Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

The Annotated Frankenstein, eds. Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 11:28
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Annotated Frankenstein, eds. Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2012). 400 pp. (Hdbk., $29.95; ISBN 978-0-674-05552-0).

Reviewed by
Nora Crook
Anglia Ruskin University at Cambridge

The Annotated Frankenstein? Most new editions of Frankenstein are annotated now. One thinks of those that have been published or updated in recent years—landmarks such as Charles Robinson’s The Original Frankenstein (2008), Stuart Curran’s wonderfully compendious Romantic Circles hypertext (2009), fine teaching editions (all using the 1818 text) such as Macdonald and Scherf’s Broadview (3rd ed., 2012), Paul Hunter’s Norton (2nd ed., 2012), Judith Wilt’s New Riverside (2003), and not least the Longman (2nd ed. 2007), edited by Wolfson, reviewed in Romantic Circles in 2004.

So what’s new here? It’s fair to describe The Annotated Frankenstein as the offspring of Wolfson’s Longman edition—no hideous progeny, but a very lively and accessible book for the serious (but not necessarily scholarly) reader and a splendid looking monster for the coffee-table. The Longman introduction, rewritten, abridged, and expanded, supplies the groundwork for the introduction to The Annotated Frankenstein. Like its parent, too, this edition has timelines, a history of adaptation on stage and screen, a list for further reading and viewing, and a selection of the 1831 revisions. Some of the 2003/2007 apparatus has been dropped, including contextual material, contemporary reviews, Peake’s 1823 Frankenstein play, Polidori’s The Vampyre, and “Frankentalk” in the popular press. But new features have been brought in, of which the most immediately striking are the illustrations and the expanded critical and informational notes, which form, in effect, a running commentary.

Wolfson and Levao wistfully remark on how “inviting to the eye” (115) the early nineteenth-century three-volume novels were at about 100 words per page, but if The Annotated Frankenstein can’t match that lavishness, the print is beautifully clear, with generous space for the notes, presented as sidenotes; these are distinguished from the text by both a smaller point-size and a sepia tone. The illustrations—nearly 100—have been thoughtfully chosen, and almost all are sufficiently large. There are, of course, the usual portraits of Mary Shelley, her family, Byron, and so on. (A mild demurral: does the spurious Stump portrait, even accompanied by the warning that it is only “long thought to be Mary Shelley,” merit inclusion?) The prints of St. Pancras Churchyard and the Villa Diodati show detail well; a still from the James Whale 1931 Frankenstein is juxtaposed with Fuseli’s Nightmare to illustrate how the first derives from the second. More out-of-the-way illustrations include pages of Godwin’s diary, some of Lynd Ward’s superb wood engravings of 1934, Henry Fuseli’s 1794 Milton Dictating to his Daughter (a voluptuous figure, whose thin red neck-ribbon disturbingly suggests the guillotine as her father’s ghastly sightless eyes roll upward), Rubens’s baroque Prometheus Bound, and Cruikshank’s print of Napoleon’s 1814 dethronement, The Modern Prometheus or Downfall of Tyranny. There is an 1800 map of the walled city of Geneva, showing the three infamous gates that shut inexorably at 10 p.m., sealing poor Justine’s fate. Something that will be completely new to most readers is the reproduction of the title page of the fine Hawkey 1747 edition of Paradise Lost, now at Princeton, inscribed “Mary. W. G. | from Percy B Shelley | June 6. 1815.” Not only does this shed a slender beam on what the Shelleys were up to during this blank period in early June, from which no other documents seem to have survived, but the record of a previous owner, “Lady Savile” (52), supplies a possible additional source for the name of Walton’s sister, Margaret Saville. Furthermore, it is linked to one of the major narratives running through the notes: Frankenstein’s engagement with Milton.

