Frankenstein's Monster Alive at NYPL Shelley Exhibit

By Della Hasselle | February 23, 2012 1:53pm | Updated on February 23, 2012 3:04pm
The back wall of the exhibit features a large mural of Percy and Mary Shelley.
The back wall of the exhibit features a large mural of Percy and Mary Shelley.
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DNAinfo/Della Hasselle

MANHATTAN — Frankenstein's creature will rise from the grave Friday morning to bring a little gothic horror to the New York Public Library.

The exhibit, "Shelley's Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet," gives "Frankenstein" fans a detailed look at the lives and works of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of the bone-chilling novel about a mad scientist and the fantastical monster he created.

"Shelley's Ghost" takes a look at the couple's scandalous and illustrious life through personal artifacts and rare manuscripts for "Frankenstein," "Ode to the West Wind" and "Ozymandias."

"It's very exciting for people who don't know Shelley so well, people who are getting a first introduction to his poetry and Mary and his parents," curator Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger said in an interview about the exhibit, which delves into the radical politics that both Shelley and his wife identified with.

The exhibit shows a rare version of "Frankenstein," from 1831.
The exhibit shows a rare version of "Frankenstein," from 1831.
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"It's also a fantastic glimpse into what we consider to be the 'modern' world, right after the Napoleonic Wars ended."

Among the manuscripts on display is the original, hand-written version of Mary Shelley’s annotated "Frankenstein," first published anonymously, which is on view for the first time since the 1950s. The manuscript is taken from the pages of a notebook Shelley bought in Geneva, Switzerland, where she and her husband were staying with the poet Lord Byron when he suggested a ghost story-writing contest.

A later edition of the book, dating back to 1831, shows an illustration of the monster that the fictional scientist Victor Frankenstein constructed by piecing together human body parts.

The book, which was controversial at the time, is an excellent example of how concepts of science-fiction and fantasy were starting to appear in literature — one of the many reasons why the story has been replicated so many times over the years, curator Stephen Hebron said.

"The fact that it involved a creature and science, and all of these new things, it was a lot of fun to play with this on the stage," he said. "It asks the age-old question about science and humanity — are we going too far?"

Other artifacts on display include handwritten drafts of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and “Ode to the West Wind,” pieces defined by his Romantic sensibility, and driven by ideas of intellectual freedom and political reform. The drafts have never before been publicly displayed in the United States. 

In addition to the rare prints and manuscripts, personal artifacts from the couple's life help to tell the story of the controversial pair, including childhood rattles and storybooks, as well as a piece of Percy Shelley's skull, recovered from his funeral pyre after he was found drowned off the shore of Italy in a boating accident at the age of 29.

Other pieces in the exhibit include an engagement ring that Percy Shelley gave to his first wife Harriet, who later committed suicide, and a lock of Mary Shelley's hair, secured into a necklace.

Some of the artifacts in the exhibit help convey how unconventional the couple's relationship was, especially during the 1800s. Pages from the Shelleys' personal journal document the moment they decided to run away together, when Mary was just 16. The journal shows two sets of handwriting, suggesting that the two were sitting together and writing about their journey as they eloped to France.

"They were very much going against the grain," curator Hebron added. "I hope people go away from the exhibit really wanting to read their books and poetry and letters."

"Shelley's Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet" will be on view from Feb. 24 to June 24 at the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.