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Professor Radu Florescu, 'an expert on Eastern European history', has, it seems, written a book that contradicts the maxim 'You can't judge a book by its cover'. On the front we find a photograph of an ominous, towered building illuminated by a chaos of forked lightning; lightning coloured a Roger Corman purple. The title, edged in blood-red, is, as you may already have guessed, printed in Goetheschrift. On the back of the book we find phrases such as 'tortured creature', 'accursed. . .Frankenstein', 'infamous alchemist' and 'diabolical experiments'; all these phrases seem sublimely gothic, yes, but suggested to me that the book's contents might not be strictly academic. And they are not.
To be fair, though, Professor Florescu doesn't intend for his highly entertaining book to be narrowly specialist. He believes that present confusions surrounding Frankenstein (for example, the frequently lamented frequent conflation of creator's name and the creature's) are a direct consequence of the 'barrier that presently exists between the academic world and the general reading public'. Florescu's endeavour, then, as stated in his Introduction, is to 'steer somehow between these two courses'. Later on in the book, by which time the specialist will have already decided this for himself, Florescu's conscience gets the better of him, and he admits that 'This book is primarily intended for the general reader'. Luckily, this confession comes early enough for the academic to enjoy this book with his thinking-cap safely on the hat-stand.
Although Florescu's bibliography is comprehensive, he very rarely quotes from or even alludes to the great names of Mary Shelley scholarship, preferring instead to present us with one man's quest for the sources of the novel (he has much in common with Victor). Most of the eleven chapters, for example that which deals with the Byron-Shelley summer of 1816, will seem to the specialist to be nothing more than a rehearsal of old knowledge. However, chapter four, entitled 'Castle Frankenstein and the Alchemist Dippel', provides us with some fascinating new speculations.
To introduce this chapter, I will quote from Florescu's Acknowledgements page: 'To the former Mayor of Nieder-Beerbach. . .I owed my initial inspiration, based upon his educated hunch, substantiated by local folklore, that Mary Shelley visited Castle Frankenstein and became acquainted with the story of the Alchemist Dippel'. 'Inspiration', 'educated hunches' and 'local folklore' are perhaps not evidence; indeed, the phrase 'substantiated by local folklore' is as vacuous as the phrase 'proof by gossip'. Nevertheless, this reader found himself intrigued by the author's excited rhetoric in chapter four, and suspects that, should proof of Shelley's knowledge of the Castle Frankenstein and the alchemist Dippel be found in future, a significant contribution to Frankenstein scholarship will have been made; a contribution that might forever lay to rest the Romantic nonsense, instigated of course by Shelley herself, that the novel stemmed entirely from a dream.
Florescu's thesis for this chapter is dependent entirely on the possible events of early September 1814. We know from the notebooks of both Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont that the Shelleys and Claire visited Gernsheim on the Rhine on September 2nd, and Florescu tells us that from the whole town of Gernsheim one can clearly see the imposing Castle Frankenstein on its hill. Although Mary and Claire never once mention the castle, Florescu thinks it inconceivable that Mary didn't visit it. We further learn in chapter four that the three British travellers at the same time met with three students from the University of Strasbourg. Florescu speculates that these three students from the university once attended by the alchemist Dippel (who was born at Castle Frankenstein and who adopted, as was then the custom, the name Frankensteina) may in Gernsheim have related the story of Dippel to Mary Shelley. But who was Frankensteina, born Dippel?
It is terribly difficult to share Florescu's terror of someone named Konrad Dippel, but the reader's suspension of fear is ultimately rewarded. Dippel (1673-1734) was respected as a serious scientist in his day, and was employed by sundry impecunious nobles to search for the Philosopher's Stone. As it happens, he claimed to have discovered the formula to change base metals into gold, but, sadly, when asked to repeat his experiments he revealed that the jar containing the formula had been dropped and that the secret was consequently lost forever ('Sir, the cat ate my homework'). He subsequently turned his abilities to other fields, experimenting with Life. At one point he offered to strike a deal with the Landgrave of Hesse, promising him an Arcanum chymicum in return for the ownership of his birthplace, Castle Frankenstein, and its associated title, Lord of Frankenstein. That Arcanum chymicum was probably a formula for prolonging life - Dippel claimed to have taken some of this himself, certain of living until 1801, when he would die aged 135. One suspects that he mixed too much mercury with too little lamb's blood, for he died a year after his claim. The Landgrave never granted Dippel the title and possession he had asked for.
By travelling and by consulting local historians to help him with chapter four, Florescu seems to have unearthed relevant information which he might not have found in canonical critical works. Sit-at-home scholars owe him a debt of gratitude for uncovering details of a scientist who has so much in common with Victor, and who may indeed have provided the model for Victor.
This book's other redeeming feature is Appendix 4, the most comprehensive Frankenstein filmography I know of. It will be of great use to text-to-film scholars and students of Media. Chapter nine, 'The Frankenstein Films', seems to me to be nothing more than a fleshed-out, continuous prose version of this Appendix. Whereas I had hoped that Florescu would consider the consequences of filmic reworkings, he seems merely to become a Barry Norman, ticking or crossing each production. An intelligent chapter would not simply have noted that Universal chose to introduce a Good Brain/Bad Brain motif, for example, but would have examined in detail how such a biologically-deterministic plot device forever changed Mary's Godwinian and Rousseauian concept of social-determinism; id est, how Mary's creature, made evil, becomes in film a monster, essentially evil.
Ultimately, despite writing a book for the common reader, Florescu has, in chapter four alone, and perhaps by default, penned a text of some use to the academic. At a refreshing £18.95 for a hardback, I feel able to recommend this charming, lightweight and sometimes exciting book. The reader should know that Florescu's book is a revised and expanded reprint, and that much of its content can be found not only in the writings of other scholars, but also in the original 1975 version.