My Hideous Progeny

Anne K. Mellor

Chapter 3 of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 52-69

{52} Mary Shelley's anxiety about her capacity to give birth to a normal, healthy, loving child manifests itself in Frankenstein in forms other than the plot. Mary Shelley thought of her ghost story as her baby: the metaphor is overtly articulated at the end of her Introduction to the 1831, Standard Novels edition of Frankenstein where she bids her novel, "my hideous progeny," to go forth and prosper. Her metaphor is hardly original: Plato long ago said that men write books to gain the immortality women achieve by having children, while Jean Rhys recently confessed that when she finished her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea:
I've dreamt several times that I was going to have a baby -- then I woke with relief.
    Finally I dreamt that I was looking at the baby in a cradle -- such a puny weak thing.
    So the book must be finished, and that must be what I think about it really. I don't dream about it any more.1
But for Jean Rhys as for Mary Shelley, the metaphor of book as baby fused a double anxiety, an insecurity about both her authorship and her female identity. In giving birth to a full-fledged novel, Mary Shelley was giving birth to her self-as-author. Unlike those women writers who have experienced what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have described as the female's "anxiety of authorship"2 -- a difficulty in finding a precursor or public voice in which to speak within a culture that has historically suppressed the female voice and denied the means of literary production to women -- Mary Shelley did have female role models to emulate: most notably her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, {53} such eighteenth century writers of sentimental and satiric fiction as Fanny Burney, Charlotte Ramsay Lennox, Sarah Fielding, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Amelia Alderson Opie (to whom her father had once proposed marriage), and most directly, given her commitment to a ghost story, Ann Radcliffe and the other female authors of Gothic fiction (Clara Reeve, Charlotte Dacre, Sarah Wilkinson, Sophia Lee). Yet despite this tradition of female authorship, Mary Shelley doubted the legitimacy of her own literary voice, a doubt that determined her decision to speak through three male narrators (Walton, Frankenstein, the creature), the structure of her novel, and the revisions of her text.

Mary Shelley's anxiety about her authorship did not derive from the fear that her desire to publish would be blocked by a patriarchal literary establishment. On the contrary, Mary Shelley grew up expecting that she would write for publication. She felt a compulsion to write, a compulsion that was as much external as internal. When Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story for their common amusement, no one but Mary Shelley took him terribly seriously. Percy Shelley scribbled a few lines of doggerel verse; Byron himself began a story which he abandoned after a few pages, publishing the fragment at the end of "Mazeppa"; Dr. Polidori may have written either the absurd tale concerning a skull-headed lady that Mary Shelley remembered or, more likely, the tale of "The Vampyr" that afterwards achieved a certain success when it was erroneously published under Byron's name. But fifteen years later, Mary Shelley vividly recalled her mortification at being forced to admit that she had not yet thought of a story.

The intensity of her embarrassment caused her, in 1831, to make a significant error. In her description of the ghost story competition, Mary Shelley stated that several mornings had passed during which "dull Nothing" replied to her anxious invocations: "'Have you thought of a story?' I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative" (226). Then, she says, came the evening discussion between Byron and Percy Shelley concerning "the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated," at the end of which she had her famous waking dream of the pale student and his hideous phantasm. But as James Rieger has noted, the only other surviving record of these events suggests a different chronology. John William Polidori recorded in his Diary that a conversation took place on the evening of June 15, 1816 between himself and Percy Shelley "about principles, -- whether man was to be thought merely an instrument;" that Byron, Polidori, and the entire Shelley entourage dined and slept at Villa Diodati on June 16 (this is presumably the {54} evening in which they read and agreed to write ghost stories); and that on June 17 "the ghost-stories are begun by all but me."3 By lengthening the lapse of time between Byron's proposal and her dream-invention of a plot for her ghost story from a few hours to several days, Mary Shelley inadvertently revealed the extreme anxiety she felt lest she not be able to meet Byron's expectations.

Why did she care so much whether she wrote a story or not? Mary Shelley was compelled by two feelings of inadequacy. She identified her inability to conceive a story with a woman's inability to conceive a child: "that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations." Her mortification was intensified by the anxieties roused by her mother's death in childbirth and the death of her own two-week-old daughter two years before. It is out of this doubled fear, the fear of a woman that she may not be able to bear a healthy, normal child and the fear of a putative author that she may not be able to write, that Mary Shelley's nightmarish reverie was born. As Barbara Johnson has trenchantly observed, Frankenstein is "the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein."4 Significantly, Mary Shelley dedicated the novel to Godwin, even though he had disowned her after her elopement, rather than to Percy Shelley who helped her with its composition. She wanted to give the book to its father, her father, for the book is her created self as well as her child.

