The Frankenstein Variations
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao
(Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
The Original Frankenstein:
Two New Versions --
Mary Shelley's Earliest Draft
and Percy Shelley's Revised Text
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
A scholarly press has recently published a new annotated version of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, containing Mary Shelley's 1818 text, which she edited for the 1831 edition after Percy's death to make it more socially acceptable (among the changes are that Elizabeth, originally Victor’s cousin, is now a foundling taken in by his family), which got me thinking about various versions of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, including the film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh and the TV miniseries Frankenstein: The True Story.
Frankenstein has been annotated before, including a pretty good volume by Leonard Wolff in the 1970s. I don't know how necessary it is to enjoy the book (as I recall, there were pages and chapters without anything Wolff felt worth annotating), but because it will be supplemented by art from the almost 200 years since the book debuted, and because it will explain some arcane words and knowledge that is no longer common knowledge, it's not worthless. Just including the 1818 text is a selling point, as there are few editions that don't follow the 1831 reissue. (I presume that is because the publishers/editors feel that, as Shelley’s last version, it is how she wanted the book remembered and read. Maybe, but authors have a history of monkeying with their texts after publication, rarely for the better -- Omar Khayam’s admonition (by way of Edward J. Fitzgerald’s translation) that “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on” is often good advice -- and her motives were different then as well. Percy Shelley was no longer her lover but a dead husband, and she was anxious to seem a respectable widow. If her fortunes were such that she could have forgotten the book completely, she might have done so. The changes are relatively minor, but not insignificant, and I'm certain the annotator has detailed them.
If you really want to get back to Mary’s original intent, look for The Original Frankenstein, which includes not only the 1818 text but an earlier pre-publication version, before Percy made some suggestions.
If you've never read Frankenstein, it’s worth a look. It’s told in letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister while he's on an Arctic expedition. There he encounters Victor Frankenstein, who is pursuing a large man across the ice. Victor then tells Walton the story of how he created life which he then abandoned, only to have it survive and destroy everyone and everything he loved, upon which he dies. The creature then shows up, seems to repent and promises to build a funeral pyre and immolate himself. The end.
In the middle of Victor’s narration, the creature tells its own story, detailing the sufferings and misfortunes he's endured because Victor abandoned him, and ending by demanding a mate like himself. He’s articulate and quite the most interesting character in the book, and no film version has ever done him justice.
In fact, I'm shocked that the creature doesn't get more sympathy except from children who seem to sense -- in Boris Karloff’s portrayal especially -- that he’s just a big, abandoned and wronged child.
In my next post, I'll take a detailed look at two film adaptations that, at least from their titles, attempted to tell Shelley’s story accurately.