in the Gay & Lesbian Humanist, Spring 2007
Debunking The Mary Shelley Legend
by John Lauritsen
My new book, The Man Who Wrote
Frankenstein (TMWWF), has
three theses: 1) Frankenstein is
a great work, which has consistently been underrated and
misinterpreted; 2) the real author of Frankenstein is
Percy Bysshe Shelley, not his second wife, Mary; 3) male love is the
dominant theme of Frankenstein.
Although the first and third are controversial, it
is the second which provokes shock and dismay, or anger, or a tensely
amused disbelief. People look at me strangely. Bloggers, following a
favorable review by Camille Paglia in Salon.com
(14 March 2007) and a news article in the Sunday Times
(25 March 2007), rushed in to accuse me of being a homosexual, a
misogynist, a geek, or a bully. These peculiar responses indicate that
her authorship has become a sacred dogma, in which professed belief is
mandatory — and yet, upon examination, the belief is absurd.
By way of analogy: all adults are expected to
profess belief in Santa Claus — and all children, to feign belief
— despite the impossibility of a fat old man sliding down a
chimney, or reindeer flying through the air. Evidence and logic are
irrelevant. It is a moral issue: only a very mean and Scrooge-like
adult would tell children the truth about Santa Claus — and
teachers get in trouble for doing so. In an American case, the teacher
who told the truth to a class of 6-year-olds escaped punishment only
because the school district did not “have a Santa Claus
policy”.* However, in a British case, where all the children were
at least 9 years of age, the teacher was fired.
The Mary Shelley legend (familiar from such movies
as Bride of
Frankenstein or Gothic) is set
down in the Introduction to the revised (or bowdlerized) 1831 edition
— written ostensibly by Mary, but with, at the very least, much
assistance from her father, William Godwin. According to the legend: in
1816, Mary, a teenaged girl, took part in a ghost-story contest in
Geneva, with her companion, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and
Byron's companion, the brilliant and handsome young Dr. John Polidori.
For several days the three gentlemen (all accomplished writers
themselves) waited impatiently for Mary to come up with a story.
Finally, she had an nightmare, and was inspired to write a story
“which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened
that night!” That's all it took, a nightmare, to engender Frankenstein,
the most famous work of English Romanticism, a masterpiece that has
been in print for nearly two centuries.
Simply put, the legend is a hoax. The real Mary
Shelley had little imagination or talent for writing English. The
extra-textual “evidence” for her authorship falls apart as
soon as one scrutinizes it.
It was Shelley himself who set the hoax in motion.
At some point, after the anonymous publication of Frankenstein
on 1 January 1818, he decided to fob off authorship on Mary. After
Shelley's death, the hoax went into high gear when Mary's father,
William Godwin, prepared a second edition of Frankenstein,
to coincide profitably with a play that was planned for the London
stage in 1823. Acting entirely on his own, Godwin made 123 substantive
changes to the work. Crucially, Godwin ensured that all of the
advertisements, as well as the title page, named the author as Mary
Wollstonecraft Shelley. From this point on, Mary Shelley's authorship
would be proclaimed on millions of books and untold thousands of
library cards, doctoral theses, etc.
How does one go about determining the authorship of Frankenstein?
Not from handwriting — although Mary Shelley
“scholars” have striven to do so. There exists a
manuscript, part of a volume known as “The Frankenstein
Notebooks”, which is in Mary's handwriting, except for revisions
(a few thousand words) in Shelley's hand. The Mary Shelley believers
brandish this as proof positive of her authorship, remaining
intransigently oblivious to the fact that Mary took dictation from
Shelley and did copy work for him, as well as for other writers. There
exist manuscripts where all of the words are in Mary's handwriting, and
yet all of those same words were composed by someone else: Shelley,
Byron, or Peacock. Obviously, the mere fact that Frankenstein
manuscript words are in Mary's handwriting proves nothing at all with
regard to her authorship.