The dating of the plot sharpens the identification of the novel as Mary Shelley's self-image. Frankenstein is narrated in a series of letters written by Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville (whose initials, M. W. S., are those Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin coveted -- and gained when she and Percy Shelley were married on December 30, 1816). In this sense, the novel is written by the author to an audience of one, herself. The first letter is dated December 11, 17--; the last is dated September 12, 17--. Exactly nine months enwomb the telling of the history of Frankenstein, bringing Mary Shelley's literary pregnancy to full term. Moreover, these nine months correspond almost exactly with Mary Shelley's third pregnancy, conceived and carried during the actual writing of Frankenstein: her daughter Clara Everina, named for her dead daughter and her aunt Everina Wollstonecraft, was born three days after Mary Shelley's own birthday, on September 2, 1817. We can further speculate, on the basis of (not always consistent) internal evidence, as to the calendar year in which Walton is writing.5 The creature first appears before Walton's startled eyes on Monday, July 31, 17--; later we learn that the creature read a copy of Volney's Ruins, which was not published until 1791 (and not translated into English until 1795). The only year in the last decade of the eighteenth {55} century when July 31 falls on a Monday is 1797, the year in which Mary Shelley herself was born. The novel's final entry is dated two days after Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's death. Mary Shelley thus symbolically fused her book's beginning and ending with her own -- Victor Frankenstein's death, the Monster's promised suicide, and her mother's death from puerperal fever can all be seen as the consequences of the same creation, the birth of Mary Godwin-the-author.

Mary Shelley felt intensely ambivalent toward her creation: it was a "hideous progeny," all the more horrible for having been produced by so young a girl. Her Introduction to the Standard Novels edition, even fifteen years after the event and when her fame was secure, is strikingly defensive: "I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print"; "Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length"; "once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it" (222, 229). The intensity of her apology goes well beyond the conventional topoi of either literary or female modesty. Why did Mary Shelley feel so apologetic? In giving birth to her self-as-author, Mary Shelley is here able to conceive only a monster: she is the author-of-horror, perhaps even what Percy Shelley called Victor Frankenstein, "the author of unalterable evils" (87).

In creating her famous monster, Mary Shelley powerfully reinforced the tradition of the Gothic novel as a peculiarly female domain. Frankenstein surpasses its male-authored contenders, whether Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Beckford's Vathek, Lewis's The Monk, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, or Bram Stoker's Dracula, as our most culturally resonant and disturbing Gothic novel. Women writers have been drawn to the Gothic novel because, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff has argued, its conventions permit them to explore one of the most deeply repressed experiences in a patriarchal culture, female sexual desire.6 Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Dacre, and Sophia Lee typically used the medieval ruined castle or abbey as a metaphor for the female body, penetrated by a sexually attractive villain. Within the ruined walls hides a chaste young woman, who is both terrified and hypnotically fascinated by the villain. Thus Radcliffe, Dacre, and Lee articulated the deep sexual ambivalence experienced by their young female readers who intensely desired the passionate erotic experience that a patriarchal culture adamantly forbids to unmarried girls. The conclusion of these novels, in which the heroine is narrowly saved from seduction or death by a chaste knight whom she then marries, enables the female reader, like Keats's dreaming Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes," to have her cake and eat it too, to participate imaginatively in an intensely erotic seduction but to wake "warm in the virgin morn, {56} no weeping Magdalen." The real "evil" encountered in the Gothic novel, then, is the female's overwhelming desire for uninhibited and all-consuming sexual experience in a society which, even in the late twentieth century, is for the most part uncomfortable with the aggressive, sexually liberated woman. Hence the enormous popularity of the Mills and Boon novels in England and the Harlequin Romances in America, Gothic romances which continue to provide an "acceptable" form of sexual passion to women whose own lives do not permit it. But as Tania Modleski has shown us, this sexual passion is often directed toward aggressive, dominating, virile men, men whose egotism -- like Victor Frankenstein's -- can lead them to manipulate, exploit, and even rape the women whose desire they arouse.7

Mary Shelley's novel swerves from this female Gothic tradition in that its central protagonist is not a woman. But the death of Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein on her wedding night draws our attention to the fact that female sexuality is at issue here. The denial of all overt sexuality in the surface texture of the novel -- Walton is alone, writing to his beloved . . . sister; Victor Frankenstein regards his bride-to-be as his cousin/sister; Victor's mother marries her father's best friend, to whom she becomes a devoted and dutiful daughter/wife; even Felix and Safie meet only in an entirely public, chaste, domesticated space -- forces the more powerful erotic desires in the novel to erupt as violence. The repression of sexual desire, in the male as well as the female, generates monstrous fantasies.

