I’ve just had the pleasure of writing about the work of Charles Robinson, a textual scholar at the University of Delaware. Working closely with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notebooks in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Robinson has given us a new edition that strips out Percy Shelley’s edits, emendations, and “improvements.” And boy, are some of them purple:
In Mary’s early version of the monster’s final speech, for example, he looks forward to his death with these words: “I shall ascend my pile triumphantly & the flame that consumes my body will give rest & blessings to my mind.” In Percy’s version, the line becomes: “I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”
I know which version I prefer. Hint: It’s not Percy’s.
Robinson’s new edition could help quiet down a debate that’s been raging since the novel was published, anonymously, in 1818: Did Mary Shelley really write Frankenstein? There are a few holdouts who argue that she couldn’t have. (See Maud Newton’s thoughts on how that point of view “really chaps my ass.”)
Better question, and the one most scholars ask: Just how much of Frankenstein did Mary Shelley write? As I ask in the article,
How much of a participant was Mary Shelley’s better half? Should Percy be considered a co-creator of her masterpiece? Was he a co-opter of her genius? Was he Mary’s Svengali, her Max Perkins, or merely a good copy editor?
Robinson firmly believes that Mary wrote the book:
“There’s no evidence that Percy is responsible for the conception of this novel or even the early drafting of it,” he says. “All the evidence that we have is that he comes in at this intermediate stage and offers his editorial advice and changes, and comes in at the fair-copy stage and offers some melodramatic prose for the final version of the scene in the polar regions.”
One of the things I find coolest about the kind of dogged textual work Robinson does is that it reminds us of the necessary thrill of working with original manuscripts. Digital copies are wonderful things, especially for scholars who can’t hop on a plane and travel to, say, the Bodleian–but sometimes there’s no substitute for the original.
For Robinson, there’s a larger lesson to be drawn from his toil. “For this kind of close editorial work, the manuscript is absolutely essential.” As a textual editor, he has worked his way through what he calls “a kind of stemma or sequence” of Frankenstein manuscript materials: high-resolution, black-and-white photographs of the manuscripts; high-quality digital images; and original manuscript pages.
“Digitals provide new opportunities for handwriting analysis, but it’s only in the originals that you can see the exact shade or color of the ink,” Robinson explains. “It’s the manuscript itself that provides the best evidence.”