In the last couple of days my Twitter feed, always a cheerful place, has been more full of jokes than usual. The source of the mirth is Exeter University academic Nick Groom, and his ex cathedra pronouncements on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. According to Groom, it is possible – gasp – to read Frankenstein’s creature as a sympathetic character. Whatever next? Will the Times and the Sun hold the front page while Groom invites us to see Mr Darcy as sexy or, going out on a limb, Oliver Twist as an intensely sympathetic portrayal of an abused and abandoned child?
Journalists have long rubbed their hands in glee at “don states the obvious” stories. Mostly these take down scientific research that, however painstaking, has ended up agreeing with common sense. This time, it’s the opposite. This time, it’s journalists who have swallowed the obvious that’s being stated by an academic, and have given him oodles of free publicity in the process. And that, of course, is the point.
A check of the publications listed on Nick Groom’s university page reveals that in recent years he’s prepared a number of editions of canonical works, mostly not much read today. Of course, Frankenstein, issued in yet another edition, is a chance to break out of this scholarly rut. At last, a book everyone’s heard of! And someone – possibly, to be fair, not the guy himself – has been an absolute whizz at getting coverage.
Gentle reader, you’ve got better things to do than research what Nick Groom has been saying. But I’ve just spent four years working on a biography of Mary Shelley, and so I’m pretty fascinated by this. In three pieces in the national press Groom is credited with a “new critical reading” of Frankenstein, which suggests that it’s millennials, unlike everyone for the last two hundred years, who have got the point.
Worst of all, the Observer digs up the old chestnut that Frankenstein was somehow more a creation of Shelley’s husband Percy than her own. A certain kind of gent has held grimly to this belief for decades; shame on them in this #TimesUp era. And how depressing to have to rebut it once again on what is, after all, International Women’s Day, and the day the Women’s Fiction Prize announce their long list. Still, here it is again: now that the Bodleian has the entire Frankenstein notebooks free online in facsimile, a single click is enough to reveal that Percy’s much talked-up editorial interventions are substantially less than a standard copyedit today. So Groom resorts to the anecdote modest Mary Shelley herself tells in her introduction to the 1831 edition: the conversation about the “principles of life” that, along with Byron’s famous ghost story writing competition, got her novel going. Since Groom has read the novel in both editions as befits a scholar, he will know that the galvanism, the headline animation story the press articles cite, is really only present in this later edition, not 1818: hardly, then, what inspired the novel.
So all round not, alas, exemplary practice. But maybe that’s not the point. University funding is linked to academics’ REF research “outputs” and “impact”, and some institutions apparently pressure academics to get lots of media coverage. As this is calculated in numbers, it perhaps doesn’t much matter to them if news that’s nothing new, or has even been disproved by research, is what catches journalists’ eyes.
Fiona Sampson’s In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein is out now