Celebrating Frankenstein's 200th Anniversary at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair

MoserNoFatherMLM71811_73495v_0002-hpr(1).jpg“It’s alive, It’s alive! cried the crazed scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, looking up from his operating table and exulting at the success of his scientific experiment.  And, in fact, the hated and lonely, yet fabulous creation of the mad scientist is alive and thriving in 2018 - two hundred years later!

Mary Godwin Shelley’s iconic novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus,” written when she was just 21 years old -  a remarkable literary feat for a young woman just finding her way in the world-- is 200 years old this year.   It’s an anniversary that is soon to be the subject of a major exhibition this Fall at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, appropriately titled, “It’s Alive:  Frankenstein at 200.”

A special preview of this exhibition, will be featured at the upcoming Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair, September 8 & 9 at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint - a not-to-be-missed event for all those who continue to be fascinated  and drawn to this world classic novel.  The exhibition’s curators,  the Morgan Library’s John Bidwell, and New York Public Library’s Elizabeth Denlinger, are scheduled to present a talk on Sat. Sept 8th at 5pm that previews the Morgan exhibition and looks at the enduring legacy of Mary Shelley’s novel.  It is a wonderful opportunity to sample some of the excitement of the upcoming exhibition a month before its actual opening at the Morgan Library.

Mary’s own life echoed some of the estrangement of the monster she created.  The wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of England’s most renowned 19th century poets, Mary was the daughter of philosopher and political writer, William Godwin, and early feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Mary’s birth in 1797.  Mary was raised  in London by her father and stepmother.  It was a difficult childhood, not much enlightened by love nor formal education.  Mary escaped her challenging home life by reading and daydreaming.

At age 17, she entered into a relationship with Shelley, a devoted student of  Mary’s father.  Although still married to his first wife, he and the teenaged Mary fled England to travel throughout Europe for the next two years.   Perpetually poor, they ended up in Switzerland with a group of similarly poor friends, including Lord Byron, who had rented a house at Lake Geneva.  The friends entertained themselves one rainy summer day by reading a book of ghost stories.

“Let’s write our own ghost story,” Byron suggested.  This was the impetus for Mary to begin work on what would become her most famous novel, the incomparable “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” Thus,  the legend of this frightening, yet very human monster was born.  The book, published anonymously in 1818,  proved to be a huge success  and is read world-wide to this day. 

The struggle between a monster and its creator has been reincarnated in the theatre, other books, comic books and especially in film (the iconic Boris Karloff movie of 1931; Gene Wilder’s spoof, Young Frankenstein;” Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation in 1994; and the modern thriller, “I, Frankenstein” in 2015).

Aside from the classic story that appeals to both children and adults, the enduring relevance of Frankenstein lies in its basic human emotions.  Immediately recognizable as part of the human condition, is the monster’s need to be loved.   “You made me,” says the monster reasonably.  “All I ever wanted was your love.  Or at least acceptance.  But I am so ugly that everyone flees in disgust.  I’m lonely, an outcast, hated.  So I take my revenge.  I have learned, in the absence of love, to hate.”  Perhaps Frankenstein’s ultimate message today remains exactly what it was 200 years ago:  give love, not unkindness.

Hours for the Brooklyn Antiquarian Fair are:   Sat., September 8th, noon-7pm; Sun. September 9th, 11am-4pm; Admission:  Weekend pass:  $15 for adults; Sunday admission $10.   The Frankenstein talk is free with  online registration and tickets to the fair at www.brooklynbookfair.com.  

Image: Barry Moser, “No Father Has Watched My Infant Days” illustration in Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, West Hatfield, Mass.:  Pennyroyal Press, 1983. Morgan Library & Museum.  Photography by Janny Chiu 2017 @ 1984 Pennyroyal Press. 

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