Revision as Exorcism: or, how Mary Shelley revised too much!

Rossetti’s portrait of Elizabeth Siddal, which reminds me of the “Elizabeth” of Frankenstein

As a writer, it’s difficult to know when a work is complete. Writing “the end” is only a kind of beginning, after all, since there are so many stages of re-reading, revision, editing, proofreading, and nail-biting (waiting for the first readers to tell you what they thought of it). Of course, some would argue that a work is never complete; only after years or even decades of living with a work can you finally close the book on what you once wrote and what you actually meant. So how do you take the first step from writing to revising? Whose words can help you see the flaws (as well as the virtues) and figure out what kind of work you’ve actually written?

In other words, when do you listen, and when do you stick to your guns? Who gets to decide what your work should actually look like: you (the author) or them (the readers)? Do they know better than you? Or are you more far-seeing than they are?

Here’s a case in point: in 1818, Mary Shelley published her now-legendary novel, Frankenstein, as a twenty year-old with no previous publications (indeed, her name was suppressed in the first edition, so as to hide her gender as well as her name — she had recently taken up with the infamous, and married, poet Percy Shelley). What she published is an out-and-out masterpiece, totally consistent in tone, style, and length (very short, without a moment of slack). That said, it’s also quite raw — full of a young person’s passion, impatience, and occasional bombast (how many times does Victor “gnash his teeth” when he gets angry?). Though the writing is beautiful and evocative, there are times when her emotion runs away with her, and descriptive scenes of nature — plucked from her favorite Romantic poetry (including her husband’s) — could be clipped for dramatic effect. But these quibbles aside, it rightly established itself as a masterpiece of Gothic literature and one of the greatest novels of the entire 19th century (and perhaps the 20th and 21st, since it has never gone out of print since its publication).

But tell that to the author. In 1831, after surviving several personal traumas (the death of children, her husband, and several friends) and writing several novels, she returned to her most famous work and made ‘corrections.’ At 34, she was an established writer and mother, and hardly the nomadic teenager tramping across Europe with her flamboyant husband. In short, she saw things differently, and had a long time to live with her novel — and to hear everyone’s opinions about what was wrong with it, what needed improvement, and how much of it was clearly written by her husband.

Yes, many people insisted that a woman (and almost a child, as she was) could have never written such a landmark work of art, so clearly her husband wrote the better part of it, condescending to let her “borrow” its authorship to make a name for herself. Never mind that Percy Shelley was not celebrated for his prose writing and was in general far too long-winded to write such a compact novel that often criticized his very character and ideals (did I mention how angry and passionate she was when she wrote it?).

At any rate, she decided to respond to criticism and revise her novel accordingly. First, she took a shot at critics who denied her authorship in the 1831 edition’s preface: “At first I thought but a few pages — of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea [of Frankenstein] at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet buy for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

Having settled that, she went on to make some wide-ranging revisions, softening Victor Frankenstein’s character and guilt, removing some of the more revolutionary passages (that betrayed her Romantic sentiments and those of her father, William Godwin), and erasing much of the character of the novel’s most important female character, Elizabeth Lavenza. The latter is the most surprising: why would a female author edit out a woman’s voice from her novel? The easy answer is that probably many readers (chief among them men) found her sentiments shocking or her character intrusive. Why doesn’t she act like a woman — like a victim? they might have chided. For whatever reason, she complied and made Elizabeth a much quieter and less effective character, as would be expected of a daughter/wife in the 1830’s.

For example, here’s a major difference between the 1818 version and the 1831 revision. It occurs in Volume One, Chapter Seven in 1818, or Chapter Eight in 1831, when Victor and Elizabeth confront Justine, their servant who is wrongfully accused of strangling their brother, William. She will be executed the following morning, and she has just confessed that her confession was forced — undertaken merely to save her soul. In the 1818 version, Elizabeth responds as follows:

“Oh, Justine! forgive me for having for one moment distrusted you…I will try to comfort you; but this, I fear, is an evil too deep and poignant to admit of consolation, for there is no hope. Yet heaven bless thee, my dearest Justine, with resignation, and a confidence elevated beyond this world. Oh! how I hate its shews [sic] and mockeries! when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner; then the executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence, believe they have done a great deed. They call this retribution. Hateful name! When that word is pronounced, I know greater and more horrid punishments are going to be inflicted than the gloomiest tyrant has ever invented to satiate his utmost revenge. Yet this is not consolation for you, my Justine, unless indeed that you may glory in escaping from so miserable a den. Alas! I would I were in peace with my aunt and my lovely William, escaped from a world which is hateful to me, and the visages of men which I abhor.”

