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Why Frankenstein still stalks readers 200 years later

Mary Shelley (30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851)

With Frankenstein Mary Shelley created not only a literary classic, but also an enduringly poignant antiheroic character in the manmade monster who still stalks popular culture today – 200 years after the book was first published in 1818

There are many reasons why the story of Frankenstein the creator and his monster has been such a success, according to Dr Anna Mercer, who completed an AHRC-funded PhD studying the works of Mary Shelley and her poet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley at the University of York in 2017

“Firstly, the themes of the book,” she says. “It was very much a novel of its time that was reacting to what was in the public consciousness at that moment – new ideas about science, for example. At the heart of the story of Frankenstein are concerns about the dangers of power and intelligence, and these are enduring themes.”

Secondly, the dramatic story of the author's life brings a fascination of its own. Mary was born to intellectual parents – the feminist pioneer and novelist Mary Wollstonecraft and the political philosopher William Godwin – and she began writing the book whilst still a teenager, having travelled to war-torn Europe with her lover and eventual husband, Percy Shelley.

Although published anonymously in 1818, the novel is famous for its beginnings, supposedly inspired by a ghost-story writing competition on a stormy night by Lake Geneva in 1816, where a group of remarkable young intellects were gathered at the Villa Diodati: Mary, Percy, Lord Byron, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori.

But there is another side to the book's remarkable success that has been ignored until now: the way that is was written.

It's well-established that Frankenstein was the product of a literary double act between Mary and Percy Shelley; it has largely been assumed that the book was something of an emotional release for Mary with Percy directing and shaping her writing.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus 

But Dr Mercer's new research challenges these assumptions, and, through intensive study of the Shelleys’ original manuscripts, she can reveal that the literary relationship between the two writers was far more equal than previously believed. She also looked at the Shelleys’ collaborations on other texts beyond Frankenstein, in order to build a more comprehensive understanding of their creative interactions.

“With regards to Frankenstein: certainly Mary was helped by her husband, and for a long time people assumed that this was an act of patriarchal dominance, with him taking over her writing,” she says.

“The manuscript shows how Percy Shelley marks up the draft. But importantly I think it also reveals the book's creation to have been a collaboration, as recognised by scholars such as Charles E Robinson, Neil Fraistat and Nora Crook.

“Personally, I believe that Frankenstein was possibly one of the greatest collaborations in literary history.

“I'm not saying that it was a totally equal enterprise. I think he contributed to her work more than she contributed to his; partly this was because he was more experienced, being older, and having more formal education as a man at that time, and she looked to him as a mentor at first. But the idea that he 'made' her work or that she would be nothing without him is simply not true, and nor is the suggestion that Percy’s intervention was a detriment to Mary Shelley’s genius.”

Their creative exchange wasn’t always free of conflict, but they assisted one another in making their individual works the best they could possibly be. Their enduring legacies are a testament to the success of their shared dedication to literary careers, and the support and encouragement they gave one another

Mary was also heavily involved in shaping Percy's work – particularly his more mature writings which were composed in 1818-22, the four years prior to Percy’s death by drowning aged just 29, when the Shelley’s moved to Italy. Many of his poems either feature her or were influenced by her. And her dedication to writing notes and editing his posthumous work was remarkable.

“What I believe is that together they were able to do things that they wouldn't have been able to achieve if they were apart from each other,” says Dr Mercer. “And certainly, without Mary's work as his editor, taking charge of his papers after his tragic death, many of Percy's poems would have been lost forever.”

Dr Mercer hopes that her future research will look in more detail at the other writing that Percy and Mary did together.

“I believe a huge amount of his work wouldn't have been published without her,” she says.

“They were a relatively equal partnership and, for 200 years ago, I think that was a rather radical and interesting relationship. On a day-to-day basis they were frequently working and reading together and the majority of Percy Shelley's most famous and important work was written in the eight years that they were together. For example The Mask of Anarchy was written in 1819, and Mary Shelley copied Percy’s poem for the press.

“I think that there must be a lot of hidden female figures behind many of our great male writers – particularly when they are in romantic relationships with each other.

“Interestingly, until now the focus has often been on the creative dynamics in male-male relationships. But this is obviously far, far from the whole story and I believe there is much more to learn about the way many of our greatest works of literature were created – and by whom.”

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