Will the real Mrs. Shelley please stand up?

Okay, I’ve completely missed the latest development in this nearly two-century-old controversy. Fortunately for me, Dan Kraus trolls for book news in the unlikeliest places. To be fair, I’m sure it was a saved keyword search that alerted him. Or maybe he found it on Salon first.

Long story short: there’s long been suspicion that Mary Shelley, given her inability to follow it up with another worldwide bestseller, didn’t write Frankenstein. A guy named John Lauritsen, a Harvard-educated independent scholar, has a book about it called The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein.

There’s a nice summary on Suicide Girls (“Who Wrote Frankenstein?“):

Now, however, one scholar is claiming that the story might not be true, at least when it comes to Mary Shelley and her monster. How did a marginally-educated nineteen-year old come up with what is now thought of as one of the first science-fiction novels, and why didn’t she ever write anything of merit again? Perhaps she wasn’t the author at all, according to John Lauritsen, who claims that Percy Bysshe Shelley actually wrote the novel.

They link to an article in Perth Now (“Frankenstein’s fraud“):

Even Mary seemed slightly amazed by the genesis of the monster when she was older.

Nearly a decade after her husband died in a boating accident, she wondered: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea.”

And both sources cite the ever-citable Camille Paglia, who, on Salon (“Hilary vs. Obama: It’s a drawl!”) is in fine fettle:

This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years. I haven’t been this exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler’s iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that crappy poststructuralism that poured out of universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen’s book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.

(227 blog reactions — about to be 1 more.)

I’m torn here. On the one hand, I love a good literary scandal, so I want to believe that Mr. Shelley wrote it. On the other hand, the original tale of the book’s origins is so great that I want to believe in Mrs. Shelley.

Maybe they wrote it together?



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

10 Comments on "Will the real Mrs. Shelley please stand up?"

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  1. dstone@ala.org' DStone says:

    A suggestion: read “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ before deciding on the validity of Mr. Lauritsen’s argument.

  2. stephen.stratton@csuci.edu' Steve Stratton says:

    Given that John Lauritsen’s only other claim to fame is as a dissenter/activist/author who claims that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, despite overwhelming medical proof that says otherwise, I have a hard time taking his work seriously. Lauritsen supports the spread of mis-information serious enough to cause physical harm to people reading his material, so it seems highly unlikely that he is capable of thorough research and reading of primary materials clearly enough to draw a conclusion that anyone would take seriously.

  3. denabean@myway.com' dena says:

    is suicide girls now being considered a reputable source?

    god, i miss feminism…

  4. rjchadwick@cox.net' Rhonda says:

    I’ve read that Percy Shelley edited and assisted Mary in writing Frankenstein as an explanation why her other books were not as popular or as well-written. This may make her lose status in some people’s eyes, but recent evidence suggesting that Einstein’s wife colloborated on creating the theory of relativity hasn’t seemed to diminish his stature in anyone’s eyes.

  5. akacarriej@sbcglobal.com' Carrie says:

    I have not read Lauritsen’s book, but to suggest that Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both prominent intellectuals of their day; who pored over her deceased mother’s writing; whose home was frequented by the literati of her nation – was “marginally educated” is ridiculous. Although a “marginal” English education of the period meant a study of the classics and produced other remarkably young and capable writers like Matthew Lewis, who wrote the Gothic smash hit,”The Monk” at only seventeen years of age. Furthermore, a study of Mary Shelley’s tragic life reveals Frankenstein as her veiled autobiography. Her introduction to the novel explains precisely Percy’s role in its inception, and given his untimely death, her grief, feelings of guilt, and financial struggle to support herself and her son, it is no wonder she produced no other work to match it. Her “hideous progeny” was born of no one but Mary Shelley.

  6. thewindatyourback@gmail.com' anne says:

    So, gosh, I guess the authority of Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird will be inline for questioning next. Those pesky women of one book fame…

  7. bill1one@yahoo.com' Bill Stauery says:

    Do you know that Shakespeare actually didn’t write his plays or sonnets? It was really a woman!

  8. Keir says:

    It’s so refreshing to boot up one’s computer in the morning and find such lively debate. I’m definitely reserving judgment on the Shelley v. Shelley debate until I’ve read no fewer than a dozen books on the subject.

    How about some men of one-book fame so we can look for evidence that their wives/mothers/daughters did the actual writing? Although I’m struggling with this. Ralph Ellison? Malcolm Lowry? It’s far easier to come up with writers who should have stopped after one book….

    (And no, Dena, I wouldn’t necessarily call Suicide Girls a reputable source–I think it was the humorous incongruity of finding the post there that drew Mr. Kraus and myself to it. And besides, the S.G. post was only citing other sources….)

  9. danandannette@visi.com' Dan says:

    Egads. I hope this won’t be with me on my wedding night. If you want to have a debate about the absolutely terrific novel Frankenstein, try this: Who was more monstrous, Victor or the Creature?

  10. margo.fesperman@mecklenburgcountync.gov' Margo Fesperman says:

    If not publishing another great novel is the criterium for questioning authorship, then woe to Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. Fortunately, they were of the 20th century.

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