“How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”
With my first post on women and science fiction, I guess it is best to start out at the beginning, with Mary Shelley and FRANKENSTEIN. Not only is it the first science fiction novel by a woman, it is the first science fiction novel, period. Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story, because unlike in previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results.
The focus on science and the sheer brutality of Victor’s monster was groundbreaking and I am sure to this day there are men who read that book and wonder how a woman wrote it with such misery and violence. Our own social biases make it difficult to accept that women can write like this, but they can and they have for centuries. Those books that you might call “girly” books are not written that way because the author was a girl, they were written that way because the author was not very good. Just as male authors tend hide behind sex and violence, bad female authors often hide behind romance and gender. Mary Shelley was such a fantastic writer that she could write outside her gender, outside any established genre and can still cause confusion for ignorant misogynists to this day.
Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister Fanny. Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this John Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, two legendary horror tales originated from this one circumstance.
I’ve read the classic horror novels many times and Shelley is by far the greatest, her depth of presentation in Frankenstein makes Stoker look like a hack and her prose is superior to almost every one of her contemporaries except for perhaps Alexander Dumas. I often like to picture Mary sitting in her garden as the gentleman and ladies came by for tea, asking her if she is almost finished her novel. She would politely bow and say “Just a moment” while finishing off a brutal scene of murder at the hands of a monster.
On 1 October 2008, the Bodleian published a new edition of Frankenstein which contains comparisons of Mary Shelley’s original text with Percy Shelley’s additions and interventions alongside. The new edition is edited by Charles E. Robinson: The Original Frankenstein (ISBN 978-1851243969)