The (not so) ugly truth about Shelley’s “Frankenstein” subject of talk

Publication Date

In 1816, English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin joined an eclectic mix of poets, artists and writers on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland for a summer getaway steeped in creativity. Her traveling companions included Lord Byron, John Polidori and Godwin’s lover and future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Trapped by a series of intense storms that often kept the group indoors, Byron challenged them one night to see who could come up with the best horror story. It was here where the 18-year-old Godwin gave birth to “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.”

To help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the classic novel’s composition (it wasn’t published until 1818), Andrew Burkett, assistant professor of English, will give a talk Friday, April 15, at 12:55 in the Lally Reading Room in Schaffer Library.

“Mary Shelley's Media Monster: Frankenstein, Then and Now,” is free and open to the public.

Adapted from Burkett’s recent book, “Romantic Mediations: Media Theory and British Romanticism” (SUNY Press, 2016), the talk will focus on one of the most prominent female writers in English Romantic literature and her influence on new media environments and technologies.

“The book came about as a result of my stumbling upon two facts,” Burkett said. “First, that ‘Frankenstein’ kept showing up in myriad forms of electronic textuality and, second, that William Henry Fox Talbot, the Englishman who invented negative-positive photography, chose to photograph Lord Byron's poetry when he made some of his first steps in the development of his photographic science.

“On the one hand, photography emerges during the period as a result of its grappling with the Romantic text and, on the other hand, Shelley's novel takes on a putative life of its own in online environments and platforms like Stuart Curran's Pennsylvania electronic edition of the novel. As I researched further, I began to realize just how densely entangled Romantic authors were with matters related to what we would today refer to as something like ‘media’ technologies.”
Burkett’s talk is also the closing event for an exhibit in Lally, “The World of Frankenstein: Science, Nature, and the Unnatural.” The exhibit runs through April 21.

Curated by Annette LeClair, director of collection and technical services at Schaffer, the exhibit explores the scientific and literary environment in which Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was first conceived and written, including works from Special Collections, early scientific instruments from the Union College Permanent Collection and items on loan from the Chemistry Department.

Included are items rarely on display at Union, such as a sextant that was part of the first purchase of equipment for the College in 1795. And shown for the first time is the first illustrated edition of Frankenstein from 1831, a rare Romantic-era illustrated edition of Milton's “Paradise Lost” and an original Audubon plate.

Since it opened in February, the exhibit has been visited by many classes reading the novel.

“There are a number of events around the world commemorating the composition of ‘Frankenstein’ and its after-lives, LeClair said. “What is exciting and distinctive about the exhibit at Union, though, is that the College was founded during the same era in which the novel was written. The equipment and books acquired in 1795 for use by Union students were not only familiar to Mary Shelley but were also used by Victor Frankenstein in making his ‘creature.’ Union’s rare literary works from the period fill out the story and also illustrate how students have engaged with the novel’s ideas since its inception.”