Fiction Reviews


(1818) Mary Shelley, Oxford University Press, £14.99 / US$22.95, hrdbk, lxxv + 226pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81404-7


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was born to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; he was a political scientist and novelist and she was a feminist theorist and author. In 1814 Mary met and ran away with the then-married Percy Shelley and, following the death of his wife, they married at the end 1816. Earlier that year, at the age of only eighteen, she started writing what was to become her first and most famous novel: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  It was published, two hundred years ago on the first of January 1818 though without the author’s name. Two major revisions later appeared: in 1823 the second edition (with corrections by William Godwin) was published, this time under the name of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; and in 1831 a revised, corrected, and illustrated version was published in Bentley’s Standard Novels series. For many years the 1831 edition was regarded as the definitive version but of more recent times the original 1818 version has become seen as ‘the’ version.

These are just the sort of things you learn with this edition. It is not merely to mark the two hundredth anniversary of publication - this is very much an edition for scholars. And what is more, it is a quality edition! It boasts a very simple white cover, without a dust jacket, and simply shows in black the title and the author, along with a small image of a brain that appears more as a logo, the whole styled to resemble a brain and spinal chord - very neat! The book starts with a forty-two page Introduction, followed by a five page 'Note on the Text', seven pages of 'Select Bibliography', and thirteen pages of 'A Chronology of Mary Shelley' (featuring both important dates in her life and a timeline of historical and cultural background information). All of these are by Nick Groom, the book’s editor and a Professor of English at the University of Exeter.

We are then treated to the 1818 text, exactly as first printed (other than obvious typographical errors being corrected), complete with Shelley’s original punctuation and spellings (which are not always consistent). In this edition, the main body of the text runs to 172 pages.

The story is followed by three appendices: 'Appendix A - Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition (1831)' (Mary Shelley, 5 pages); 'Appendix B - The Third Edition (1831): Substantive Changes' (21 pages, Nick Groom); and 'Appendix C - On Frankenstein by Percy Bysshe Shelley' (Percy Shelley, 2 pages).  Finally Nick Groom provides us with 26 pages of 'Explanatory Notes'.

I am sure that almost everyone knows the basic story - a scientist creates a living being out of dead body parts and it all goes horribly wrong - but before I look at the story itself it is important to ask what is special about this particular edition? Well, as I have said, firstly it uses the original 1818 text and secondly it tells us so much about the author and her history; it is both a novel and a very useful reference book. And what is more, it both looks and feels good - well worthy of a place on your shelves.

And now to the story. So many of us have seen the many, many films and TV programmes inspired by the story and probably read highly edited versions or rewrites, but Shelley’s novel is considerably different to these other ‘versions’. She does not concentrate on the scouring of graves for body parts or the electrical apparatus to animate the creation, indeed these are only lightly mentioned. As Victor Frankenstein explains, to provide such detail might inspire others to follow in his foolish footsteps. Her story is about the humanity of the creature and profoundly questions the creation of life and the responsibilities that go with such an audacious action. Despite his ‘popular’ image, in many ways it is not the creature that is the monster but Frankenstein himself, the man who created a living being without any thought for the being itself or its place in life. Whilst it is true that the creature kills others, he is intelligent and erudite throughout, he knows he is doing wrong yet is trapped in the unwanted existence into which he was forced and then abandoned.

As the story has been in print for so long, I will shortly run through the entire plot - so Spoiler Alert for anyone that has not actually read the novel and wants the ending to be a surprise! Before then, though, my thoughts on the novel. On the whole I found it hard going; a friend used the term turgid. Although there is a story, there really is not very much of one. It is mostly Victor Frankenstein lamenting his actions when he created the being and constantly wishing he had not done so and wondering what he should do about it. He agonises over whether he should destroy it or let it live, whether he should create the mate that the being has demanded and whether this would lead to a race of such beings, a race which might ultimately threaten the human race. The story is very much one of ‘woe is me’. Of course, you might think that that is the whole point of the story; it examines his state of mind and his realisation that he should never, ever have even considered trying to create life.

This is, of course, a very early example of such a novel and since then writing has become slicker and stories have more pace, but I found that I was not convinced by his rational for creating the being; indeed, I do not think that Shelley herself had really figured that out - Victor had created it and that was it; from then on it was about the remorse and regret. I also felt that there was much physical detail she had not thought through and she was more concerned with the depths of Victor’s state of mind rather than the consistency of her descriptions. This is especially obvious towards the end of the story such as when Victor rents an unoccupied hovel, one of the only ‘three miserable huts’ on a small, almost unpopulated island in the Orkneys (there were only five islanders); it is in a very poor state of repair (the thatch had fallen in and the door had fallen off) yet he gets it repaired almost overnight (by whom? and with what? - given that the five locals had apparently been unable to keep it maintained before his arrival). Furthermore, the hovel has only two rooms yet has an internal passage - and the two rooms of this hovel are sufficient to be called his apartment and his laboratory.

