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On Wednesday 23 May 2018, I ran a small workshop for the event ‘Living Frankenstein’  (#LivingFrankenstein on Twitter!).

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The evening was part of the Living Literature series, organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

I was so pleased to be asked to be involved in this one-off event, which promised ‘an epic thriller brought to life through immersive performances, talks, workshops and activities’. It certainly did not disappoint! Costumes, ghost stories, beatboxing, and strange but tasty cocktails were all part of this celebration for the bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.

I ran a workshop called ‘Shelley’s Creation’:

‘How did Mary Shelley construct Frankenstein? Dr Anna Mercer invites you to peruse the original manuscript. See how her partner Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested changes to her work in an act of collaboration, discover how Mary Shelley assisted in the construction of his literary works, and have a go at using ink and quill pens to begin your own masterpiece.’

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I’m pleased to say everyone loved the ink and quill pens, and I met so many lovely people who wanted to chat about the manuscripts. Here is a brief summary of what I was talking about on the night – I hope you find it interesting!

Happy 1818/2018 – the year of Frankenstein.

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Living Frankenstein: Shelley’s Creation

I want to explain:

  • A little about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s contributions to Frankenstein
  • What some of Mary Shelley’s contributions to Percy Shelley’s works were
  • The fantastic resource which is the Shelley-Godwin Archive, what it provides, and how to use it

When you look at the manuscript of Frankenstein you have pages and pages of Mary Shelley’s hand. We have drafts, and fair copies, where we can see her work as she composed, then copied out, and edited the novel.

The scholar Charles E. Robinson has meticulously researched the composition process Mary Shelley carried out in order for the draft text to become the printed version – published 200 years ago this January, on 1 January 1818.

Robinson edited The Frankenstein Notebooks (1996) and identified the different hands of Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley, showing a transcript of his alterations to her draft.

I’m going to show you the Shelley-Godwin Archive, where you can view the full manuscript. The website is free to everyone.

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There are other resources you have on the website which are incredible and invaluable, such as the ‘Frankenstein Chronology’, researched and constructed by Robinson. The chronology ‘makes up a narrative about the conception, draft, fair copy, publication, and reception of Mary Shelley’s novel—as well as the provenance of The Frankenstein Notebooks’.

Now if we jump to when Mary Shelley was writing the novel we can see…:

24 July 1816 – the first record of Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.

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Going back to the composition of the novel itself – on the Archive you can toggle between the two hands, showing how Percy Bysshe Shelley contributed to Mary Shelley’s novel in an act of literary collaboration. My research argues that this collaborative exchange continued throughout the years they spent together and most crucially that Mary Shelley was also involved in the production and publication of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works – but first, how did the Shelleys collaborate on Frankenstein?

Robinson concludes that ‘[Percy Shelley] contributed at least 4,000 to 5,000 words to this 72,000-word novel’, and ‘collaboration seems to be the hallmark of the Shelleys’ literary relationship’. Frankenstein is the ‘most significant’ instance of their collaboration.[1] This collaborative moment in the Shelleys’ canon is truly remarkable.

As we’ve seen, on 24 July 1816 Mary notes in her journal, ‘write my story’ and ‘Shelley writes part of a letter’.[2] This note is Mary Shelley’s first reference in her journal to the composition of Frankenstein, and Percy Shelley was also writing ‘Mont Blanc’ on this day: between 22-28 July he visited Alpine scenes and was working on this poem, and in particular the wet afternoon of the 24 July was spent in composition.[3]

If you look at the manuscript of Frankenstein, you can also consider the changes to Mary Shelley’s work as it evolved from a draft to a completed novel. If we take that famous line: ‘It was on a dreary night in November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’ – in draft, it first read: ‘It was a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed’.

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Percy Shelley contributed ideas to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as shown in the manuscripts, and because of this, some have argued that Percy ‘patronised’ Mary, that he imposed himself on her work in an act of patriarchy, and that he didn’t actually improve it…

However, this disregards the gradual movement in academia that has produced a positive change in the way we view the Shelleys’ works, as the product of a collaborative relationship between the two authors. It is a myth that Mary was in the shadow of her overbearing partner; focusing on the Frankenstein manuscript alone leaves her as a passive recipient of her husband’s ideas.

To rectify this, we must look to Percy Shelley’s works, too. The creative process for the Shelleys is a dynamic in which she was just as necessary a partner for him as he was for her. For example, Percy wrote a verse preface for The Witch of Atlas entitled: ‘To Mary (on her objecting to the following poem, upon the score of its containing no human interest)’.[4]

Editors of the Shelleys’ manuscripts to emphasise the collaboration between Percy and Mary. As Nora Crook explains in terms of one notebook, in the Shelley manuscripts there ‘emerges a sense of the Shelleys’ literary careers as a complementary endeavour’.[5] The composition of Frankenstein may well represent a peak in the closeness of their collaboration, but there are many other examples during their time together. Mutual support, including a sharing of workload, and a discussion of ideas, occurs throughout the Shelleys’ relationship.

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In 2019, Routledge will publish a monograph based on my PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’. This book will be the inaugural text in their new series ‘Routledge New Textual Studies in Literature’.

You can read more about this research in The Keats-Shelley Review:

‘Rethinking the Shelleys’ Collaborations in Manuscript’, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2017), 49-65.

 

 

[1] Charles E. Robinson, The Original Frankenstein (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008) pp. 24-25.

[2] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 24 July 1816 in The Journals of Mary Shelley ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) p. 118.

[3] MWS, Journals 24 July 1816 p. 118 n.3. See also G. M Matthews and Kelvin Everest, The Poems of Shelley Vol I (London: Longman, 1989) p. 532-533.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Witch of Atlas in The Poems of Shelley Vol III ed. by Jack Donovan, Cian Duffy, Kelvin Everest and Michael Rossington (London: Longman Pearson, 2011) p. 563.

[5] Nora Crook (ed.), ‘Introduction’ in PBS, The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts Volume XII: The ‘Charles the First’ Draft Notebook, A Facsimile of Bodleian MS. Shelley adds. e. 17. (London: Garland, 1991) p. xxx, xxxii.

 

 

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