First draft of Frankenstein goes on display in Bodleian's Shelley's Ghost

By Ben Miller | 03 December 2010
A photo of a scribble
Mary Wollstonecraft, Three Notes to William Godwin, London (August 30 1797)© Bodleian Library,University of Oxford (2010)
Exhibition: Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, Bodleian Library, Oxford, until March 27 2011

Nearly two centuries after Mary Shelley spawned a gothic monster by publishing Frankenstein, the original 1818 manuscript of the novel has gone on display at the Bodleian.

We know it as the source of endless horror stories, films and visions of square-browed, bug-eyed hulks, but Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe, was the first reader to have a crack at reimagining it.

“It’s so well-known now in its various adaptations that going to back to the original manuscript is quite exciting,” says Stephen Hebron, an authority on the Shelleys who has curated this unmissable-sounding show.

“Most of it’s written by Mary Shelley, but you can also see where Percy Bysshe Shelley altered it and made corrections, so it’s a very rich manuscript.”

A photo of a scribble
Mary Shelley (with Percy Bysshe Shelley), Draft of Frankenstein (1816-17)© Bodleian Library,University of Oxford (2010)
A fledgling scribe, Mary needed the helping hand from her husband. “They’re very friendly,” observes Hebron. “They were working on it together and it was Mary’s first novel.

“At the beginning, when she really is getting used to writing, there are little grammatical corrections or he’ll change a word or add a description, that sort of thing.”

Originally in two bound notebooks, the story is told in loose sheets torn from the binding. “The trick is in taking thousands of pieces of paper and whittling them down to 100 exhibits,” confides Hebron, who first conceived the ambitious exhibition two years ago.

“We found a lot but when you see everything that there is it’s really a sort of editing job – that’s the test. We went for the best stuff.”

Linking items from The New York Public Library with the Oxford site’s own extensive archive, the plan for the show has been mooted since 2004, when the Bodleian won its campaign to buy the £3.9 million Abinger Papers, the most complete set of artefacts belonging to the Shelley family.

There’s a first draft of Percy’s sonnet, Ozymandias, and his famous Ode to the West Wind, which Hebron says is in “intermediate draft” stage.

A photo of a piece of jewellery
A necklace which Mary Shelley fashioned from a lock of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft's hair© Bodleian Library,University of Oxford (2010)
“They’re very complicated, but they’re also wonderful,” he says. “He always had his notebook with him and there are various notes he’s made, where he’s scribbled down drafts of his poems and made lots of little doodles and so on.

“He made a lot of revisions – there’s a lot of changing his mind and making it absolutely as he wants, jumbling around and often using two different notebooks for the same poem, that sort of thing.”

Among a fascinating and revealing set of exhibits, arguably the most intriguing recount the complex story of three generations. From Mary's parents, the radical writers and thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, to Mary and Percy and their only surviving child, Sir Percy Florence Shelley who inherited the archive.

“The really controversial episode in Shelley’s life was when he left his first wife, Harriet, for Mary Shelley,” explains Hebron.

“She committed suicide, and we’ve got the last letter she wrote before she did it, which is one of the loans from New York.

“I’ve never seen it because it’s always been there. It looks like a normal letter really – the tone of it, as you can imagine, is highly depressed, nervous, agitated and muddled. If you were going to pick out an episode in Shelley’s life that people talked about and still talk about, then it would be that.”

Three notes by Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, written to her husband just days before her post-childbirth death, are also included, as well as a dressing case contains locks of Mary’s hair fashioned into ornate jewellery.

“That’s quite common of the period, but not to this extent,” reflects Hebron. “They didn’t have photo albums, so it’s a tangible reminder.

“The letters are just little dashed-off bits of paper which have survived, they’re a very touching record of her last bits of writing. There are all sorts of stories and tragedies involved, but there’s also loads of wonderful writing.”

Visit the exhibition online for more.
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