On January 1st, 18 18, after being rejected by multiple publishing houses in London, the Gothic novel Frankenstein finally saw light.
The publisher, Lockington Hughes hearting Maveron Jones was a boutique outfit. They only printed 500 copies in case the book was a flop.
The first edition featured a preface written by Percy Shelley, who would become known as one of the most highly regarded poets of the day. He's also known today as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Nowhere in the book, however, did Mary's name appear, even though she was the one who wrote it. After being left off the first edition, Mary's authorship became a hotly contested subject, publishers felt that if they credited her, it would negatively impact sales.
Most of their readers were men, men who believed a lady wasn't intellectually capable of writing a book, let alone one as morbid and conceptual as Frankenstein, it seemed far more logical. The story was written by Mary's husband, a literary superstar and master of the macabre.
Those who doubted Mary did so at their own peril. And as the years passed, more and more evidence emerged to support her authorship.
Would it be enough to challenge the most hardened skeptics? Or was Mary Shelley destined to remain a footnote in literary history?
Welcome to Conspiracy Theories, a Spotify original from cast every Monday and Wednesday, we dig into the complicated stories behind the world's most controversial events and search for the truth on Carter Roy.
And I'm Ali Brandenberg. And neither of us are conspiracy theorists, but we are open minded, skeptical and curious.
Don't get us wrong. Sometimes the official version is the truth, but sometimes it's not.
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This is our second of two special one part episodes on literature conspiracy theories. Today, we'll explore the contested authorship of the novel Frankenstein. The official story is that it was written by 18 year old Mary Shelley. But some refuse to accept that Mary was capable of writing the work, much less the rightful author. They're more inclined to believe it was her husband, the celebrated novelist and poet Percy Shelley.
We'll cover the origins of this sexist conspiracy theory and how it still strikes doubt. Today, we'll also examine a similar conspiracy theory that American author Harper Lee didn't write her magnum opus, To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, many insisted it was her friend and famed novelist Truman Capote.
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So the only thing you have to worry about is the Wi-Fi connection to keep listening. Learn more at ADT Dotcom. And. At the time of Mary Shelley's birth in 18th century England, women occupied a clear and unequivocal role in British society.
Being subordinate to men, women, especially those of modest means, were often seen as little more than property. First, they belonged to their father, then to their husband.
If they disobeyed or spoke up, their husbands possessed the legal authority to batter them.
But Mary Shelley's family was different. Both of her parents were forward thinking intellectuals, not to mention literary powerhouses.
Mary's father, William Godwin, was an author, editor and owner of a prestigious, yet unsuccessful publishing house.
Though his business failed to prosper, the academic atmosphere at home knew no such limits.
Godwin hosted literary salons for the most esteemed authors of the era poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley, all of whom inspired young Mary to pursue her own literary ambitions.
But no one had an effect on young Mary. Like her mother and namesake Mary Wollstonecraft.
Though Wolstencroft died from complications just over a week after giving birth to her daughter, she left behind a veritable treasure trove of her own written works.
When Mary began her studies, her mother's diverse catalogue proved what a groundbreaking iconoclast she was. Wolstencroft writings would also be an eerie harbinger to the struggles her daughter faced later in life, especially when it came to questions about young Mary's intellectual aptitude and the authorship of her own books. Like most women of the era, Mary Godwin said at a young age to a charming, an accomplished poet named Percy Shelley. Although Mary continued her educational and literary pursuits, she was eclipsed by her new husband, Shadow.
Fortunately, Mary was given a chance to defy those boundaries when she accepted a challenge from her friend and fellow wordsmith, Lord Byron.
In May of 1816, Ann Percy Shelley rented an estate in Geneva, Switzerland, neighboring Lord Byron, because of the unusually poor weather, the group spent most of their time indoors there. The poets did their best to outdrink and outright each other. One night, Birhan proposed that they each pin a ghost story. Like many men, he'd likely express doubts that the 18 year old Mary could string together a thought worth considering, yearning to be considered an equal in the eyes of the men.
Mary agonized over the Flippen task until one night, half asleep, she came up with the idea for Frankenstein.
The story follows a young scientist who creates a monster from the limbs of the dead. The creature comes alive, but horror, guilt and doubts plague the scientist as a result of his success.
Using their earlier alcohol fuelled discussions as inspiration, Mary transformed their fireside chats into fiction, especially those concerning Dr. Erasmus Darwin, a Real-Life scientist.
