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).[Record]

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra

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  • Julia Paulman Kielstra
    Merton College, Oxford

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 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 …