Frankenstein Revisited at the Bodleian Libraries – Rachael Marsay, Roy Davids Archivist, Bodleian Libraries

The Abinger Papers [ https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3190 ] (manuscripts of the Shelley and Godwin families, including drafts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) are undoubtedly some of the greatest treasures of the Bodleian Libraries and I was recently invited by the Bodleian Libraries’ Education Team to take part in three study days bringing the text of Frankenstein to life (as it were).

The Bodleian Libraries held two successful Frankenstein Revisited study days for KS4 and KS5 pupils from local schools in November 2019, building upon the success of three study days originally held in 2018 as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the publication of Frankenstein. Due to popular demand, a further study day was held in January 2020, but in a slightly different format. The study days were funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust and, in total, 163 students from seven local state schools attended. The format of the days was designed to be varied and tie in with the curriculum for English Literature (Frankenstein as a set-text for GCSE and the gothic novel for A-Level students).

The November study days included two half-hour university style lectures (for the KS5 pupils), a contemporary theatrical performance (‘The Two-Body Problem’ by Louis Rogers, performed by Martha Skye-Murphy) followed by three ‘hands-on’ sessions when the students were split into smaller groups: one with live demonstrations of historical artefacts at the History of Science Museum, one looking at original Shelley-Godwin family manuscripts at the Weston Library and one textual editing session focussing on the original manuscript of Frankenstein.

The creature comes to life: page from Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein, with annotations by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Abinger c. 56, fol. 21r

I led the half-hour sessions with original family manuscripts to groups of no more than 15 students at a time: though this meant running the same session several times back to back, the students all got the opportunity to get close-up to the manuscripts. I was also able to use a digital visualiser projecting the manuscripts onto two large screens to ensure all the students got a good view of the items. Once the groups had settled down and become used to the magic of the visualiser (and the novelty of the swivel chairs), I began a roughly chronological journey through the manuscripts charting the life of Mary Shelley: beginning with the last notes from her mother Mary Wollstonecraft to her father William Godwin on the day of her birth, through to the journals chronicling her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the death of their first child, the manuscript of Frankenstein and finishing with Percy Shelley’s ‘drowned’ notebook.

I tried to get the groups to think about the nature of a manuscript and what they thought were the major differences between a copy of the printed text and the manuscript written by Mary Shelley. Most of the older students were quick to point out the differences to the text they knew. I also raised the question of manuscript survival and the memorial nature of many of the items, reverently kept in turn by surviving members of the family. Percy Shelley’s water-damaged notebook also raised questions of the physicality of items: the groups were generally able to surmise what had caused the damage to the notebook and some of the older pupils were able to second-guess before I explained that it was on board Percy’s boat when he died.

Taking notes. Image courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries.

The January study day was held entirely in the lecture theatre at the Weston Library and consisted of a lecture followed by a manuscript session in the morning and an editing session in the afternoon. The manuscript session for this study day felt slightly less ‘hands-on’, though I was thankfully able to use a visualiser again for this. Fortunately, the group of students were still happy to answer and ask questions though the environment was slightly more formal.

In general, the groups were very perceptive and happy to interact. The older pupils had more background knowledge and engaged more with the manuscripts as source material, whilst the younger ones seemed to appreciate the narrative nature of the session and the ability to put Mary Shelley and Frankenstein into context.

Overall, the sessions were successful and we received lots of positive feedback from the students including: ‘Fascinating to see Mary Shelley’s more personal thoughts and the original, unedited tale’. The students wrote that the sessions made them ‘feel more engaged to the text’ and found it ‘amazing to be close to the story so physically’. Perhaps most importantly, it was ‘surreal and completely different to school’.

Rachael Marsay, Roy Davids Archivist, Bodleian Libraries

More information about items in the Abinger and Shelley collections can be found via Shelley’s Ghost, the Bodleian Libraries’ online exhibition: http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

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4 comments

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