In another way as well, the genre of the Gothic novel or horror story uncovers and satisfies a repressed female desire. In a patriarchal culture which assigns linguistic and social authority to men, the very act of a woman's speaking in public is a trespass on male domains. As Mary Poovey has emphasized, women who wrote for publication in the eighteenth century defied the decorum of the proper lady, a decorum so long established that it was considered a law of nature.8 Hence the very act of female authorship could be seen as an unnatural act, a perversion that arouses both anxiety and hostility in the male reader. While the England of Mary Shelley's day admitted a legitimate line of female authorship, from the Duchess of Winchelsea to her contemporary Jane Austen, this tradition was sufficiently fragile to arouse Mary Shelley's insecurities. Mary Shelley's youthful fantasy-life never featured her self as heroine. She insisted that she was "very averse to bringing myself forward in print" and had become "infinitely indifferent" to the acquisition of "literary reputation" (222-23). While her words conform to the modesty topos of the conventional literary prologue, they also express a deep-seated conviction of literary inadequacy. And this shame contributed to the generation of her {57} fictional images of abnormality, perversion, and destruction, to her obsession with monsters and father-daughter incest and plagues that annihilate mankind.

Finally, as Margaret Homans has suggested in her provocative essay on the Brontës in The Female Gothic, the portrayal of the supernatural in this literary tradition functions as a literalization of the metaphorical. Female writers may well feel a closer affinity with nature, defined in Western culture as female or the mother, and hence with the nonfigural or what Julia Kristeva has called the semiotic. In their fiction, the figural may often take the form of the literal, whether it be Jane Eyre and Rochester's mental telepathy or Cathy and Heathcliff's ghostly figures on the moor. In Frankenstein, the repressed semiotic may return in the form of a monster who enacts his maker's desire for domination and at the same time literalizes the death that is, as Nancy Hartsock has argued in her recent study of Money, Sex and Power (1986), at the heart of Western practices of eros.

Because she was frightened by what she had dreamt, by her "hideous" idea, Mary Shelley systematically censored her own speech in Frankenstein. The structure of the novel builds a series of screens around her authentic voice. The monster's autobiographical account of a benevolent disposition perverted by social neglect drew most directly on Mary Shelley's own experience of childhood abandonment and emotional deprivation in the Godwin household after her father's remarriage to the unsympathetic Mrs. Clairmont. Mary Shelley's decision to enclose that narrative within not one but two other narratives (Frankenstein's account of his own history as recorded in Walton's journal of his voyage towards the North Pole) has the effect of twice distancing her private voice from public speech. Moreover, Mary Shelley claimed in her Introduction to the 1831 Frankenstein that she began her story with the words "It was on a dreary night of November" [1.4.1], but in the first edition these words do not occur until the beginning of the seventh chapter. Even her originating dream of giving birth to a monster has been repressed, hidden behind the intervening narratives of Walton's mission and Frankenstein's autobiography. This double suppression of her personal anxieties may help to explain the relative lack of characterization that some readers have found in Walton, who seems to function primarily as a mirror for Victor Frankenstein.9 Walton's mission is the one part of the story Mary Shelley had to tell that drew on an intellectual rather than psychological dimension of her consciousness.

Mary Shelley's self-censoring took an even more overt form. As she wrote her manuscript of Frankenstein, she gave it to her husband to edit. She later claimed that she "certainly did not owe the suggestion of {58} one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling" to Percy Shelley (229). In this she was quite correct, with one minor exception: it was Percy who suggested that Frankenstein's trip to England be proposed by Victor himself, rather than by his father. And yet Percy made numerous revisions, which Mary almost invariably accepted.

The editor of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein, James Rieger, presents an account of these changes so biased in Percy Shelley's favor that it must be read as a tissue of facts, half-truths, and pure speculation. Rieger credits Percy Shelley with wording the contrasts between the personalities of Frankenstein and Elizabeth and between the governments of the Swiss republic and less fortunate nations; with coining the metaphoric description of the power within Mont Blanc; with conceiving the "idea that Frankenstein journey to England for the purpose of creating a female Monster"; with revising the ending; and with correcting Mary Shelley's "frequent grammatical solecisms, her spelling, and her awkward phrasing." He then concludes that Percy Shelley's "assistance at every point in the book's manufacture was so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator" (xviii). The only other person to examine the manuscript evidence closely, Eugene Murray, provides an accurate account of the text but also suggests that Percy Shelley's contributions to Frankenstein, although always "in keeping with Mary's conception and with her implicit sanction," were "substantial enough to require Mary's editorial carte blanche, whenever first given, and original enough to suggest that at times his creative impulse added its own initiative to the novel's effect."10 Murray thus concurs that Percy Shelley's considerable contribution to Frankenstein was entirely positive.

