By a happy accident, the Morgan Library’s show on Frankenstein’s bicentennial opened the same week that my book club planned to meet and discuss the novel. So, having just read the novel, we were primed to appreciate the show.
Verdict: a stunning exhibit, not just for fans of the novel but for anybody interested in the Romantic period and the origins of horror as a genre.
A few artifacts revealing connections between the geniuses of the period that I hadn’t known about. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the original of Füseli’s famous painting, The Nightmare, which has appeared on the cover of multitudes of horror story collections and books abut witchcraft and the supernatural. What I hadn’t known was that Füseli was a lover of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the painting and others by the great Swiss master of the uncanny would’ve been known to Mary Shelly personally.
A few bits of Percy Shelley’s skull, supposedly snatched from his funeral pyre by a friend. And less than a foot from them are the fragmentary pages of a poem Shelley had with him on the sea voyage on which he drowned.
Percy Shelley’s own copy of Paradise Lost, which was displayed in a line-up of period copies of all the books Frankenstein’s monster reads in the course of his education.
Pages from the manuscript of Frankenstein itself, which contained memorable passages that you can just puzzle out, as well as what is unmistakably the marginal scribblings of Percy Shelly, offering up vivid phrases to enliven his wife’s book.
The portraits of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft that you see on the covers of their books, which felt like being in the presence of the two women. More remarkable was a line in the description of Mary Wollstonecraft’s portrait that mentions her and her daughter’s friendship with Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia. That puts fewer than two degrees of separation between all the American founding fathers and the seventeen-year-old girl whose genius would invent science fiction and change the world.
Go see the show! I haven’t described half the wonders you’ll see.