200th Anniversary of a Literary Legend
Its first appearance was hardly a monster, though it still remains one of the most famous works of fiction ever published. “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus” made its first appearance on the bookshelves of the Lackington Book Emporium on January 1, 1818. The book was published by the London firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and & Jones. The publishing house changed partners over time, so assorted names sometimes appear, but Lackington’s book emporium, “The Temple of the Muses” on Finsbury Square was London’s largest bookstore.
Five hundred copies had been printed and the book issue had been supported by advertisements in the London broadsheets. The first printing was in three volumes. It did not sell as hoped and was soon offered with a discount and much of the printing run remained unsold.
The name of the author did not appear on the cover, but rumor had it that it was by Percy Bysshe Shelley, though many in the literary community were aware or had suspicion that it was a work by his wife, Mary Shelley. The Shelleys’ friends had known that Mary was writing a book, but Shelley had asked them not to tell the publishers as he was submitting it for consideration.
A great deal has been made of the anonymous publishing of Frankenstein, but it was not at all uncommon at the time for books to be published anonymously. Most of Percy’s own early public works had been published without his name, though many knew who had authored them. Was it a fear of the reaction to a woman authoring such a dark and challenging work, or the fear of reputation, that prevented listing the author? The Shelleys had already been the subject of scandal for three and half years since their elopement in 1814. Perhaps it was the intention to wait for reaction to the book before stepping from behind the curtain, with the fear that critics would take the easy opportunity to attack the author rather than judge the work on its merits.
The book did not sell as hoped. Critical reaction was mixed. Mary Shelley had received no advance for the book, and was to receive a share of the profits after the deduction of expenses. There was a dispute with Lackington over the amount of advertising for the release. Shelley blamed the poor sales on the advertisements appearing too late to support the publication date. Lackington agreed to re-launch the book in three months, with sufficient time for the advertising. The relaunch would be on March 11, 2018, which was considered the official publication date, the day before Percy and Mary Shelley would leave England for Italy. Percy would never return.
The author’s name as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would not appear on the cover until 1823, on the single volume edition, published by G. and W. B. Whittaker. Mary’s authorship was well known by this time as the story had achieved a great notoriety, mostly through the story performed as an unauthorized stage play which was hugely popular. The first printed edition of the book to recognize Mary Shelley as the author would be on a French translation, as simply “Mme. Shelley” in 1821.
Even without her name on it, it was no real secret that Mary Shelley was the author. Reviews appeared with reference to her. The Literary Panorama and National Register attacked the novel as a “feeble imitation of Mr. Godwin’s novels…produced by the daughter of a celebrated living novelist”. And perhaps as evidence to the feared reaction if Mary Shelley had been publicly named, another commented, “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Sir Walter Scott, who knew Percy Shelley and shared his usual publisher was kinder “upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author’s original genius and happy power of expression”, though there is a suggestion that he was under the impression that Shelley was the author, while the Quarterly Review described it as “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”.