Careful examination of the manuscript in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library shows that Percy made numerous revisions on Mary's original manuscript, changes which both improved and damaged the text and which must be analyzed with care. To dispose of Rieger's misinformation first, Percy did expand, although he did not initiate, the comparison of Elizabeth's character to Victor Frankenstein's; and he did interpolate a favorable comparison of Switzerland's republicanism with the tyranny of other nations. But the descriptions of Mont Blanc in the novel are based on Mary Shelley's own observations made in July 1816 and recorded both in her Journal and in her letters to Fanny Imlay; these letters were later published in her History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817). As we have already noted, Percy suggested merely that Victor rather than Alphonse Frankenstein propose the trip to England. We might pass over Rieger's annoying habit (which Murray shares) of referring to Percy Shelley only by his {59} last name and to Mary Shelley only by her first, or his failure to acknowledge, in his assertion that Percy corrected "her frequent grammatical solecisms, her spelling, and her awkward phrasing," that Mary made relatively few grammatical errors or misspellings in the manuscript of Frankenstein, while her phrasings were often more graceful than her husband's revised versions. But Rieger's concluding suggestion, which Murray tentatively endorses, that Percy Shelley can be regarded as a "minor collaborator" does a disservice to Mary Shelley's unique genius.

The manuscript of Frankenstein in the Abinger Collection in the Bodleian Library survives in two sections (Abinger Dep.c.477/1 and Dep.c.534), constituting in the Rieger edition pages 30:12-97:16 and 97:17-109:8 plus 117:17-end. We need to look at this manuscript closely in order to distinguish Mary Shelley's language from her husband's. As Mary wrote her novel, she gave the finished chapters to Percy to edit and augment, just as Walton gave his journal to Frankenstein to correct. Percy's revisions usually amount to some five or six changes per manuscript page (Murray estimates about one thousand words in all), although they are less numerous in the creature's narrative than elsewhere. Percy Shelley's editorial revisions can be roughly grouped under two headings: those that improve the novel and those that do not. He made many technical corrections and several times clarified the narrative and thematic continuity of the text; on other occasions he misunderstood his wife's intentions and distorted her ideas. Throughout he tried to elevate her prose style into a more Latinate idiom. Mary Shelley's willingness to accept virtually all of these revisions strikingly reveals her own authorial insecurity, her deference to what she saw as Percy's more legitimate literary voice (he had by this time published novels, essays, and poems, including Queen Mab), and above all the hierarchical relationship that existed between her husband and herself.

Percy genuinely helped his wife's manuscript in many small ways. He corrected three minor factual errors, eliminated a few obvious grammatical mistakes, occasionally clarified the text, and frequently substituted more precise technical terms for Mary Shelley's cruder ones. He occasionally improved the narrative continuity and coherence of the text, smoothed out some of his wife's paragraph transitions, and enriched the thematic resonance of certain passages. He emphasized the psychological complexity of the monster in a few places and underlined Victor Frankenstein's responsibility for his creature. (For a detailed discussion of these positive changes, see the Appendix.)

By far the greatest number of Percy Shelley's revisions of his wife's manuscript fall into one category. He typically changed her simple, {60} Anglo-Saxon diction and straightforward or colloquial sentence structures into their more refined, complex, and Latinate equivalents. He is thus in large part responsible for the stilted, ornate, putatively Ciceronian prose style about which many readers have complained. George Levine, for instance, has condemned Frankenstein to the ranks of the "minor" novels primarily because of "the inflexibly public and oratorical nature of even its most intimate passages,"11 passages almost invariably overwritten by Percy. Mary's voice tended to utter a sentimental, rather abstract, and generalized rhetoric, but typically energized this with a brisk stylistic rhythm. Here is Mary on Frankenstein's fascination with supernatural phenomena:

Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was also a favorite pursuit and if I never saw any I attributed it rather to my own inexperience and mistakes than want of skill in my instructors.
And here is Percy's revision:
Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favorite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake, than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors (34:14-19)
Percy's preference for more learned, polysyllabic terms was obsessive. In addition, he rigorously eliminated Mary's colloquial phrases, as the following lists indicate.

Mary Shelley's manuscript Percy Shelley's revision
have possess
wish desire, purpose
caused derive their origin from
a painting a representation
place station
plenty of sufficient
time period
felt endured
hope confidence
had experienced
stay remain
took away extinguish
talked conversed
{61} hot inflamed
smallness minuteness
end extinction
inside within
tired fatigued
die perish
leave out omit
add to augment
poverty penury
mind understanding
ghost-story a tale of superstition
about on a par of nearly equal interest and utility
we were all equal neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other
it was safe the danger of infection was past
bear to part be persuaded to part
the use I should make of it the manner in which I should employ it
eyes were shut to eyes were insensible to
do not wish to hate you will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee
wrapping the rest depositing the remains
it was a long time a considerable period elapsed
had a means possessed a method
how my disposition and habits were altered the alteration perceptible in my disposition and habits
whatever I should whatever course of conduct I
afterwards think it right might hereafter think it right
to do to pursue
what to say what manner to commence the interview

