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


Piecing together the real ‘Frankenstein’
New book argues male love was dominant theme of the classic

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Gay activist writer John Lauritsen calls himself “an independent scholar” who has “the freedom to tell the truth”, as he sees it, without concerns for his career. His willingness to challenge conventional wisdom is evident in his most recent book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press; $16.95).

In the book, Lauritsen takes on one of English literature's most famous works. Lauritsen's Frankenstein has three controversial theses: First, he notes that Frankenstein is a great work that has consistently been underrated and misinterpreted. Second, he contends that the real author of Frankenstein is Percy Bysshe Shelley, not his second wife, the former Mary Godwin. And third, Lauritsen argues that male love is the dominant theme of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein as underrated and misinterpreted

Certainly Frankenstein has a bad reputation, the product of a century of bad movie versions. Lauritsen writes that most critics “have failed to appreciate the excellence of its prose, the power of its symbolism and the profundity of its ideas.” Above all, Frankenstein is “a moral allegory about the evil effects of intolerance and prejudice, ostracism and alienation, both to the victims of intolerance and to society at large.”

Among these “victims of intolerance” are gay men. In fact, Lauritsen contends that “at least on one level, Shelley wrote Frankenstein for a select audience, gay men; his novel deals with their oppression and with the crimes and monstrosities which flow from that oppression.” It should be noted that Lauritsen prefers the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein over the 1831 revision by Mary Shelley.

“Without exception, every ‘revision’ was for the worse,” he writes. “Whenever hostile to Shelley's radical ideas — on science, love or religion — she expurgated them.”

Was Percy Bysshe Shelley the real author?

As noted in the previous paragraph, Lauritsen has no love for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who most people believe was the author of Frankenstein. Lauritsen even denies that Mary Shelley took part in the famous ghost-writing contest (1816) that led to Frankenstein.

“If there really was a contest, the participants must have been [Lord George] Byron, Shelley and [Dr. John] Polidori — three brilliant, well-educated young men, who were already accomplished writers,” Lauritsen writes. As Lauritsen saw it, Mary Shelley “had a commonplace mind, almost no formal education and little talent for writing.... Nowhere in Mary's writing is there a single passage of the quality found in almost every paragraph of the 1818 Frankenstein.” On the other hand, Lauritsen points out that “in ideas and style, Frankenstein is a man's work and consistently [Percy] Shelley's creation.”

Male love and homosexual panic

In spite of his two wives, Percy Shelley was interested in Greek love, as seen in his translation of Plato's Symposium (or Banquet) recently published by Pagan Press and in his strong, though possibly platonic, friendships with other men. If Percy Shelley did write Frankenstein, it is not surprising that passionate friendships between men is a major theme. Lauritsen lists three passionate couples: Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Captain Robert Walton, who rescues the wandering doctor; Frankenstein and his schoolmate, Henry Clerval; and Frankenstein's father and a man named Beaufort.

According to Lauritsen, even Dr. Frankenstein's monstrous creation was meant to be “not only a companion, but a big, beautiful and obedient sex partner.” On the other hand, Lauritsen notes that “when Victor Frankenstein flees his workroom after viewing the creature ... and when he runs out of the house after the monster tries to get in bed with him, he seems to be exhibiting homosexual panic — hysteria resulting from a clash between intense homoerotic desire and social condemnation.”

Lauritsen concludes, “Shelley wrote on two levels: He wanted general readers to regard Frankenstein and Clerval as loving friends, but his special readers, the sunetoi [a Greek term used by Shelley that Lauritsen suggests could be a code word for gay] to discern that they are also sexual partners. All things considered, it is understandable that Shelley chose to conceal his authorship of Frankenstein.”

The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein suffers from Lauritsen's constant complaints about feminists, a convenient scapegoat in all of his books. But what about the three theses? Regarding Lauritsen's argument that Frankenstein was underrated, I believe that is true. Just as too many people confuse Dr. Frankenstein with his monster, so do many people judge the novel by its mostly horrific (in both senses of the word) film versions. It may also be true that Percy Bysshe Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, but there is no conclusive proof.

As for the male-love theme, it appears to hinge on Lauritsen's theory about the book authorship: It is possible that Percy Shelley would write a book about male relationships and then, considering the times, deny having written it. But if Frankenstein was indeed written by Mary Shelley, such a theme would not make sense.

We first heard of Lauritsen in 1974, when he wrote (with David Thorstad) The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935). In 1982, Lauritsen founded Pagan Press to “publish books of interest to the intelligent gay man”, as he described it. To that intent, Lauritsen published classic works by John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter as well as his own thought-provoking essays.

On the controversial side, Lauritsen is an AIDS dissident who does not believe that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Lauritsen's writings on AIDS appear in The AIDS War (1993) and in the anthology The AIDS Cult (1997), which he co-edited with Ian Young.

His latest creation, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, is an important and thought-provoking book, whether or not you agree with its author's premises.

The Frankenstein Pages.

Pagan Press BOOKLIST.

Home Page of John Lauritsen.

Pagan Press Home Page