In 1816, a teenage girl named Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and so created one of the most enduring icons of western culture. The outline of the story, in which a mad scientist creates a monster which subsequently destroys him, is known to almost everyone. In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein is a young student of the natural sciences at the University of Ingolstadt who stumbles upon the secret of the force which can give life to inanimate matter. Working in secret, Victor Frankenstein creates a monster and brings it to life. At first the monster seeks only love and acceptance, first from his creator and then from society at large. Finding none, he wreaks a terrifying revenge on the family of Victor Frankenstein.
Where did Mary Shelley get her ideas?
Mary Shelley in 1820
In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells her version of the genesis of the story. In the summer of 1816, she was staying in a rented house on the shores of Lake Geneva with her future husband, Percy Bysse Shelley, one of the most famous English poets of that era. Staying nearby was George Gordon, Lord Byron, perhaps the most famous English poet of that era, along with his personal physician, John Polidori. Byron and Shelley were best friends and, perhaps, lovers, and the four were inseparable companions that summer. In the preface, Mary Shelley writes:
“Many and long were the conversations between Shelley and Lord Byron to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin (I speak not of what the doctor really did or said, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken as having been done by him), who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
Upon retiring, she had a nightmare vision:
“I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
Upon waking, she resolved to make a transcript of the grim terrors of her waking dream. The rest, as they say, is history. So is that all there was to it? Did the tale of Victor Frankenstein appear fully formed from Mary’s imagination, like Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus? Or is there more to the story?
Konrad Dippel and Castle Frankenstein
Once upon a time (10 August, 1673 to be exact) a baby boy was born to refugees who had taken shelter at Castle Frankenstein, in what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. (The Frankensteins, one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Germany, had sold the castle to the Landgrave of Hesse some time before that.) The boy’s name was Konrad Dippel, and in accordance with the customs of his day, signed his last name as “Franckensteiner.”
Entire volumes could be written about the roller-coaster career of Konrad Dippel, which included study and research at universities all over Europe (he invented the pigment Prussian Blue, as well as a tonic, Dippel’s Oil, which was sold commercially for a number of years), service as personal physician to the rich and famous (including, for a time, the King of Sweden) as well as banishments, imprisonments, and accusations of grave-robbing. Dippel was obsessed with finding the life force which, he believed, could be transferred from one body to another, thus enabling a corpse to be raised from the dead.
Searching for Frankenstein
After I finished up in Ethiopia, the NGO sponsoring me sent me to Ghana, routing me through Frankfurt Airport. I did a Google search and found that Castle Frankenstein was located a mere forty kilometers from Frankfurt, so off I went in search of the House of Frankenstein.
I have to admire the efficiency of the public transportation system in this country. It gets you to where you want to go, and buses and trams are clean and quiet and comfortable. What they’re not is cheap. But, you get what you pay for.
The signs on every station platform and bus stop promise a forty euro fine for anyone caught riding without a valid ticket. But, only once did I see anyone actually checking. For the most part, they operate on the honor system, and it must work well enough.
I took a train from Frankfurt to Darmstadt, and from there I took a bus, and then another bus, and rode that one all the way to the end of the line. On disembarking, I saw a sign containing the single word, “Frankenstein.”
So where’s the castle? I wondered.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone for directions – I had visions of some German rolling his eyes and groaning, “Mein Gott, here’s another Dummkopf from America thinking he’s gonna find Boris Karloff with electrodes sticking out of his neck.”
So I just started walking around aimlessly, past the rows of lovely stone and brick houses, all meticulously maintained, everything neat as a pin. I walked through a little park and was delighted to find that, unlike the parks in Baltimore, the place wasn’t overrun with large aggressive unleashed dogs. I saw one dog, very well behaved, on a leash.
After wandering around for a couple of hours, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing to “Burg Frankenstein.” I followed the direction indicated by the arrow and found myself on a two-lane highway passing through a wooded area.
The population density in this country is approximately seven times that of the United States, but they do have their green spaces in this country, all carefully cordoned off to keep out trespassers. The road had no shoulder, but I noted that every single one of the oncoming drivers was taking pains to avoid me, getting as close to the median line as he could get without crossing over.
After about a mile, the road forked, with one fork leading to a narrow winding mountain road with numerous switchbacks. A sign indicated that this was the way to “Burg Frankenstein.”
The last time I did any hitchhiking was when I got my first faculty position, teaching the summer course in Zoology at a community college. I was thirty-two years old then, still almost-young, and I was renting a room in a woman’s house, and every morning she would drop me off at the college on her way to work and every afternoon I would thumb it home. That was a long time ago. But I wasn’t gonna to hoof it up this mountain, so I stuck out my thumb and almost immediately a young guy in a flashy sports car slammed on the brakes and offered me a ride, all the way to the top.
There is no admission fee, no tour guide, not even a plaque – the castle is just there, in all its faded glory, for anyone to see.
Of course, we don’t know for sure if Dippel was one of the inspirations for the character of Victor Frankenstein — Mary Shelley didn’t give us any clue at all where she got her ideas from. But we do know that Dippel attained great fame during his life and afterwards, and we also know that Shelley and her entourage passed within ten miles of here during her sojourn through Europe. It seems unlikely she was unaware of Dippel and his works.
Afterwards I walked back out to the road and stuck my thumb out, and almost immediately a young guy in a flashy sports car (no, not the same guy) slammed on the brakes and offered me a ride. He was a construction supervisor, killing time on his day off, and without any prompting on my part offered to drive me all the way back to Darmstadt, and I accepted.
I had to admit they do seem to be on to something in this country. So many people, crowded together in such a small area, at such a high level of material comfort, and yet such kindness to strangers.
As for Dippel, late in life, after a quarter century of wandering across Europe, he returned to his hometown and offered to Landgrave of Hesse unspecified alchemical secrets in exchange for the title to Castle Frankenstein. We don’t know what those secrets were, but we do know that a year later Dippel published a pamphlet claiming to have discovered an elixir that would enable one to live to the age of 135. The Landgrave of Hesse declined his offer, and Dippel died soon after at the age of 62, without ever having attained the title of “Lord Frankenstein.”
Monster photo and Mary Shelly illustration via Wikimedia Commons
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