Prefaces to the 1818 and 1831 Editions of Frankenstein

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The preface to the first, 1818 edition of Frankenstein differs significantly from the preface to the third, 1831 edition. The 1818 preface was anonymously written for the anonymously published Frankenstein. The 1831 preface was signed “M.W.S.” The 1831 edition of Frankenstein as a whole was attributed to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Thus the explicitly credited author for the 1831 preface was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

While the 1818 preface was anonymous, knowledgeable persons would have attributed it to Percy Bysshe Shelley. The 1818 preface declares:

I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece, — Shakespeare, in the Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, — and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule; and the most humble novelist, who seeks to confer or receive amusement from his labours, may, without presumption, apply to prose fiction a licence, or rather a rule, from the adoption of which so many exquisite combinations of human feeling have resulted in the highest specimens of poetry.^

Name-dropping characterizes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s prefaces. Grand claims for poetry, here transferred to prose fiction, also characterizes Shelley. The use of the masculine pronoun “his” in “the most humble novelist … his labours” mischaracterizes the typical novel. In Britain and Ireland from 1785 to 1819, novels authored by women numbered about 50% more than novels authored by men.^ The 1818 preface teasingly states:

It is a subject of additional interest to the author, that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva.

The 1818 preface goes on to explain that the story of Frankenstein originated then and there. Shelley’s friends knew that he spent the summer of 1816 near Geneva. Moreover, the 1818 preface’s style, diction, and topics of concern correspond closely to the style, diction, and topics of concern in other prefaces to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s published works. An insightful scholar has described the 1818 preface as “written by Shelley from his wife’s point of view.”^ That’s a mischaracterization. The 1818 preface was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley from his own point of view.^

Percy Bysshe Shelley sent a copy of Frankenstein to Walter Scott for review on Jan. 2. 1818. Walter Scott was then a prominent poet. Shelley’s accompanying letter to Scott declared:

My own share in them {the volumes of Frankenstein} consists simply in having superintended them through the press during the Author’s absence.^

Scott’s review assumed that Percy Bysshe Shelley was the author of Frankenstein. Scott provided favorable comments and complimented an unattributed inclusion of lines from Shelley’s poem, “Mutability.” In contrast to that unattributed quotation, quotations from Coleridge and Wordsworth in Frankenstein are attributed in footnotes.^ Nearly six months latter, in a letter dated June 14, 1818, Mary Shelley came to her husband’s aid. She wrote to Scott:

I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine; to which – from its being at an early age, I abstained from putting my name – and from respect to those persons from whom I bear it.

Mary Shelley was then twenty-one years old. The 1818 edition of Frankenstein included a dedication page: “To / WILLIAM GODWIN, / Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. / These Volumes / Are respectfully inscribed / By / The Author.” Who was the author of Frankenstein? — that was a game not played very seriously about the time of its first publication. About a year and a half later, Shelley manipulated authorial attribution more seriously in plotting the public distribution of The Cenci.

In her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley returned to the issue of the 1818 preface. Mary Shelley described her work on Frankenstein:

At first I thought but of a few pages – of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was written entirely by him.^

Mary Shelley’s journal entry for May 14, 1817, states “S. reads hist of Fr. Rev. and corrects F. write Preface – Finis.” A well-regarded academic has argued that the form of the verb “write” indicates that Mary or both Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the preface.^ That interpretation contradictions Mary Shelley’s explicit claim in the 1831 preface. Given the style, diction, and topics of concern in the 1818 preface, Percy Bysshe Shelley surely wrote it. In Mary Shelley’s journal entry concerning the preface, “write” is best understood as a verb incorrectly agreeing with the implicit subject “S. {Percy Bysshe Shelley}.” Significant differences between the 1818 and 1831 prefaces to Frankenstein are readily apparent to good readers.^ ^

While asserting sole authorship, Mary Shelley in the 1831 preface also affects literary modesty. The 1831 preface further declared:

It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing.^

In the 1831 preface, Mary Shelley somewhat inconsistently declared herself “averse to bringing myself forward in print” and “infinitely indifferent to {literary reputation}.”^ Mary Shelley actually was keen to have the additional preface added to the 1831 text. In a letter to Charles Ollier, who advised the publisher Colburn and Bently (“C.&B.”), Mary Shelley wrote:

If there is another real <introd> {word fragment struck out} edition of Frankenstein – that is if it goes to press again – will you remember that I have a short passage to add to the Introduction. Do not fail me with regard to this – it will only be a few lines — & those not disagreeable to C. & B. – but the contrary — …. ^

A few weeks later, Mary Shelley sent an article, not specifically solicited, to William Blackwood to consider for publication in the periodical Blackwood’s.^ Apparently she wasn’t averse to bringing herself forward in print and was concerned to acquire a good literary reputation. The different prefaces to Frankenstein, like the work itself, provides a good test of reading skill.

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