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2009-06, 361, 362, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review: Frankenstein

The Original Frankenstein.

By Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley. Edited by Charles E Robinson. (Bodleian Library

2008). 448pp. $45

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

By Mary Shelley. (Penguin, 2008) 279pp. $12.95

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.

By Peter Ackroyd. (Chatto and Windus) 296pp. $32.95

 

Professor Marilyn Butler once commented that Frankenstein is “famously reinterpretable. It can be a late version ofthe Faust myth, or an early version of the modern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the rampage, the proletariat running amok or what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman”.

For many people, the images of Frankenstein derive from the cinema, and not from Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Since 1910 there have apparently been more than 400 cinematic adaptations and reimaginings of the Frankenstein story. Mary Shelley would have been astounded had she known what was to be the extent and the influence of her “hideous progeny”.

Frankenstein Day at the Bodleian Library, Oxford took place on 7 October 2008. Events included an exhibition ofMary Shelley’s original manuscripts; talks by Charles E. Robinson, the editor of The Original Frankenstein, and Brian Aldiss, whose Frankenstein Unbound (1973) is a preferable reworking of the Frankenstein story than Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.

The textual trail of Frankenstein is a complex one as Robinson reveals in the lntroduction and Notes to The Original Frankenstein, a ground-breaking new edition and analysis of the novel’s textual authority. The Bodleian publication contains, in addition to the 1818 edition, the text of Mary’s unique handwritten draft of 1816-17, held at the Library, which separates Mary’s original from the additions made by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

This is important, because even as late as 2007, some scholars such as John Lauritsen were still denying that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Lauritsen in The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press), argued that “an uneducated, teenaged girl” could not have written the book, rather it was the work of Percy, “one of the greatest poets and prose stylists in the English language”.

Robinson has identified up to 5,000 additions and edits by Percy in Mary’s 72,000-word novel. He prints both texts, allowing readers for the first time to read the story in Mary’s original version and also to see the Percy “edits”. Percy Shelley was clearly a substantial creative mentor, but he is far from a literary Svengali. Mary’s original is more fast paced and immediate than the version with Percy’s polished additions. The textual changes did not stop, however, with its anonymous publication in 1818. A second edition was published in 1823, incorporating 123 changes, probably made by her father, William Godwin. Mary was responsible for the third “revised corrected” edition of 1831, which included most of the changes from the 1823 edition, as well as numerous other revisions, including an entirely new chapter and an “lntroduction” (Appendix C in Robinson’s Bodleian edition).

While Robinson brings closure to the textual legacy of Frankenstein, Shelley’s literary imagination is surely immortal. To aid new readers to access that imagination, Penguin has just issued a well priced version of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein as part of an impressive “Penguin Red Classics Horror 10” set.

Peter Ackroyd’s early novels, such as Hawksmoor, Chatterton, and The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, were fascinating fictional reinterpretations of historical figures. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is, however, one of his weaker reworkings. Ackroyd has told Ben Naparstek that the idea germinated when here read Frankenstein for a BBC television series and decided to “fit her plot in an entirely different context and used it for the hell of it”.

In Ackroyd’s version, the focus is Victor Frankenstein, a student from Switzerland coming to Oxford where he meets up with Shelley and other literary figures, before exploring “the springs of life” through electrical charges. Ackroyd expertly depicts the squalor and horror of historical London, particularly the Limehouse area where Victor makes contact with the “Resurrectionists” who facilitate his “filthy workshop of creation”. When Ackroyd, however, superimposes his version of the Frankenstein myth onto the realistic London backdrops, narrative coherence suffers. The twist in the tail reaffirms this is essentially an Ackroydian jeu d’esprit.

In the end, one wonders, whether Ackroyd’s novel has more to do, in terms of split personality, with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde than Frankenstein. Mary Shelley has become a bit player, almost cast out like the monster. Readers should first seek out the ‘new’ original Frankenstein before delving into Ackroyd’s Casebook.

Colin Steele.

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