An ‘exceptionally rare’ first edition of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic has broken the world auction record for a printed work by a woman
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley came up with Frankenstein aged 18, when her friend Lord Byron challenged her to write a ghost story. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images
The Guardian-Alison Flood
Mary Shelley was just 18 when she dreamed up her story of a “pale student of unhallowed arts” and the “hideous phantasm of a man” he created. Now a first edition of her seminal classic of gothic horror, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, has set a world record for the highest price paid for a printed work by a woman, after selling at auction for $1,170,000 (£856,000).
The first edition was one of 500 copies of the novel printed in 1818, and the first to be auctioned since 1985. Christie’s, which described it as “exceptionally rare”, had initially estimated the copy would sell for between $200,000 (£146,000) and $300,000 (£220,000). The auction house said this was a new world auction record for a printed work by a woman, with bidders participating in the auction from around the world. The record for a printed work by a woman was previously held by a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma from 1816, which was sold by Bonhams in 2008 for £150,000. A copy of JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard sold for £1.95m at Sotheby’s in November 2007, but it was handmade and illustrated, as opposed to printed.
A spokesperson for Christie’s said: “The first edition in its original boards is incredibly fragile and as a result very scarce, so a copy like this, particularly in fine condition, is highly desirable to collectors. Overall it’s a very strong market and we are seeing increased demand for fine examples of literary high spots.”
Shelley, the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, famously came up with the idea for Frankenstein during the summer of 1816, while staying beside Lake Geneva with Percy Shelley, her husband, and Lord Byron. The group had been reading French translations of German ghost stories, and Byron challenged them to write their own. Shelley wrote in a preface to a 1831 edition of her novel that she “busied [herself] to think of a story, – a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”.
She had an “acute mental vision” while trying to sleep, she continued, of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”, of “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.”
Her story of how Victor Frankenstein creates a being from body parts, and brings it to life, would go on to be published anonymously on 1 January 1818 in a run of just 500 copies by the publisher Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. The novel had been turned down by John Murray, when Percy presented it to the publisher as his own work; Lackington’s, which “dealt mainly in cheap books”, gave Mary a third of the net profits, writes Miranda Seymour in her biography of the author. “These were not good times for controversial works and the manufacture of a creature from human parts without divine assistance was highly controversial,” according to Seymour.
With a preface from Percy and a dedication to the then-anonymous author’s father, William Godwin, Frankenstein received mixed reviews: while Walter Scott was impressed by the author’s “original genius” and “uncommon powers of poetic imagination”, the Quarterly Review asked if “the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased”.
Shelley would publish a revised edition of the novel in 1831, under her own name. Her introduction sees her set out to answer the question “so very frequently asked me – ‘How I, when a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?’”
Today, Frankenstein is seen as one of the world’s first science-fiction novels, a work of horror, invention and philosophy, which addresses key questions of what it means to be human, and which has inspired countless adaptations.