Debutante of Science Fiction: A History of the Publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Despite Mary Shelley’s well documented writing process of Frankenstein in her journals (having documented the completion of the novel on the specific date of May 14th, 1817) [Walling], not enough is known about the novel’s publishing and marketing to satisfy all the requirements of Darnton’s communications circuit model. Shelley’s most renowned work is notorious for it’s multiple publications within a short span of time: the novel was first published anonymously as a Victorian three-volume or “triple-decker” collection by the “London printers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones on January 1st, 1818 (Hindle) after previous rejections from both Percy Shelley’s publisher, Charles Ollier, and Byron’s publisher, John Murray (Walling). A subsequent two-volume French publication accrediting the novel to Mary Shelley was published on August 11, 1823 by the publishers, G & W.B. Whittaker in order to capitalize on the success of Richard Brinsley Peake’s stage adaptation. (Bedford Publishing). The renowned “1831 edition” of the text appeared in a one volume publication by Henry Colbum and Richard Bentley on October 31st, after heavy revisions made by Shelley in order to create a morally conscious monster, a new preface cataloging Mary Shelley’s infamous inspiration for the novel, and revisions made in order to quell the novel’s assertive implications (Karbiener).

Despite mostly negative reviews from the like of the Quarterly Review and The Edinburgh Magazine (Walling), a letter to Shelley from friend, Thomas Love Peacock, showcases how by the first year of publication,  the novel came to “be universally known and read” (Walling) in part due to “the criticism of the Quarterly, though unfriendly, [which] contained many admissions of its merit, and must on the whole have done it service” (Walling).

The anonymous nature of Frankenstein’s initial publication attests to the harsh standards under which Victorian women author’s were exposed, with critical praise for Percy Shelley’s flowery 1818 preface  showing an inclination toward the poetic prose popular in the face of a Romantic Renaissance. Specifically, the Quarterly Review applauds Percy Shelley’s contribution as “highly terrific” and rational (Walling) while Mary’s revolutionary, yet direct narrative is condemned as “inculcat[ing] no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality” (Walling).

Furthermore, the novel’s prior publications in multi-volume sets appears to disrupt the continuity needed in order to appreciate Shelley’s framed narrative. For the 1818 reader, a single novel publication may have been more than a necessity than a treat in appreciating Shelley’s multiple perspectives of the unnamed narrator, the views of Victor Frankenstein, and the heart-wrenching account of the monster himself.

According to an uncited segment on Wikipedia’s entry, the novel was “published in an edition of just 500 copies.” Such ambiguity concerning the details of the novel’s publication undoubtedly contributes to a lack of appreciation for how the first science-fiction novel evolved from a widely-read scandal into a canonical contribution to English literature.

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Grotesque Triple Decker: A Casual Scholar’s Description of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Nearly two centuries after its initial publication as a notorious “three-volume novel” of Victorian times (Bennett), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has often been combined into a single volume with added literary criticism and historical abstracts.

The revised 2003 edition of the Penguin Classics release contains relevant biographical material as well as a timeline of Shelley’s life, critical essays, and the associated works believed to have been written during Shelley’s infamous 1816 writing retreat, “A Fragment” by Lord Byron and John Polidori’s “The Vampyre: A Tale.”

As a classic work contained in the public domain, Frankenstein has seen a massive amount of publications and reprints (even during Shelley’s lifetime, specifically when asked by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley to release a heavily revised, single volume (Shelley)).

The Penguin Classics edition represents the standard approach many publishers have taken in regards to what is often considered the first “true” science fiction novel; measuring seven and a half inches by five and a half inches and containing 273 pages, the novel is compact enough for the casual reader to carry with ease (in fact, much of its thickness of seven-tenths of an inch is composed of extra scholarly material). The discrepancies between the 1831 edition and the grittier 1818 version are accounted for by including an appendix containing comparisons between the two editions.

Furthermore, the Penguins Classics edition contains a mere two images: the first is a detail from Nicolai Abildgaard’s  The Wounded Philoctetes (1775) (supplied by the Statens Museum fur Kunst in Copenhagen, Sweden) while the second is a facsimile of the first edition’s cover page as reproduced by the British Library. As a Classical Greek hero exiled from the Greeks for ten years, the anguish depicted on his face on the cover adequately reflects the ostracism of Frankenstein’s monster. Aside from these considerations, Penguin’s version of the text continues the publishing companies trend of black finish on the trimming and back cover with the story’s synopsis laid out in a white, sans serif font.

The actual content of the book is set in PostScript Adobe Sabon by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd in Suffolk while the book was printed in England by Clays Limited. Interestingly enough, the editors chose to divide the novel into the original three volumes of the initial printing (a decision that isn’t reflected, for example, in the free Kindle version in Amazon’s Kindle store). The paper on which the text is printed on what Penguin Books proudly touts as Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. As a mass produced book, perfect binding is used to hold the signatures, or groups of sheets, together while a justified alignment of text further highlights Penguin’s mass production tendencies (Monroig). The combination of a justified text adjustment with this edition’s leading creates what BFA Design student, Daniel Monroig, says is a confusing format in which large gaps between words makes it easy for readers to lose track of lines.

Despite this edition’s attempt at using to extra resource material to contextualize Shelley’s story and plump up the novel, Penguin’s Classics isn’t my favorite version of this classic. Despite Paul Hunter’s scathing views on both Penguin’s and the Oxford World Classics, I prefer the latter version’s thoughtful consideration as to both the technical formatting and literary criticism.

A redeeming property of the Penguin edition, however, is the inclusion of an extensive “Further Reading” index which includes the authoritative Frankenstein Notebooks (which maintains both Mary and husband, Percy Shelley’s manuscript notes). As Hunter states, both editions are meant for the “casual scholar,” which, in turn, accounts for Penguin’s cheap adjustment and leading techniques meant to facilitate mass production.  Both versions, however, trump the sloppy, yet free, Kindle version which ignores proper paragraph indentation and refuses to divide the book into its original three volumes by merely numbering the chapters.