WiHM Spotlight: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, may be one of the first names that springs to mind regarding women writing horror.
The origin story of her novel has been covered by many sources, including the selected edition of the novel I will mention shortly.
Mary, her stepsister Clair Claremont, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr. John Polidori, vacationed at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva during the rainy summer in 1816.
On a particularly stormy evening, the party read ghost stories to pass the time, when Byron suggested a ghost story writing contest of sorts. Mary was having a difficult time of it for a few days until after a vivid nightmare, she had the germ of a story to frighten the weakest of hearts. While several liberties were taken with the film, Gothic (1986) gives one perspective on what happened that night, and is worth watching if only for the late Natasha Richardson’s portrayal of Mary Shelley.
With Percy’s encouragement, she expanded it into a novel which she published anonymously in 1818.
Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a student of natural science and anatomist who constructs a living being out of dead tissue in an unusual experiment. His story, more of a confession really, is told by Captain Robert Watson while on a dangerous mission in the seas of the far north. Watson chronicles the details to send to his sister, Margaret. Victor begins with his family history and education at university before he gets to the meat of his problem.
Victor’s drive to create life from the dead becomes an obsession, but his enthusiasm fades when he is faced with his creation. He ultimately abandons it, only to be followed and tormented. After a conversation with his creature, who learned language and further betrayal before he returned to his creator, Victor has to come to terms with what he made, what he wants, and what befalls his family and friends when Victor does not deliver.
My favorite edition Frankenstein is the second Norton Critical edition, edited by J. Paul Hunter. Among the material he includes with the 1818 text are selected contemporary material related to the Mary’s writing of the novel, her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, responses to the novel, including early reviews and accounts of later adaptations, and more. He also provides a brief chronology of Mary Shelley. He also took pains to include excellent footnotes and a great introduction. I recommend this for those who want further reading on the creation and reception of the novel, as well as texts regarding feminist readings of Frankenstein.
Hunter is the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His name should be familiar to some fellow English majors as he edited the first nine editions of The Norton Introduction to Poetry, as well as being a co-editor of The Norton Introduction to Literature and New Worlds of Literature.
Do you have a favorite version of Frankenstein? Comments? Questions? Feel free to ask!
See you in the stacks,
The Bodleian Library in Oxford purchased Mary and Percy Shelley’s manuscripts for the first three-volume edition in 1818, and Mary Shelley’s copy for her publisher. Check it out if you’re interested in primary source material!