Face to face with Frankenstein

I like to get close to the things I enjoy … and one of the things I really enjoy this time of year is Frankenstein. I’m talking about Frankenstein the book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein the series of classic films by Universal Pictures, Victor Frankenstein the fictional scientist who overstepped his bounds and created a monster, and yes, even the monster himself, whom many refer to by the last name of his creator.

You’ll find them all at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City this fall. As someone who makes pilgrimages to see the “real deal” when it comes to books I love, I usually don’t bother to resist the magnet of the Morgan when I visit Manhattan.

The exhibition “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” boasts two large rooms which, through objects collected from all over the world, tell the story of Frankenstein, from the creation and publication of the novel in 1818, through its many incarnations on the stage and silver screen, to its current role as an icon of classic horror.

Nearly overwhelmed while exploring an exhibition full of important artifacts, I still found myself able to focus on what would become my favorite object in the collection. It was a page from the original manuscript, written in author Mary Shelley’s own handwriting, drafted very roughly and with many corrections. Her words describe the scene where the creature first awakens. To read the passage “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed…” in Shelley’s own handwriting sent shivers down my back as I stared at the very origins of what has grown into one of the most influential morality tales the world has ever known. Eight sacred pages from the original manuscript are on loan from the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.

Page from Mary Shelley’s original “Frankenstein” manuscript

Another treasure to contemplate at the exhibit is the 1781 Gothic painting “The Nightmare,” by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The image of a woman in a deep but disturbing sleep both seemingly inspired a passage in Mary Shelley’s book, and informed visuals in the marketing of the 1931 Universal Frankenstein film. Not far off is a frequently reproduced portrait of the author herself, on loan from the National Portrait Galley in London.

“The Nightmare,” 1781, by Henry Fuseli
“Mary Shelley,” 1840, by Richard Rothwell

A giant six sheet poster for the 1931 movie looms over the room showcasing theatrical and cinematic interpretations of the story. It’s impressive because the poster is large, striking, and so rarely seen.

Six sheet poster from the 1931 move Frankenstein

“It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” commemorates two centuries of Frankenstein. You have until January 27 to explore the Romantic and Gothic origins of Shelley’s monstrous creation, as well as its horrific consequences. https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/frankenstein 

— Paul Larson