Percy is clearly responsible for much of the most inflated rhetoric in the text. When Clerval's father "said he did not see of what use learning could be to a merchant," Percy elevated it to "in compliance with his favourite theory, that learning was superfluous in the commerce of ordinary life" (39:12-14). When Frankenstein swore that he would "not die until my adversary lay at my feet," Percy rhetorically proclaimed that he would "not relax the impending conflict until my own life or that of my adversary, were extinguished" (192:20-21). {62} When Mary rather breathlessly described Frankenstein's enthusiasm for his project:

When I looked around for my materials they hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking, but I did not despair. I allowed that my first attempts might be futile, my operations fail or my work be imperfect, but I looked around on the improvement that every day takes place in science and mechanics and although I could not hope that my attempts would be in every way perfect, yet I did not think that the magnitude and grandeur of my plan was any argument of its impracticability.
Percy elaborated thus:
The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. (48:28-49:4)
Perhaps someday an editor will give us the manuscript Mary Shelley actually wrote, cleansed of such elaborations (for further examples, see Appendix). Percy Shelley's linguistic talents were more suited to poetry than to prose, as Mary herself asserted in her Introduction to Frankenstein. I do not wish to claim that Mary Shelley was a great prose stylist, but only that her own prose, despite its tendency toward the abstract, sentimental, and even banal, is more direct and forceful than her husband's revisions.

More important, Percy Shelley on several occasions actually distorted the meaning of the text. He was not always sensitive to the complexity of character created by the author. He tended, for instance, to see the creature as more monstrous and less human than did Mary. When Frankenstein destroyed the female creature, and Mary had the creature withdraw "with a howl of devilish despair," Percy added "and revenge," thus blunting our sympathy for the forever forsaken creature and destroying the author's more perceptive understanding of the monster. When Mary wished to stress the creature's identification with Frankenstein by assigning the word "wretch" to them both within four lines, Percy changed the second wretch to "devil," thus implying that the creature is more reprehensible than Frankenstein (200:24, cf. 200:21). And it was Percy Shelley who introduced the oft-quoted description of the monster as "an abortion" (219:26), a term he again {63} applied to the creature in his unpublished review of Frankenstein.12 Mary Shelley saw the creature as potentially monstrous, but she never suggested that he was other than fully human.

Percy underestimated, too, the subtlety with which his wife portrayed the limitations of Victor Frankenstein's personality. When Frankenstein neglects his family in order to work on his experiment, Mary gave his self-justification in these terms: "I wished, as it were, to procrastinate my feelings of affection, until the great object of my affections was completed." Percy, eager to avoid the repetition of "affection," revised this to "I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affections until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed" (50:31-33). But this revision removes Mary's powerful dramatic irony: Frankenstein will of course feel no affection whatsoever for his creature. Moreover, Mary's calculated repetition underlined the degree to which Frankenstein had substituted work for love; instead of developing his heterosexual relationship with Elizabeth, he has engaged in a homoerotic fantasy of omnipotence, devoting all his attention to a male object in a parody of God's creation of his only begotten Son through the agency of the Holy Spirit, resulting in what Mary Daly has called the masturbatory Trinity.13 Similarly, when Mary wished to reveal the contradiction inherent in Frankenstein's project (his desire to create what he did not wish to have) by describing his frantic morning after pacing in the streets of Inglostadt "as if I sought the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view," Percy eliminated this complexity by inserting "to avoid" after "sought" (54:13).

Percy Shelley consistently read Victor Frankenstein sympathetically. As his review of the novel concludes, Frankenstein was not a perpetrator but only "the victim" of evil. Throughout the original text, Mary Shelley stressed Frankenstein's capacity for self-deception, while Percy, sometimes as blind as Frankenstein himself, softened or eliminated his errors. When Mary described Frankenstein's mingled dread and relief, on the eve of his departure to England, at the thought that at least he would lure the monster away from his family and friends, Percy disastrously persuaded her to introduce into Frankenstein's meditations the possibility "of the reverse," of the creature's staying behind in Geneva (151:8-14). He thus undercut her otherwise consistent portrayal of Frankenstein as an egotist who perceives only his own feelings and dangers. Mary's original idea, that Frankenstein would inevitably assume that the creature would follow him, powerfully prefigures Frankenstein's later assumption that the {64} creature would be with him alone on his wedding night. When Frankenstein glimpses the creature peering through his laboratory window in Scotland, he immediately concludes that "his face expressed the utmost extent of malice and barbarity." Percy altered this to "his countenance appeared to express the utmost extent of malice and treachery" (my italics), thus introducing the impossibility that Frankenstein might be aware that the creature's countenance is merely an appearance and not a revelation of his moral character. So opposed was this to Mary's idea of how Frankenstein interprets faces and the general role of physiognomy in the novel that it was one of the rare occasions when she refused to accept her husband's emendation. The final text preserves "his countenance expressed the utmost extent of malice and treachery" (164:6-7).

