About This Book

Published in 1831, this copy of Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus is the third original edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, following the 1818 and the 1823 editions. The book was released as the “Twelfth Number” of Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley’s “Standard Novels” series, as an inexpensive one-volume copy. The 202-page story is accompanied by the 163-page gothic unfinished novel, “The Ghost-Seer,” by Friedrich Schiller, about a secret Jesuit society that attempts to forcibly a German prince to Catholicism. Costing only six shillings and referred to as “wonderfully convenient and wonderfully cheap” by the Literary Gazette, the book is bound in plain maroon cloth over boards, with two paper labels on the spine that are ruled and lettered in gold.

In the first portion of the novel, there are two engraved illustrations by Theodor Von Holst: an engraving of the Doctor Victor Frankenstein “[rushing] out of the room” at the sight of the “dull yellow eyes of the creature [opening]” (43), captioned “Frankenstein”; and one of Victor Frankenstein departing his childhood estate for university, captioned “ captioned “Frankenstein by Mary W. Shelley”. These are the earliest illustrations of Frankenstein, and are significantly different from the later depictions of Victor Frankenstein and the creature, who appears much more human-like and fleshy.

One distinction of the 1831 edition is its introduction, which aims to retell the story of the novel’s conception and mentions that a number of stylistic alterations have been made. Shelley’s 1831 introduction appears right before her original 1817 preface. This introduction expands upon her initially brief description of the story’s serendipitous formation as a “source of amusement” with melodramatic flair. Shelley’s new introduction tells the tale of Frankenstein as a “ghost story,” from her youth as the daughter of two popular authors and to the fateful evening when the “idea” of the novel “so possessed [her] mind.” More interestingly, she states that the “publishers of the ‘Standard Novels’ expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story,” suggesting that the dramatically fashioned anecdote was added to meet readers’ demands.

Anne K. Mellor notes that by 1831, Shelley’s “philosophical views had changed radically” from humanism—the idea that humanity controls its destiny—to naturalism—that humanity is instead shaped by forces beyond its control. These shifts in thinking are evident in the main revision of the comparably pessimistic 1831 edition: Frankenstein takes on a much more passive role, and he explains his lack of responsibility with statements such as “I felt that order would thence arise, but I had no power to produce it". With its inexpensive binding, accessible placement—in a series for mainstream readers—and reoriented plot, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein marks the earliest pivot of Shelley’s writing towards marketability for a wider audience.