At the time of its publication, Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein was met with mixed — and sexist — reviews. “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel,” read one write-up for The British Critic. Now, more than 200 years later, a rare first edition of the gothic masterpiece has become the most expensive printed work by a woman ever sold at auction.
One of 500 original copies published on January 1, 1818, the book fetched $1.17 million at a Christie’s sale in New York City last week, nearly four times its high estimate of $300,000. It was part of the collection of the late American cable television executive Theodore B. Baum, whose impressive library of literary first editions included original works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Another highlight of the sale was an inscribed first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that sold for $275,000, setting an auction record for the epistolary novel.
Baum’s copy of Frankenstein was especially coveted, Christie’s says, because it is uncut in the original boards (a pasteboard binding typical of 18th-century books and desirable feature for collectors). The edition, which includes a preface written by Mary’s husband, poet Percy Shelley, and a dedication to the author’s father, William Godwin, is the only set in original boards to appear at auction since 1985.
Considered today to be the first science-fiction novel, Shelley’s story was not particularly attractive to publishing houses at the time of its writing. The manuscript was turned down by two publishers before it was accepted by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, which “dealt mainly in cheap books,” according to biographer Miranda Seymour. She got a third of the profits, but none of the renown; some readers surmised it was a man’s work, and many question its authorship to this day.
“The author, by a convention of the time, would remain anonymous,” Seymour writes. “This was unfortunate for Mary: with her husband writing the Preface, references to his ‘friend’ seemed a thin disguise for the fact that he had written the novel himself.”
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Sadly, though by no means surprisingly, there is precedence for this female erasure. Women have been and continue to be the executors of the invisible, unpaid, unaccredited labor that makes much of the world run smoothly.