The Guide 
August 2007

John Lauritsen.
The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein.
Pagan Press 2007.

Reviewed by Hubert Kennedy

    We all know that the movie versions of Frankenstein we grew up with are caricatures of the novel Frankenstein. What most of us don't know is that the book with which we're are all familiar (well, some more than others) is itself a bowdlerized version of the original novel, first published in 1818. It was published anonymously and although there were several who guessed that the author was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, he himself credited his second wife, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley.
    Then in 1823, following the death of the poet, Mary Shelley republished the work, now with her name on the title page. It has since been nearly unquestioned that she was, in fact, the author, and the book has gone through numerous editions, all with her name on it. All libraries have so listed the book, while countless papers and dissertations have been written that accept her authorship. As the title of John Lauritsen's The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press, 232 pages, $16.95) brashly alerts us, there's another perspective. This a book by someone unafraid to go against accepted opinion and the entrenched literary establishment. Lauritsen's assertion is that the real author was indeed Percy Bysshe Shelley.
    That is only one thesis of this intriguing and very readable literary discussion of the novel. The others are: “Frankenstein is a great work which has consistently been underrated and misinterpreted,” and “Male love is the dominant theme of Frankenstein.”
    The first thesis, that Shelley is the novel's real author, is the one that will be most vehemently rejected out of hand by those in the literary establishment. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is the one that will most readily be accepted by a reader with no vested interest in the “Mary is the author” camp, i.e., authors of papers and books based on the assumption that Mary Shelley is the author, professors who have taught this as fact for many years, and many feminists delighted to have found a successful sister. But “independent scholar” Lauritsen did not just wake up one morning and decide to buck the establishment. His book is based on a close and careful reading of all the pertinent documents — and he is very persuasive, for he marshals his evidence in a way that makes it hard to resist his conclusion. You do not have to be an English scholar to see the force of his arguments — and accept them.
    One argument for Percy Bysshe Shelley's authorship is based on the preface of the anonymous 1818 edition, which Mary Shelley admitted was written by him. (The preface is included in Lauritsen's book.) In it, the author describes the origin on the work:

I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire,and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story,  founded on some supernatural occurrence.

The weather,however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they presented, all memory of their ghostly visions.The following tale is the only one which has been completed.

    Now, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont were together that summer near Geneva. Lauritsen argues:

This is a dead giveaway that the three persons in the ghost-story contest (if there ever was one) could only have been Byron, Polidori, and Shelley: three brilliant young men, who were already accomplished writers. Although Shelley and Byron took a one-week tour around Lake Geneva, they never journeyed together ‘among the Alps.’ But Byron and Polidori did make an Alpine journey a few weeks later.

    Lauritsen, however, is more concerned with the textual argument. He compares Frankenstein (the 1818 edition) with other writings known to be by Mary Shelley and shows — convincingly, I think — that all those others are vastly inferior, coming to the conclusion that she was incapable of writing Frankenstein.
    On the other hand, Lauritsen shows that those who argue against Percy Shelley's authorship ignore the textual argument (which Lauritsen thinks all-important) and base their reasoning on the fact that the surviving parts of the original manuscript are in Mary Shelley's handwriting. Lauritsen demolishes this argument by pointing out, among other things, that she often copied for her husband and also for other writers. Furthermore, there are suspicious gaps in her notebooks.
    Lauritsen's thesis that Frankenstein is a “great work” may not be as readily acceptable, since it depends on careful distinction of the original edition of 1818 from the 1823 edition — and all later editions — which includes many revisions made by Mary Shelley and/or her father William Godwin, all to the detriment of the novel, according to Lauritsen. It is the original 1818 edition that Lauritsen claims as “great” and we are invited to determine that for ourselves. That edition has recently been reprinted and is also available on the internet.
    It is the third thesis — that “Male love is the dominant theme of Frankenstein” (the central part of Lauritsen's book) — which will strike a chord in the hearts of gay men. Here, again, Lauritsen is persuasive, especially where he shows that it is precisely this aspect of the novel that was bowdlerized by Mary Shelley and/or her father. Where there may have been ambiguities in the text that could refer to male love, their removal in the later editions was — tellingly — always resolved to the detriment of such an interpretation. (As used by Lauritsen: “The term male love, whose linguistic heritage goes back to classical antiquity, comprises sex, love, and friendship: different aspects of one and the same phenomenon.”)
    For example, Lauritsen points out that Walton, who has rescued Frankenstein near the beginning of the novel, falls in love with him, lays bare his feelings, and Frankenstein responds:

One day I mentioned to him the desire I had always felt of finding a friend who might sympathize with me, and direct me by his counsel. I said, I did not belong to that class of men who are offended by advice. “I am self-educated, and perhaps I hardly rely sufficiently upon my own powers. I wish therefore that my companion should be wiser and more experienced than myself, to confirm and support me; nor have I believed it impossible to find a true friend.”
“I agree with you,” replied the stranger, “in believing that friendship is not only a desirable,but a possible acquisition. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship.You have hope, and the world before you, and have no cause of despair. But I — I have lost everything, and cannot begin life anew.”

    Lauritsen comments:

This is a profound and subtle passage. When Walton lays open his desire for a friend,he is asking Frankenstein to be that friend. Frankenstein understands perfectly, and lets Walton know that he would reciprocate if able, but cannot, because his own life is coming to a close. When this is understood, the break in the final sentence is poignant. Walton and Frankenstein have revealed themselves to each other as gay men, using probing, indirect, and coded language — as gay men have done for centuries and continue to do in the present.

    In preparing the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (and/or her father, William Godwin) demonstrated through bowdlerization that they grasped, and rejected, the homoeroticism in the above passage. Their version:
 I spoke of my desire of finding a friend — of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than had ever fallen to my lot; and expressed my conviction that a man could boast of little happiness, who did not enjoy this blessing. “I agree with you,” replied the stranger; “we are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves — such a friend ought to be — do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship. You have hope, and the world before you, and have no cause for despair. But I — I have lost every thing, and cannot begin life anew.”

    Lauritsen further comments:

Here Godwin and Mary have destroyed the inner meaning of Shelley's passage and ruined the cadences of his prose. Now Walton coldly desires a “more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind,” rather than a companion who would guide and sympathize with him. Frankenstein's reply is no longer a sensitive expression of empathy, but a verbose and preachy dispensation of platitudes.
Let this sink in: Mary Shelley and her father did recognize the homoeroticism in the passage, and they deliberately excised it.

    As gay men, we can also readily understand Victor Frankenstein's Creature, who feels his isolation so strongly. We empathize with him in his search for the friend who would be everything to him.
    John Lauritsen has already shown himself unafraid of controversy. Once again he has plunged into the fray, unafraid to take on the establishment. This time I think gay readers will rally to his side. The book is written in a lively style that is easy and enjoyable to read. This welcome addition to the lore of Frankenstein can be heartily recommended.