September 2, 2007
On this day, September 2nd, in 1814, sixteen-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, landed at Gernsheim, in Germany. The European tour that found them sailing down the Rhine was not so much romantic elopement as flight from scandal, away from Mary’s angry father, Shelley’s abandoned wife, and a horde of creditors.
The couple (with Mary’s stepsister in tow) sailed again early that evening. What they did that afternoon, in the few hours of landfall, is unknown, but it has tantalized historians ever since. A short distance from Gernsheim lies Burg Frankenstein.
Many have conjectured that Mary visited the castle and drew crucial inspiration from stories about a former resident named Konrad Dippel, an experimenter, said to have been an alchemist, a grave robber and a resurrectionist. All in all, the perfect prototype for Victor Frankenstein. But there are problems with this account. For starters, collecting stories about Dippel implies that Mary either encountered English-speaking locals or relied on Percy’s grasp of German. Dippel is a fascinating character, but there are many other scientists and doctors of the era who have since been promoted as Mary’s model. Mary herself mentioned the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, an inventor and galvanist.
Some writers claim that Burg Frankenstein is “the castle in the book” but, of course, there is no castle in the book. Forbidding castles are a cinematic conceit. Frankenstein’s laboratory was a student’s garret in downtown Ingolstadt.
For all the letters, notes, journals and travel diaries Mary left behind, she never mentioned Burg Frankenstein or Konrad Dippel. In her introduction to the book, she credits her inspiration to ghost stories and conversations between Shelley and Lord Byron about “the nature of the principle of life” and electrically induced re-animation. Mary wrote that “galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth”.
It is certainly reasonable to think that Mary’s party went for a short tourist’s excursion that afternoon. It’s possible that Mary glimpsed the castle on the hill and heard its name. And yes, she might have heard about Konrad Dippel and his blasphemous experiments, but we’ll never know. We can only speculate. And that’s what makes this story endlessly fascinating.
Burg Frankenstein Official Website (in German).
Frankenstein’s Castle, a site with pictures and legends about the castle.
A “virtual tour” of the castle.
Mary’s stopover in Gernsheim is mentioned in Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. The Konrad Dippel connection is the main theme of Radu Florecu’s classic In Search of Frankenstein: Exploring the Myth Behind Mary’s Monster.
The castle tower picture is from ouyea’s photostream on Flikr.