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Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny”: Authorial Intent of 'Frankenstein'

Battle of the Editions: 1818 vs. 1831

Many are aware of the myth of how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) came about: one stormy summer Mary, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Clair Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister) were gathered at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland reading German ghost stories. Byron proposed that all of them draft their own scary stories. Of the five participants, two completed their works: Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is this edition that was first published anonymously on January 1, 1818. Many thought the novel was written by Percy Shelley as he had signed his name to the preface.

In 1831 Mary was asked to revise the novel for a new edition. Now aged 34, Mary was no longer the teenager who had written the original tale. She had lost her husband and all but one of her children, was struggling to support her father financially, and her writing was suppressed by Percy’s father who made any inheritance contingent on Mary keeping the Shelley name free of scandal.

This time she wrote the introduction to the text, not her husband. It is from this introduction that a new piece of the Frankenstein myth was added: Mary outlined the dream she had that introduced her to Victor and his Creature.

“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on working some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion" (Shelley, Introduction).

However, this dream and subsequent aspects of the introduction read as if Mary could not control a dream that just came to her—that she certainly did not consciously think up something so hideous. Given the criticism of the ‘grotesque’ novel and its themes, much of it centering on her gender, it appears that Mary was attempting to distance herself from her masterpiece. There are a number of other ways the 1831 positioning of the novel and the text itself were changed:

  • The epigraph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which alludes to a main theme in the novel, is removed in the 1831 printing.

  • In the 1818 text Victor is a victim of his own ambition, whereas the changes to the 1831 text make him seem much more helpless—ruined by fate instead of his own thirst to create life.

  • Some of her more radical passages and plot points are softened in the 1831 edition. For example, the incestuous relationship between blood cousins Victor and Elizabeth (Elizabeth is the daughter of Alphonse’s sister) in the 1818 version is altered so Elizabeth is an orphan taken in.

  • Mary split chapters, added passages, and reinforced certain traits to create mirroring between characters. If you want to deep dive into specific sections, check out this incredibly detailed post.

More than a Lover: Percy as Editor or Author?

Many scholars point out that Percy had an influence on Mary’s original story in 1818. But just how much? And did Mary view the 1831 edition as an opportunity to add back in some of her own ideas Percy had cut?

Firstly, for those interested in this line of inquiry, I highly recommend Charles E. Robinson’s book The Original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley) (2009). Robinson has done the painstaking work of reviewing the original handwritten manuscripts to identify the closest thing to Mary’s original manuscript. Robinson presents Mary’s draft with Percy’s additions in italics, so the reader gets a sense for what has been added. I won’t give away the number, but Robinson does provide a word count for what Percy contributed to the 72,000-word novel.

Secondly, many scholars have demonstrated that the Shelleys encouraged collaboration in their writing projects. Yes, Mary gave her chapters of Frankenstein to Percy to edit (and for his understanding of the publishing industry), but Mary also transcribed Percy’s work, was a sounding board for his ideas, and was responsible for collecting and editing his poems posthumously.

“Interestingly, despite the significant role Mary played in bringing his work into public view [after his death], no one has ever accused Shelley of not writing his own poems, although Mary’s contributions are at least as substantial as his edits were to Frankenstein” (Gordon, 473)

Which to Read?

All of this begs the question: which text should you pick up? The short answer is that it is completely up to you. The 1831 text is the one most widely published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, a growing interest in the 1818 text has been the catalyst for reprinting it. The change in age, lifestyle, and experience undoubtedly saw Mary Shelley change her novel in 1831. But regardless of which you choose, they are both Mary’s works.

It would be interesting to read them back-to-back!


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