Number 4 on my list of Frankenstein Events in 2007: John Lauritsen’s The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein.
It’s an old story. From the moment it was published, anonymously, 190 years ago, critics attributed Frankenstein to the author of the book’s original introduction, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even after Mary assumed her byline, Percy’s presence loomed as her editor, some said collaborator, in the authorship of the famous novel. To this day, scholars are still measuring Percy’s influence on the novel, chiefly through the study of his numerous annotations to Mary’s manuscript.
In March of 2007, writer John Lauritsen revived the controversy and cranked it up to eleven. Lauritsen argues that Frankenstein was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, not Mary, whose contribution was basically secretarial, copying Percy’s work in her own handwriting as she had done for some of Lord Byron’s poems, preparing the manuscript for the printer. Lauritsen also suggests that the central theme of Frankenstein is male love, expressed both directly and in coded language that he, as a gay historian, is able to interpret.
Lauritsen’s forceful thesis, self-published under his Pagan Press imprint with the unmistakable title of The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, ignited a firestorm in literary circles. It went ballistic, reaching a wider audience after Camille Paglia gave the book a short but resoundingly positive review in a Salon.com article.
What’s fascinating about Paglia’s review is not so much how completely convinced she is by Lauritsen’s arguments, as her gleeful celebration of its assault on stuffy old academia. Paglia writes: “Lauritsen's book is important not only for its audacious theme but for the devastating portrait it draws of the insularity and turgidity of the current academy… This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years.”
A vastly different perspective on the book came from Germaine Greer whose article in The Guardian carried its own unequivocal title, “Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious - because the book is so bad”.
Greer writes, “The latest sensation to galvanise the torpid lit-hist-crit establishment is the "discovery" by market research analyst John Lauritsen that Mary Shelley did not write Frankenstein.” She then delivers a full-on blast against Lauritsen, complete with her own reading of Frankenstein as feminist text: “The driving impulse of this incoherent tale is a nameless female dread, the dread of gestating a monster… If women's attraction to the gothic genre is explained by the opportunity it offers for the embodiment of the amoral female subconscious, Frankenstein is the ultimate expression of the female gothic.”
Another good read on the subject is the transcript of an Australian ABC Radio program, The Book Show, featuring Lauritsen along with Percy Shelley expert Neil Fraistat, and Charles Robinson, author of The Frankenstein Notebooks. Its all very civil, composed and thoroughly fascinating. Fraistat makes an observation that, in the end, provides a satisfying coda to The Great Frankenstein Controversy of 2007:
“I think the interesting thing is that one of the things that John's book does that's so valuable is it acts as a kind of provocation, it makes people have to go back and really look at the evidence and think these things through for themselves.”
Germaine Greer’s article in The Guardian.
Transcript from ABC Radio’s The Book Show.
If you are interested in Lauritsen’s book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, I suggest getting it directly from the author. Support small-press publishers!
The Frankenstein Events of 2007 Countdown continues on Wednesday, December 26.