Letter to the Editor

From William A. Percy
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The letter below was published in The Chronicle Review, 5 December 2008. Charles E. Robinson's book, The Original Frankenstein, presumes to restore the original, plain-language Frankenstein allegedly written by Mary Shelley, by excising the changes that Shelley made to a nearly final manuscript. As I argue in my letter, this thinking is fallacious and delusional. -- JL

To The Editor:

Thanks to Jennifer Howard for mentioning my book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press) in her piece about The Original Frankenstein (Bodleian Library), Charles E. Robinson's new book (The Chronicle Review, "The Birth of `Frankenstein,'" November 7). But I wish she had read the third chapter, which demolishes the underlying premise of the book she reviews.

When discussing a nearly final draft of Frankenstein, Robinson, and his predecessor Anne K. Mellor, falsely infer authorship from handwriting. Specifically, they assume that words in Mary Shelley's handwriting were ipso facto composed by her; they assume that the only words composed by Percy Bysshe Shelley (hereafter Shelley) are the words in his handwriting. However, Mary Shelley took dictation from Shelley and did copy work for him, as well as for other writers. There exist manuscripts where all of the words are in her handwriting, yet all were composed by someone else. Obviously, then -- and let this sink in -- handwriting is irrelevant to whether or not Mary Shelley wrote all, most, a little, or none of Frankenstein.

In my book I concentrate on texts: the prose and poetry of Shelley; the prose that Mary Shelley really did write, all by herself; and the prose of Frankenstein. I demonstrate that every page of Frankenstein bears Shelley's signature: his ideas and imagination, his phrases, his intensity, his mastery of English prose.

After examining specimens of prose that Mary Shelley wrote on her own, without help from husband or father, I conclude she had little imagination or talent for writing. Her own style is flaccid, sentimental, verbose, affected, awkward, and sometimes ungrammatical. There was nothing she could contribute to Frankenstein other than what she did: her clerical services.

Shelley's revisions to the draft are revisions to his own composition. He got the story down first, in plain language, and then polished up the language, occasionally using "Latinate" or "polysyllabic" words.

Frankenstein is a radical, disturbing, poetically powerful work. It is fully worthy of its true author, Shelley, one of the greatest poets in English.

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