De Hart’s new book examines the varied evidence supporting his thesis, upon which other scholars have also written, that Percy, rather than Mary, wrote Frankenstein. The book is fairly interesting, but as one reads it one feels it could have been shorter than it is, and it is already under two hundred pages.
I found that de Hart needlessly repeats certain phrases and ideas without much variation, and that this repetition serves no purpose but to lengthen sentences, particularly when he makes repeated mention of the true author’s name. Readers know before they even begin reading that de Hart’s assertion is that Percy Shelley wrote the novel, so why bother naming him as “the true author” every few pages? Also, de Hart’s writing style is not as scholarly as I expected it to be, which at times weakly colored the content of the book for me. And I felt that despite the strength of the evidence, there wasn’t a great amount of detailed analysis, leading me to think that the author could have proven his thesis in very few pages, in an almost bulleted list format. But this is because the author sets out not to critically examine Frankenstein or the other evidence in intricate detail but rather to list and summarize the evidence that supports his main idea.
De Hart does, however, provide interesting evidence to support the claim that Percy actually wrote Frankenstein. De Hart discusses Shelley’s early life and interests (particularly alchemy), illustrating for readers how the novel is a fictionalized autobiography of sorts. Shelley’s atheism, his interest in the advancements of science, and his desire to set forth for the reading public his revolutionary ideas while remaining anonymous, are the foundations upon which de Hart rests his belief that Shelley wrote the novel. As de Hart states, “Anonymity, for Shelley, was a way of life as well as a hidden agenda,” and he illuminates the variety of texts Shelley published in this manner, including The Necessity of Atheism, Queen Mab, and Epipsychidion. Along with an examination of the 1818 and 1831 Prefaces, de Hart constructs a pretty solid argument for Percy’s authorship.
By the time one finishes reading the book, only the most die-hard Mary Shelley fans will have trouble accepting de Hart’s thesis. Although, as he claims, the question of authorship may never be fully resolved, the doubts that do remain do not seem to be as strong as the reasons for believing that Percy penned the manuscript, and that Mary, as she did for many of his other works, only transcribed it.
Personally, I more or less accept de Hart’s argument, particularly after reading his discussion on the two Prefaces. The language of the 1818 Preface reveals a personal attachment to the narrative when Shelley writes, “The circumstance on which my story rests . . .” (my emphasis) while in the 1831 Preface, which all readers know was penned by Mary since Percy died in 1822, she states that “Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, commenced one [a story] founded on the experiences of his early life.” As I noted above, De Hart spends part of the text aligning the particular details of the novel with Shelley’s experiences as a youth, asserting the biographical nature of the fiction, as Mary inadvertently alludes to here.
Yet, the most interesting point in the two Prefaces that supports de Hart’s thesis is where each talks about the famous summer spent in Geneva in 1816. In the 1818 Preface the author states that “Two other friends . . . and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence,” and in the 1831 Preface, Mary writes that “There were four of us” and goes on to list the others: Shelley, Byron, Polidori (Byron’s doctor), and herself. Polidori, we learn from de Hart, states that there were three people present on that night. Thus, Mary seems to have conspired with Shelley to put her name to the novel after its initial anonymous publication, and was not present that night, according to Shelley and Polidori.
De Hart’s Shelley Unbound leads to interesting questions outside the scope of this review, and cancels out any real doubts as to Frankenstein’s true authorship. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves the novel and to anyone with an interest or background in British Romanticism, as it opens one’s eyes to things from the perspective of the atheistic Percy as the author rather than the maternal Mary, the latter perspective from which readers such as myself have always read and been taught to read the novel. Reading it from both perspectives, however, enlarges the lasting power of the novel, and I believe this is the greatest service that de Hart’s text has done to Frankenstein and both Percy and Mary Shelley.