Dr Darwin was a hot button topic in the early eighteen hundreds. His experiments with reanimation posed questions about the sanctity of life and the bounds of religion.
It was an unusual topic of interest for a lady at the time, but Mary Shelley was no ordinary dame.
When Mary finally revealed the idea for Frankenstein to her husband and Byron, they were astounded. In the months following, she devoted herself without pause to the story's completion. But that's when the real challenge began.
Mary took her manuscript to several publishers, all of whom rejected it. In response, Percy attempted to use his considerable influence to change their minds.
But Percy's reputation as a world class poet wasn't even enough to sway his own publisher. Instead, he secured the modest first run at a smaller, less prestigious company.
Percy also decided to write the preface to Frankenstein. But the strategic move convinced readers that he had also written the novel.
The book received modest reviews, but it was an immediate commercial success. The first printed copies sold out in six weeks. In fact, since its publishing, Frankenstein has never been out of print. Despite the book's popularity, its author, Mary Shelley, never received credit, nor did she get the financial compensation she deserved.
What should have been a joyous occasion for Mary was marred by sexism, doubt, even accusations of plagiarism.
Well, publishers were unwilling to credit Mary at first to factors later changed their minds. First, the book was a bona fide smash. Acknowledging Mary is the author now couldn't possibly alter that momentum. If anything, it would spark controversy, bringing the novel even more attention.
Second, in 1822, Percy Shelley died in a boating accident, which meant he was unable to confirm or deny his role after the publication.
So in 1823, the novel was reprinted in a second edition. Mary Shelley was officially credited as the author of Frankenstein, but Mary Shelley had the deck stacked against her.
She may have been the widow of one of the most prominent poets in history, but it was inconceivable to the literary community that she could achieve this success on her own. And the sentiment heralded one of the biggest literary conspiracies of all time that a woman couldn't possibly have written Frankenstein. Coming up, we'll explore the theory that Percy Shelley was, in fact, the book's true author, you discover their practices, seek their advice, and let yourself become more vulnerable than ever before.
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It was the controversy surrounding its author. Few believed that an 18 year old woman could actually conceive of such a macabre tale.
This leads us to our inevitable first theory, Mary Shelley was not the author of Frankenstein after all. Instead, it was her husband, the renowned poet Percy Shelley, who actually penned the novel in 1818 when Frankenstein was first published.
The great majority of the literary canon, no matter what the language, was entirely male in Great Britain.
This was a result of two things one, a rigid class system and two, systemic sexism.
At the time, education was only available to the wealthy. Everyone else worked to support themselves from a young age. As a result, around 40 percent of men and 60 percent of women were illiterate until the latter half of the 1980s.
The university system was only open to men, meaning it was men who taught literature, men who studied it, and men who wrote the books. Or at least they were the only ones credited. Men also owned and operated nearly all the publishing houses. They dictated what got printed and what got read. Most men, and sadly, even women of the era didn't even think females were capable of penning a novel. And if they did, most people had no desire to read them.
If a woman could so much as read a book, she was considered an anomaly to write one. She had to be extraordinary.
To most people, the odds of a woman drafting something like Frankenstein were about one in a million.
The question was, did this statistic apply to Mary Shelley?
If you haven't read the literary classic, it's important to know that Frankenstein deals with highly abstract and scientific themes. For most women of that era, the book's concepts were thought to be too difficult to comprehend, let alone adapt into a novel. As an 18 year old who didn't attend university, let alone medical school, it seemed impossible for Mary to have acquired such knowledge, even if people overlooked Mary's lack of scientific background.
There was another detail that contested her authorship, Percy Shelley's fingerprints. On that book, he wrote the novel's preface, and he was the one who got it published. So doesn't it stand to reason that he wrote the novel as well?
Not only was Percy instrumental in the novel's publication, he was a master of the macabre, the sinister and the scientific.
He was also inexorably prolific for Percy, a man with dozens of published works under his belt. Penning a Gothic novel like Frankenstein would have arguably been a piece of cake, not to mention Percy. Shelley wrote what many consider to be the prequel to Frankenstein.
Seven years before its debut in 1811, Percy published Saint Ervine or the Rosicrucian A Romance. It was the story of a solitary wanderer who meets a mad scientist. Working together, they unlock the secrets of immortality. The Dark novel also explores the precarious balance between the scientific and the divine. It examines the guilt, shame and ambivalence that occurs once that divide is breached.
