Dear Straight Dope:
Is there any substance to the rumor that Mary Shelley never wrote Frankenstein? I've heard that Percy Shelley wrote it, but didn't want his name attached to something as paltry and unclassically oriented as a novel, so he had the book printed in his wife's name. Is there anything that backs this up, or is it all just a lie?
Son of Dex replies:
I e-mailed my friend Heather about this. She’s the most well versed person I know on the subject of Victorian Gothic literature–wrote her thesis on it.
Short answer: She’d never heard the rumor. The “traditional” (read: what Mary Shelley said) story goes like this: a house party of the famous and soon-to-be and posthumously-to-be among the literary elite devised a game to tide it over for a rainy weekend: everybody was to write a horror story, to be read Sunday night. The person to elicit the greatest shudders out of the crowd won the prize. We found more than one source confirming this, so we can take Mary Shelley’s version as verified.
Among the contestants was John Polidori, whose entry was “The Vampyre," regarded as the first such story in English.
Mary Shelley did not originally intend to participate, but awoke that night from a nightmare that someone had parted her bed curtains and was looking down at her. That scene is used in Frankenstein–and in some of the many movies. She wrote a short story and the rest evolved slowly from there.
We found nothing to substantiate the rumor that her famous husband Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the story, and we looked in places (like biographies) where somebody should have addressed it somewhere if there’d been any truth to it. We also found some circumstantial evidence that Mary Shelley herself did write it–namely, scholars calling it similar in tone to her other work (which we’ve never read, but we’ll take their word for it).
So, while it’s difficult to prove a negative, there’s no reason to believe anyone other than Mary Shelley wrote it.
We think it’s neat that two obscure but important-to-the-development-of-British-Gothic-as-a-genre works were created by guests at the same house party, essentially on a “who can come up with the scariest ghost story” dare.
It’s probably not necessary to mention that Mary Shelley was nineteen at the time, and living with another woman’s husband. She eloped with him when she was seventeen; they were married after his wife committed suicide. Not a pretty story, and that’s not even all of it.
Woo hoo. Those wacky Victorian women.
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