A powerful speech against the “justice” of capital punishment as well as the bias of men that offers up another woman for sacrifice. This reeks of the teenage Mary Shelley’s indignation against male prejudice and authoritarianism. Giving Elizabeth space to say this makes Justine’s death meaningful; it also calls out Victor for his inability to protect her, since he is too worried about what people will think of him (and too selfish to sacrifice himself). However, in 1831 we find something quite different in this passage, which you can read below:

“Oh, Justine! Forgive me for having one moment distrusted you…Justine shook her head mournfully. “I do not fear to die,” she said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

That’s it. Elizabeth says one sentence. Instead, Justine gets to speak, and rather than blast male pride or judicial hypocrisy, she refuses to call anyone out, and almost thrilled with the opportunity to die like a Dickensian heroine. Her final sentence almost seems cribbed from a Victorian conduct manual: “Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!” So no matter how duped you are by your protectors or by justice itself, simply submit to the will of heaven and say your prayers. You might get killed, or raped, or even worse, but no matter — you’re only a woman!

Why would Mary Shelley take out one of her most powerful speeches and revise it with something pat and perfunctory? A response to criticism, no doubt. People were uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s agency — her unwillingness to submit to her fate. She does the same elsewhere, too, and almost every time Mary strikes it out. In an England inching toward Victorian sensibilities, such women could no longer speak out. And whatever Mary privately thought of it, she seems to have nodded her head and bit her lip and crossed out the offending passages. Did it make for a better novel? After all, a few fine speeches don’t make a novel, and we can argue that Elizabeth’s powerful declaration has nothing to do with the story proper. Did Mary feel it actually detracted from her tale? Is it possible that she actually saw it as an improvement?

Sadly, we’ll never know, though to this day, the 1831 version is the more common form of the novel. Most people read this version, with its truncated Elizabeth, than the original 1818 (though this is increasingly gaining in popularity). So which one should we read? Are first thoughts best thoughts? Or does everything improve with revision? Whatever we decide, Frankenstein remains a cautionary tale on revision and criticism. To be sure, some things improved in the revision: the Creature has some better scenes, and the novel overall is a bit tighter and more dramatic. But much is lost, and not just with Elizabeth.

Revisions are always a compromise between what you wrote then and what you see now. And criticism can blind you to the fact of who you were when you wrote the work. The best revisions are undertaken with a foot in both worlds — the present and the past. If you only revise based on who you are now, with ignorance or even contempt the previous writer, the revisions are unlikely to improve the work. I think to some degree Mary Shelley revised in this spirit — or was convinced that she should.

Take criticism will a liberal pinch of salt. Don’t assume that what one or even a dozen readers say is gospel. Listen closely, carefully, and digest this advice in the balance of your own inspiration and intentions. Don’t assume that you’ve outgrown the writer of yesteryear. Sometimes — many times — we were much wiser back then than we are today. Wisdom isn’t always measured in years, after all. It’s not for nothing that Mary Shelley wrote many other novels, some of them quite good, such as Valperga, The Last Man, and Lodore, but nothing that matched the popularity and visceral thrill of Frankenstein. Perhaps she never forgave her first novel for being her best, especially when she no longer thought so herself (for what author ever thinks his or her first novel is their crowning achievement?).

If writing is an emotional exercise, so, too, is revision. But even worse, revision can become an exercise in exorcism — a chance to rid yourself of the demons and spirits that haunt you. Shelley hoped to make Frankenstein more civilized and respectable — an impossible task. We love it for what it says about who she was and how she saw the world: as a firebrand teenager who refused to conform to society’s laws. Only a teenager in the early 19th century could imagine a “monster” who thought like a child, and was cruelly tortured by his father — much as Mary was betrayed by her own father for loving Percy. Fiction preserves the follies of youth even when the adult can no longer stomach them. However, now that she’s escaped the dogma of 19th century England and the land of the living, I can only imagine that wherever she is, she’s reading the 1818 version and smiling with approval. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant…and the rest of you can choke on it!

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

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