If that sounds strikingly familiar to the plot of Frankenstein, it's because, well, it is. It's virtually the same concept. It addresses the same themes and it's even written in the same tone.
What's more, one of Percy Schelling's most famous poems, titled Mutability, is actually quoted in Chapter Ten of Frankenstein. In the novel, the scientist Victor Frankenstein recites the poem before a surprise encounter with the monster he's created. Frankenstein says, quote, Man's yesterday may never be like his moral, not Mandurah, but mutability.
In this moment, Frankenstein is remarking on the transitory nature of life and how the only thing one can rely on is constant change. Another one of the novel's principal themes, the first public challenge to Mary's authorship, came from Sir Walter Scott. Scott was one of the era's most esteemed novelists, historians and literary critics. Though he felt that parts of the story were contrived and silly, his review was largely positive. But he also attributed the novel to Percy Shelley, which immediately described.
They did marry and set the tone for decades to come, despite his esteemed status, Scott didn't bother to research who actually wrote the book. He just made an assumption only men wrote Gothic horror novels.
And Percy Shelley, one of the most famous authors of the era, had written the novel's preface. It probably seemed obvious to him that Percy Shelley deserve the credit. Since the review appeared in a prominent publication, it was widely read and discussed by virtue of being a powerful and influential voice, Scott was largely responsible for spawning this conspiracy theory to begin with.
And considering all of this evidence, it may seem logical to suggest that Mary Shelley didn't write Frankenstein, but it wasn't that simple.
Those who refuse to believe that Mary wrote Frankenstein ignores several details that separated her from all her female contemporaries, things that may have made her that one in a million.
Mary was educated, highly educated, and if you recall, not only were both her parents intellectuals, they were also published authors. While her father's work was well received, a literary circles, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the one who was truly considered brilliant.
Wollstonecraft had learned several languages, translated foreign works into English and written novels, short stories and treatises on human rights at a time when many women were barely literate. She proved that they could write just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts.
It was clear from an early age that Mary Shelley had inherited both her parents literary gifts. She was a precocious child whose nose was always in a book.
She held her own among the brightest adults in her father's salons, guests who ran the gamut from professors to poets to scientists. But her favorite pastime was writing stories, something she did from a very early age.
Mary Shelley didn't just begin writing at a young age. She married young, too. She tied the knot with Percy Shelley when she was only 19. For most women, that would have been the end of their education. But for Mary, she blossomed into something even greater. Percy also had a keen interest in science and technology and befriended prominent doctors and researchers. As a result, he and Mary spent hours discussing the latest revelations with insight from those putting them into practice that included topics like death, reanimation and humanity's role in creating and sustaining life.
Meaning Mary would have been just as well versed in these subjects as her husband, making her more than capable of writing a novel like Frankenstein. What may have seemed unbelievable to her was the book's stratospheric success.
Whether it was the prose or the story itself, it eclipsed the rest of the genre.
And with Percy gone, she was determined to get the recognition she deserved. Mary addressed the issue in the book's second edition. In the 1831 printing, Mary went into great detail about her inspiration for the story. In the preface, she wrote about her discussions of doctors and scientists, she mentioned the challenge she'd accepted from Lord Byron.
As the years passed, Mary published books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. It was clear she didn't lack imagination or ability, but her critics continued to snuff out her claims to Frankenstein.
It wasn't until Mary's generation began to die out that the controversy surrounding her authorship began to fade. Female authors became more accepted.
As a result, Frankenstein was taught in schools and was discovered by a new generation of readers, most of whom accepted Mary Shelley as the true author until sexism reared its ugly head again.
In the 1970s, the women's liberation movement gained momentum. Suddenly, Frankenstein was revisited and reanalysed, from a feminist perspective, came to acknowledge the work of past artists. Feminist intellectuals deemed both Mary and her mother pioneers of women's rights.
But this recognition brought renewed speculation about Mary's authorship, the first modern instance was in 1974, when an English professor and editor named James Reger worked on a new edition of Frankenstein. During his research, Reger became convinced that Percy Shellie's edits to the novel were so extensive that he should be considered a collaborator. And for the next 20 years, the debate raged on until 1996, when scholar Charles E. Robinson discovered evidence that would finally put this conspiracy to rest.
Robinson was intimately familiar with both Mary and Percy's work. He also had the unique advantage of consulting rare primary sources. This included Mary's original notebooks featuring scenes from the Frankenstein manuscript.
