Friday, October 31, 2008

A Monstrous Halloween Tale: 190 Years Later, Mary Shelley Finally Gets Her Due

Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley
(top) and Robinson and Mr. Stein

Halloween may be my favorite holiday and Frankenstein one of my favorite books.

But there is a dirty little secret about the masterwork written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in her late teens and first published anonymously in 1818 as Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, and a colleague, Charlie Robinson, can now tell the tale after studying Shelley's original notebooks at Oxford University's venerable Bodleian Library:

Shelley's husband, famed English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, deleted many words and added at least 4,000 to 5,000 words of his own to the 72,000-word novel, which is considered the first work of science fiction and remains the most popular book in that genre nearly 200 years on.

Robinson, an English professor at the University of Delaware, has atoned for Percy Shelley's sins in The Original Frankenstein, published this month in England by the Bodleian but not yet available in the U.S.

The enduring popularity of Mary Shelley's monster can be attributed to the quality of the book and the effects of Hollywood on the popular imagination.

"The novel subsumes the basic Western myths about the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge," Robinson says. "It's a short novel, and states the murder as fact, and with its simplicity and clarity, there is a fable-like quality to the narrative. It's also about cautionary science, revolutionary theories, family dynamics and responsibility to one's children."

There is a spooky element to Robinson's research: The Shelleys apparently visited the same Clarendon Building at the Bodleian in 1815 where he toiled on the new edition, as did Victor Frankenstein and Henry Clerval in the novel itself.

With the assistance of Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield, a senior assistant librarian at the Bodleian, Robinson inspected each leaf of the original manuscript and through a laborious examination of torn edges, glue residue, ink blots, pin holes, water marks and other minutiae, was able to determine the process through which Mary Shelley created Frankenstein.

There is a cautionary tale in Robinson's research.

There has been a mad rush toward digitization of manuscripts and other primary source materials. But as Robinson told me, he never would have been able to ascertain what was Mary Shelley's work and that of her husband had he used photocopies and not original source material.

Working in a rare book and manuscript library as I do, I know of what he speaks. The experience of opening an old book and seeing, feeling and smelling its pages is irreplaceable.

Our library has the finest archive extant of the works, journals and ephemera of Paul Bowles, the great American ex pat author, composer and translator best know for The Sheltering Sky. This collection is imbued with the faint odor of patchouli, the minty herb widely used in Morocco, where Bowles lived for over 50 years. Other collections can smell of other fragrances, as well as cigar and pipe smoke and many a musty attic or cellar.

Meanwhile, Penguin Classics is publishing a Frankenstein e-book today. Robinson contributed 100 pages of enhancements, including a filmography and summaries of movies ranging from the 13-minute 1910 silent black-and-white version directed by J. Searle Dawley for Thomas Edison, to the 2004 American color film Frankenstein directed by Kevin Connor.

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