Three excellent new teaching editions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have appeared over the last decade. All three make use of the 1818 text rather than the last, much revised 1831 edition for reasons stated most succinctly by Judith Wilt: "Increasingly [editorial] practice favors the 'first' text, true to its cultural and biographical context, rather than a later, authorized text, in which the writer is often at work 'modernizing' the original child of his or her brain" (13). But in the case of Frankenstein, there is slightly more involved in preferring the 1818 to the 1831 text. Wilt summarizes the reception history of various editions (14), and J. Paul Hunter includes in his edition the text that has had the most impact on our current preference for teaching the 1818 text, Anne K. Mellor's "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach."1 Mellor argues that "the 1818 edition alone presents a stable and coherent conception of the character of Victor Frankenstein and of Mary Shelley's political and moral ideology" (qtd. in Hunter 37). Significantly, though, Mellor means to open up discussions about comparing various editions rather than to definitively foreclose on them, and her article might provide a useful blueprint for introducing literature students to the biases hidden in editorial choices, invisible to those who simply pick up a text and read it as if it were "Mary Shelley's."
All giving us the 1818 edition, each of these new teaching editions nonetheless targets very different student audiences as can be deduced from what they include. Susan Wolfson's Longman Cultural Edition clearly does the best job of recreating for students the cultural context of Frankenstein's production and reception, giving them in-depth access to what Shelley was reading and discussing with friends, the contemporaneous literary productions of her cohort, and what was said publicly about the novel at the moment that its first and second editions appeared. The excerpts from Paradise Lost are most helpful, except that I have myself found it necessary to hand out as a supplement a portion of Satan's soliloquy beginning with the infamous phrase "Myself am Hell." Some of it is included by Wolfson, but not enough. In my mind some crucial lines have been omitted that can reconcile the contradiction between Victor's dying speeches to Walton (do not blindly follow your ambitions, as I did) and to Walton's crew (don't give up in your quest), since the former may be less about diverting Walton from his task of finding a passage to the north pole than about articulating Victor's view of himself as "Supreme / In misery" (Paradise Lost IV.91-92, lines left out of Longman's). But the inclusion of Jemima's story from Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman is a stroke of pedagogical genius, since reading it will help students see in concrete terms the political import of the monster's "education," occurring as it does less through books than through the first-hand experience of bigoted cruelty. This edition further contains all the contemporaneous reviews that are collected by the Norton critical edition, plus many others including a very significant review by Walter Scott revealing Shelley's influence on him as a novelist. One instance of Wolfson's rigor in creating the culture of reception can be seen in her dating P. B. Shelley's review of the novel according to its date of publication rather than, as the Norton has it, its date of composition, noting that the presence of this review of a novel reissued only a year earlier is part of what made "Shelley's Papers" interesting to Athenaeum readers.
Another type of cultural response to Frankenstein beautifully exhibited in Wolfson's edition that appears in no other teaching edition, as far as I know, is the work of cultural appropriation. Included are excerpts from Richard Brinsley Peake's 1823 Frankenstein, A Romantic Drama, along with a picture of the monster from a placard advertising the play as well as a picture frontispiece of another contemporary's rewriting of the text. Shelley's monster and the Byronic hero (the subject of Byronmania) are clearly important instances of Romantic epiphenomena. Byron and Shelley address an educated audience by producing characters who immediately become cultural phenomena in their own right, quasi-mythical figures who have their own reception history distinct from how they were received in "high" literary criticism.
Hunter's Norton Critical Edition provides a less detailed view of context and early-nineteenth-century reception, including only some texts by those in the Shelley circle and some contemporaneous reviews. The Reception section also contains a chronologically anomalous introduction to a late-nineteenth-century edition of the novel, presumably included to show its de-canonization until the second half of the twentieth century. In contrast to the Longman Cultural Edition in which cultural context of the historical moment is paramount, the Norton Critical Edition includes major works of twentieth-century literary criticism about the novel. Hunter does such a beautiful job in giving us the history of twentieth-century feminist criticism of the novel that it seems a bit cranky to wish that it included excerpts about the novel from David Marshall's The Surprising Effects of Sympathy (though, of course, I nonetheless wish it). By including M. K. Joseph's "The Composition of Frankenstein" and Mellor's essay on editions as part of "The Text" rather than "The Context" of Frankenstein, Hunter suggests that published texts only arbitrarily freeze a moment of textual process, and that exactly when and how one moment becomes labeled "the text" as opposed to another is a community rather than individual affair.
Judith Wilt's New Riverside edition addresses another audience entirely, designed for classes that are particularly interested in the rise of science fiction during the Romantic and Victorian eras. While Wolfson situates Frankenstein in the company of Burke's and Gilpin's two essays on the sublime and picturesque (respectively), Wilt places it next to a generous helping of Erasmus Darwin's poetry about plants. And grandfather cavorts nicely here with grandson as Wilt reprints about 20 pages from Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man. The inclusion of Thomas Henry Huxley's "Evolution and Ethics" as well as an excerpt from current criticism by Coral Lansbury gives us a sense of the urgency felt by nineteenth-century intellectuals in addressing the ethics of science, clearly one impetus for the rise of the genre of science fiction itself. An edition such as Wolfson's, trying to situate Frankenstein firmly in its milieu, and one such as Hunter's trying to reveal its impact on twentieth-century feminist criticism, have obvious reasons for preferring to read the novel as an instance of "Female Gothic" (Longman xvi; see also Ellen Moers, 214-224, in Hunter's edition). But we risk underestimating Mary Shelley's achievement--her proleptic or even prophetic view of future literature--unless we see Frankenstein within the history of generic development. The New Riverside edition marks it once again as inaugurating the modern tradition of science fiction. The texts selected by Wilt as comprising Frankenstein's "context"--the "radical science" described by Marilyn Butler in one of the essays included in this edition--nicely indicates that ethical and not purely aesthetic needs were met by the new genre, or this modern redaction of traditional utopian literature.
In short, I can imagine using each one of these editions in different classes: Wolfson's in an upper-division literature course trying to make sense of the Romantic era; Hunter's in a survey course or a historical literature course emphasizing feminist literary criticism (we teach a course called "British Women Writers" at Miami); and Wilt's in courses about the rise of science fiction or Victorian scientific culture. We are lucky to have such an array of choices.