Moreover, Percy imposed his own favorite philosophical, political, and poetic theories on a text which either contradicted them or to which they were irrelevant. For instance, Mary throughout assumes the existence of a sacred animating principle, call it Nature or Life or God, which Frankenstein usurps at his peril. During Frankenstein's final pursuit of his creature across the polar wastes, at times inspired not so much by vengeance as by the conviction that it was "a task enjoined by heaven," Percy tried to undermine this notion of a functioning "heaven" by adding his own atheistic concept of a universe created and controlled by pure Power or energy, "as the mechanical impulse of some power of which I was unconscious" (202:16-17).

At other times, his interpolations do not change the meaning of the text so much as they sidetrack it from the issue at hand. His revolutionary hostility to hierarchical institutions erupted in the lengthy discussion of the differences between the treatment of servants in France or England as opposed to Switzerland, where the condition of servitude uniquely "does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being" (60:14-23). And his dislike of the legal system led him to add a rather exaggerated image of judges as "executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence" (83:4), to Elizabeth's denunciation of the court that convicted Justine.

Despite Mary Shelley's belief in the existence of a material reality determined by the laws of nature, Percy's idealist concept of the poetic imagination as a creative participation in the universal mind that is reality invaded the text. Percy struck out the rather trite description of Elizabeth's amusements as "drawing and music" and added this:

I [Victor Frankenstein] delighted in investigating the facts relative to the actual world; she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret, which I desired to {65} discover; to her it was a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own. (30:20-24)
The last line is of course an echo of the concluding question of his "Mont Blanc," composed in July, 1816:
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
At least one of Percy Shelley's revisions carries significant interpretive weight in the novel. He introduced all the references to Victor Frankenstein as the "author" of the creature (see, for examples, 87:16, 96:18, 96:35). Several critics have claimed that the identification of Frankenstein as an author highlights Mary Shelley's anxiety of authorship. But since it is Percy rather than Mary who sees Frankenstein as an "author," these references actually work more to associate Frankenstein with the already published author Percy Shelley than with the unpublished Mary Shelley. Perhaps because he felt an intuitive sympathy for Victor Frankenstein and his goals, Percy Shelley here inadvertently sharpened his wife's identification of him with her protagonist.

Two other dimensions of the 1818 text of Frankenstein remain to be considered. The printed text of the first edition differs in significant respects from the corrected rough draft manuscript in the Abinger Collection. We do not have the complete fair copy of the manuscript that Mary Shelley sent to the printers. We do know that the proofs were sent directly to Percy Shelley, either in London or at Marlow. Percy had assured Lackington, Allen & Company that he felt "authorized to amend . . . any mere inaccuracies of language" while proofreading.14 On October 23, 1817, he returned proofs in which he claimed he had "paid considerable attention to the correction of such few instances of baldness of style as necessarily occur in the production of a very young writer";15 five days later, he sent back two proof-sheets with "considerable alterations" which were "of the last importance to the interest of the tale."16 However, we also know that Mary herself corrected the proofs of Frankenstein. On September 24, 1817, she sent some of the proofs to Percy with the comment, "in looking it over there appeared to me some abruptnesses which I have endeavoured to supply -- but I am tired and not very clear headed so I give you carte blanche to make what alterations you please."17 We must assume therefore that the changes that occur in the text between the surviving manuscripts and the printed first edition are the product of both Mary and Percy Shelley, a point of some importance since {66} previous editors have assumed that all such changes were introduced by Percy alone.

Certain revisions more plausibly originated from Mary. Since she introduced the term "species" in the draft manuscript to refer to the human race (124:34), it seems likely that she, in revising, changed Frankenstein's desire that "a new creation would bless me as its creator," which Percy had revised to "a new existence would bless me," to its final "a new species would bless me" (49:16). The word has great resonance, particularly in terms of the novel's response to Erasmus Darwin's concept of evolution. The extensive analysis of Clerval's character in the printed text (153:28-154:31) seems likely to come from Mary's hand, relying as it does on quotations from both Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt and describing Clerval's "imaginations fanciful and magnificent, which formed a world, whose existence depended on the life of its creator" (124:17-18), in terms more general than Percy would have used on such an occasion.

On the other hand, Percy Shelley's characteristic imagery and ideas seem to have informed the passage added to the creature's question why Frankenstein formed a being so hideous that even he could not bear to look at it. Where Mary had written, "God in pity made man beautiful and alluring -- I am more hateful to the sight than the bitter apples of Hell to the taste," the printed text reads, "God in pity made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of your's, more horrid from its very resemblance" (sic, 126:15-17). Percy Shelley's essay "On Love" (dated by David Lee Clark to 1814-1518) develops careful distinctions between prototype and antitype, thus anticipating the use of "type" in this context.

