When people talk about Frankenstein, they often think of a pop-culture creation far removed from the original story. When Halloween comes around, children dress in costumes with bolts through their necks and skin painted green, looking more like Boris Karloff in the 1931 film of Frankenstein than Mary Shelley’s own monster.
At St Mary’s Books, we’re excited to have acquired a beautiful and rare first edition copy of Frankenstein that takes us as close to the original story as it is possible to get without time travel.
The first edition of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was published anonymously in 1818. She started writing it when she was only 18, on holiday with a group of poets and intellectuals who had all run away from their responsibilities in England. Among the group was Percy Bysshe Shelley, a married man with whom Mary was having a relationship, and a poet in his own right. Many people initially assumed that Percy Shelley was the true author of Frankenstein, since he wrote the ‘Preface’ to the 1818 edition.
However — aside from a few minor edits by Percy Shelley — Frankenstein was entirely Mary’s invention. Inspired by a competition to write the best horror story and a terrible dream, Mary told the story of a rogue scientist, dabbling with dark arts, who manages to create new life in a humanoid form created from a patchwork of pieces from human corpses. The scientist’s name was Victor Frankenstein, but he never named his creation, causing two centuries of confusion and an opportunity for people to say, smugly, “actually, Frankenstein was the scientist’s name.”
I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.Frankenstein (1818), mary shelley
The novel is dark, permeated by grief, preoccupied with the secrets of life and death — much like Mary, during the “Year without a Summer” of 1816. A year earlier, she had lost her first baby eleven days after giving birth. 1816 was the coldest year on record between 1766 and 2000, due to volcanic eruptions that caused serious climate abnormalities which disrupted food production and contributed to a typhus epidemic. No wonder, then, that Mary was thinking about ways to give life to dead things, and that the novel takes place in freezing, unforgiving landscapes.
In 1831, Frankenstein was resurrected with a second edition. By this time, Percy Shelley had died and Mary Shelley had come forward as the author of the novel. In an introduction to the revised edition, Mary described how the story had come to her in a dream. Contemporary reception of the first edition had been mixed: some, including the novelist Walter Scott, thought it a work of genius, while others found it to be disgusting and distasteful. The story about the dream, then, may have allowed Mary to distance herself slightly from the horrors she had written about at the tender age of 18.
I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togetherIntroduction to Frankenstein (1831), Mary Shelley
In more recent years, praise of Frankenstein has been more positive. It is often considered to be a pivotal piece of Romantic and Gothic literature, not to mention an iconic feminist text. Certainly, the first edition we have acquired is extremely rare and a tangible piece of literary history, straight from 1818.