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The Siren's Call: An epic poet as Mary Shelley's co-author

A new edition of 'Frankenstein' shows the contributions of her husband, Percy. Plus: In praise of Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol'; why is the Bilderberg Group so secret?

October 11, 2009|By Nick Owchar

How did Mary Shelley come up with the idea for "Frankenstein"? Did that spooky storytelling contest at the Villa Diodati in 1816 -- you know, the one with Byron, John Polidori and Mary's husband Percy -- send her imagination into high gear? Was it all the result of a nightmare? Sort of, but not exactly.

Richard Holmes' thrilling study of scientific discovery in the Romantic era, "The Age of Wonder" (Pantheon: 552 pp., $40), spotlights many intriguing figures and their discoveries, but it's the chapter "Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul" that answers these questions by placing her famous story in the context of its times.

The years leading up to "Frankenstein," Holmes explains, were a time -- well before Darwin's theories electrified the public -- when debates were raging over the existence of the soul and the animating force behind all life, called Vitalism. "Vitalism was the first great scientific issue that widely seized the public imagination in Britain, a premonition of the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, exactly forty years later."

Holmes hardly diminishes Shelley's achievement -- he just helps us to understand how "Frankenstein" was "the most singular literary response to the Vitalism debate." Mary, he says, gave "playful form" to the scientific speculations of the day -- had she lived in our time, I bet she would've written thrillers about genomes or nanotechnology and given the late Michael Crichton a run for his money.

What Holmes doesn't mention is the role of Percy Shelley in the early manuscript -- and this omission makes Charles E. Robinson's edition "The Original Frankenstein" (Vintage: 448 pp., $14 paper) the ideal complementary text to read beside Holmes'.

Check out the attribution on the book's cover: "Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley" -- how's that for a byline?

Though Mary Shelley drafted the novel in two volumes, it was published in three different versions: 1818 (in three volumes), 1823 (in two volumes), 1831 (in one volume, probably the one most of us know). Robinson has edited the book to return us to the original draft's two-volume structure: It's a version you'll probably wish you had had in high school -- I know I do -- because, even though the story is broken into two volumes, the chapters are shorter and the pacing is brisker. This structure, Robinson points out, also enables the second volume to open dramatically as Mary Shelley first wanted -- with the voice of the creature, telling the story of his "birth" and tragic education in the cruelty of humankind.

Percy Shelley's contributions -- as editor and co-author of sorts -- are easy to locate: Robinson has italicized all of these, whether single words inserted to increase effect ("villain," "thickened," "devil") or longer, more evocative phrases (Victor Frankenstein's delirium leads him to imagine beings "who visit him from the regions of a remoter world").

When Victor wanders the ice fields of the Alps after a double tragedy (the death of his brother William by a mysterious killer; the death of his servant Justine, who is blamed for the crime), he beholds "Mont Blanc in awful majesty." Those are Mary Shelley's words. Then, her husband's pen takes over, adding physical details and the sense of awe you find in his poems:

"The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in sunlight over the clouds."

Why did Percy Shelley add material? Did he think his wife was incapable of writing a novel on her own? Not at all for, as Robinson explains, "collaboration seems to have been the hallmark" of the couple's literary relationship. They transcribed each other's work all the time and served as sounding-boards for ideas -- there was an easy interplay between them that was an enhancement, not a distraction, to their efforts.

Along with local color, her husband added layers to characters' personalities, as in the case of Elizabeth, Victor's beloved. In a letter to Victor, for example, she includes a very Shelleyan political viewpoint that, even without italics, we would suspect belonged to him: "The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it," Elizabeth declares. Then, she adds: "A servant at Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France or England . . . ."

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