Handwriting-Authorship Fallacy in Studying Frankenstein

face of a prisoner

Based on a broad interpretation of their impressions of some minor manuscript artifacts, leading scholars of Romantic literature have presumed to separate the original words of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS) from those of Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) in manuscripts of Frankenstein.^ ^ ^ This peculiar Romantic labor exploits semantic slippage between creative composition and inscribing words on paper (“writing”). For example, a leading Frankenstein scholar declared:

This uncorrected text attempts to reproduce what Mary originally wrote before giving the Draft manuscript to her husband for his pen and pencil alterations and editorial advice.^

Little evidence exists to support this creative re-creation of “what Mary originally wrote.”

Much evidence exists that MWS helped both PBS and Byron by writing their dictation. In addition to MWS writing PBS’s dictation of The Assassins (1814) and Prometheus Chained (1816), MWS also wrote Byron’s dictation of The Prisoner of Chillon (1816).^ No evidence exists that PBS or Byron wrote from MWS’s dictation. PBS taking dictation from MWS  is not at all likely despite silly suggestions of symmetry.^ MWS asserted in the 1831 Frankenstein preface, “I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely on train of feeling, to my husband.” Frankenstein nonetheless includes considerable text written in PBS’s hand, one of PBS’s poems, and some text, copied in MWS’s hand, from PBS’s Geneva Notebook (most of the penultimate paragraph of Vol. III, Ch. V). For some insight into the complexities in interpreting manuscript handwriting in the circumstances of these authors’ dictating, editing, and re-copying practices, consider a draft manuscript, possibly not the first, of The Assassins. Written in 1814, it includes sections in both MWS’s and PBS’s hands, corrections throughout in PBS’s hand, and also some corrections in MWS’s hand.^

Independent scholar John Lauritsen has fully and forcefully exposed the handwriting-authorship fallacy. The fact that text is written in Mary Shelley’s hand does not in itself provide any evidence that Mary Shelley authored that text. Believing otherwise, or fostering that belief, is the handwriting-authorship fallacy. In his important work The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, Lauritsen argues forcefully that Percy Bysshe Shelley is the author of Frankenstein:

In the fourth chapter I discussed the ability to read. Let’s bring this home with regard to those who espouse Mary Shelley’s authorship. Either they can read, or they cannot read. If they can read — and have read the 1818 Frankenstein, the works of Shelley, and the works that Mary Shelley wrote by herself — then they know that Shelley is the author. If they persist in saying that Mary is the author, they are either delusional or lying. On the other hand, if they cannot read, they have no business teaching English literature.^

In thinking about issues such as third-personal standpoint, the relative weight of plot versus character, and emotionally lability, Shelley’s writings provide key context for interpreting Frankenstein. Appreciation for human nature (including sex differences), material interests, personal and intellectual capital, and incentives helps to explain the horrific results of much Frankenstein scholarship. Formally free inquiry among highly educated persons can produce scholarship that for decades utterly fails to recognize truth. That is perhaps the most publicly important insight that Frankenstein scholarship provides.

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