The lengthy deletions from the manuscript, all marked improvements, could have been struck out by either Mary or Percy Shelley, but perhaps Percy would have been more likely to see their irrelevance (even though he did not excise them on his first reading of the manuscript). They include a short description of Alphonse Frankenstein's concern for his son's spirits after Clerval's death ("even my father who watched me as the bird does its nestling was deceived. . .", omitted at 183:33) and a much more extensive and trivial description of the roads of Holland (too often blocked by windmills, or so narrow as they pass along canals that carriages meeting each other have to back up as much as a mile, or lined by a mud-soaked, drying flax whose stench "is not very esily endured"). By far the longest deletion, amounting to some four pages of manuscript, described in greater detail the scenery surrounding Oxford, sarcastically recounted the university controversy concerning the expulsion of two students who had worn light-colored rather than dark-colored {67} pantaloons to class, and concluded with Frankenstein's and Clerval's visit to the room of "the Lord Chancellor Bacon" which "was predicted, would fall in when a man wiser than the philosopher should enter it." All this was replaced by the text that now appears on pages 157:11-158:22, almost certainly written by Mary Shelley herself.

Finally, the fair copy of roughly sixty pages of the revised manuscript of Frankenstein that survives in the Abinger Collection (Dep.c.534) contains a final thirteen pages written in Percy Shelley's hand which revise over a quarter of the ending of the novel. Percy significantly changed the style -- but, with one notable exception, not the content -- of the novel's conclusion. He dramatically revised Mary's breathless rhythms and simple sentence structures. Here for instance is her original manuscript version of the monster's feelings after he murders Clerval:

When Clerval died I returned to Switzerland heart-broken and overcome -- I pitied Frankenstein and his bitter sufferings -- My pity amounted to horror -- I abhorred myself -- But when I saw that he again dared hope for happiness -- that while he heaped wretchedness and despair on me he sought his own enjoyment in feelings & passions from the indulgence of which I was forever barred -- I was again roused to indignation and revenge. I remembered my threat and resolved to execute it -- Yet when she died -- Nay then I was not miserable -- I cast off all feeling & all anguish. I rioted in the extent of my despair & being urged thus far -- I resolved to finish my demoniacal design. And it is now ended -- There is my last victim.
And here is Percy's version:
After the murder of Clerval, I returned to Switzerland, heart-broken and overcome. I pitied Frankenstein; my pity amounted to horror: I abhorred myself. But when I discovered that he, the author at once of my existence and of its unspeakable torments, dared to hope for happiness; that while he accumulated wretchedness and despair upon me, he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which I was for ever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled me with an insatiable thirst for vengeance. I recollected my threat, and resolved that it should be accomplished. I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture; but I was the slave, not the master of an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey. Yet when she died! -- nay, then I was not miserable. I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil henceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen. The completion of my demoniacal design became an insatiable passion. And now it is ended; there is my last victim! (217:30-218:12)
{68} Critics may dispute whether this second version, which has manifestly eliminated what Percy Shelley would have considered a "baldness of style," is a genuine improvement, even granting that its repetitions of the master/slave image and the Satanic allusion are more thematically resonant.

More important, Percy changed the last line of the novel in a way that potentially alters its meaning. Mary penned Walton's final vision of the creature thus: "He sprung from the cabin window as he said this upon an ice raft that lay close to the vessel & pushing himself off he was carried away by the waves and I soon lost sight of him in the darkness and distance." Percy changed this to "He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance" [Walton 17]. Mary's version, by suggesting that Walton has only lost "sight of" the creature, preserves the possibility that the creature may still be alive, a threatening reminder of the potential danger released when men egotistically transgress nature and "read" the unknown as evil. Percy's revision, by flatly asserting that the creature was "lost in darkness and distance," provides a comforting reassurance to the reader that the creature is gone into the darkness and distance. We might go so far as to say that Percy's reading of the novel's conclusion is a defensive maneuver to ward off anxiety and assert final authorial control over his wife's subversive creation.

The psychological significance of these final revisions cannot be overstressed. With the one exception I have just discussed, they do not radically alter the plot or the emotional nuances of the novel's conclusion, but they do change its diction and tone. In effect, Mary Shelley has substituted Percy's style for her own. She has thus enveloped her novel in a protective covering of borrowed speech, allowing Percy not only to write the Preface but also to dominate the conclusion. Defensively, she has hidden her own voice behind his more public and impersonal linguistic persona. She has in effect swaddled her hideous progeny within her husband's prefatory claim that the novel's chief concern is "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue" (7).

