Mary Godwin & Moonshine

    “The Moon & the Origin of Frankenstein” was the lead article of the November 2011 issue of Sky and Telescope. The astronomy of the piece is interesting, but as a polemic it amounts to toppling a straw dummy. Critics such as James Rieger and Miranda Seymour have questioned Mary Shelley's honesty, especially the alleged chronology described in the Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. The five authors of the S&T article construct a “Proposed 1816 Chronology”, which makes much of the fact that on 16 June there was a “gibbous moon”, thus supporting the assertion in the 1831 Introduction that Mary saw moonlight struggling through the shutters. The implication is that, if the 1831 Introduction was truthful about moonlight, it was truthful about everything else.

    Well, it's not so simple. I wrote a letter to S&T, pointing out just a few of the discrepancies in the 1831 Introduction. It wasn't printed, no doubt because it was more than twice their maximum (250) word limit, which I only found out too late. In the interests of enlightenment, here is the unpublished letter:


Sky & Telescope

Letter for publication:

    The five authors of “The Moon & the Origin of Frankenstein” (S&T November 2011) strive valiantly to reconcile the entries in the Diary of Dr. John Polidori with the Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, but are wrong on three basic questions: 1) Who were the participants in the ghost-story contest? 2) Who wrote Frankenstein? and 3) Who wrote the 1831 Introduction?
    My own answers are: 1) According to the 1818 Preface, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the ghost-story contestants could only have been Byron, Polidori and himself — three brilliant young men who were already accomplished writers. It is absurd to imagine that Byron would have engaged in competition with the teenaged Mary Godwin, who was not then a writer, and whom he personally disliked.
    2) Both textual and extra-textual evidence establish that Frankenstein was written by Shelley, not his second wife, Mary. Frankenstein is not just a scary story, but a radical, poetically powerful novel of ideas, written by one of the greatest poets and prose stylists in English. Every page bears his signature: his ideas and imagination, phrases, intensity, mastery of English prose. In contrast, the prose that Mary Godwin/Shelley really did write, entirely on her own, is embarrassingly bad: flaccid, sentimental, verbose, affected, awkward, and sometimes ungrammatical. She could never have written a page of Frankenstein.
    The 1818 Frankenstein was published anonymously. We may ponder why Shelley chose to conceal his authorship, but this is by no means the only time he wrote either anonymously or under a pseudonym.
    3) The 1831 Introduction was written by Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, with input from herself. The prose of the Introduction bears no resemblance to that of Frankenstein or that of Mary Shelley, but is recognizably the prose of Godwin — a gifted novelist, who acts as ventriloquist, with Mary as his dummy. As a work of fiction, the Introduction effectively creates a powerful myth: teenaged girl has nightmare, which inspires her to write the seminal work of English Romanticism.
    On the question of Mary's (and Godwin's) honesty: Miranda Seymour and James Rieger questioned much more than discrepancies in chronology. For example, Seymour notes that Mary falsely portrayed Shelley as her husband, whereas in June 1816 he had a wife and two children back in England, and she was still Miss Mary Godwin, living in sin. Rieger considers “the worst distortion in the 1831 Introduction” to be the statement: “I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband.” — which indeed is a blatant falsehood.
    The 1831 Introduction states: “But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.”  In context, the implication is that the house is Byron's, Villa Diodati, but in fact the weather for the week 12-19 June 1816 was not incessantly rainy, since Polidori often went into town during the day or in the evening, and sometimes visited Shelley at his house. Polidori's Diary indicates only one occasion, 16 June 1816, when Shelley, Mary Godwin and Jane (later Claire) Clairmont slept over at Byron's.
    For my book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007), I've received praise and recognition, but also the kind of ad hominem abuse that might be directed to some cad, who told little children the truth about Santa Claus. But academics are not little children, and should be amenable to the truth.

        John Lauritsen
        Author: The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007).

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