May 17, 2022

Last week, the first edition of Mary Shelley’s renowned Gothic novel Frankenstein broke expectations when it fetched a stunning $1.17 million at Christie’s. According to sources, the three-volume collection shattered the previous auction record for a woman’s printed work. The pre-sale estimate for the lot was between $200,000 and $300,000.

The previous record for a printed book by a woman was in 2008, when the first edition of Jane Austen’s 1816 novel Emma fetched around $205,000, according to Alison Flood of the Guardian.

The record-breaking edition of Frankenstein is notable for its preservation of the original boards. These blueish gray pasteboards cover each volume. Publishers in the nineteenth century utilized these temporary covers to bind and sell books, anticipating that the tomes’ new owners would soon replace them with a permanent cover.

“The [book] is incredibly fragile and as a result very scarce, so a copy like this, particularly in fine condition, is highly desirable to collectors,” Christie’s spokesperson tells the Guardian. “Overall, it’s a very strong market, and we are seeing increased demand for fine examples of literary high spots.”

According to Christie’s, this is the first edition of Frankenstein to sell at auction since 1985. It is one of the rare first editions offered by the auction house to sell out of Theodore B. Baum’s antique book collection. Additionally, copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day (1919), and James Joyce’s Dubliners (1919) were sold (1914). According to the statement, sales from Baum’s collection totaled more than $9 million.

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In 1816, while on a trip to Lake Geneva with her soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, the renowned poet Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin wrote the first draft of her breakthrough novel. Stuck indoors during a chilly summer in the aftermath of an Indonesian volcanic eruption, the writers raced to craft the most captivating ghost story.

“I busied myself to think of a story,” Shelley later recalled, “… [o]ne which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

Shelley was attempting to sleep when inspiration hit. Inspired by her foreboding surroundings and recent discussions of galvanism, which suggested that scientists could use electricity to simulate life or resurrect the dead, the 18-year-old writer began writing the story of Victor Frankenstein, an obsessive scientist who brings a humanoid “creature” to life, and the subsequent tale of terrifying consequences.

Frankenstein is now widely considered a fundamental, prescient work of science fiction.