The Secret Identity of Authorship in the First Publication
Mary Shelley had completed the first draft of her novel, to be called “Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus” by the end of May in 1817, and commencing in June, Percy Shelley began to submit it to publishers for her. He offered it without acknowledging the identity of the author, in some cases saying only that it was a friend who was out of the country.
Why did he Shelley not want to reveal that the author of this book was his wife? This is perhaps a curious matter of speculation. Shelley himself was no stranger to anonymous authorship. Much of his early work had been published without his name, using various non-pseudonyms, like, “A Gentleman of Oxford” or “The Hermit of Marlow”, only thinly disguising his credit. Was he afraid of nepotism, that he thought the work would be disregarded if it was his 20 year old wife he was representing? Was he worried about the reception of a literary work by a woman author? Was it the subject matter?
There were other women authors. By 1817, Jane Austen had received wide acclaim for her popular fiction, but Austen’s work was far more what was expected of a feminine author than the dark horrors and philosophical questions of Frankenstein. Would the shock be easier to take if it attained success first? Mary Shelley was the daughter of a known woman writer, but Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation was still clouded in the scandal produced by William Godwin’s biography revealing her love affairs. Would her daughter be tainted by the connection? Or was it the scandal of their own relationship which had dogged them for three years since their elopement that worried him. He had even urged his friend Leigh Hunt to remain silent in what he knew.
Some of these concerns over revealing the identity of the author seemed to be born out in some of the critical reception once rumors of the anonymous author’s sex spread, The British Critic wrote “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel…and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” While knowledge of her literary lineage produced the comment by The Literary Panorama that the novel was a “feeble imitation of Mr. Godwin’s novels” referencing that she was the daughter of a “celebrated living novelist”. Sir Walter Scott offered a favorable review “an extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination …. written in plain and forcible English…” although Scott had assumed it was written by Shelley who had sent him the copy. Mary herself had even worried that a work written by one as young as she was at the time, might receive criticism for that alone.
Frankenstein Authorship Controversy – Did Mary Shelley Write Frankenstein?
The authorship identity mystery surrounding the publishing of Frankenstein was also the origin of conspiracy speculation and controversy surrounding whether Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein at all. Assorted discussions have arisen over 200 years of how much contribution Percy Shelley made to the book. Some have even gone so far to suggest that Mary was only “drafting fair copies” of Shelley’s work. But at the time of the creation of the novel, Shelley was working on his own writing, producing a political pamphlet and epic poem, as well as constantly on the move, dodging creditors, fighting for custody of his children, overseeing the publishing of Byron’s work and searching for a place for them to live, to have the time to contribute much.
The ideas in Frankenstein that are often cited as evidence of Percy Shelley’s contribution come from Mary’s deep connection to the philosophical discussions and habits of her husband. She was surely influenced by his interests and inspired by him. The record of her own research can be found in her diaries. Since their first meeting and through their elopement Shelley would introduce her to his reading and his ideas. It is often suggested from the story of that summer in Geneva, that Mary was inspired by one fireside discussion between Bryon and Shelley, but she had been introduced to the themes that appear in Frankenstein long before. Indeed, many of Percy Shelley’s philosophies were introduced to him by Mary’s father, William Godwin, and the circle of writers and thinkers he knew, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb.
Finding a Publisher
The first known submission of the manuscript of Frankenstein was to John Murray. Shelley was in regular correspondence with Murray who was publishing Lord Byron’s “Third Canto of Childe Harold: Third Canto”. Murray declined the work. Perhaps Shelley had revealed to Murray that it was Mary who was the author. Mary was well known to Murray, both through her father and the close relationship between the Shelleys and Byron. He may have even been aware when she was writing it. Shelley next took the manuscript to Charles Ollier who was publishing his own poem “Laon and Cythna” written while in Marlow. Ollier also passed on it. Thomas Hookham had agreed to publish Mary’s History of a Six Weeks Tour Journal, and may not have wanted to cloud the issue with two books.
Shelley began to look for publishers whom he did not know. After a dinner discussion with magazine publisher on a visit with friends the Leigh Hunts, Shelley asked in a letter if Marianne Hunt might know of a publisher to approach. It was in August of 1817, that Shelley finally submitted the book to a publisher, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and & Jones, a well-known seller of books. Whether this was a result of a suggestion by Marianne Hunt is unknown, but Lackington was a well known book seller of inexpensive books for the broad public. Since the “unknown author” was new, Shelley proposed that instead an advance, the author would only take a 1/3 share of the profits from the sales after deduction of expenses, Lackington agreed to publish the book with 500 copies, “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus – In Three Volumes” with no author listed.
Mary began revisions, which would be transmitted at first through Shelley to the publisher, then Mary allowed Shelley “carte blanche” to make any revisions necessary. He most likely added passage of a letter in the first chapter to smooth out what Mary considered an “abruptness”. Shelley also made some alterations to smooth out the writing style in some sections and spelling. The preparation would take three months, until November of 1817. The printing of the book was done by Robert MacDonald & Son. There were disputes with Lackington over advertisements surrounding the publishing.
First Publication of Frankenstein
The book first appeared on January 1 of 1818. The publication date was supposed to be December 29 of 1817, but was delayed. The press announcements referred to it as “A Work of Imagination” with a price of 16 Shillings and Sixpence. The publishing was largely unsuccessful as a financial adventure, and critical response could be described as mixed, but the story itself created a popular sensation, with unauthorized stage versions soon appearing.
The author’s identity would first appear on a French translation in 1821, as only Mme. Shelley. The Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley name would first appear as the author on the 1823 Edition, published by G. and W. B. Whittaker, supervised by her father following Mary’s return to England after Shelley’s death, and suddenly finding herself famous from her story adapted to a hit stage play. The best known version of the book would be published by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley in 1831, with the now well-known, but perhaps artfully apocryphal story of the literary competition at Villa Diodati.