It became clear that Mary Shelley was indeed the original genius behind the novel. But Robinson also believed that Mary received some help from her husband.
He pored over the sections of text in Percy's handwriting, but he saw clearly how Percy's sections made up only a fraction of the finished work.
Robinson compiled a fresh, unique edition of Frankenstein, which hit shelves in 2008. The volume proved that Mary had conceived and written the vast majority of the text. But Robinson also showed all the edits and contributions made by Percy Shelley to demonstrate this, Robinson's book was separated into two parts.
The first featured the original 1818 Text of Frankenstein, with Percy's edits clearly delineated.
The second featured Mary's original unadulterated manuscript. It was free of any edits, but displayed footnotes showing what Percy had changed in the published version in Robinson's introduction.
He estimated that Percy wrote approximately 5000 of the 72000 words. That's less than seven percent. In the end, there's a lot to suggest that Percy Shelley might have written Frankenstein, but there's more to suggest that he didn't. And Charles Robinson's discovery of Mary's notes is literal proof that she wrote the novel. So with 10 being the definitive truth, I give this conspiracy theory a three. I get that now.
Percy Shelley was heavily involved. After all, he made a lot of edits and contributed original ideas that found their way into the first printing. Though today this would be considered the work of an editor, Robinson himself believed Percy should at least be credited as Mary's co-author. But I will agree with you. This conspiracy theory is a three out of 10.
140 years after Mary Shelley's debut, equal rights movements gave rise to increased opportunity. Many felt confident the climate would change for female authors. In a society where women were educated, independent, even breadwinners, there was no reason to debate their literary capabilities any longer. Unfortunately, some old habits die hard. Coming up, a 1960s author bares Mary Shelley's cross. This episode is brought to you by Sheikh Hydro Skin Comfort Raiser's, whether you shave daily, rock a beard or sport a style in between shick hydro skin come from razors, deliver a shave that protects your skin without compromising on closeness.
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With the low flexible monthly payments to fit your budget, ADT can help keep you and your home safe. Learn more at ADT Dotcom. Now back to the story. After the saga of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, you'd suspect less people would question a woman's literary prowess. But in 1960, when Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird was published, it proved that wasn't the case.
The book was released to universal acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize and a great deal of suspicion, thus giving rise to our second conspiracy theory. Mockingbird wasn't written by Harper Lee, but by Lee's lifelong friend and occasional collaborator, Truman Capote.
This theory reportedly originated with literary critic and editor Pearl Bell. She is said to have claimed that in the years after the book's publishing, Capote confided in her. Allegedly, he said that he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.
Naturally, word made its way to the general public. After all, they did have some reason to be skeptical.
Before the publication of Mockingbird, Lee had only written a handful of short stories. And still, her novel was a magnum opus following a small town lawyer who defended an innocent black man in the Jim Crow South. To many, it seemed impossible that someone so inexperienced could produce a masterpiece on her first try.
Lee was unknown in the literary world, unlike her lifelong friend and successful writer Truman Capote.
By 1960, Capote was wildly successful and a high society figure in New York. He'd been a literary sensation since his 20s. His early, short stories appeared in magazines like The Atlantic and Harper's.
In 1948, at the age of 24, Capote published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It was an instant bestseller. Then in the 1950s, he transitioned into screen and playwriting before publishing the seminal novella Breakfast at Tiffany's about a country bumpkin turned society girl.
But when it came time for his next project, Capote was inspired by a dark article he'd found in The New York Times a year before Mockingbird was published in 1960, a wealthy farming family known as the Clutter's was murdered in their rural Kansas home. The savagery and randomness of the crime shocked the nation and fascinated Capote.
He enlisted his friend Harper Lee, to help him dig further. The two drove to Kansas, where they scored an interview with the two suspected killers.
Lee assisted Capote by organizing and transcribing notes, as well as questioning the townspeople. Many of the rural folks were suspicious of Capote. But with Lee, they were at ease and forthcoming.
Together, they outlined a clear and precise version of the events. The outline was eventually developed into Capote's true crime opus In Cold Blood. There was no evidence at the time to suggest that Mockingbird was a collaboration. But many wondered if Lee and Capote worked together on In Cold Blood. Perhaps they also colluded on Mockingbird.
