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Radu Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein: Exploring the Myths behind Mary Shelley's Monster. London: Robson Books, 1996. ISBN: 1 86105 033 X (hardback). Price: £18.95[Notice]

  • Stephen Derwent Partington

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  • Stephen Derwent Partington
    St. Catherine's College, Oxford

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 …