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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?


Thank you for this. I have an especial fondness for gothic novels from the 19th century, and have always found Mary Shelley a poignant and fascinating woman, as well as an inspiration. To suggest that she couldn't have written Frankenstein because she was a 19 year old girl seems to me to completely ignore all the other facts of her life.

In the B&N Classics edition of the book, Karen Karbiener, NYU professor, suggests that the book plays out some of Mary's guilt about being the cause of her mother's death. That's something I think would have to be unique to her. I also don't think it makes sense to assert that Byron must've written it based on its style. When you spend enough time with a person or reading their work, you're bound to pick up some of their style.

I may have to pick this book up from the library once it's out and read it myself. I'm generally a fan of Camille Paglia and I can't tell if she's praising the substance of the book itself, or simply the fact that it's bold.

In any case, I find the premise of the whole thing disappointing. Teenage girls can certainly write books, and 19 year olds really aren't usually girls anymore, anyway.

Great post, Colleen!

I wrote a long comment a couple days ago about weight-lifting that never got posted, not sure what happened with that, but it basically was me avowing (in response to your inspiring comments about bench-pressing your own weight) to make the transition to doing unassisted pullups even if it DOES make me too muscley!

Lectitans: I really think on the surface that there is a knee jerk "19 = naive" response to Mary and that is not at all who she was. I also wanted to throw out other names as well - Margaret Mitchell, JD Salinger, SE Hinton, Harper Lee, etc - as authors who really only wrote one "great" book. Why do you have to be prolific to be believable? Very annoying.

Jenny: I have no idea what happened to your comment - I try to be really careful and make sure the "junk" really is "junk". Strange. As for pull-ups - or man they have never ever been something I can do. Even with all the bench pressing, my shoulders have always been the weakest point in my body. I do horribly at shoulder presses! I also have those flashbacks to jr high gym and that lame chin-up bar. It totally freaked me out.

Must go to the bowflex now and work past the psychological damage!!!! (Mary Shelley would tell me just to "buck up"!)

You go girl! (Said only a little bit ironically.)

I, too, am sick to death of this utter bullshit. Anyone with a half second's acquaintance with Mary Shelly's life knows this for bollocks.

Next person to tell me that the feminists have won gets a swift kick up the bum.

Come on. The fact is, Mary Shelly didn’t have a formal education. That means someone else must have written Frankenstien.

Also, Thomas Edison didn't have a formal education either. That means someone else must have invented the lightbulb.

Furthermore, Ben Franklin only had two years of schooling. That means someone else must have founded the first public library, volunteer firefighter company, and hospital in America; discovered positive and negative electrical charges; served as the ambassador to France during the Revolution; and is on the $100 bill.

Seriously, though, I’m afraid Harper Lee does get this sort of thing. I’ve met several people who are convinced Truman Capote must have written To Kill a Mockingbird.

I've read that also about Harper Lee - and that Truman had to assert many many times that he did not write the book.

Maybe it was all that sort of garbage that convinced her not to publish again!

Kris you and Justine and are both too cool, how perfect that your books will be reviewed together in my column next month!

GO Colleen.

GO Mary Shelley.


Given that John Lauritsen's only other claim to fame is as a dissenter/activist/author who claims that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, despite overwhelming medical proof that says otherwise, I have a hard time taking his work seriously. Lauritsen supports the spread of mis-information serious enough to cause physical harm to people reading his material, so it seems highly unlikely that he is capable of thorough research and reading of primary materials clearly enough to draw a conclusion that anyone would take seriously.

I agree with you Steve - and yet a ton of people have picked this up and they are not researching Lauritsen, they are merely falling in love with the idea that Mary Shelley is not the great feminist that history has judged her to be due to her book.

I just want to make sure that the other side of this argument fights back.

Thanks for fighting back on this issue. I think you're right that it's much larger than a literary/historical controversy.

For me (a writer, of SF among other stuff), MWS is a great early example of a woman writing outside the parameters of the "feminine", yet addressing women's experience honestly in ways that, say, Jane Austen, never did. There's still so much pressure for women writers to keep within certain boundaries. (i.e., "chick lit.")

PS: MWS's short story "The Mortal Immortal" is great, too! Its hero is an historical alchemist who defended an accused "witch" and practiced medicine without a licence.

some girl

I just wanted to add that a lot of people thought Mary getting editing out bits of Shelleys' work with homoerotic undertones in it was evidence of her 'selling out' and proving herself to be a bit of a prude and a fake, but in reality - I believe she was grieving and in shock, she'd lost her soul mate and never recovered, also probably suffered PND, which wasn't properly recognised until about the 1950's in this country - or later. She also had a kid to think of and moving back into a society she'd so notoriously eloped with Percy from, with an increasing growth of social moral double standards heralding the start of the Victoian era - it's not exacly a surprise the choices she made in order to cope. She'd seen everyone around her stick by their principals and be the worse off for it - sometimes - you just run out of fight, if only for a little while. Simply put, she went a bit mental towards the end, Mary was cool and witty and had to put up with a lot of rubbish, she doesn't disserve peoples misplaced contempt - to deny other people the real Shelley, I think it was the only thing she had left of him and their time together, the truth.

Good points guys - especially about how Mary was feeling after the death of Percy.

And yes the boundaries situation hasn't really changed much. Do we all remember why Harry Potter is written by "JK Rowing" as opposed to "Jo Rowling"?

Because her publishers thought young boys wouldn't want a book about a boy wizard written by a woman.

If that doesn't explain Mary Shelly's continuing struggle in a nutshell, I don't know what does.

For some reason, I am reminded of Patty Larkin's song, Not Bad for a Broad. Hah.

Thank you for this article. I followed the link from the 13th Carnival of Children's Literature.

Very cool - thanks for that!


I know I'm very late to the party, but I thought I'd add this here, since I haven't found any other recent threads on Lauritsen's fallacious book.

Part of Lauritsen's evaluation of extra-textual evidence focuses on the handwriting in the Frankenstein notebooks, which contain Mary's original draft with both Mary's and Percy's written edits and notes. Lauritsen uses the red herring of accusing Charles Robinson (the editor of the Frankenstein Notebooks) of inferring authorship only from handwriting. He claims that every note in Mary's hand was actually dictated by Percy. Lauritsen neglects to mention the many margin notes (in Percy's writing, natch) where Percy clearly addresses Mary as the author. For example, in the section where Victor plans to go to England to create a female monster, Percy writes: “I think the journey to England ought to be Victor’s proposal . . . . He ought to lead his father to this in the conversations–”. Mary had originally attributed the idea for the trip to Victor’s father. Percy here is suggesting to Mary a change she should make to the plot, not just dictating text to her. There are other such examples in the Notebooks. Lauritsen is fundamentally dishonest for not mentioning them.

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