Monthly Archives: April 2017

Frankenstein 1831 Edition: Bentley’s “Standard Novels”

So, what are the “standard novels” referenced by the cut-and-pasted title page of the Eaton’s 1831 Frankenstein? In 1829, publishers Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley joined forces with a simple business plan: they acquired copyrights to popular three-volume novels, and then republished them in inexpensive, one-volume formats. According to Victorian Fiction: An Exhibition of Original Editions, this “Standard Novels” series, which began releasing volumes in 1831, “expanded the market of fiction” to include people who could not previously afford such books. 

Doctored page of the Eaton’s 1831 Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (From the holdings of Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.)

In some cases, Colburn and Bentley also asked for authorial revisions, or new material, so that they could claim to have the “most authoritative” versions of the texts at the time. Plus, to make these popular novels even more exciting, each of the volumes featured an engraved frontispiece, giving us the following iconic image of Victor Frankenstein running from his Creature.

Picture of a scared scientist and his creature

Frontispiece of the Eaton’s 1831 Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (From the holdings of Special Collections & University Archives, UCR Library, University of California, Riverside.)

Besides Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was volume 9 in the series (along with the first part of Friedrich Schiller’s The Ghost Seer.) Other volumes of note include number 6, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and five reprints of Jane Austen novels. Although Colburn and Bentley’s partnership only lasted for three years, they published the first 19 volumes of the series together, and even after Colburn left the partnership, Bentley went on to publish 107 additional volumes, for a grand total of 126 volumes between 1831 and 1855. For the curious, a list of titles is here.

Sources Consulted

  • “Richard Bentley” in British Literary Publishing Houses, 1820-1880. Eds. Patricia J. Anderson and Jonathan Rose. Vol. 106 in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991). Pages 39-52.
  • “Bentley’s Standard Novels” in Victorian Fiction: An Exhibition of Original Editions at 7 Albermarle Street, London, January to February 1947. Arranged by John Carter and Michael Sadleir. Published for the National Book League (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947). Page 11.

Contemporary Reviews of Frankenstein – Blackwood’s

One of the earliest reviews of Frankenstein was written by Sir Walter Scott for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1818. Overall, Scott wrote that the “author’s original genius” impressed him (p. 613). However, he was unsure how to describe the “peculiar” genre, or, as he called it, “species” of the novel.

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine

Now in the public domain, the complete issue of Blackwood’s that contains the first review of Frankenstein is available digitally via HathiTrust.org. The University of California, Riverside Library also holds a copy of this volume, available here.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “science-fiction” would not appear until 1851, and many scholars argue that it would not be popularized until the late 1920s. Understandably, then, Scott struggled to describe the “philosophical and refined use of the supernatural” in Frankenstein (p. 613). He explains that in the novel, “the laws of nature are represented as altered … in order to shew the probable effect [of] the supposed miracles” and “open up new channels of thought” (p. 614). Sound familiar? It’s as if Scott knew that almost 200 years later, Sherryl Vint’s 2014 book, Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed, would concede that science fiction is difficult to define. However, like Scott, Vint concludes that SF can be viewed as “a cultural mode that struggles with the implications of discoveries in science and technology for human social lives and philosophical conceptions.”

WORKS CONSULTED:

  • Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus / Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley ; edited by D.L. Macdonald & Kathleen Scherf. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999, pp. 300-306. [Eaton copy here.]
  • Scott, Walter. “Remarks on Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus; a novel” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, no. XII, vol. ii (March 1818). pp. 613-620. Original from the University of California Library, and available digitally via HathiTrust.org.
  • “Science Fiction” definition A1 in The Oxford English Dictionary Online. From the Oxford English Dictionary 3rd edition, March 2014. Web. 13 April 2017.
  • Vint, Sherryl. Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Kindle Edition, loc. 110. [Or, a physical copy is available at the Eaton, here.]