by Alison Kinney
Terror, nausea, and the solitary slog of patching together cold, dead bodies in the workshop: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus created a fantastical, searing metaphor for the horrors of revision, that process by which writers try, fail, and try again to animate the corpses of their ideas. Yet it is Shelley’s—and Victor Frankenstein’s—dazzling burst of illumination that persists among the great origin myths of creative writing: “sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous.” Why did Shelley invent this competing narrative of authorship, a disingenuous, discouraging myth, if not an outright lie, which her readers have been eating up since 1831?
It begins with a house party on Lake Geneva, a ghost-storytelling contest, and a late-night chat about galvanizing cadavers. “Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me,” Shelley wrote for the Introduction to the Third Edition. “I announced that I had thought of a story…making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.” If only it were so easy! Shelley’s account made a neat analogy to Victor’s stroke of genius and invited two centuries’ worth of critical interpretation and envy for any writer, such as myself, who is waiting for that flash of inspiration and an invitation to an aristocratic summer house party.
Shelley had her reasons for downplaying the gruntwork. Perhaps she wanted to deflect criticisms of her unladylike morbidity: it was just a dream; it wasn’t my fault! Perhaps, when you’re hobnobbing with the Romantics, nobody wants to admit to the tiresome, nebulous, maddening practice of rewriting, which doesn’t exactly sizzle like a lightning flash to the neck bolts. Revision is boring. Even John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, wrote vaguely of it, “[T]he writer has chosen every element with care, and has revised and repeatedly re-revised in an attempt to reach something like aesthetic perfection….” Eudora Welty told The Paris Review, “I correct or change words, but I can’t rewrite a scene or make a major change because there’s a sense then of someone looking over my shoulder. It’s necessary, anyway, to trust that moment when you were sure at last you had done all you could, done your best for that time.” And Shelley evaded the question of her Third Edition revisions: “They are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances.”
Or perhaps Shelley only gave us the answer we deserved. Even other writers, who know better, sometimes want to believe in that flash of inspiration, especially when it hasn’t visited us. We want to believe that inspiration comes to other people in their sleep and effortlessly transcribes itself; its absence lets us off the hook for our unwritten masterpieces. Without inspiration, it’s okay for us to obsess all day on Twitter and tell ourselves that drinking all night with our other blocked writer friends is research. Inspiration gives us an excuse not to stick our hands into our own cold, festering early drafts.
But a truer, better story, more fraught and more complicated, emerges from Shelley’s papers and James Reiger’s scholarship on the original 1818 edition. Shelley wrote and edited multiple drafts, had doubts and criticisms, and scribbled “bad” in her margins. Her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, line-edited and contributed upwards of 5,000 words to the first manuscript. She reworked it in her journals and in the copy she annotated for a friend in 1823: “If there were ever to be another edition of this book, I should re-write these two first chapters. The incidents are tame and ill arranged—the language sometimes childish.—They are unworthy of the rest of the book narration.”
More significantly, Shelley did change the story. The original 1818 Victor is a jerk who neglects his family and friends and reneges on his responsibilities toward his creature, making you root for his downfall. In the revision, he’s a victim of destiny. In 1818, women are philosophers, public agitators for justice, and a moral force; in 1831, they’re emotional and passive. Also, the prose of 1818—“[I] exerted myself to point out to her the various beauties of the scene”—devolves into woozy rhapsodies: “The very winds whispered in soothing accents, and maternal nature bade me weep no more.” The 1818 edition was a better novel, but the 1831 edition is the standard paperback we read now and see adapted for film.
Why did Shelley mask the work of her revisions? Perhaps because, when a woman writes a novel about a megalomaniac who bears more than a passing resemblance to her own husband, she may, after he and three of their children have died, wish to revise that characterization but pretend she hasn’t. Or, perhaps, Shelley wanted to teach her readers a lesson about taking professional liars’ assertions at face value. They had persisted in asking her a silly question—“How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” when the answer lay in plain sight. For, like Shelley, Victor Frankenstein workshopped multiple versions of his monster:
“It was indeed a filthy process in which I was engaged. During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the sequel of my labour, and my eyes were shut to the horror of my proceedings. But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands.”
Shelley knew that her novel wasn’t about the glorious flash of inspiration, but about the exhaustion, misunderstanding, and torment that followed. Without Victor’s repeated attempts to fix the mistakes of the original work, his failing again and again, there was no story at all. Likewise, the truth of Shelley’s work is in the textual evasions, the making and shattering of myths, the compilation of details, notes, and doubts. She wrote, rewrote, even overwrote, for sixteen years, making metaphors to haunt and dare her readers to come up with better.
How did a young girl create Frankenstein? The same way that writers always create: by moving past the inspiration in order to write. Shelley told us everything we need to know about plunging into the black arts, to inscribe vision through labor. Writing is the work of megalomaniacs and monsters, and we are never done with it, nor it with us.
This post was originally written for Avidly, an L.A. Review of Books* Channel. http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2014/06/12/a-filthy-process-in-which-i-was-engaged-revising-frankenstein
Alison Kinney is the author of Hood (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). Her essays and articles have appeared online at The Paris Review Daily, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, History Today, Longreads, and other publications. She can be reached on Twitter @Alison_Kinney or at alisonkinney.com.