… On 28 July 1814, young Mary Godwin—just sixteen—eloped with the already married Bysshe (he was twenty-one), fleeing across the Channel from England to France. They were gone about six weeks. Both would have birthdays on the trip. Joining them was Mary’s step-sister Jane “Claire” Clairmont, also sixteen. They made it as far as Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, but their money disappeared quickly, so they decided to return via the Rhine—river travel was less expensive than overland—and on 2 September 1814, in the evening, they came ashore at Gernsheim, where the boat’s pilot elected to wait a few hours for the full moon to rise before proceeding. Thirteen miles in the distance—the ruins of Burg Frankenstein.
Surely, so I’ve read, Mary was thinking of those ruins two years later when she created Victor Frankenstein, the student—in Germany!—who crafted the creature that wreaked havoc in Victor’s life and sired those myriads of movies, plays, operas, TV shows (The Munsters), the 1962 number-one hit “Monster Mash,” comic books, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and other cultural clutter. (The creature’s face has been on a U. S. postage stamp, but Frankenberry cereal—perhaps because it’s pink? or not chocolate?—has never achieved the popularity of Count Chocula.)
But now, sitting here, slurping the dregs of my sundae, I’m certain it didn’t happen. From Gernsheim—where I was this morning—I could not even see these castle towers. And now from the castle I can barely see the Rhine. And it’s been clear today, all day. Mary and Bysshe and Claire were down there in the evening. None of the Shelley party spoke German. Yes, Mary and Bysshe went for a “walk” (sans Claire) for several hours, but I’m guessing that was not for scholarship but for sex. (A popular choice.)
Not one of the Shelley party mentions the castle or the word Frankenstein in a diary or a letter or in Mary’s 1817 account of their journey, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. It seems odd that she wouldn’t mention the name in that book. She’d begun working on the story that would become the novel Frankenstein since mid-June 1816. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour appeared on 6 November 1818; the finished Frankenstein, not two months later. Perhaps she didn’t mention the name because her novel first appeared anonymously?
But much later in her life, in 1844, she had another opportunity. In that year she published another travel book, Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843, an account of her continental wanderings, one of which took her to Darmstadt, near the castle. And she was traveling on the Bergstrasse! To get to Heidelberg, her next stop, she had to pass right by Burg Frankenstein. But she does not mention it—or the name Frankenstein. Nor does she in her correspondence—not directly.
In a letter to her aunt Everina on 20 July 1840 she writes about her journeys: “We passed through Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Carlsruhe, Baden & Freiburg. … The country pretty uniform; a fertile plain to the right—to the left a range of low but pleasing hills varied as usual by many a shattered tower & ruined Castle …” (Ltrs III: 2). That’s as close as she ever gets. Anywhere. Many a shattered tower & ruined Castle.
And so … because no one has ever discovered why Mary chose that name when she began composing her story on that famous stormy night in 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland—her 1814 proximity to Burg Frankenstein has seemed so rich in possibility.
But (slurp) so impoverished (slurp) in reality. (Final slurp.)
Should I have another? I could eat a light supper … or skip it altogether …?