Although I found the text less than convincing at times, the important aspect of this particular publication is its historical worth: the original text from 1818, the notes, and the observations. Professor Groom explains many of the terms Shelley used and this was helpful as some them are rare or differently used these days, though I think he sometimes overdid this as some of those terms are still in common use and surely today’s readers know what they mean (or is his target audience really that lacking in their knowledge of our language?). He also frequently explains links to, or commonalities with, specific expressions to be found in other literature that was popular at the time. Was Shelley paying homage, or poaching?

Opinions over, now for the story! Stop here if you do not want to know what happens!

It is told as a story within a story. We open with letters written by Robert Walton to his sister in which he describes how, as he sails through Arctic waters in an attempt to find a North West Passage to the northern Pacific, he and the crew first spotted what appeared to be a giant of a man crossing the ice on a dog sledge then the next morning rescued a man whose own dog sledge had succumbed to the cracking ice. This man was Victor Frankenstein and the rest of the story is as told by him to Robert Walton.

Victor starts by describing his childhood in Geneva and how, as part of his further education, he then attended the university at Ingolstadt. He developed a great love for natural philosophy and modern chemistry and to these he added the study of anatomy and natural decay. He became obsessed with mastering the creation of life, an obsession so great he locked himself away in his apartment/laboratory for nearly two years, collecting and dissecting the body parts of dead humans, until he had assembled and succeeded in animating a creature built of such body parts. Even as he achieved his goal and in the moments that his creation took its first breath, Victor became horrified at what he done and ran from his laboratory, hiding in his room for the rest of the night. The next day he went out for a long walk and by chance met his old friend Henry Clerval, just arrived in town by coach. As they returned to his apartment he was relieved to find the creature had gone. Until then, so horrified at what he had done, he had not even looked again in the laboratory.

His long incarceration in his laboratory had left him ill and Henry spent much time nursing him back to health. Nearly two years later, finally fit again, they are about to return to Geneva when they receive news that Victor’s youngest brother, William, has been murdered. Hurrying home but the evening curfew keeping him outside the city for the night, Victor sees what can only be his creation and realises it must have been he that killed the youngster. Furthermore, the family housekeeper, Justine, had been framed by the creature and the purely circumstantial evidence leads to her conviction and execution. Victor knows the truth, but how can he prove it as he knows that no one will believe him? He has to suffer both dreadful losses. Shortly afterwards, whilst out walking in the mountains, he is accosted by his creation who tells him his story.

Having gained consciousness and found himself alone, with no recollections or knowledge of anything, he had left the apartment and the city and wandered until the world about him made some sort of sense. He soon found that any that saw him were horrified and chased him away. Behind a lonely cottage he found a hovel and there he hid and lived for many months. He learnt to understand language and to speak by listening to the voices of the family who lived in the cottage; he also managed somehow (‘I found means’) to access written material and learnt to read. Indeed, the being became a master of language and very knowledgeable on history and the affairs of mankind. He also appears to have, at least originally, been of a gentle persuasion and loved all around him - an attitude that those that saw him never suspected nor gave him credit for. Eventually he revealed himself to his neighbours who, horrified at the dreadful creature they saw, drove him away. Meanwhile, papers he had found in the jacket he had instinctively donned before leaving Victor’s laboratory identified his creator and where to find him. He resolved that his creator (‘Cursed, cursed creator!’) should suffer as he suffered and so travelled to Geneva and brought about the death of his brother and the housekeeper. He demands that Victor creates a mate for him so that he might have someone to love - else he will continue to destroy Victor’s family.

Victor returns from his mountain hike but tells no-one of his meeting - or his promise. A little later he and Henry set out for a long, educational trip to England, expecting the journey and their studies abroad to take a couple of years. Eventually they arrive in Scotland and whilst Henry visits friends in Perth, Victor makes his way to one of the remotest of the Orkney Islands, there to set up another laboratory and create the promised mate for his creature (though where he gets the body parts from is never even considered). Changing his mind, he destroys his unfinished work and the creature, who has been watching through the window, flies into a rage and threatens more revenge. As part of clearing his laboratory, Victor sails out to sea in order to throw overboard and destroy the evidence of his endeavours, only to be caught in a storm and blown to Ireland. There he arrives just as the locals find the freshly dumped body of a stranger, none other than Henry Clerval (please do not ask me how got from Perth to there). Victor, being a stranger, is immediately assumed to be the murderer but before he can be tried and executed, his father arrives and proves to the magistrate that his son was in the Orkneys when Henry went missing from Perth.

Returning to Geneva, Victor at last fulfils his long-held promise to marry his cousin Elizabeth but that very evening, whilst Victor is still downstairs, the creature fulfils his own promise and kills her. The dreadful news is more than his father can bear and he passes away. And so, now bereft of almost all his family and friends, Victor starts on a long but only briefly listed trail of chasing the creature wherever he hears of him, determined that he should be destroyed, thus ultimately bringing him onto the ice and into the company of Robert Walton.

Walton’s ship soon becomes trapped in the ice and is there for some time, during which Victor falls ill and eventually dies. Even as his body cools, the creature comes aboard and laments that his creator is gone. He tells Walton that he will hide from the sight of man for the rest of his days and that he will destroy himself on a ‘funeral pile’ so that none may discover how he was created. He springs from the cabin window and the story ends.

Peter Tyers

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