Published 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 (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 of Frankenstein — 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.
    In TMWWF 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 meager:

Her mind was commonplace. She possessed 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] translates Promethes Desmotes and I write it.”  This makes it quite clear that when Mary says “write”, she means taking dictation or doing copy work, not composing anything.
    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 Homosexual, 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.

Return to the Frankenstein page.

Return to Books