Charles E. Robinson, Ed. The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Novel, 1816-17 (Parts One and Two)
Loyola University Chicago
First, in the interest of full disclosure: I was lucky enough a few years back to do journeyman editor’s work on the related Garland Publishing series, The Bodleian Shelley MSS, also under the general editorship of Donald H. Reiman. It was a remarkable education, one which left me thoroughly convinced of the larger importance of these monumental series. Their purpose is, first, to disseminate knowledge of archival primary sources, to make widely available, in photographic facsimiles accompanied by expert transcriptions and annotations, rare materials that were once only accessible to a handful of scholars conducting specialized research primarily in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. My own modest contributions to the series were like the proverbial individual stones laid in the wall of a larger collective edifice. The two volumes of The Frankenstein Notebooks here under review represent, by contrast, a whole archival wing of useful knowledge, a striking example of just what this kind of “diplomatic” edition–for that is what these two volumes are: an important scholarly edition–really can do. At the bicentennial of the author’s birth, along with Nora Crook’s Pickering edition and Stuart Curran’s forthcoming Pennsylvania Hypertext edition, Charles Robinson’s edition of Frankenstein manuscripts puts studies of the novel on a whole new footing for the coming century.
I am writing and filing the present review exactly 180 years after the publication of the first edition of what is arguably the most widely known literary work of the Romantic period. The correct date of its publication, 1 January 1818, is just one of the many facts clarified by the Garland edition. Everyone knows some version of the story of the Genevan summer of 1816, when the tale was first conceived (Robinson posits an 1816 version of the “Ur-text” narrative); Romanticists are aware that there are significant differences between the first printed edition of 1818 and the next major revised edition of 1831. Robinson steps back from the first edition and offers a detailed picture of how Mary Shelley got from the Ur-text “story” to the printed novel of 1818, the process of composition and revision by which Frankenstein came into the world.
The edition publishes for the first time the extant portions of the 1816-1817 Draft and the 1817 Fair Copy manuscripts, and prints both in a parallel format that allows the reader to study 400 pages of manuscript photofacsimiles in Mary Shelley’s (MWS’s) hand, with editorial and collaborative emendations by MWS and Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS), and to compare these with the first printed text. The result is a fascinating representation of some of the material evidence of a creative process, through what Robinson refers to as a “de facto collation” of the manuscripts with the 1818 text. Though portions of these materials have been transcribed and discussed before, especially in treatments of PBS’s role in the composition of the novel, this edition finally makes available a complete and accurate transcription– along with the visual evidence of the photofacsimiles, so that when the book is opened the reader can (1) examine revisions to the manuscript in the hands of both MWS and PBS on the verso pages; (2) compare these with Robinson’s “type facsimile” transcription immediately to the right (where PBS’s hand is represented in an italic font and MWS’s in a roman); (3) and compare all of that with a “diplomatic” transcription of the printed novel in the 1818 edition, along the right-hand margin of the recto pages. For example, we can follow MWS’s addition of a passage in the left margin of the Draft (“as I had been united by no link . . . “), then see PBS adding a phrase (“in existence”) that is also retained in the printed novel (transcribed at the far right, at the edge of the image below). But the traces of this process are presented not, as I have just done, as narrative, but physically, graphically.
Robinson’s introduction builds on the work of previous editors but offers the most comprehensive description to date of the subtle differences between the handwriting of MWS and PBS, but in the end the reader is free to look at the photographs and judge the evidence for herself or himself. The transcription employs different typefaces to differentiate the different hands, and designates ambiguous cases with a question mark.
For teachers and students of Frankenstein (whose numbers seem to have increased exponentially in recent years), perhaps the most immediate benefit of this edition will be to set some material limits within which to discuss the question of the Shelleys’ collaboration on the novel. Even to use that word, “collaboration,” is to raise some vexed and provocative questions, but as Robinson reminds us, it does not mean to “co- author” in equal portions but merely to “work together.” The cumulative result of this edition’s evidence is to make it clear that “PBS’s contributions to Frankenstein were no more than what most publishers’ editors have provided new (or old) authors or, in fact, what colleagues have provided to each other after reading each other’s works in progress” (I, lxvii). Anyone who has taught the novel to undergraduates knows how easily student exaggerations of claims about the manuscripts made by some critics can lead to caricatures of PBS as a Svengali who either co-authored or (more often) completely took over the revision of MWS’s novel. While some may remain uncomfortable with Robinson’s biological metaphor casting PBS as the “able midwife” who assists at the birth of the novel that MWS “conceived and developed” (lxvii), his general point, based on the physical evidence for the book’s “maternity,” as it were, provides a needed corrective. Though the editor rightly balks at any exact census-tally of PBS’s contributed words (estimating them to be somewhere in the 4000 range), the edition makes it clear that the Author of Frankenstein was MWS and it also greatly clarifies the nature of PBS’s “advisory role.”
For example, James Rieger’s assertion that PBS originally conceived of having Victor travel to England to create a female Monster subtly distorts what PBS actually wrote in the margin of the Draft: “I think the journey to England ought to be Victor’s proposal . . . . He ought to lead his father to this in the conversations–”. As Robinson explains, this notation was made well after MWS had already come up with the idea of having Victor make the journey to create the Creature’s “bride”–it’s just that she had originally attributed the idea for the trip to Victor’s father. PBS was not responsible for the important and highly significant plot detail–the planned creation of a female Monster–he merely suggested a way to emphasize Victor’s motives (and MWS apparently accepted the suggestion).
This edition will be extremely useful to teachers, students, and scholars in a number of ways, due in no small part to the remarkable bibliographic reconstructions begun by Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield of the Bodleian Library and continued by Robinson in this edition. The placement of the now-disbound leaves of the manuscript notebooks has been meticulously reconstructed with the help of detailed quiring charts and beta radiograph analysis. Not only with its expert readings of the handwriting, then, but through these reconstructions the edition offers information on the manuscripts that only a handful or experienced experts could ever deduce from the “raw” physical evidence of the original documents themselves.
But the edition will also be an important reference for any future study of Frankenstein and for Mary Shelley studies in general–quite apart from its facsimiles and transcriptions. As the table of contents shows, its apparatus includes mini-essays of significance on, for example, MWS’s changes to the names of characters in the successive drafts, or on marginal numbering and dates in the manuscripts. Even the purely functional list of short-title abbreviations contains scholarly insights, as does the highly impressive 30-page Frankenstein Chronology, where a single entry’s annotation can provide a compressed cache of useful knowledge.
Appendices include a parallel texts of the 1816-17 Draft and (extant) 1817 Fair Copy and of a portion of PBS’s Fair Copy and MWS’s retranscription of that portion, as well as photofacsimiles of the two-leaf (four-page) Cyrus Fragment, which came to the Bodleian Library along with the Frankenstein manuscripts in 1974 and 1976.
Romanticists, Shelley scholars, and, for that matter, anyone interested in the archetypally resonant story of Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus will in future have to consult this indispensable edition. It represents the best kind of Promethean scholarly obsession: the meticulous pursuit of useful and enlightening knowledge about the complex process of artistic production.