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Last weekend for Shelley and his circle -- including Frankenstein

March 25, 2011 |  8:19 am

For those lucky enough to be in England, within striking distance of Oxford, the Bodleian Library's "Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of A Literary Family" will remain on exhibit through Sunday. And then it's gone.

The exhibit is about, but not only about, the great lyric poet ("Ozymandias") and bad boy Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died a month shy of his 30th birthday in a sailing accident off the coast of Italy. It's also about his wife, Mary -- who was for a time his mistress before his first wife died (well, committed suicide) -- the author of "Frankenstein." And it's also about Mary's parents -- her father was the celebrated political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother the seminal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died 11 days after Mary was born.

Percy Bysshe Shelley went to Oxford, but was rapidly thrown out for publishing a pamphlet on atheism. In the intervening centuries, the college has seen fit to forgive him, and counts him among its illustrious alumni. In the exhibit, there are portraits and documents of his, and of the others.

There is a copy of the first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," which caused quite a stir when it was published in 1792. There are Percy Bysshe Shelley's notebooks -- full of drafts and redrafts, crossings out, efforts to arrive at exactly the perfect words. There is a copy of Mary Shelley's handwritten "Frankenstein" and her "journal of sorrow," begun after Shelley's death. "But for my child," she writes, "it could not end too soon."

There is a velvet-lined dressing case Mary carried with her, with locks of hair and hair jewelry, a ring that had been her mother's, and other personal items. She left Italy and returned to England in 1823, where she set about editing Shelley's work; his reputation, which was negligible during his lifetime, grew significantly.

After Mary Shelley died, the literary archive -- hers, her husband's and her parents' -- landed in the careful hands of her surviving son. He and his wife kept the papers together, and added to the collection when they could. Papers from their archive and others are on display together -- until Sunday.

For those who may not be able to make it to Oxford by the weekend, the "Shelley's Ghost" exhibit has a multimedia website, which includes visuals and podcasts. All of us can listen to audio of the letters between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and -- virtually -- turn the pages of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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