Wolfson and Levao don’t aim at being exhaustive in their annotation, but this is compensated for by expansiveness and cohesion. As well as Milton, topics such as class conflict, the alchemical and scientific background, the unnamed ghosts of Rousseau and Wollstonecraft in the text, parenting, and the significance of names are foregrounded; many notes point out the recurrence of motifs and episodes (the monster collecting wood for “firing,” repeated courtroom and reanimation scenes). A very strong feature is the degree of attention to verbal detail, such as the change from “R. Walton” to “Robert Walton” as a valediction to his sister when Walton believes that he may never return. The editors tease out the numerous occurrences of words that ironically relate to Frankenstein (frankly, frank-hearted, etc.), and the variants on monster and devoted. There is a judicious selection of the alterations made by Percy to Mary’s manuscripts. Even those who believe they know Frankenstein pretty well will catch themselves thinking as they read the notes, “Well, I never noticed that before,” whether it be a submerged allusion to Orlando Furioso or the fact that we never learn what happened to Frankenstein’s one surviving sledge dog. Notes are up-to-date; the identification of Claire Clairmont’s father by Vicki Parslow Stafford in February 2011 has been missed, but the editors have got in a reference to the University of Texas’s research, published September 2011, which found that bright moonlight would have streamed through MWS’s bedroom at 2 a.m. on 16 June 1816 (342), thus supporting her 1831 account.

As its title signals, Wolfson and Levao’s Annotated Frankenstein invites particular comparison with Leonard Wolf’s illustrated 1977 publication of the same name and its 1993 revision, The Essential Frankenstein, both out of print. These two publications delighted with their irreverent and sometimes wacky notes, which include a recipe for Orkney oat-cakes and observations that have more in them than meets the eye, such as: “Where, in the vicinity of the North Pole, [the Creature] expects to find wood enough to make a funeral pyre is a detail that did not trouble Mary Shelley. Perhaps it should not trouble us” (The Essential Frankenstein, 290). Wolfson and Levao, engaging with Wolf’s challenge, show that it should trouble us and that the text supplies an answer: “The pile, we may realize, is to be assembled from the Creature’s sledge, perhaps also from Frankenstein’s, and the shipwrecks of unlucky expeditions” (324)—an interpretation sharpened by their including a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a ship crushed in the Polar ice: The Death of Hope (1823–1824).

The chronology of Frankenstein is an anvil that has broken the hammer of many an editor, including that of Wolf, in an attempt to establish internal consistency and seamless correspondence with parallel events, public and private, in the 1790s. Wolfson and Levao have given the matter much thought before putting forward theirs (which blends a fictional timeline with the historical one). Their adding Justine’s history to the tally of internal calendar problems seems based on a miscalculation (358, 374–75), but they are dead right to say that “calendric accuracy . . . seems maddeningly elusive,” and sensibly propose that we accept the seemingly historical time furnished by dates as illusionistic. Anachronistic quotations from Coleridge, Lamb, Byron, and Leigh Hunt “may have a purpose that trumps the calendar: the array of references constitutes, in effect, an anthology that marks Mary Shelley’s tacit solidarity with her Romantic-era contemporaries” (354).

Sometimes the vivacious broadbrush approach strays into the tendentious, and there are some mistakes and oversights. Many are trivial; the less trivial ones mostly concern publishing history and Mary Shelley’s relationship with Lackington, publisher of the 1818 Frankenstein (50). I also regret that the 1823 edition of Frankenstein is still called a reprint (53). (Godwin, who reported putting it in hand on 29 July 1823, was almost certainly the introducer of some significant verbal changes, one of which makes the Creature more aggressive, and most of which were carried into the third edition of 1831.) As I understand, Wolfson and Levao are aware of these and other slips, and intend that they shall be corrected on a second printing. And they are among the few commentators who speak accurately of the ghost-story writing project as a “compact” rather than loosely as a “competition.” Shining through the commentary is their sense of the extraordinariness of Frankenstein, the way in which it repays repeated rereadings, its anchorage in a specific historical situation, its untethered freedom from that situation, enabling it to speak to us today. All in all, this handsome edition should give much pleasure and instruction to its intended readership, and I join with the editors and publishers in bidding it prosper.