Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Review: 'The Annotated Frankenstein'

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
There are certain books that you need multiple editions of. I have six different copies of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, for example, but you’d probably guessed that already. As for that other great work by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, I had always got along quite nicely with three editions: the Penguin edition based on the 1831 text (now in very real danger of falling apart, as this is the edition from which I tend to teach), the Oxford edition based on the 1818 text, and the Bodleian’s Original Frankenstein. When I say got along quite nicely, I mean until the recent publication of The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao: I am now the proud owner of four different editions of the novel. So what’s so great about this new edition?

It’s not cheap (£22.95 / $29.95), and nor is it suitable as a teaching or general reading text. At first glance, this version looks more like a coffee-table edition than a scholarly resource: a large hardback, it’s well bound, full colour, and printed on beautiful quality paper. Filled with illustrations of the manuscript, the first edition, contemporary art, stills from various cinematic adaptations, and portraits of Mary Shelley and her associates, it’s a real joy to browse. However, as the title suggests, this edition is also heavily annotated, and nearly every page features marginal glosses directing us to passages from Milton and the Bible, offering details of manuscript alterations, or giving relevant historical information.

The presence of these notes as a marginal commentary gives the impression that we are reading the copy of Frankenstein owned by the editors, filled with decades’ worth of scribbled observations made by Wolfson and Levao. Yes, some of the notes are rather obvious for those of us who have read and re-read the novel countless times (the Miltonic allusions, for example, come as no surprise!), but others offer genuinely interesting flashes of insight which have certainly enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the text. As such, this edition should prove to be useful for both first-time students of the novel and dedicated fans alike; there’s something here for everyone.

Based on the 1818 text, The Annotated Frankenstein also reprints Mary Shelley’s introduction (supplemented by some great pictures) alongside a selection of revised passages, as well as providing an engaging general introduction by the editors. No matter how many editions of Frankenstein you currently own, you should make room for this one on your bookshelf.

The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, published by Harvard University Press, is out now.

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