NYRB essays on “Frankenstein” (1987, 2017)

I’ve found two interesting pieces in The New York Review of Books that some may have fun looking through.  One is a 1987 review by Claire Tomalin (whom we’ve encountered before) reviewing both a biography of Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark, originally published in the 50’s, and a newly-published collection of Shelley’s journal pages.  Then there’s an essay from December of last year by Richard Holmes who reviews two new annotated versions of Frankenstein.  Fittingly for our age, one is published by MIT and is “annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.”   The other book is written by Leslie S. Klinger, who has previous compiled annotated editions of Dracula and, perhaps most famously, Sherlock Holmes.  I’ll post some excerpts from the reviews below, but here are links to the PDF files of both pieces (they’re both between 5 and 6 pages).

Claire Tomalin on Muriel Spark’s ‘Mary Shelley’ – NYRB 1987

Richard Holmes on two new annotated editions – NYRB 2017

Here’s an excerpt from Claire Tomalin’s review, commenting on Muriel Spark’s biography of Shelley:

What drew one M.S. to the other? Partly Muriel Spark’s feeling that Mary Shelley had been unjustly effaced by her husband, wrongly judged by her contemporaries and by posterity, and that this should be corrected… [Spark] makes a good case for Frankenstein as an expression of the conflict between eighteenth-century rationalism and Romantic feeling: the monster is feared, but also identified with. She suggests that Mary’s temperament was essentially eighteenth-century and classical, and that she found herself wrongly cast in the middle of the Romantic Sturm und Drang surrounding Shelley, and as a writer much more adept when working with ideas than with feelings. Nightmare and theory were Mary’s territory; her husband’s storms and dreams were all of the heart.

In an early section of his review, Richard Holmes makes some concise comparisons between the different versions of the novel.  His remarks aren’t too original, but they pull together different sources nicely:

The style [of Mary Shelley’s first draft, 1816-17] is bold and direct. It probably began as a “short tale,” with a draft of the famous opening: “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld my man completed.” The second [version], beginning and ending with Robert Walton’s Arctic expedition, was carefully revised by Mary, lightly edited by Percy, and published in 1818. The style is richer and more digressive, and there is still academic controversy about the overall effect of Percy’s additions (about five thousand words). …

The third version, of 1831, was radically revised by Mary alone, and is longer and altogether darker in tone. The idealistic young Frankenstein is subtly changed into a doomed and tortured figure. … The 1831 introduction gives a further glimpse into the crucial birthing moment. … In the novel the first account is given with horrific clarity by Frankenstein in two short paragraphs, and then in a confused recollection by the Creature himself on the Mer de Glace. The third account now becomes that given retrospectively by the novelist in her own voice, and paradoxically it is the most memorable and disturbing… [Quotation]  The fascination with this moment of dangerous birthing and the subsequent status of the Creature as an unloved or unparented child (rather than a mere monster) are characteristic of much modern, and not only feminist, interpretation.


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