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Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. A Norton Critical Edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. ISBN: 0 393 96458 2 (paperback) Price: £5.99 (US$6.95).

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra

…plus d’informations

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra
    Merton College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

The Norton Critical Edition of any canonical novel is usually hailed as a high quality work of editing and collating, which provides a range of primary and secondary contextual material, as well as the most accurate text of the novel, in a single neat package. J. Paul Hunter's edition of Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein should be viewed no differently. He includes, as is usual, primary contextual sources including Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc, a passage from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, an excerpt from John Polidori's journal, and a letter from Mary Shelley to Fanny Imlay. He also provides nineteenth-century reviews of the novels such as those of Sir Walter Scott, John Croker, and Hugh Reginald Haweis, which accurately reflect both positive and negative responses to Frankenstein. In his section Modern Criticism, Hunter reprints the seminal essays of, among others, Ellen Moers, George Levine, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Mary Poovey, Anne K. Mellor, and Marilyn Butler. He also publishes here, for the first time, an essay on Rousseau and Shelley by Lawrence Lipking.

At first glance, Hunter s choices, which reinforce Shelley's place in the literary canon and explicate the importance of her first novel, appear to be the right ones. In this sense, Hunter's edition is everything a Norton Critical Edition should be. However, as a tool of scholarship, it may be useful only to panicked undergraduate finalists or those members of the general public who have mysteriously managed to acquire a merely rudimentary knowledge of Shelley and her circle in a climate of increased interest in the Romantics. Hunter's preface suggests that Norton, like other scholarly presses, has decided to popularize its publications to appeal to a wider and more general audience. It is colloquial in tone, beginning: "You ve heard the name: you know his story. But you may well know it from films, TV, and conversation, and you may not know whether Frankenstein is the monster or his scientist-creator (it's the latter). And you may not be aware that the story comes from a nineteenth-century novel by a young woman..." (vii). Surely a reader who has gone to the trouble of purchasing the Norton edition, as opposed to a Penguin or Oxford World Classic, would be aware at least of the author's gender. If, however, in these opening sentences Hunter is merely indicating the common misperceptions of Shelley's novel, the rest of the first paragraph suggests that he (and Norton) may be hoping to capitalize on the public's interest in the novel generated by film and television: "The story of how the book came to be written by Mary Shelley is almost as mysterious and convoluted as the story Frankenstein itself tells. It too is a story of beauty and terror, ambition and disappointment, intellectualβeaching and fear of knowledge, love and hate." (vii) Indisputably, making academic work accessible to non-academic readers is a valuable undertaking but, as Hunter's edition of Shelley's novel shows, may result in less rigorous academic standards.

Regardless of Hunter's and Norton's marketing goals, Hunter's technique of aligning Shelley's personal life and her literary work is appropriate. He says that Frankenstein is Shelley's story, "and in coming to grips with it yourself as a reader, it is especially appropriate...to think of it...through the personal experience and contextual history of the remarkable young woman who both resisted writing it and flaunted it before her nearest and dearest." (xi). By so closely aligning Shelley's life history with the plot and characters of her novel, Hunter rightly emphasizes the importance of context to her work. He does so, however, at the risk of over-emphasizing the personal biographical details which, though perhaps more interesting to the general reader, are no less important than her intellectual background. Hunter mentions only in passing that "The immediate occasion of the writing thus involved...serious intellectual issues" (vii). He writes, "Readers who know well the writings of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelley often notice how different Frankenstein is in spirit from their work, how much less trustful Mary is of creativity, the imagination, intellectual ambition, and writing itself. Her feelings toward her parents and lover - all three of them important mentors to her, and powerful intimidating presences - were decidedly mixed" (ix). Hunter, perhaps unintentionally, subjugates Shelley's intellect to her emotions, an attitude which, though reinforced by some feminist critical theory in the last several decades, may skew our perception of the novelist.

While feminist criticism has been instrumental in bringing Shelley and her work to the attention of serious scholars it, like most schools of criticism, risks reducing its subjects to homogenous and discrete entities. Though Hunter says that the critical essays he has chosen "suggest the wide range of textual and cultural interpretations that have made [Frankenstein] into a powerful text" (xi), a too-large percentage of them turn on feminist readings of Shelley's emotional relationships. Ellen Moers ground-breaking essay on maternity in the novel is more or less echoed by Gilbert and Gubar, Poovey, Veeder, and Mellor. Winnett and Johnson have both written articles concerning women's writing which may be helpfully related to Shelley's work, and are included in Hunter's volume. Christopher Small describes the parallels between Victor Frankenstein and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Only the articles by Levine, Spivak, Butler, and Lipking, four out of a total of twelve, are not at the core about women or Shelley's personal relationships. These four papers are indeed seminal, and do give a much broader idea of ways that Shelley and her novel may be interpreted. In order to reinforce the wide range of interpretations Hunter acknowledges, articles on Shelley's politics or reading in lieu of one or two of the feminist articles would have been appropriate.

Hunter could, of course, argue that grouping the eight articles about women together as feminist criticism is reductivist and misses the point. If that is the case, perhaps Contexts rather than Modern Criticism is the section in which to attempt to give a broader idea of the novel. Hunter's choices again reflect a desire to gear the edition toward an uninformed audience and to create a homogenous idea of both Frankenstein and Romanticism. Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc, the stanzas from Canto III of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Mary Shelley's introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel and her letter to Fanny Imlay in 1816 all deal with sublime nature and its effects on the human mind. The only piece which is not concerned with nature as poetic inspiration is John Polidori's preface to The Vampyre (1819) which recounts the circumstances of the ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati. Though Polidori's preface unnecessarily repeats the famous facts of the competition (Hunter also includes Percy Bysshe Shelley's preface to the first edition, a review from the Gentleman's Magazine (April, 1818) which quotes the same, and Mary Shelley's preface to the 1831 edition), the other selections as a group emphasize the scenic aspect of the novel which has largely been ignored by any except contemporary nineteenth-century critics such as Scott and Croker.

These selections are problematic in two ways: first, they do not support many of the articles found in the Modern Criticism section, in turn undermining the need for contextual studies by wrongly implying that the Romantic agenda is by now so well-known or so monolithic that it no longer needs to be addressed; second, they tend to reduce Shelley and her circle to a group of poetical people who spent most of a rainy summer being overcome by the beauty of their surroundings, rather than as an educated assemblage who nightly discussed philosophical and scientific issues. The wide range of interpretation suggested by modern critics arises from a wide range of primary material, such as writings of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, or of William Lawrence and John Abernethy. This material was used by Shelley and in some instances created by her circle, and could have been included in the Contexts section instead of the obvious choices of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron.

The obviousness of Hunter's selections is both the strength and the weakness of his edition. On one hand, he has chosen texts which should be so familiar and basic to any student of the Romantic period that they become redundant when included in a volume meant to reflect a broad range of intellectual inquiry. The standards of serious scholarship, evidence of rigorous and extensive scholarship which are usually evident in a Norton edition are not apparent in Hunter's. On the other hand, precisely because Hunter's selections are the most central and standard texts which surround Shelley and her novel, these selections comprise a perfect introduction to Romanticism and Frankenstein for the reader with little experience, or who wants only a general and not too academic overview. The Norton Critical Editions series has in the past been oriented toward the serious student who already has some background in the subject, and intends to gain a more sophisticated view of it. Hunter's edition seems aimed at a larger, less academic audience. While this decision does not bode well for the future of academic publications, it at least suggests that the general reading public is becoming more interested in academic subjects, which is good news for us all.