Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of the first novels to be digitized in hypertext—an experiment that began in the mid-1990s and was invigorated in 2017 when a group of scholars used new technology to digitally collate existing versions and showcase them online.
The project’s goal is to make it possible for students and scholars to easily compare different versions of the novel as it changed through time, says Elisa Beshero-Bondar, chair of the Digital Media, Arts, and Technology (DIGIT) program at Penn State Behrend. She came to Penn State in 2020 from Pitt and has been a part of the digitization project since its inception. In addition to the widely recognized 1818 and 1831 versions, Beshero-Bondar and her colleagues worked with Shelley’s original draft, written in 1816 for a ghost story challenge; the “Thomas copy,” in which Shelley handwrote edits in the margins of the 1818 book; and the 1823 version, which was published by Shelley’s father and was the first to recognize her as the author.
Beshero-Bondar explains that there are many revisions to each version, which are detailed in the footnotes of print editions, but that “not many students read the footnotes.” Working with TEI XML, XSLT, Python, and CollateX—an open-source program that tracks alignment and divergence among the five versions of the novel—the processes Beshero-Bondar and her team developed support the web publication of a digital edition, sections of which can be found at frankensteinvariorum.github.io. The site helps readers explore moments of significant divergence in each text as “hot spots” in the web interface (below), allowing for easy comparison. The site links directly to the 1816 manuscript version published by the University of Maryland’s Shelley-Godwin Archive, so that readers can quickly view Shelley’s handwritten copy. The digitized product also shows readers the exact contributions made by Shelley’s husband, poet Percy Shelley, helping to show that although he played an important role in the creation of Frankenstein, he was not, as some have alleged, its author.
Initially, the Frankenstein Variorum group wanted to improve the comparison view of the 1818 and 1831 versions of the novel—both of which are widely taught around the world—by bringing them online. But the project evolved into a much bigger effort, Beshero-Bondar says, when they decided to update digital editions of Frankenstein from the mid-1990s (including The University of Pennsylvania’s landmark 1997 Pennsylvania Electronic edition, which permitted a side-by-side view of the 1818 and 1831 versions).
Beshero-Bondar hopes that the digitized version, with all of Shelley’s edits and revisions visible to readers, will spark new conversations around how the seminal work is read and lead to new avenues of research and scholarship. “A lot of people have written about the intersection of Mary Shelley’s life and this work,” she says. “Seeing the revisions she made over time in a nonlinear format allows us to see how her ideas changed, how her thinking changed and matured with the chronology of her life.”