Naysayers grew more suspicious when they learned that Lee stopped writing entirely after Mockingbird. It was as though she wanted nothing to do with the fame of her novel. While she did respond to several fans, she refused to address the building controversy over her authorship, allowing for even more conjecture. But there were two additional culprits that proliferated this theory. The first was sexism. The second was racism.
To Kill a Mockingbird was honest and forthright when it came to the discussion of race. This was exceedingly rare among books by white Southern writers, mainly because the topic usually led to a backlash backlash against systemic racism, bigotry and segregation in the South.
By this time, many Americans still hadn't accepted the idea that women were capable of writing profound books. This was despite the fact that several other women had already won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But for a woman to upend ingrained notions about race, all that was considered heretical in the only avenue for revenge was discrediting Harper Lee's legacy.
As for the rumor that Capote wrote the story, well, in this case, his reputation precedes him. For starters, Capote was an incorrigible gossip and fame chaser, according to his contemporaries. He took. Any chance he could to bask in the spotlight and he leveraged his success for all it was worth, so if he did right, Mockingbird, he probably wouldn't have kept it a secret from the world.
Lee, on the other hand, was so shy and withdrawn that she never attempted to dispel or even address the rumor.
As for Lee writing a masterpiece on her first try, this is actually not uncommon. There are dozens of authors who fall into this category, including Gustav Flaubert with Madame Bovary, Joseph Heller with Catch 22 and Charlotte Bronte with Jane Eyre.
Among those phenomenal first novels.
Most are based on personal experience, just as Mockingbird was for Lee. In fact, the book is based on her childhood. Mockingbird's character Scout is a tomboy like Lee had been in Scouts, the daughter of a Southern lawyer, the same profession as Lee's father Scout's best friend. However, a boy named Dill is based on Carpati, which naturally led to more speculation.
In reality, Mockingbird featured themes from both author's childhoods. Lee and Capote were both gifted, precocious children growing up in a racist rural Alabama.
They were both outsiders and longed to escape the anti intellectual confines of their surroundings.
But the characters and events more closely resembled Lee's own life. In fact, Lee's father had defended two black men accused of killing a white shopkeeper. Although there was scant evidence against them, they were still convicted and hanged. The plight of Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is nearly identical.
It's possible that Capote he knew Lee's story himself and sought inspiration from her childhood. But the evidence to finally put this conspiracy to rest wouldn't emerge until 2006.
That year, a retired history professor named Dr. Wayne Flynt discovered a handwritten letter from Capote. The author had penned the note to his aunt in July 1959, a year before the publication of Mockingbird.
In the message, Capote praises the manuscript of Mockingbird. Capote relayed his enjoyment over the story and lauded Harper Lee's talent. Most importantly, he made no claims of writing the manuscript himself.
This would have been the ideal time for Capote to claim authorship before the book had even gone public. But he didn't. Instead, he praised his friend for writing a great book. Not only that, there's simply no evidence that he wrote or contributed anything. To Mockingbird. No manuscripts, no documents, no journals. This entire theory is based on one small rumor. Harper Lee may have been a literary one hit wonder, but I have no doubt she penned one of the greatest American novels to date.
For these reasons, I give this theory a one out of 10.
I agree with you.
It amazes me that Lee was able to knock it out of the park on her first try. But there are many incredible novelists who only produce one great work.
Still, the two collaborated on In Cold Blood, so I'll leave a little room for doubt, which is why I'll give this theory.
A two out of 10 conspiracies against female authors still persist today. They're likely the result of systemic sexism, a construct that persisted long before Mary Shelley in the 19th century. It's a battle that she and many female authors will continue to fight.
But Mary suggested that everyone is capable of conquering the conditions and limitations of culture. And when people, regardless of wealth, race or gender, are given the same opportunities, they all maintain an equal chance for success. Sadly, it took 200 years for her to be proven right. Thanks for tuning into conspiracy theories. We'll be back next time with a new episode, you can find all episodes of conspiracy theories and all other Spotify originals from our cast for free on Spotify.
Until then, remember, the truth isn't always the best story, and the official story isn't always the truth.
Conspiracy Theories is a Spotify original from past. Executive producers include Max and Ron Cuddler Sound Design by Anthony Vasek with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Freddie Beckley. This episode of Conspiracy Theories was written by Tony Goodman with writing assistants by Mackenzie Moore and Lori Gottlieb, fact checking by unneighborly and research by Bradley Klein. Conspiracy theory stars Molly Brandenberg and Carter Roy.