Friday, December 3, 2010

Enduring Power Of Frankenstein Inspires Two Monstrous Exhibitions

By Nancy Mattoon

An 1857 Portrait of Mary Shelley
By Reginald Easton,

Allegedly Based On Her Death Mask.

(Image Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.)

It seems impossible that a single exhibit could appeal to fans of science fiction, Gothic novels, Romantic poetry, radical philosophies, horror movies, monsters and early feminism. But the announcement of the opening on December 3, 2010 of a new show at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, will have them all lining up for a chance to learn more about one of Britain's most renowned clan of writers.

A Page From Mary Shelley's
Original Manuscript Of Frankenstein.
(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

The writings of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; his wife, pioneering science fiction and Gothic novelist Mary Shelley; and Mary’s parents, radical philosopher William Godwin; and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft will all be on display. But the most talked about piece in the show is the original manuscript of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

An 1819 Portrait of Percy Shelley
By Alfred Clint.
(Image Courtesy of National Library of Medicine.)

The handwritten notebook containing Mary Shelley's classic tale of scientist Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation is one of the great treasures of the Bodleian's collections, and has never before been on display in Great Britain. It contains not only Mary's first draft of the novel, but also many handwritten corrections, suggestions, and other marginalia from her first reader, her poet husband, Percy. After the display at Oxford closes on March 27, 2011, it will travel to New York City. The New York Public Library is a co-sponsor of the show, which includes many artifacts from its The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.

Frontispiece And Title Page
From The Third Edition of
Or The Modern Prometheus, 1831.
(Image Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine.)

A virtual version of the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition will also be made available on December 3. It promises to include digitized leaves from the Frankenstein manuscript, along with pages from the three-volume, first edition of the novel, and an image of the frontispiece of the novel's third edition, which marked the first time that Dr. Frankenstein and his creature were ever depicted visually.

Poster For The Classic 1931
Film Version of Frankenstein,

Directed By James Whale.

(Image Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine.)

Oxford's virtual exhibition was not online as this piece was written, so the images here are from an earlier, but no less interesting, Frankenstein-inspired exhibit from the American National Library of Medicine (NLM). Frankenstein: Penetrating The Secrets of Nature "looks at the world from which Mary Shelley came, at how popular culture has embraced the Frankenstein story, and at how Shelley's creation continues to illuminate the blurred, uncertain boundaries of what we consider 'acceptable' science." It includes a detailed exploration of the ways in which well-intentioned men of science have unwittingly developed technology which, in the wrong hands, leads to "monstrous" creations. The exhibit connects Frankenstein, both in Shelley's novel and in popular culture offshoots, with genetic engineering, human-animal organ transplantation, eugenics, cloning, and other bioethical issues.

A 1935 Article From Popular Science Magazine,
Clearly Influenced By Images
The Film Version Of Frankenstein.
(Image Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine.)

The combination of the new Oxford exhibit and the previous NLM exhibit reinforce the brilliance and continued relevance of Mary Shelley's tale of "the modern Prometheus." In Greek mythology Prometheus, one of the Titans vanquished by the Olympian Gods, stole fire from Zeus with the best of intentions, and returned it to mere mortals. But ultimately the well-meaning deeds of Prometheus led to the opening of Pandora's box, and the unleashing of all of the troubles of the world. Dr. Frankenstein also maintains that his attempts at reanimating the dead are motivated by "benevolent intentions" and an unquenchable thirst "for the moment when I should put them in practice." But the ultimate result of the scientist's attempt to "mock the stupendous Creator of the world," is an endless spiral of misunderstandings, cruelty,violence, savagery, and death.

Actor Boris Karloff Transformed By Make-Up Artists
Into The 1931 Film Version Of Dr. Frankenstein's Creature.

(Image Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine.)

The unceasing echoes of the timeless themes of Frankenstein through nearly two centuries are all the more remarkable when one considers the age of its author. Mary Shelley began writing the story as a teenager, age 18, and published it just as she reached her twenties.


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