It starts at Perth Now, with an article about author John Lauritsen's upcoming book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein. Lauritsen claims that Mary Shelley was basically too stupid to have written such a significant book and posits instead that it was written by her husband Percy and published after his death first anonymously and then under Mary's name. Here are some of Lauritsen's reasons for calling Mary Shelley "a fraud":
He says some of the language, with lines such as "I will glut the maw of death", were pure Shelley, and that the young aristocrat wrote a handful of fashionable horror tales that echo the later tone of Frankenstein. Lauritsen said Shelley had many reasons to disguise his authorship, including hints of "free love" that had already driven him out of England and an undertone of "Romantic, but I would not say gay, male love".
Okay I never got the "male love" angle in Frankenstein at all - I'm going to have to go back and pour over the thing to find it now. (And I keep thinking gay monster love which is just wrong, but Lauritsen has planted the whole idea in my head now and what am I going to do to get it out???)
In all likelihood the book, coming out from a small indy publisher, would not have gotten too much popular notice but Camilla Paglia was sent a review copy and she wrote about it last week in her column at Salon. (it's on the last page after the Hilary/Obama stuff.) And now the new book is about feminism as well as male love - or about how feminist scholars and academics are so quick to put someone on a pedestal that they ignore the truth. From Paglia:
Lauritsen assembles an overwhelming case that Mary Shelley, as a badly educated teenager, could not possibly have written the soaring prose of "Frankenstein" (which has her husband's intensity of tone and headlong cadences all over it) and that the so-called manuscript in her hand is simply one example of the clerical work she did for many writers as a copyist. I was stunned to learn about the destruction of records undertaken by Mary for years after Percy's death in 1822 in a boating accident in Italy. Crucial pages covering the weeks when "Frankenstein" was composed were ripped out of a journal. And Percy Shelley's identity as the author seems to have been known in British literary circles, as illustrated by a Knights Quarterly review published in 1824 that Lauritsen reprints in the appendix.
The stupidity and invested self-interest of prominent literary scholars are lavishly on display here in exchanges reproduced from a Romanticism listserv or in dueling letters to the editor, which Lauritsen forcefully contradicts in acerbic footnotes. This is a funny, wonderful, revelatory book that I hope will inspire ambitious graduate students and young faculty to strike blows for truth in our mired profession, paralyzed by convention and fear.
I was particularly struck by the bit on how scholars had suspected Percy as the author as early as 1824. That doesn't surprise me at all and I would have entirely expected many many scholars (all of whom were men) to have denied Mary Shelley could have been the author of what is arguably the first science fiction novel. It has science! It has reanimation of dead people! It has Arctic exploration! None of these subjects were the purview of female writers at that time, so of course it was suspected that Percy was the author. I don't see any of that as big news, and I don't understand why anyone else would either.
But really, I'm not expert on all things Shelley. As it happens though, I interviewed two people who are such experts just last year: Thomas and Dorothy Hoobler. The Hooblers wrote the wonderful book The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankentstein which I included in my revisiting the classics feature last fall at Bookslut. I really enjoyed that book as it gave a great look into not only the lives of the Shelleys but also Lord Byron and John Polidori who was also present the fateful night Mary got the idea for Frankenstein. Polidori, as it turns out, is credited with writing the first vampire novel. (Two monsters, one night - pretty cool, isn't it?)
So I emailed Tom and Dorothy and asked them what they thought of all this. Tom fired back a quick response and here's what he had to say:
This argument reminds me of all the people who have contended that William Shakespeare never wrote the plays attributed to him. They always start from the premise that a glover's son from Stratford-on-Avon who never attended university could not possibly have acquired the knowledge that the plays demonstrate.
Mary in fact was very well educated by her father, as her journals show. I haven't read Lauritsen's book, so I can't debate him, but just off the top of my head, here are some reasons to believe that Mary was, in fact, the author of Frankenstein:
1) Though here and there, pages are missing from her journals, those that remain detail the process she went through in writing Frankenstein.
2) Others who were with her in 1816, such as Byron and her stepsister Claire, had absolutely no doubt that Mary was the author of Frankenstein and stated that in letters to others. Byron wrote that it was "a wonderful work for a Girl of nineteen--not nineteen indeed at that time." (see our book, p. 195)
3) I have seen copies of pages from the holograph manuscript, in Mary's own handwriting. Brief comments in Percy's handwriting are sometimes made in the margins, and he clearly addresses her as the author. His editorial changes were very slight, and generally detract from the power of her own writing. Numerous modern critics have gone into detail on what Percy's editorial influence was on the book, but none ever argue that he wrote it.
4) The events of the novel reflect Mary's own emotional life, as we point out in detail in our book The Monsters.
5) The two Gothic novels that Percy wrote as a very young man are very different in style from Frankenstein.
6) Mary edited Percy Shelley's poetry after his death and brought to their final form much of the work that made his reputation as a great poet. It would be much easier to argue that she wrote his poems, than to claim that he wrote her novel.
7) Mary was solicitous of Percy's reputation, and we strongly doubt that she would claim as her own a novel that he actually wrote. There would be no reason to do so, particularly after his death. Certainly when she published the revised 1831 edition she would have no reason to make up the story she tells in the preface of her inspiration.
I especially agree wtih his last two points on Mary's contributions to Percy's work. She basically dedicated her entire life to protecting and enhancing his reputation after his death. The only reason she would not have credited Frankenstein to him - especially after it became widely accepted, was if it was hers. Everything Mary did was for Percy's reputation (to the detriment of her own work, I think). If it was his book, she would have let the world know - she would have wanted the world to know.
And as for her being ill-educated, here's just an example of what she was doing as a child (this is the one I see most often written about her):
Mary's favorite pastime as a child was to "write stories," and in 1808 her thirty-nine-quatrain reworking of Charles Dibdin's five-stanza song Mounseer Nongtongpaw was published by the Godwin Juvenile Library. This version became so popular that it was republished in 1830 in an edition illustrated by Robert Cruikshank.
Remember, her father was both a writer and a publisher and one of the radicals of his day. He married one of the most educated and impressive figures in women's history and although she died from childbirth complications, clearly he was not averse to their daughter being smart and well read.
Also, the inspiration for the book did occur at the party when she was nineteen years old, remember she was a nineteen year old who had left her family for a man, had two children and lost one only a month after she was born. She did not finish the book until the following year however, after the suicides of her older sister (a complete shock) and Percy's pregnant first wife (another complete shock). Also she and Percy fought in this period to obtain custody of his two children from that marriage but lost to his former in-laws. I'm just saying - she wasn't your typical teenager.
I really annoys me that someone would attack Mary Shelley now - almost 200 years after her book was published, and the whole thing boils down to her being just a girl, while her husband was "the great poet". I read stuff like this and all I hear in my head is:
You throw like a girl.
You hit like a girl.
You cry like a girl.
You act like a girl.
Mary Shelley was a girl and then she became a woman. She gave birth to four children and buried three of them. She lost the love of her life in a bizarre boating accident. She lived the life of a celebrity even though she just wanted peace and quiet. She wrote books - many of them - and one changed the face of literature.
You write like a girl.
Oh Mr. Lauritsen, you have no idea. You have no idea at all, do you?