Friday, March 11, 2011

An Auspicious (Monstrous) Anniversary

by Sara Crow

On this date in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published her first edition of a novel that would rock the literary world to its core--a book about the monstrous, about being an alien in a human world, and about living a life beholden to an even more monstrous majority.

During the dark and cold summer of 1816, known throughout Europe as "The Year Without a Summer" due to the ash spewed across the globe from the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora halfway across the planet in Indonesia, Shelley and friends were stuck inside at a summer home rented from friends. Shelley's dark tale was written as a part of a contest between herself, her husband, her sister, and their mutual friends, John Polidori (author of "The Vampyre," a concept he actually lifted from Byron's tale that night), and Lord Byron, in an attempt to help them all write through the chill and the rain and avoid their own boredom-induced madness. 

Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus recounts the story of Doctor Victor Frankenstein, who discovers the spark of life and uses it to "give birth" to a new form of life with body parts filched from the freshly-dead. Chaos and moral ambiguity ensues. 

And no, before you ask, Frankenstein is NOT the name of the monster. So stop calling the Monster Frankenstein, okay? Good. Moving on.

Shelley's first edition had an entirely different tone than subsequent editions. Published when she was 19, the first book was published in three volumes, completely lacking author attribution. The book was controversial for its moral ambiguity, but extremely popular, and caused an uproar when it was revealed that the author was, in fact, a woman.

One of the first reviewers, a writer for the British Critic, managed to unmask the author as a woman (though her specific identity, at this point, was still unknown), and recounts his horror at the revelation:
"If our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should, and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment."
(Excerpted from Frankenstein: A Cultural History. See link below to pick it up from Amazon.)
A book of such scientific acumen, dark tone and philosophical consideration, by a woman!? Unthinkable. Not to mention the frightening undertones of feminism, authored by the daughter of one of the most notorious feminists of the French Revolution.

Mary was a revolutionary, unabashed in her representation of her imagination and unafraid to follow a very un-feminine literary career. One on a very long list of my heroes.

The original edition is available through WorldCat. Open Library has a TON of editions of the book (perhaps all of them) listed, including the numerous revisions made during Mary's lifetime.

A few other sources for study:

Illustration from the 1831 edition.
Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock
This one isn't as good as it could be, but it's a pretty comprehensive look at Frankenstein's history. I really don't think it says enough about the feminist overtones or the roots, implications and symbols of the story itself, however--it just pretty much documents the instances of Frankenstein's appearances throughout history in a more-or-less cataloging method. Very useful for my writing, but I was disappointed with the analysis.

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal
Though it doesn't spend quite as much time on Frankenstein in particular, Skal is a master of horror analysis, and the chapter or two he does dedicate to the Frankenstein story (and the culture that sprung from the films in particular) is entirely worth the effort.

Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture by David J. Skal
Okay, so I haven't read this one by Mr. Skal, but the subject matter is appropriate for a Frankenstein-y discussion, and I can't imagine that it's bad. I've never been disappointed by his work. I discovered this title as I was looking for the other Skal book and have now resolved to pick this one up as well. Might be useful in my research for my own book about the man-made woman.

The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film edited by Barry Keith Grant
This one analyzes a number of fantastic horror films, from Carrie to The Cat People, including an analysis of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. So, not an analysis of the original text, but it is in conversation with it, and entirely worth reading, especially for the analysis of the conversation between feminism and horror (which have been in conversation since the birth of the Gothic, when women used the genre to illustrate their own pain and marginalization). Probably my favorite collection of horror analysis essays.


  1. A fabulous feminist foremother. Have you read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman or Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman?

  2. Deb,

    Yes, I read both in college in a women in lit class. Mary's mother and namesake had some serious emotional and mental issues, but she was an amazing thinker. Mary definitely followed in her mother's footsteps, in her own very unique way.