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News Article
Frankenstein’s story still terrifies us 200 years later
By Barbara Miller Beem

When first introduced to the world in a book published 200 years ago, he was nameless, and the physical description of him was somewhat sketchy. Described as “a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of a gigantic stature,” he was spotted in a horse-drawn sled. Over time, he has morphed into an iconic figure, a zombie-like monster with a flat head, his face studded with stitches, bolts sticking out of his neck. And he has a name, which happens to be that of the person who created him.

Although the story of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is fantastic, so, too, is the story of how this novel came to be written, and by whom. Born in London, England, on Aug. 30, 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist writer (A Vindication of the Rights of Women) who died of complications shortly after giving birth to her namesake. Young Mary’s father, William Godwin, was a philosopher and, like his wife, a progressive thinker. Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, guided little Mary’s non-traditional education, introducing her to texts that would normally have been read by young men, not young women, of the time. In addition to having access to her father’s library, Mary was strongly influenced by the great minds of her day, many of whom regularly visited Godwin. “She was trained to be a writer and a thinker,” noted Miranda Butler, who is based at the University of California at Riverside, where she is a scholar of 19th-century literature and science.

Mary’s life was not without drama. Her father’s remarriage resulted in the gaining of a disagreeable stepmother. On the other hand, an extended visit with relatives in Scotland showed Mary the joys of familial harmony. Upon returning to her father’s home in 1814, the young woman met and fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Trouble was, Shelley was married at the time. Nevertheless, the couple embarked on a romance, living abroad and then returning home to England, where they lived in secret, a lifestyle well-suited to the spirit of romanticism.

In the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire, rented a house near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where, according to Mary, they “became neighbors of Lord Byron,” who, at the time, was writing Childe Harold. Idyllic vacation days were hampered by a “wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain” that “often confined us for days to the house.” To break the monotony, Byron challenged the others to “each write a ghost story.”

As Mary remembered it, she decided to “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror.” Her first draft was a story of but a few pages, and without doubt, the best of the lot written by the four. She dealt head-on with topics that struck a nerve, including the power of man to play god. So strong was the tale she told that, upon hearing it, Byron reportedly ran “shrieking in horror” from the room. Percy encouraged her to flesh out the story, and Frankenstein was published in 1818, with a quotation from John Milton’s Paradise Lost on the title page (“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”). The book, an immediate success, was met by disbelief that a young woman would be capable of writing such a story; many wrongly attributed its authorship to Percy Shelley.

A second edition, with changes made primarily by Godwin, followed in 1823. And in 1831, a third edition was published, this one with an introduction in which Mary made it clear that the work was her own, not that of Percy, to whom she was then married. The author made some subtle changes to the text to make it a bit more acceptable to readers, according to Butler.

In the early 18th century, science and philosophy were closely linked in a way that would not mesh with our ideas of scientific study, Butler said. But because of its universal themes that “run deep,” generations of readers, substituting their own concerns, have continued to “project the things they fear” into the narrative. “There’s plenty of empty space in the book that we can fill in,” she added. “It’s so internal.”

Curiously, she pointed out that those reading the book at the time of its writing found it more difficult to accept that the Creature could learn to read, feel and speak eloquently than the idea that Victor Frankenstein could cobble together body parts and create a living being.

Continuing, Butler said that Mary’s genius is evident in the book’s deftly woven narrative voices (“there are so many layers of the onion”). Further, the pace of the story begins slow: The tale does not begin in the laboratory and the beginning of the book “is not scary.” But the tension builds as Frankenstein comes to realize the havoc he has wreaked. Undercurrent themes include rejection, isolation, the dangers of hubris, and man’s inhumanity to man. Ultimately, the experience of reading and rereading Frankenstein is this: “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.”

In celebration of the bicentennial of the book’s publication, Butler will participate in an upcoming panel discussion (It’s Alive: How Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Changed the World) at the 51st California International Antiquarian Book Fair. With others, including Sara Karloff (daughter of film’s most famous portrayer of Frankenstein’s monster), she will focus on the story’s indelible impact on literature, movies and pop culture.

Also on the panel will be Brad Johnson, an antiquarian bookseller based in Covina, Calif. Even if an enthusiast were to limit a collection of all things Frankenstein to books, the range of possibilities is great, Johnson said. Although a three-volume, first edition of Frankenstein (1818) “rarely comes on the market,” when it does, it could fetch $150,000 and it represents the “Holy Grail, the best of the best.” Second on a dream list would be a copy of the third edition, published in 1831, which includes the author’s introduction; making it particularly desirable, though, is the fact that this was the first edition to include an illustrated frontispiece on which a muscular man with flowing hair is depicted (“not like Boris Karloff,” Johnson pointed out). A price of $30,000 to $40,000 would not be unrealistic.

But for collectors with more modest means, there are other options. Johnson, who will also be participating in the Frankenstein panel at the Book Fair, suggested an edition illustrated by Barry Moser would be “a good place to start;” a signed copy might cost $125, but unsigned, it would be in the $40 to $50 range.

A fulfilling collection might include editions selected for their illustrations. Frankenstein comic books provide affordable collecting opportunities, as do Photoplay books that were published in conjunction with the release of motion pictures and feature “stills” from the movies.

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