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Frankenstein’s first edition became a woman’s most expensive book

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Mary shelley’s Frankenstein sold at Christie’s for almost four times its high estimate. (courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021)

At the time of publication, the classic horror novel by Mary Shelley Frankenstein has met mixed reviews – and sexist. “The author of this one is, we understand, a woman; it is an aggravation of what is the dominant fault of the novel ”, we read in an article by British critic. Today, more than 200 years later, a rare first edition of the Gothic masterpiece has become the most expensive printed work to ever be auctioned by a woman.

Bram stoker’s Dracula, presentation copy (courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021)

One of 500 original copies published on Jan. 1, 1818, the book fetched $ 1.17 million at a Christie’s sale in New York 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 early literary editions included original works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, among others. Another highlight of the sale was a first engraved edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula which sold for $ 275,000, setting an auction record for the epistolary novel.

Baum’s copy of Frankenstein was particularly coveted, says Christie’s, because it is not cut from the original boards (a cardboard binding typical of 18th-century books and a 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 original plate set to appear at auction since 1985.

An 1840 portrait of Shelley by Richard Rothwell. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Regarded today as the first science fiction novel, Shelley’s story was not particularly appealing to publishers at the time of writing. The manuscript was turned down by two publishers before being accepted by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, who “mostly dealt with cheap books,” according to biographer Miranda Seymour. She got a third of the profits, but none of the fame; some readers have assumed it was the work of a man, and many question his authorship to this day.

“The author, according to a convention of the time, would remain anonymous,” writes Seymour. “It was unfortunate for Mary: with her husband writing the Preface, the references to her ‘friend’ seemed a slight disguise for the fact that he had written the novel himself.”

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