How many authors does it take to create a monster? Random House recently published a new edition of the novel Frankenstein with a surprising change: Mary Shelley is no longer identified as the novel's sole author. Instead, the cover reads "Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley)." Why is Percy now getting marquee billing? It's a significant moment in the long-running struggle to determine the true author (or authors) of what is considered one of the most important novels ever written. And it also raises questions about how credit has traditionally been divided up for writing couples.
The controversy started almost 200 years ago when the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously. Most readers just assumed Frankenstein had been written by Percy Shelley because of its dedication to William Godwin, who was Percy's mentor as well as Mary's father.
Five years later Mary Shelley changed her mind and put her name on the 1823 printing. That's when the questions started. As Mary Shelley wrote in her 1831 introduction to the novel, she was frequently queried about how a young woman like herself (18 at the time Frankenstein was composed) had come "to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea." The girlish imagination was not thought capable of conjuring such monstrosity, murder and mayhem.
The debate has continued right up until the present day, most recently through the publication of John Lauritsen's The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press, 2007). The logic of the doubters has not shifted noticeably for 200 years: Frankenstein is too good to have been written by a young woman, therefore it must have been written by a man.
Percy Shelley was indisputably present at the birth of the creature, who was born in the Swiss countryside during the unseasonably rainy summer of 1816. Mary and Percy Shelley were part of a group that included Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori, Byron's personal physician. To beguile the hours, the group took to reading German ghost stories and decided to try and write their own. Mary was stuck for inspiration for several days when finally one night her dreams yielded up the image of a depraved scientist bringing to life a ghastly simulacrum of a man.
That midnight vision she translated the next day into a short story. She gave it to her husband to read; he urged her to give her idea a more extended treatment in a novel. When she had finished it Percy read the manuscript through and marked it up with his suggested edits. Eight years later, Mary Shelley revised it again.
Percy Shelley died in 1822 and so could not participate in the 1831 revision. But he did take a pen to the 1818 edition. The Shelley scholar Dr. Charles E. Robinson has gone back to the evidence, publishing the surviving portions of the original manuscript, which reposes at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He carefully analyzed the original in order to distinguish Mary Shelley's handwriting from Percy's and determine who put which words on the paper. Percy deleted some words, added others, and occasionally suggested a line or two. The new edition italicizes all of the words added by Percy; they amount to 3,000 words in a manuscript of some 72,000. He hypothesizes that Percy also added words to the sections of the manuscript that did not survive and surmises that his total contribution was about 4,000-5,000 words.
Did Percy's edits help or hurt the novel? The best answer is "both." On the positive side, he strengthened the narrative, enriched the monster's character, and contributed a more technically sophisticated vocabulary (substituting "laboratory" for "workshop," for instance). On the negative, he tended to complicate her language unnecessarily. For instance, he revised "we were all equal" into "neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other" and "what to say" into "what manner to commence the interview." Judgments about the quality of Percy's editorial intervention don't help us with the question of whose name belongs on the cover, though. Counting words may not be the most effective means, either.
For the Shelleys themselves, there was no decision to be made. If a name were to go on the cover of Frankenstein, it was Mary's. It's not that Mary and Percy Shelley were averse to sharing the credit. Their History of a Six Weeks' Tour was published anonymously two months before Frankenstein, with the single initials "P" or "M" used throughout to designate what was written by which Shelley. But as Mary wrote in her preface to the 1832 edition, responding to the first generation of doubters, "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world."
The history of marital literary collaboration, by and large, has been that of wives contributing to books published under their husbands' names, rather than the reverse. These collaborations rarely if ever are spelled out on the title page and the average reader is unaware of them. W.B. Yeats's work A Vision (1925) is a distillation of the automatic writing of his wife Georgie. John Stuart Mill made no secret of the fact that his wife, Harriet Taylor, was a full co-author in many of his works, including his autobiography, though her name does not appear on them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning edited each other's poetry all through their marriage. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald published several of Zelda's stories under Scott's name, and Scott transposed sections of his wife Zelda's letters and diaries into his own work. "Mr. Fitzgerald ... seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home," Zelda noted dryly.
Women writers do seem to get left off the title page more frequently than men. Critics seem sometimes to practically relish the prospect of stripping a woman's name from a book cover. A reviewer of Maria Edgeworth's well-known Gothic novels seemed positively delighted by apparent evidence that Edgeworth did not write her books. "Ay: it is just as we expected! Miss Edgeworth never wrote the Edgeworth novels... all that, as we have had long had a suspicion, was the work of her father." Robert Southey, the poet laureate of England for thirty years, wrote to Charlotte Brontë in 1837 that "literature is not the business of a woman's life and it cannot be." Brontë published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, retaining only her initials as a trace of her presence. Anonymous publication like Frankenstein's was another way to hide from the acid of sex-based criticism; Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's mother, was slandered by the literary eminence Horace Walpole as "a hyena in petticoats."
It's somewhat unusual to see more than one name on the cover of a work of fiction. Yet typically many hands go into the making of any book. Friends, writing partners, spouses, editors, agents - all contribute suggestions and ideas. Should such assistance be awarded cover credit? How would we respond to a cover that announced "The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Jason Kaufman, Heidi Lange, Bill Thomas and Steve Rubin" (to enumerate only the first four individuals from his Acknowledgments section)?
What is the standard for getting your name on the cover? Unlike screenplay authorship, where collaboration is the rule and a board of arbitrators can officially apportion credit, we have no guidelines or regulators to help us in the world of published books. Ghost writers contribute most if not all of the text of "their" books, but their names don't appear. Conceptual editors may totally transform a book, but their names don't feature either. The idea for a book may not originate with its author but rather with a publisher, agent, or the proposed subject of the book (in the case of biography, for instance). Some books still appear anonymously or under false names, like the publications of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In marital literary collaboration, it seems that historically the husbands have gotten most of the credit. Mary Shelley did receive valuable assistance from her husband and certainly learned from him. But she also edited all of Percy's posthumously published works, shaping his legacy in significant ways for future readers. Was she teacher or student? Or is it time to discard these fixed understandings about marital literary collaboration and re-examine the historical record?
We can see Dr. Robinson's choice as yet another challenge to women's authority. Or we can see it as a challenge to the idea of solo authorship. Or perhaps we could combine these possibilities and turn them to constructive ends; perhaps Dr. Robinson's edition has suggested a provocative line of approach for future literary critics. Scholars might return to the archives and examine the manuscripts of great men of letters for spousal handwriting. If we then employ Dr. Robinson's standards, who knows how many other authors might find themselves with company on the cover?