How do archives collect girl authors? In this interview series, we welcome curators and archivists to share how their institutions collect and utilize materials by girls who were or became published authors in their youth. Today, we look at the papers of Mary Shelley (1797-1851), best known as the author of Frankenstein. Special thanks to Dr. Elizabeth C. Denlinger, Curator at the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library.
What kinds of records do you keep relating to the author?
We also have lots of letters *to* Mary Shelley. Besides manuscript materials, we hold all of Mary Shelley’s books. In addition to Frankenstein she wrote six more novels and published travel writing, biographical work, and many short stories.
Do you have physical objects in the archives from the author?
Sadly, except for a lock of her hair, we have no artifacts, as Mary Shelley’s son and daughter-in-law left almost everything from their family to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The hair is from her girlhood, though – she was seventeen when she snipped it off and sent it in a letter to a friend of her future husband.
How are the records utilized? Do researchers use items for books/articles or for historical research for movies or tv shows?
Our Mary Shelley manuscripts are all published, and usually we ask researchers to look at those published versions. Researchers most often use them for projects leading to books and articles, but we’ve also had filmmakers, playwrights, novelists, poets, and a fashion designer here.
What is your favourite object/document/record in the collections related to this author?
I think my favorite Mary Shelley material in the Pforzheimer Collection is a bound volume of manuscripts from an annual. Annuals, as you might guess, were published yearly, usually around Christmas, in the UK of the 1820s and 1830s. They were collections of short stories and poetry written to accompany engravings, the whole volume prettily bound and produced as gifts for a feminine market.
After Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, drowned at the age of 29 in 1822, she was forced to support herself and her young son by her writing. The annuals were a good source of income. We own a volume of the manuscripts for the 1831 Keepsake, Mary Shelley’s bound together with those of all who contributed. I always enjoy seeing her handwriting there and thinking about the labor of the writing life. It’s always fun to show the manuscripts to visitors next to the published version, so people can see both and compare them. Mary Shelley’s name doesn’t appear there, as her father-in-law didn’t want the Shelley name brought out in public. Rather she is credited simply as “the author of Frankenstein.”
The other object in the collection that I love shows Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley before she was a girl. It is this portrait of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, copied posthumously by John Keenan from the original by John Opie.
You can just see that Wollstonecraft is pregnant, and the fetus would eventually become her second daughter. She was, of course, a pioneering feminist philosopher and writer who died giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Shelley. There’s a connection to girls’ education here, too, as the copy was commissioned by Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr, who shot Alexander Hamilton), who was a believer in Mary Wollstonecraft’s progressive ideas on child rearing, and used them in raising his daughter, Theodosia.