In addition, the manuscript in “The
Frankenstein Notebooks” is a nearly final draft, which shows none
of the signs of creative composition. Paragraphs and pages of
magnificent prose flow smoothly, without breaks in handwriting and with
very few revisions. No one could write prose like this right off,
without breaks or false starts.
I concentrate on the text itself — ideas, images, vocabulary,
structure, rhythms, and sounds — rather than extraneous
“evidence”, some of which is undoubtedly fabricated.
Central to my argument, that Shelley himself is the author, is an
acknowledgement that Frankenstein is
really a great work of literature — an intense and disturbing work,
written in poetically powerful prose. Frankenstein
is consistently a man's work and consistently Shelley's work,
reflecting his ideas and imagination, his phrases, his intensity, his
mastery of English prose. In the key chapter of my book, “Male
Love in Frankenstein”, I allow Frankenstein
to speak for itself, in the many long passages I quote — and I
encourage reading these passages out loud. They represent some of the
most beautiful prose in the English language.
Given my admiration for Frankenstein, I
was dumbfounded to read a hostile review of TMWWF by Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch)
in the 9 April 2007 edition of The Guardian. Under the headline, “Yes,
Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious --
because the book is so bad”, Greer argues that Frankenstein is not even
a good novel — evaluating it by criteria that might be
appropriate for a realistic novel, but not for Frankenstein,
which is not, nor intended to be, a work of realism. Frankenstein
is an enduring myth, a novel of ideas, and above all 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.
If Greer fails to appreciate the excellence of the Frankenstein
prose, this is obtuseness on her part, and yet difficult to argue
against. What could one say to someone who would argue that, for
example, “When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes” is
a bad poem. My reply to Greer's article was
printed in The Guardian of
14 April 2007.
If Mary Shelley were really the author of Frankenstein,
then we would expect to find some evidence of the Frankenstein
genius in her other writings. We do not. Nowhere in the works that she
wrote on her own is there the slightest trace of the fire and
imagination, the erudition, the profundity of thought, and the mastery
of language, which are found on every page of Frankenstein.
After examining many passages from her journals, letters, and a long
novel, The Last
Man, I come to the dismal conclusion that her talents were
Her mind was commonplace. She
neither a sense of rhythm nor a sense of humor. Her style is flaccid,
sentimental, verbose, affected, awkward, and sometimes ungrammatical.
Her writings are, as Shelley wrote about Wordsworth's: “Dull
— oh, so dull — so very dull!” She could never
have written Frankenstein.
The extra-textual “evidence” for Mary's
authorship is at best flimsy. Shelley says that Mary is the author.
Mary, or a friend of Shelley's, says she is the author. So what?
Since a hoax was perpetrated, this kind of “evidence” is
only to be expected. Sometimes the extra-textual evidence for Mary's
authorship is a product of hyperactive imagination on the part of Mary
Shelley “scholars”. They assume that every time Mary
Shelley uses the word “write” in her Journal, she is
necessarily referring to writing Frankenstein — a
delusion which is punctured by her entry of 13 July 1817: “[Shelley]
I write it.” This makes it quite clear that when Mary says
“write”, she means taking dictation or doing copy work, not
People have asked me why Shelley chose to conceal
his authorship. I can only speculate, but imagine he felt that Frankenstein
revealed too much of himself personally. In my reading, the work is
centrally concerned with male love, especially as romantic friendship,
and with the oppression of gay men. (Rictor Norton, in The Myth of the Modern
has demonstrated that by Shelley's lifetime, the words
“gay” and “lesbian” were already being used
underground in their present, homoerotic senses.)
In conclusion, I enthusiastically urge all of you to
read or re-read Frankenstein,
making sure that it is the original 1818 edition, rather than the
bowdlerised 1831 edition. Appendix G in TMWWF lists and evaluates the
1818 editions that are currently available.
* To read about the American Santa Claus case click here.
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