Thursday, 6 December 2018

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

March 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.   Ilka Heale has been hunting among the Library Collections.

A selection of material from the University Library. Photograph by Paul Shields.
2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s first novel. Written over two years, Frankenstein, Or, The modern prometheus was published anonymously in 1818. With themes of body snatching, early surgery and robotics the novel is widely considered to be the foundation of the modern science-fiction genre.

Born in 1797, Mary’s life reads like a soap-opera storyline: falling in love with a married man (fyi, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) at 16, eloping with him to Europe, marrying him at 19 (after his first wife commits suicide), widowed at 25 and, refusing to marry again, supporting herself and her son by continuing to write, publish and edit and dies aged 54 of a suspected brain tumour.

Mary Shelley portrait by Penn State.

However it is the story of a doctor who builds a creature from scavenged body parts that is her lasting fame. All the more amazing that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote this terrifying tale. Copies of the novel, and other titles authored by Shelley, are at shelfmark MA 153.7 in the Library.

...‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and dilate upon, so hideous an idea?’ Frankenstein, 1831, Preface by the Author.

The idea for the novel came about during the now famous summer at Lake Geneva. In 1816 Mary travelled to Geneva with Percy and was joined by the poet Lord Byron and his physician Dr John Polidori. In the introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary wrote: ‘... it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories ... fell into our hands….”We will each write a ghost story, said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.’

The University Library has a copy of the novel in the Dyson collection, one of many rare books. The original manuscript of the novel is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In 1996 it was published in facsimile edition, The Frankenstein notebooks which can be found in the Morrell Library.

Photograph by Erik Sagen. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Often adapted and occasionally parodied (see the spoof film Young Frankenstein directed by Mel Brooks), the lasting interest in the novel continues.

The play Frankenstein, adapted from the novel by playwright Nick Dear, was performed in 2011 at the National Theatre. This groundbreaking production saw the two lead actors alternating the roles of Frankenstein and the monster each night. This short video has the playwright in conversation with the director Danny Boyle.

There have also been many reworkings of the novel. Amongst them are Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein and the 1935 horror classic Bride of Frankenstein. We also have a children’s book, Frankenstein’s Aunt, in the Peggy Januriek collection!

Even the circumstances that inspired Mary to write the novel have influenced others and were dramatised in the documentary Frankenstein and the vampyre which is available on Box of Broadcasts, a TV and radio on demand service. [Access is restricted to University of York account holders].

After her husband died Mary continued to write, publishing several novels along with a large volume of miscellaneous prose: short stories, biographies, and travel writings. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness and she died at home in 1851.

Written two years after Frankenstein in 1820, Maurice, or the Fisher’s Cot is also worth a read. Mary had tried to have this children’s story published by her father’s publishing company but he refused, saying that the story was too short for publication. So this unpublished story, written for her goddaughter, was lost until November 1997 when a manuscript copy was discovered in a box of papers in Italy but that’s a whole other story …..

Further information

There are many adaptations and dramatisations of the novel, along with essays and criticism. Search the Library catalogue for details.

To arrange to view an item in the Rare Books Collection, please contact the Borthwick Institute.

There are many events celebrating the novel during this anniversary year. The Shelley Frankenstein Festival website has more information.

The novel has also spawned several essays and articles from scientists (see this interesting article).

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