The Siren’s Call: An epic poet as Mary Shelley’s co-author


How did Mary Shelley come up with the idea for “Frankenstein”? Did that spooky storytelling contest at the Villa Diodati in 1816 -- you know, the one with Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband Percy -- send her imagination into high gear? Was it all the result of a nightmare? Sort of, but not exactly.

Richard Holmes’ thrilling study of scientific discovery in the Romantic era, “The Age of Wonder” (Pantheon: 552 pp., $40), spotlights many intriguing figures and their discoveries, but it’s the chapter “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul” that answers these questions by placing her famous story in the context of its times.

The years leading up to “Frankenstein,” Holmes explains, were a time -- well before Darwin’s theories electrified the public -- when debates were raging over the existence of the soul and the animating force behind all life, called Vitalism. “Vitalism was the first great scientific issue that widely seized the public imagination in Britain, a premonition of the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, exactly forty years later.”


Holmes hardly diminishes Shelley’s achievement -- he just helps us to understand how “Frankenstein” was “the most singular literary response to the Vitalism debate.” Mary, he says, gave “playful form” to the scientific speculations of the day -- had she lived in our time, I bet she would’ve written thrillers about genomes or nanotechnology and given the late Michael Crichton a run for his money.

What Holmes doesn’t mention is the role of Percy Shelley in the early manuscript -- and this omission makes Charles E. Robinson’s edition “The Original Frankenstein” (Vintage: 448 pp., $14 paper) the ideal complementary text to read beside Holmes’.

Check out the attribution on the book’s cover: “Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley” -- how’s that for a byline?

Though Mary Shelley drafted the novel in two volumes, it was published in three different versions: 1818 (in three volumes), 1823 (in two volumes), 1831 (in one volume, probably the one most of us know). Robinson has edited the book to return us to the original draft’s two-volume structure: It’s a version you’ll probably wish you had had in high school -- I know I do -- because, even though the story is broken into two volumes, the chapters are shorter and the pacing is brisker. This structure, Robinson points out, also enables the second volume to open dramatically as Mary Shelley first wanted -- with the voice of the creature, telling the story of his “birth” and tragic education in the cruelty of humankind.

Percy Shelley’s contributions -- as editor and co-author of sorts -- are easy to locate: Robinson has italicized all of these, whether single words inserted to increase effect (“villain,” “thickened,” “devil”) or longer, more evocative phrases (Victor Frankenstein’s delirium leads him to imagine beings “who visit him from the regions of a remoter world”).

When Victor wanders the ice fields of the Alps after a double tragedy (the death of his brother William by a mysterious killer; the death of his servant Justine, who is blamed for the crime), he beholds “Mont Blanc in awful majesty.” Those are Mary Shelley’s words. Then, her husband’s pen takes over, adding physical details and the sense of awe you find in his poems:

“The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in sunlight over the clouds.”

Why did Percy Shelley add material? Did he think his wife was incapable of writing a novel on her own? Not at all for, as Robinson explains, “collaboration seems to have been the hallmark” of the couple’s literary relationship. They transcribed each other’s work all the time and served as sounding-boards for ideas -- there was an easy interplay between them that was an enhancement, not a distraction, to their efforts.


Along with local color, her husband added layers to characters’ personalities, as in the case of Elizabeth, Victor’s beloved. In a letter to Victor, for example, she includes a very Shelleyan political viewpoint that, even without italics, we would suspect belonged to him: “The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it,” Elizabeth declares. Then, she adds: “A servant at Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France or England . . . .”

Other additions tell us unexpected things about the poet -- like his interest in the occult. Didn’t know that? In her 2008 biography “Being Shelley,” Ann Wroe writes how the poet dabbled in black magic as a schoolboy, attempting to contact spirits. Victor too confesses that his boyish preoccupation with raising ghosts and devils -- what a surprise! -- was stirred by reading Gothic novels, which made such efforts seem easy. It was “a promise liberally accorded by my favorite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought,” following this with the sad admission that “my incantations were always unsuccessful.”

This edition of “Frankenstein” also includes a second version of the novel that strips away Percy’s contributions to show what Mary Shelley “brought to the writer’s table.” It’s a slog to get through and feels unnecessary -- Mary Shelley’s imagination isn’t lessened by our seeing what her husband added in the book’s early stages. She was deeply engaged with theories of galvanism, reanimating human tissue and the life-force (given magisterial treatment in Holmes’ book) and synthesized them in a fable that certainly is one of the earliest examples of science fiction -- a proposition that drives some literary snoots absolutely nuts.

Why should it? It’s impossible to deny that such elements of that genre are there. What they worry about, I think, is reductionism: That calling “Frankenstein” a work of science fiction prevents it from being other things as well -- a meditation on mortality, religion and identity; a vibrant retelling of the myth of Prometheus; a melodramatic thriller; and, as Robinson’s fine edition suggests, the product of an extraordinary partnership between two evenly matched minds.

Dan Brown’s pop wisdom: At Killing the Buddha, you’ll find a thoughtful, sympathetic essay by Samuel Biagetti about Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” which honors him as a premier “pop philosopher and historian.” Titled “Modernity’s Fraternity: Why the new Dan Brown book is a love letter to the Freemasons,” the essay is extremely (maybe too) generous:

“Brown’s books don’t rise very far above the grocery-store checkout aisle. Nevertheless, his ambition outstretches any run-of-the-mill author of cheap thrillers. . . . However naive the novel may be, it testifies to the myths that helped to make the modern world, myths in which Brown places zealous faith. In so doing, it reads like a love letter to Masonry.”


I agree that this novel feeds the public’s hunger for mystery, but it’s that naivete that is worrisome, especially when it influences the opinions of such a large readership. Biagetti also provides a thoughtful, expansive view of Freemasonry and the ancient quest for hidden knowledge. Worth a read.

And still more conspiracies: The Bilderberg Group, which Arthur Goldwag spends a handful of pages on in his book “Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies” (reviewed in a previous Siren’s column), is the subject of H. Paul Jeffers’ “The Bilderberg Conspiracy: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Secret Society” (Citadel Press: 234 pp., $14.95 paper). Forget the Illuminati or Opus Dei; those covens of troublemakers are nothing next to what the Bilderberg Group may be up to.

As Jeffers writes, the organization refers to international financiers, world leaders and others (also referred to as the “high priests of capitalism”) who first met in the Netherlands at the Hotel de Bilderberg in 1954. The group’s founders include a member of the Rockefellers and Henry Kissinger, and information is sketchy about what goes on at its regular annual meetings. These meetings are kept confidential, and the high level of secrecy has stirred angst that dark machinations on a global scale are underway. Its 2009 meeting, earlier this year in Greece, in fact, was reported by one blogger as being about plans to remake the global political economy. (Too bad they couldn’t have worked on it before the implosion of the world financial markets.)

When groups employ secrecy -- whether we’re talking Freemasons or members of the local school board -- suspicion is inevitable. Bilderberg defenders say that secrecy enables members to speak candidly, more at ease, and foster better trans-Atlantic relationships -- that, in fact, is what Jeffers shows was behind the group’s very first meeting. Even if that is true, critics counter, that motive long since evolved into a sinister plot to create a “New World Order.” They point to recent events -- the expansion of NATO, the progress of the European Union -- as sure signs that this dark plan is underway. Jeffers does a thorough job of gathering information about the group’s operations (considering how difficult it is) while reserving judgment. His book ends simply, on two words: “You decide.”

Owchar is deputy book editor. The Siren’s Call appears at