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Happy birthday, Frankenstein! Classic novel turns 200

Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” has inspired a wide range of popular reinterpretations.
Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” has inspired a wide range of popular reinterpretations. University of South Carolina

“Frankenstein” is 200 years old, and the University of South Carolina is commemorating the novel’s birthday with an exhibit and events that are a perfect way to celebrate Halloween.

On a rainy afternoon in 1816, the yellow-skinned monster was born when a group of friends were trying to amuse themselves while vacationing near Lake Geneva.

One of those friends — Lord Byron — suggested they all write Gothic ghost stories to amuse themselves. Among the coterie were poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his teen-age future wife, the soon-to-be Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley’s story of a monster created with old body parts was actually completed months later and was first published anonymously in 1818 as “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.”

The University of South Carolina is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the iconic horror story with a free exhibit at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, Irvin Department Gallery, through Dec. 21.

A 1831 edition of “Frankenstein.” Mary Shelley revised the novel for Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels series. More than 4,000 copies of this edition were printed. University of South Carolina

The “Frankenstein: 1818-2018” exhibit is curated by Jeanne Britton and offers insight into not just the novel, its author, and its historical background, but also issues such as the origin of life, the definition of “human,” and the ethics of revolutionary science.

“I think Mary Shelley’s novel poses some profound questions about ethics and science that we can’t answer,” Britton said. “She also makes us think about the nature of humanity, family, and difference in ways that remain compelling.”

The exhibit is part of the larger international commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s first publication in 1818. USC doesn’t actually know how it acquired its rare first edition of Frankenstein, but one of the world’s leading Mary Shelley scholars, Paula R. Feldman, has taught in the English Department at USC for some time and helped the library acquire many of its Mary Shelley materials, including her short stories in literary annuals, some of which are on display.

“Mary Shelley tasked herself with writing a novel ‘which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature,’” Feldman said. “She was successful.”

A greeting card from 1973 featuring Frankenstein. University of South Carolina

Highlights of the exhibit include the first and revised edition of the novel, original editions of works by Romantic-era poets, illustrated materials from the history of science, and visual adaptations of the novel.

“The exhibit is notable for including a rare first edition of Frankenstein (3 volumes, 1818) and many other rare books from the period, including some of Mary Shelley’s later novels and short stories,” Feldman said. “But it also includes many interesting works of Frankenstein popular culture, including movie posters, early comic books, and illustrations of the creature by Lynd Ward and others.”

Britton says it is “astounding” that USC has Shelley’s first edition of 1818 and her revised edition of 1831. Only 500 copies of the 1818 edition were printed and only 35 institutions in the world have both editions, according to public catalog records, have both editions.

“These are rare, extremely significant volumes,” Britton said. “Shelley substantially revised the novel for its inclusion in a series of British Novels in 1831.

“We also have first editions of other works composed during the famous ghost story writing competition that Lord Byron suggested to Percy, Mary, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori. Byron and Polidori both write short vampire tales, which predate Stoker’s “Dracula” by about 70 years.”

Britton thinks folks will be interested to see and compare the different editions of “Frankenstein,” as well as other items in the exhibit.

“On display are lots of illustrated works from the history of science, texts that Shelley either explicitly refers to or was definitely aware of,” Britton said. “We have works illustrating the science of ‘galvanism,’ which suggested that it might be possible to reanimate a corpse with electricity. The science Shelley invokes seemed credible to many in the early 19 century, and materials in the Irvin Department exhibit make that clear.”

If you go

The University of South Carolina has several events planned to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th birthday.

Film screening of James Whale’s “Frankenstein”: Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) create a monster (Boris Karloff) from collected body parts and succeed in bringing it to life. 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at The Nickelodeon Theatre. $11.

Frankenstein Film Fest: 5 p.m., Silent Edison Studios “Frankenstein” (1910); 5:30 p.m. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1994), Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro; 7:45 p.m. “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), Boris Karloff; 8:50 p.m. Silent Edison Studios “Frankenstein” (1910). Oct. 30, Hollings Library. Free.

Costume Contest: Take a photo of yourself in costume in the “Frankenstein: 1818-2018” exhibit at Hollings Library gallery and post it to Instagram, Twitter or Facebook by midnight on Oct. 31 using the hashtag #uofscfrankenstein. Five students will receive $100 cash prizes for best overall costume, best Frankenstein, most creative, best group of two or more people, and funniest.

Frankenstein Reborn: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” radically changed relationships between science and literature when it was published in1818. But the novel itself radically changed when Shelley revised it for a new edition in 1831. Join the discussion. 2:30 p.m., Nov. 2, Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections. Free.

Saturday Open Gallery: Chris Washington, professor at Francis Marion University, will give a talk, “Quantum Science in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and the Politics of Today.” 10:30 a.m., Nov. 3, Hollings Library. Free