Mary Shelley’s Three Frankensteins

Frankenstein exists today in numerous formats and any number of different versions. Mary Shelley herself published no fewer than three editions in her lifetime.

Frankenstein 3 volumes

The first of these, the 1818 edition, is the one we are celebrating this year. Published anonymously, some early reviewers believed it was the work of Mary’s husband – the much more famous Romantic poet, Percy Shelley – and scholars since have continued to debate how much Percy contributed to the actual writing of the novel. One estimate contends that of the novel’s roughly 72,000 words around 5,000 are Percy’s. In the past, Percy’s involvement in the editing process would have been seen as a guarantor of the novel’s quality; nowadays, in those instances where Percy’s contribution can be clearly identified, the general feeling seems to be that his writing is more stilted, more Latinate and therefore less engaging than Mary’s original. There is a reason he was celebrated as a poet, rather than a prose writer, after all.

The second edition of 1823 is the least well known of the three. Indeed, it has proven to be so easy to overlook that scholars often forget about it entirely and refer to what is really the third edition as the second edition instead. This edition was in any case the brainchild of Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. Inspired by the enormous success of the unauthorised stage play of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake – and always on the look out for ways of making a quick buck – Godwin made some changes of his own as he prepared this second edition for press. On this occasion, however, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s name did at least appear on the cover.

The third edition of 1831 is Mary Shelley’s own work, although she kept most of her father’s changes. Now a single mother returned to England and determined to support herself and her sole surviving son through her writing, Mary Shelley made a number of changes to the content and ideology of the novel in the belief this would make it appeal more to the sensitivities of the age. In this edition, for instance, the presence of a Christian perspective is felt more strongly, Victor Frankenstein is cast more as a victim of fate, and any suggestion of an incestuous relationship between him and Elizabeth is greatly reduced. For many years, this was the edition that was most commonly published and this explains its continuing dominance among free copies of the novel available on the internet.