BY MARK VARESCHI
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Having celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2018, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perhaps one of the most well-known novels of the early nineteenth century. While many are familiar with Shelley’s classic novel and can immediately picture some version of the work’s iconic monster, few are aware that when Frankenstein was first published in 1818 it was an anonymous novel. Nowhere on the title page does the name “Mary Shelley” appear. The novel that began its life as an exercise in writing a ghost story during the particularly cold and wet summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in Geneva was conveyed to the British reading public with no indication of its author’s name.
Indeed, when in 1817 Mary Shelley’s husband Percy tried to help her sell the completed novel to his publisher, Charles Ollier, he did so without disclosing the author’s name. Percy Shelley wrote to Ollier: “I send you with this letter a manuscript which has been consigned to my care by a friend in whom I feel considerable interest.” The manuscript was rejected. Acting again as Mary Shelley’s agent, Percy Shelley would eventually find a publisher for the novel in Lackington and Co., but Mary Shelley’s name was withheld. Percy Shelley referred to the novel in a letter to the publisher as “not [his] own production, but that of a friend…”
Shortly after the novel was published in January 1818, with a print run of 500 copies, reviews of the novel began appearing in periodicals. Some reviewers, noting novel’s anonymity, hazarded an attribution. Walter Scott in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine wrote: “It is said to be written by Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin; and it is inscribed to that ingenious author.” (Mary Shelley would later write to Scott to correct this error). An anonymous reviewer in The Literary Panorama, and National Register reported in its review of Frankenstein: “We have heard that this work is written by Mr. Shelley; but should be disposed to attribute it to even a less experienced writer than he is. In fact we have some idea that it is the production of a daughter of a celebrated living novelist.” The British Critic was even crueler in its dismissal:
The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.
Given the harsh reviews Frankenstein endured from many, though not all, critics and the obvious antipathy to women writers held by some critics we might not be surprised that the novel was published anonymously. Indeed, we may wish to attribute some causal relationship between the expected reception of Frankenstein and its woman author and the decision to publish the novel anonymously. As Susan Eilenberg notes, however, “there was nothing peculiarly feminine about anonymity, nor anything very uncommon about it, either.”
Indeed, the novel in English emerges over the course of the long eighteenth century as a largely anonymous form. As James Raven asserts, “it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the English novels of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were published without attribution of authorship on the title page or within the preface or elsewhere in the text.” In 1818, the year Frankenstein appeared, 62 new novels were published in Britain and Ireland. 41 were published anonymously (66%). Of the 21 novels that appeared with their authors’ names attached, five were attributed to male authors and 16 to female authors. These figures upend assumptions we might make about gendered authorship as well has how atypical authorial anonymity was for the novel.
In Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain, I argue that because anonymity was typical of texts published (and performed) in the long eighteenth-century, we must rethink both how we approach anonymous texts and how we attribute motives to authors to account for that anonymity. I suggest we move from approaching anonymity as a product of an individual author’s choice to understanding it as an aspect of textual production. We tend to assume that anonymity is a choice made by an author and that named authorship is the default state. Publication history, however, suggests otherwise – anonymity was the default state, particularly for new novels like Frankenstein. We might understand the anonymity of a novel like Frankenstein along the lines that we understand Lackington and Co. issuing the novel in three volumes – the typical physical form of novels in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That is, the anonymity of Frankenstein (and those other 40 novels published anonymously in 1818), while informed by the author’s choice and individual motives, is as much a product of the forces of generic expectation, publication practices, and the collective actions that bring a literary text to be in the world.
Mark Vareschi is author of Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Vareschi is assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“This is fresh, compelling, detail-rich scholarship and essential reading.”
—Brad Pasanek, author of Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary
“Everywhere and Nowhere is that rare thing: a genuinely interdisciplinary study, capacious and illuminating, of how anonymous authorship impacts meaning across genres and media. In Mark Vareschi’s hands, anonymity is transformed into a lens for reexamining the most fundamental literary concepts (authorship and intention, medium, textuality) and renovating them—not just in the domain of print but across the rich media ecologies of the eighteenth century.”
—Michael Gamer, University of Pennsylvania
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), Vol. I, p. 549; p. 553.
–Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 2 (March 1818): 613-620
–The British Critic, N.S., 9 (April 1818): 432-38
-Susan Eilenberg, “Nothing’s Nameless: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” in The Faces of Anonymity, ed. Robert J. Griffin (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 171.
-James Raven, “The Anonymous Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1830,” in The Faces of Anonymity, ed. Robert J. Griffin (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 143; 164.