Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the most celebrated works of horror ever written. But is it really Mary Shelley who deserves the credit? Michael Murray-Fennell investigates.

‘We will each write a ghost story,’ Lord Byron challenged the guests at his Italian villa during the summer of 1816.

The incessant rain resulting from the spectacular eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had confined Byron’s party indoors. There, they relieved their boredom with German ghost stories until the poet decided to see whether, between them, they could equal or surpass those supernatural tales.

There were five of them at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. Byron, already famous for his poetry and infamous for his libertine lifestyle; Doctor Polidori, the poet’s physician and travelling companion; Claire Clairmont, who had previously had a fling with Byron in England and who was responsible for introducing the final two guests: the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his lover – by the end of the year, his wife – Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

The talk that summer was not just of ghosts, but of science. In the 1790s, the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had made dead frogs’ legs twitch by the application of an electric current and, more recently, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles, had speculated that electricity might be used to bring inanimate objects to life.

Faced with Byron’s task of inventing a ghostly tale, Mary went to bed, her head full of horror stories and scientific experiments. ‘I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,’ she recalled. When she did slip into sleep: ‘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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’

Next year marks the bicentenary of the publication of Frankenstein, the novel that drew its inspiration from that nightmare. The story of scientist Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates is a potent work, one in which the reader’s sympathy switches from the young doctor to the creature and back again. It also taps into our unease at how far we should pursue scientific endeavours and our fear of their unintended consequences.

But did Mary Shelley actually write Frankenstein? It’s a question that has quietly persisted in the background since the novel first appeared. The 1818 edition was published anonymously and prompted much speculation regarding the identity of its author. In his review, Walter Scott suggested that it was by Mary’s husband, Percy. Keen to correct him, Mary wrote to the novelist: ‘I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine; to which – from its being written at an early age, I abstained from putting my name.’

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-97)

Despite that letter, almost 200 years later the question of authorship persists. In Bournemouth, where Mary is buried, the Shelley Theatre sits within Shelley Manor, the home her son, Sir Percy Florence, built for her (although she didn’t live to see it). Today, the purpose-built theatre from 1866 – Sir Percy was devoted to amateur theatre – is a thriving performance space and Philip Proctor, one of the owners and driving forces behind it, is keen to turn it into a centre for all things related to the Shelley family.

Mr Proctor is convinced that Percy Shelley was the real author of Frankenstein and that Mary’s role was little more than ‘fair copying’ his drafts. Given Mary’s young age, ‘she wouldn’t have known anything about all the electrics,’ he argues, ‘and the philosophy that goes into the book just would not have been within her experiences.’

Instead, he points out that the themes of atheism and social justice contained within the book have more in common with Percy’s life and interests up to that point than Mary’s. Shelley’s pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism had seen him expelled from Oxford and his Address to the Irish People, championing Catholic Emancipation, had brought him to the attention of the British government. Given the controversy around the poet, any chance of publishing Frankenstein under his name was doomed to failure. ‘No publisher would touch it with a bargepole,’ asserts Mr Proctor.

His is not a lone voice. A number of academics have argued that it should be Shelley’s name on the title page and not his wife’s, yet widespread critical consensus has not been forthcoming (although expect the issue to be raised again during the bicentenary).

The argument against Mary Shelley has the same whiff as the case against Shakespeare being the author of the works attributed to him. In the same way that people question the bard’s humble origins and obscure life, Mary Shelley’s youth and inexperience are held against her by those who claim it was not her who brought to life the story first told that summer at Villa Diodati.

However, that ignores the fact that she was born and grew up in a literary powerhouse of a family; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the celebrated advocate of women’s rights; and her father, William Godwin, was an eminent political philosopher and novelist.

There are also deeply personal echoes within Frankenstein. Before Mary went to Italy in 1816, she had already lost one child, a daughter, and she wrote in her diary: ‘Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.’ Frankenstein is a nightmarish twist on that dream and, like the creature, Mary’s child was never given a name.

Perhaps the late Prof Charles Robinson was closest to the truth when he argued – after studying the original manuscript draft of Frankenstein – that Shelley was the ‘able midwife who helped his wife bring her monster to life’. Mary had indeed written to her husband during the final proofing of Frankenstein: ‘I give you carte blanche to make what alterations you please.’

The couple’s intellectual partnership didn’t last very long. A few months after Frankenstein was published, they returned to Italy, intending to live there for good. In July 1822, while out sailing off the north-west coast, Percy was drowned. Friends, including Byron, cremated his remains. Mary was devastated and dedicated a large part of her life to establishing the reputation of the English Romantic poet.

‘I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,’ Mary wrote in her 1831 introduction to the novel. Owing to the subsequent adaptations, first on stage and later on screen, the monster has certainly prospered, to such an extent that Frankenstein’s name has now well and truly transferred to his creation. Furthermore, despite the creature’s promise at the end of the book to destroy himself and his numerous deaths in the later retellings and reworkings of the myth, Frankenstein lives on.

Michael Murray-Fennell