The first year I taught "Frankenstein," I was 23 years old and knew little about the novel — or anything else, for that matter. The edition I chose for my students did not help: It had no notes, no biographical material, no supplemental readings, no appendixes, no chronologies and no historical, scientific or political context. However, at age 23 I was mostly untroubled by my ignorance. In college, many of my own professors had been New Critics, an approach that has largely died off — thank goodness. They had steered me away from the common-sensical idea that historical context and biographical information might be useful tools. Students should simply study the text, they insisted. Do close readings, examine syntax and diction, and you will know all you ever need to know!
Thus, I could not tell my students that Mary Shelley published her book anonymously when she was 20 years old; that when people found out she was the author, she was called perverse, monstrous and impious; that she had run away with the already married Percy Shelley when she was 16 and was only 18 when she conceived of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature; that the year before she wrote "Frankenstein," Mary gave birth to a baby who died days later; that she was rejected by her father and English society for living with the man she loved; that her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," had died after giving birth to her and Mary felt guilty about causing her mother's death. I did not even know that there were different versions of the novel. She published the first edition in 1818 and revised it in 1831.
And so I guided my students through the text as though it had appeared out of thin air. We discussed Shelley without knowing anything about her life. And despite this, we still had rewarding classes. We talked about the ethical dilemmas of the book. We reveled in the intricate narrative structure that undermines any simple notions of heroism or victimhood.
But now, looking back, I wish we'd had the benefit of an edition that supplied us with more information. If we had understood the context of the novel, if we had known more about Shelley, our conversations would have been enriched and extended.
Now, into the breach, comes "The New Annotated Frankenstein," edited by Leslie S. Klinger.
With over 200 color and black-and-white illustrations, six appendixes and nearly 1,000 annotations, this edition of "Frankenstein" is a cornucopia of background information — a New Critics' nightmare. There are elucidations, explanations, theories and political commentaries. There's a map of the Arctic Circle, a brief retelling of Ovid's Prometheus myth, a chronology of events in the novel, notes on revisions between older and newer versions, and even explanations of typographical errors. Pop culture elements include a photo of Gene Hackman (the hermit) and Peter Boyle (the Creature) from "Young Frankenstein" and an interview with Mel Brooks. The brilliant scholar Anne K. Mellor provided an afterword, and Guillermo Del Toro, the director of "Pan's Labyrinth," wrote the introduction.
Teachers will be delighted to have this material in one volume. Students will find the notes illuminating. General readers will be fascinated to uncover the many layers behind the writing of Shelley's novel. As Klinger writes, this edition will help readers see "the richness and nuance" of "Frankenstein."
Of course, there are still those who will say that we don't need all this material to appreciate the novel, and it is true that my students and I were still able to enjoy the book, as the basic questions remain the same no matter what you know: How could Frankenstein abandon his Creature? What are the consequences of his decision? Was the Creature a monster? If so, why doesn't Shelley ever use that word?
But now, as an experienced teacher, I know how lively and well-informed our discussions could have been if we'd had the benefit of an edition like this one. Many misconceptions would have been avoided, many new ideas broached. We could have discussed how the evils of slavery shaped Shelley's ideas; how she was influenced by her mother's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman"; how she published a book during an era when women were supposed to be docile, obedient and subservient. Klinger's edition allows readers to understand the complexities of the novel as well as the difficulties endured by its author. Only then can one be truly inspired by Mary Shelley's genius and her bravery.
Charlotte Gordon's latest book, "Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley," won the National Book Critics Circle award for Biography.
By Mary Shelley
Edited by Leslie S. Klinger
Liveright. 416 pp. $35