Beyond “Frankenstein:” Mary Shelley’s Editorial Work

As the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein this year, Mary Shelley’s name will be constantly invoked as the mother of science fiction, the famed daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the tragic wife of the genius Romantic poet Percy Shelley—but there’s so much more to this woman than her creature and her relationships with others.
After Mary Shelley published Frankenstein at the age of 20, she went on to write other major works such as Mathilda and The Last Man, but the thing I find most interesting about Mary Shelley’s later career is her creative editing of her husband’s work after his death.
Less than three months after Percy’s death, Mary writes in her journal: “Beneath all this [grief], my imagination even flags. Literary labours, the improvement of my mind, & the enlargement of my ideas are the only occupations that elevate me from my lethargy” (Mary Shelley Journals 431). Thus, she set out to create a collection of Percy’s Posthumous Poems.
To do this, Mary faced the challenges of working as a single mother in the mid-19th century, gaining access to her very name from Percy Shelley’s vindictive father, and collecting manuscript documents scattered across an entire continent. This process of piecing together the best text version of a work through numerous drafts and contexts constitutes this project as a work of authorship as well as editorship, and in publishing his Posthumous Poems in 1824, she reformed our very idea who an “author” is. The Romantic period idea of an author was heavily influenced by “the author on the model of Wordsworth’s poet-prototype, the shepherd,” a lone creator working through his imaginative processes apart from the distractions of society (Hofkosh 247). What Mary did rejects that image completely.
I emphasize that gendered pronoun because there was a definite gender distinction between “authors” and “female authors” at this point in time. Furthermore, Mary did not co-write Percy’s poems per se, but working as his editor, piecing together his work to produce her best texts with accompanying introductory and textual notes, she became an author through her editorial work.
By broadening the definition of authorship beyond the lone male artist to include transcribers, editors, publishers, etc., we inevitably let women into positions of textual authority that they have not historically been allowed to occupy. The more we credit female editors as we credit female writers, the more cultural power they’ll gain—past and present—in forming not only a canon, but a more empathetic society (48).
So thank you Mary Shelley, and congratulations on 200 years of Frankenstein!

By Emma Irving

Works Cited:
Hofkosh, Sonia. “A Woman’s Profession: Sexual Difference and the Romance of Authorship.” Studies in Romanticism 32.2 (1993): 245-72. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diane Scott-Kilvert. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.
Wolfson, Susan J. “Editorial Privilege: Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley’s Audiences.” The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. Ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 39-72. Print.

 

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