200 Years of Mary Shelley’s Wretched “Frankenstein”

200 Years of Mary Shelley’s Wretched “Frankenstein”

“I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One 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,” writes Mary Shelley in the preface to the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein,” the subject of the Morgan Library’s upcoming exhibition “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200.”

The exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of when Shelley first published her classic, famously penned at the age of 18 as a result of a competition involving Shelley, her husband (Percy Shelley) and Lord Byron to see who among them could write the scariest tale. As Shelley’s recollection goes, after days of fruitlessly toiling to find a story worthy to set down, the basic premise for the novel thundered into her subconscious during a frightening nightmare.

​Barry Moser, “No Father Had Watched My Infant Days,” illustration in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, “Frankenstein,” West Hatfield, Mass.: Pennyroyal Press, 1983. Morgan Library & Museum. ​ The Morgan Library & Museum, PML 127245.6. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2017. © Pennyroyal Press.

After its initial publication in 1818 — released into the world without an author attached to the story — Shelley meticulously revised the tale in the margins of her own copy. And while these notes were not published in her lifetime, Shelley did make considerable changes to the widely-read 1831 edition, published on Halloween of that year with an extended (slightly embellished) preface detailing the novel’s origins.

Since its debut, Shelley’s radical monster has been pulled from its pages and reinterpreted into films, tributes, sequels, Halloween costumes, parodies and more. The Morgan’s exhibition seeks to illustrate this cultural obsession, tracing how “Frankenstein” has ensnared popular imagination during its two century-long existence through a selection of various historic scientific instruments, movie posters and memorabilia, artwork and a “vivid display” of books, manuscripts and prints — in addition to excerpts from Shelley’s original manuscript.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), “Frankenstein,” manuscript, MS. Abinger c.56, fols. 20v – 21r, 1816 – 1817. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

“It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” opens Oct. 12 (just in time for Halloween spooks) and runs through Jan. 27, 2019. And for those who just can’t get enough of Victor Frankenstein, the Morgan is set to host discussions, screenings, an adult workshop, children’s programming and a global reading of “Frankenstein” on Halloween.

Top Image: Auguste Pontenier, wood engraving in Louis Figuier, "Les merveilles de la science, ou Description populaire des inventions modernes," Paris: Furne, Jouvet et cie, [1867]–1870. The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased on the Gordon N. Ray Fund, 2016; PML 196256.