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One hundred and eighty years ago, on 26 May 1817, Mary Shelley wrote the following entry in her journal: "Murray likes F". 'F' stands of course for Frankenstein, Shelley's first novel and one of the most famous novels in the history of English literature. As Brian Aldiss comments, with Frankenstein, Mary Shelley accomplished something unique: the creation of a new archetypal figure.  And Professor Robinson's remarkable edition of The Frankenstein Notebooks allows for the first time any reader the possibility to trace the creation of Shelley's famous "hideous progeny".
1996 will certainly remain in the memory of scholars working on Mary Shelley's works as it witnessed the publication of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, the first ever collected edition of Shelley's long fiction, and The Frankenstein Notebooks, the first holograph text of the manuscript of Frankenstein as it survives in draft and in fair copy in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. 1997 will witness several events celebrating the bicentenary of Mary Shelley's birth, with two major international conferences taking place in New York and Cambridge, and two exhibitions devoted to Mary Shelley and her times in New York and Grasmere. No doubt that Professor Robinson's edition will be eagerly discussed around the world as its impact on Shelleyan scholarship cannot be underestimated.
Keeping up with the series The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics, published by Garland under the general editorship of Professor Donald H. Reiman, The Frankenstein Notebooks consists of 400 manuscript photofacsimile on the versos and Robinson's transcription on the rectos. This allows the reader to see the actual manuscript and to read Robinson's extremely accurate and scholarly transcription. Though Mary Shelley's hand proves to be quite similar to Percy's, Robinson's long-standing study of manuscripts grants him an assurance which never verges on egotistical excess of confidence as Robinson scrupulously indicates all the uncertain attributions with a question mark.
If it was not enough to provide a meticulous transcription of Shelley's manuscript, Professor Robinson innovates in incorporating alongside his transcription a literal transcript of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein. As Robinson comments, "such a procedure makes possible for the reader to see the transformations of one text into another and, at the same time, see the degree of [Percy Bysshe Shelley's] involvement in these transformations" (xxvii). Robinson's use of two different fonts to distinguish Mary Shelley's emendations to the manuscript from Percy's allow the reader to appreciate visually the importance of Percy's contribution to Frankenstein. This point has obviously been the subject of numerous discussions amongst Shelleyan scholars in their attempt to define the extent in which Percy Shelley was involved in the writing of the novel. Until the publication of The Frankenstein Notebooks , scholars had to rely on periodically innaccurate presentations of the manuscript evidence. Robinson's edition makes explicitly clear for the first time exactly what words or suggestions Percy Shelley introduced into the novel. Robinson devotes an entire section of his introduction to the delicate question of Mary's and Percy's collaboration in the Frankenstein Notebooks, in which he presents past scholarship and provides a new starting point for future studies of the Shelleys' collaboration. Indeed, from now on, as Robinson points out, "A reading of the evidence in these Frankenstein Notebooks should make clear that PBS's contributions to Frankenstein were no more than what most publishers editors have provided new (or old) authors or, in fact, what colleagues have provided to each other after reading each others works in progress" (lxvii).
Though, at first, one might feel a bit surprised by the unfamiliar presentation of the transcription in the form of a column running alongside the 1818 text, one is very quickly grateful for Robinson's innovation. Indeed, this system provides incomparable insights into the actual making of the novel, the writing / revision process within the manuscript by both Mary and Percy Shelley, as well as between the manuscript present in the Notebooks and the 1818 published edition. It should be stressed, Professor Robinson announces in his introduction, that "these collations and parallel texts are valuable tools by which a reader can and should learn that a text or literary product involves a literary process that must be understood before any attempt is made to fix a text, whether fix is understood to mean establish or make firm and unchanging or emend and therefore change" (xxvii). This edition will certainly prove to be the best guide to understand how one of the most popular works from the Romantic period came into existence.
In his very detailed, and extremely useful, introduction, Robinson also attempts to reconstruct hypothetically an ur-text of Frankenstein , as well as the fair copy of the novel. His speculations are based on numerous clues that his extensive study of the manuscript and the novel strongly entices the reader to agree with. Similarly, Robinson discusses the question of naming in Frankenstein and the various, and fascinating, changes that took place within the manuscript, and between the manuscript and the published version. To mention but one, Robinson presents the history of the character Safie, who was "apparently called 'Maimouna', a name that can be traced to [Robert] Southey's Thalaba , a name that PBS used as a nickname for his friend Mrs. Boinville and that he used in his prose fragment 'The Assassin' for Khaled's daughter (a precursor of Cythna in PBS's Laon and Cythna)" (lix).
There are numerous instances in which the comparison of the manuscript versions offers new ways of understanding how to read the original manuscripts. For instance, it is now evident that the inscription of the word 'author' with regard to Victor is in Percy Shelley's, and not Mary's, hand. Or, one can discover that the creature was first described as a man in the famous creation scene: "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completeed" (Draft: Vol. I, Chap 7A, page 75 [page 97 of Robinson's edition]). This was changed in the 1818 text, as Robinson's ingenious system makes clear. I can only invite readers to consult the Notebooks in order to discover many more instances of creative and artistic input into the writing of Frankenstein.
Another important feature of Robinson's edition is his Frankenstein Chronology. Over more than forty pages, Robinson offers a detailed description of the Shelleys' life and activities. Robinson quotes from letters and journal entries written by Polidori and Claire Clairmont as well as Percy and Mary Shelley, though the latter figures obviously more prominently. This chronology traces the conception, creation, execution and publication of Shelley's novel in such an exhaustive way that one is both impressed and gratified by Robinson's work. Robinson not only includes references to the writing and publishing history of Frankenstein (from the 1818 to the 1831 edition), he also incorporates references to the reception of the novel, with quotes from letters by friends of the Shelleys such as Leigh Hunt or Thomas Jefferson Hogg, as well as extracts from reviews.
Scholars were already heavily indebted to Professor Robinson for his previous works related to Mary Shelley—- the first edition of Mary Shelleys tales (Mary Shelley: Collected Tales - 1976; 1990) and, with Professor Betty T. Bennett, The Mary Shelley Reader (1990) —- and this edition of The Frankenstein Notebooks definitely demands the expression of our sincerest gratitude for having undertaken such a difficult task, and for having so brilliantly succeeded. Any serious study of Frankenstein, and the collaboration between Mary and Percy Shelley, will now have to take Robinson's edition of The Frankenstein Notebooks into account.
- Brian Aldiss, with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1986) p. 145.