the blame; some early readers were outraged by the novel's idea that a man could play God and create life.) Even after the couple confirmed Mary's authorship and her name appeared on new editions in 1823 and 1831, some critics held on to the idea that Percy was the guiding spirit behind Frankenstein....

That's where the debate heats up. How much of a participant was Mary Shelley's better half? Should Percy be considered a co-creator of her masterpiece? Was he a co-opter of her genius? Was he Mary's Svengali, her Max Perkins, or merely a good copy editor?

Thanks to the dogged textual work of a scholar named Charles E. Robinson, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, readers will now be able to see for themselves what Mary wrote before she turned it over to Percy's editorial ministrations....

In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley claimed the novel as her own. She also acknowledged that Percy's influence on it was very real. "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 was presented to the world," she wrote. (She went on to add, however, that the preface to the first edition — ostensibly written by the author — was Percy's work "as far as I can recollect.")

In the eyes of some contemporaries, Mary's gender was enough to disqualify her as Frankenstein's author. "The first reviews were completely unprepared to entertain the possibility that the anonymous author of such a heterodox, nearly blasphemous work (it had trouble securing a publisher) could be a young woman," wrote Wolfson in "Reconstructing Frankenstein," a 1998 review of Robinson's Frankenstein Notebooks....

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