In July 1814, two years before the composition of Frankenstein, Mary eloped with Percy Shelley – not for the purposes of marriage, since Percy was already married – to France and then Switzerland, Germany and Holland. She was sixteen and Percy was twenty-one. By all accounts it was a rather miserable trip, made worse by the fact that Mary’s step-sister, Jane Clairmont (also called Claire Clairmont), was tagging along. By September 1814 they were all on their way back home, returning by way of the river Rhine through Germany and Holland. As noted in both Mary’s and Jane’s diaries, on September 2 they moored at Gernsheim in Hesse. From here the threesome would have been able to see, on a hill, a half-ruined castle: the Castle Frankenstein. It was the former home of one Konrad Dippel (1673-1734), also known as Dippel Franckensteina (Dippel of Frankenstein), who in the early eighteenth century had conducted experiments on animal bones and had been expelled from Strasbourg University after an accusation of grave-robbing. Dippel was an alchemist, and had produced an Arcanum chymicum (a secret substance, possibly an 'elixir of life') which he offered to the Landgrave of Hesse in return for being restored to his family estates. As it happened, the Shelley party met three students from the University of Strasbourg around the date of the mooring near Gernsheim, and it is possible that the castle, and its legend, came up as a topic of conversation.
Or is this link altogether too tenuous? A castle formed no part of Mary Shelley’s book: the castle only appears in the film. The name of Frankenstein and his reputed experiments are the only points of possible influence, and the name Frankenstein could have arisen from other sources: there is a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, for example — admittedly published only in 1816, the year that Mary was writing her book, but existing in oral versions previous to that — in which two brothers called Frankenstein slay a dragon. Or Mary could have encountered it elsewhere. The ‘Franken’ of ‘Frankenstein’ is a common component of German names such as ‘Frankenthal’ or ‘Frankenwald’, and ‘stein’, meaning ‘stone’ is an equally common suffix. The names ‘Frankheim’ and ‘Falkenstein’ appear in Matthew (‘Monk’) Lewis’s Gothic horror tales, which she read in 1815, the year before writing Frankenstein. Given all this, the idea of the distant castle and its semi-legendary occupant being a likely influence is not a completely convincing one, even if her proximity to the castle that day remains tantalizing.
So perhaps Frankenstein was undreamt-of until Mary came to write her book by the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816.
Bennett, Betty T, ed.: The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980)
Florescu, Radu: In Search of Frankenstein (Robson Books, 1996)
Ozolins, Aija: ‘Recent Work on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein,’ Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1976)
Seymour, Miranda: Mary Shelley (Picador, 2001)
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein (introduction and notes by Maurice Hindle, Penguin, 1992)
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