The year 1831 was significant for Mary for another reason: She published a revised version of Frankenstein. (In 1824, her father had made some slight changes in the book for another republication.) In 1831, she made some substantive changes. In the original (1818), for example, she had Victor marry his cousin Elizabeth, but in the revision she becomes, instead, a girl his family had adopted. (Whatever the case, Elizabeth does not live long, thanks to … you get three guesses.) Mary also removed some of the scientific references. And there were other changes that, collectively, merit—in the view of most scholars—the adjective significant.
But the great gift to fans of Mary and the book is her 1831 “Introduction,” in which she explains the genesis of the novel—those stormy nights and days on Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, the ghost-story-writing project that Byron had suggested, her frustrations about her initial failure to come up with a good idea.
Then—this famous passage about what happened late one night: When I placed my head on the pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy half vital motion.[i]
In that “Introduction,” she also credits Bysshe for encouraging her to expand her story into a novel, and she refers to her work with a phrase that has become famous enough to serve as a title of other books about her and her work—my hideous progeny.[ii]
Most scholars agree that Mary embellished—even sanitized—that summer and its various doings. (They were a rowdy crew—Byron, Bysshe, Mary, Claire, Dr. Polidori.) But there is certainty, too, that there is a core of truth in Mary’s bright apple.
[i] “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus,” The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, vol. 1 (London: William Pickering, 1996), 179.
[ii] Ibid., 180; on Amazon.com, search, using the title line, “hideous progeny,” and you will find quite a selection, including editor Steven Earl Forry’s Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990). It’s a book I’ve used a lot.