That Percy Shelley thought he had the right to speak for his wife is clear from his comment to Lackington, Allen & Co. that he was "authorized to amend" her text,19 with the play on "authority" and "authorial" fully operative here. Two marginal comments further demonstrate that Percy regarded this "production of a very young writer" with both affectionate approval and an ever-so-slight contempt. Coming upon the draft as Mary was writing it and noting one of the rare misspellings in the manuscript, "igmmatic," Percy scribbled {69} in pencil in the margin: "enigmatic o you pretty Pecksie!" (106:18). And when Mary referred, in a passage subsequently deleted, to "Lord Chancellor Bacon," Percy fondly corrected her, "No sweet Pecksie -- 'twas Friar Bacon, the discoverer of gunpowder." Percy's endearments may be charming, but they also demonstrate that he did not regard his wife altogether seriously as an author, but rather as a lovable, teasable, and not yet fully educated schoolgirl. He expressed his opinion more directly in a postscript to her letter to Maria Gisborne in 1820: "I wonder what makes Mary think her letter worth the trouble of opening -- except indeed she conceives it to be a delight to decypher a difficult scrawl."20 Unfortunately, Mary shared Percy's opinion of her inferior literary abilities. Her deference to his superior mind was intrinsic to the dynamics of their marriage, a marriage in which the husband played the dominant role.

Percy Shelley once again assumed the role of final judge of his wife's manuscript when he decided to review the novel for a critical journal. His unpublished review is extremely laudatory, passing quickly over "some points of subordinate importance, which prove that it is the author's first attempt," to hail its accelerating interest, its exposing of "powerful and profound emotion," the truth of its argument that if we treat a person ill, he will become wicked, and its scenes of "extraordinary pathos." Percy notes the author's indebtedness to Godwin's Caleb Williams, especially in the incident of Frankenstein's landing in Ireland. He concludes enthusiastically that the final scene in Walton's cabin -- "the more than mortal enthusiasm and grandeur of the Being's speech over the dead body of his victim -- is an exhibition of intellectual and imaginative power, which we think the reader will acknowledge has seldom been surpassed."21 This review clearly reveals how Percy interpreted (or misinterpreted) Frankenstein -- as a story of original goodness turned to misanthropy and revenge by social ostracism and scorn, a story in which both Frankenstein and his creature are innocent victims. (This is the same story that Percy Shelley would tell in Adonais of both Keats and himself at the hands of the critics.) Even more important, the review signals the way in which Percy interpreted his wife, as a writer of talent whose work nonetheless depended on the guidance of others, whether her father or her husband. In his review Percy is both promoting Mary and protecting her from possible adverse criticism. He deliberately defines the gender of the author of Frankenstein as male, a gesture that might increase the public respect for the novel but which simultaneously denies its actual authorship; indeed, there were some who thought that Percy Shelley had written the novel. His review is thus an act of appropriation as well as of tribute.


1. Jean Rhys Letters 1931-1966, ed. Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: Andre Deutsch, 1984), dated March 9, 1966, p. 301.

2. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 49.

3. The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London: Elkin Mathews, 1911), pp. 122-25. James Rieger first noted this discrepancy in "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein," Studies in English Literature 3 (1963): 461-72.

4. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 7. Margaret Homans has subtly explored the implications of Mary Shelley's identification of child-bearing with figurative writing (and the death of the mother), "with the bearing of men's words," in Bearing the Word -- Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 100-19. See also Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982): 117-14; repr. in Reading Woman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

5. The text of Frankenstein incorporates certain anachronisms -- quotations from poems not published until later, e.g. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798), Coleridge's revised "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1800), Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," Canto III (1816) -- which may undercut the chronology I have suggested here. But my dating has both psychological and political resonance in the novel.

6. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "The Radcliffean Gothic Model: A Form for Feminine Sexuality," Modern Language Studies 9 (Fall, 1979): 101.

7. For an excellent analysis of the psychodynamic structures underpinning the formulae of such modern Gothic romances as the Harlequin and Mills and Boon series, see Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women (New York and London: Archon and Methuen, 1982).

8. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer -- Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), Chap. 4.

9. For a thematic reading of this narrative structure, see Richard J. Dunn, "Narrative Distance in Frankenstein," Studies in the Novel 6 (1974): 408-17.

10. E.B. Murray, "Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 29 (1978): 67.

11. George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley and Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1979), p. 3.

12. Percy Shelley's unpublished review of Frankenstein is available in The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (The Julian Edition), ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (London: Ernest Benn Limited; New York: Scribner's, 1926-30), VI:263 -- 65. It is reprinted with an illuminating commentary in William Veeder, Mary Shelley & Frankenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Appendix C.

13. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); cf. Judith Wilt, "Frankenstein as Mystery Play," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knopflmacher, pp. 31-48.

14. The Letters of Percy Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1964), 1:553.

15. Letters of Percy Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 1:565.

16. Letters of Percy Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 1:565.

17. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1983), 1:42.

18. Shelley's Prose, ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 169. [Later scholarship has determined that this fragment dates from the spring of 1818 -- ED.]

19. Letters of Percy Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 1:553.

20. Letters of Mary Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 1:145-36; dated May 8, 1820.

21. Percy Shelley's review of Frankenstein is most easily accessible in William Veeder's Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, where it is printed as Appendix C. These quotations appear on pages 225-227.