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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