A Novel for Halloween: Mary Shelley’s annotated copy of Frankenstein

“…as night obscured the shapes of objects, a thousand fears arose in my mind.”

What would Halloween be without monsters, and what would monsters be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)? The work has been cited as the most widely published English novel of all time—a book, written by a 19-year-old, that launched a thousand translations, imitations, and adaptations on stage and screen.

The Morgan owns the copy of the first edition that Mary Shelley annotated. She presumably did so over a period of several years with the aim of revising her book for a subsequent edition. Many of her marginal emendations enhance the story’s Gothic atmosphere. She increases suspense by drawing out tense moments and elaborating on the emotions of Dr. Frankenstein, whose constant fear of the havoc his creation will wreak is always well-founded.

Only some of the revisions in the Morgan’s copy made their way into the third edition, which was published in 1831. As the lengthy inscriptions on the half-title page show, Shelley presented it as a token of thanks to a woman named Mrs. Thomas, whom she had met in Italy. Thomas had provided Shelley with much-needed solace soon after her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had drowned in the Ligurian sea.

The novel was initially published anonymously. Reviews were mixed, though a bevy of playwrights adapted it for the stage almost immediately. Most critics presumed the author to be a man. Sir Walter Scott inferred from the book’s dedication to Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, that Percy Bysshe Shelley had likely written it. There were rumors, however, that it had been written by a woman. One reviewer took this into account in his assessment of the book: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” As the bicentennial of the novel’s publication approaches, that dismissal appears to have been premature.

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