It began as a game to pass the time while the rain fell and lightning struck. Visiting Switzerland in June 1816, a small group—young and rivalrous, amorous and ever so literary—agreed to a ghost-story-writing contest. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, just 18, could come up with nothing at first. Then she had a nightmare—a walking corpse, glimmering yellow eyes. It delighted her. The next day, she announced to the others that she had imagined a story. Frankenstein was born.
Two years later Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously. Readers immediately wondered about the author's identity. Some guessed it was the poet Percy Shelley, who had written the novel's preface. Those who knew that the author was Percy's (by then) wife, Mary Shelley, were amazed. Mary later said that she was constantly asked how she, "then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" In an introduction to a revised 1831 edition, she told the Gothic tale of the ghost-story contest. (Percy, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary's stepsister, Claire, were the others present.) As for Percy, she "certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling" in the book, but she did depend upon his encouragement and more. "Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone."
The question of whether Mary alone wrote the novel, however, would not die. The answer matters, and not only because scholars who once regarded Frankenstein as merely a potboiler now consider it a progenitor of science fiction, a monument of Romantic literature, and a landmark text in gender studies. The answer matters because Frankenstein so beautifully explores the consequences of living and working in isolation. After cloistering himself to bring dead flesh to life, Victor Frankenstein condemns his creature to loneliness. The creature does the same to him in revenge. Solitude makes monsters of both.
Few people did more to promote the archetype of the independent Romantic hero than Percy Shelley. It turns out, though, that he was a conscientious helpmate. By examining Mary's original drafts, Shelley scholar Charles E. Robinson identified Percy's contributions to Frankenstein and, in 1996, edited a reproduction of Mary's notebooks for scholarly audiences. Now he has published The Original Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley). The first part of the new book highlights Percy's edits and the second reveals Mary's lone voice. "The novel was conceived and mainly written by Mary Shelley," Robinson writes in his introduction, but he estimates that Percy wrote "at least" 4,000 to 5,000 words of the 72,000 total. Many of -Percy's fixes are minor. Some are good, some bad. Percy may have corrected Mary's parallel constructions, but he also mucked up her more straightforward language. "Smallness" became "minuteness." "I did not despair" became "I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed." Frankenstein was already turgid; Percy made it more so.
Yet he also helped with some of the novel's most moving lines: the monster's appeal to his creator for affection. "Remember that I am thy creature—Thy Adam—or rather the fallen angel for every where I see bliss while I alome [sic] am irrecoverably wretched," Mary had written. Percy altered it: "Remember that I am thy creature—I ought to be thy Adam—but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed; everywhere I see bliss from which I alone am irrevocably excluded." Percy grasped what lay beneath Mary's language and pulled it to the surface. "I ought to be thy Adam," the creature says—but his creator rejected him before his mate was made. He is not inhuman because he was brought to life on a surgical table. He is inhuman because he is alone.
Mary Shelley knew something about loneliness and abandonment. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, died giving birth to her, and her stepmother was "a woman I shudder to think of," Mary wrote. At 16, Mary fell in love with Percy Shelley, an aristocrat by birth and atheist by declaration, a rebel at every chance. They ran off together. There was already a Mrs. Shelley: Harriet, mother of Percy's 2-year-old daughter and pregnant again.
The period of writing Frankenstein was typically chaotic. In the summer of 1816, Percy was again fleeing his creditors. Mary's stepsister, Claire, was pregnant by Byron, who was now tired of her. In October Mary's half sister, Fanny, committed suicide; the next month Percy's wife, Harriet, drowned herself. In late December Mary married Percy and was soon pregnant—for the third time in three years. Thoughts about pregnancy and parenthood surely weighed on her mind. Doubtlessly, she also thought about neglect.
We know that science preoccupied her. In her 1831 introduction, Mary describes listening to Percy, Byron, and Polidori discuss new scientific experiments. She had also accompanied her father to public lectures on chemistry and discussed scientific ideas with Percy, who had been interested in experimentation since boyhood (explosives held special appeal). Frankenstein is commonly considered a parable about the dangers of scientific inquiry, mostly because film and stage adaptations tend to portray the scientist as an evil maniac and the monster as a dumb brute. The novel is much more complex. The Romantics did not reject science, as Richard Holmes demonstrates in his remarkable new book, The Age of Wonder. (Holmes is also the author of a brilliant biography of Percy Shelley). They were ambivalent. Romantic artists and scientists shared a commitment to the quest for truth, and they were both motivated by wonder. It's no accident that Frankenstein shares certain features with Percy Shelley. Frankenstein is a kind of artist, as well as a composite of the era's well-known scientists. But as Holmes shows in a chapter on Frankenstein, Mary also captured the fear surrounding scientific exploration: if man can manipulate nature like a machine, what becomes of the soul? Chemistry and biology must be only half the story—half the human, one might say. Frankenstein is an argument between reason and emotion, nature and civilization, the divided self. Frankenstein's radical suggestion is that it doesn't take God to heal the rift. It takes the loyalty and love of another person.
Years later, Mary called Frankenstein "the offspring of happy days." With all the turmoil in her life, it's tempting to see this as wishful nostalgia. The Original Frankenstein makes it easier to believe her: Robinson's editing—prose embroidered lightly with italics—is evidence of a real and strangely moving companionship between Percy and Mary. Examining the page leaves, Robinson deduced that the lovers passed the notebooks between them as Mary wrote. Mary may have called the book her "hideous progeny," calling to mind Frankenstein's monster, but unlike Victor Frankenstein, she did not cloister herself to construct it.
Her "happy days" were soon over—by the time she was 25, three of her four children were dead, and so was her husband. When she wrote Frankenstein, however, she was not alone. And neither was Percy. In his biography of the poet, Shelley: The Pursuit, Holmes notes that in the monologue of the "fallen angel," "Mary states with an extraordinary premonition the theme which was to dominate so much of Shelley's later poetry." Perhaps it wasn't a premonition. Influence, like love, runs both ways.