The origins, composition and publication of Mary Shelley’s celebrated novel
‘And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper’
Mary Shelley, introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein, 1831
Few works of Romantic literature have captured the public imagination as readily as Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she began when she was just eighteen. It owes a lot of its popularity to the various adaptations written for stage and screen, from the early plays of the 1820s, to the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as the Creature; and to its numerous successors on film and television – many of them bearing little, if any resemblance to Mary Shelley’s original.
The idea for the novel was conceived in the summer of 1816, while Shelley, Mary, and Claire Clairmont were staying in Geneva as the holiday neighbours of Lord Byron. Byron's doctor, John Polidori, was also with them. Wet weather kept them indoors, and at Byron's suggestion they all, with the exception of Claire, tried their hands at a ghost story. Shelley soon gave his up. Byron began a story but quickly became bored, and Polidori's story The Vampyre was eventually published anonymously in 1819. Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein. She wrote the main draft in two large notebooks, which Shelley corrected and amended. When the novel was first published, in 1818 – anonymously, and dedicated to Godwin – some assumed the author to be Shelley, not his then unknown wife. The extent of Shelley's contribution has been debated ever since.
When a third edition of Frankenstein was published in 1831, Mary Shelley wrote an introduction in which she recalled that memorable summer of 1816. ‘My husband ... was from the first very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enrol myself on the page of fame. ... I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.'