Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Second Letter

The following is the second part of a limited-run feature that we restarted last month. Although not totally necessary of this piece, we recommend reading the first installment, if you haven’t done so yet. The Editors

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Letter 2

Ingolstadt, Germany

June 5, 20—

Dear R–,

It has been several days since I wrote you from the Diodati grounds, and I now write you from Ingolstadt, Germany.  The organization of my travels has taken an odd and somewhat scatological turn.  I spent the day after I last wrote wandering Geneva proper, trying to determine the significance—if any—of setting a novel such as Frankenstein here.

I have a few theories about Geneva being the birth of romanticism via its famous philosopher son Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer who heavily influenced the Diodati group and championed the Alpine travel craze of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  During the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley studied Rousseau’s work while Byron and Shelley embarked on a bit of literary tourism by tracing famous passages and landmarks of the author’s life.  It is an understatement to say that if his ghost was lingering during those days, it lingers even more within the city via statues and museums.  However, a discussion of Rousseau at this point in tracing the novel seems pre-mature, as his fingerprint is indented more in the Creature’s flesh than Victor’s.  The Creature was not attached to Geneva at all, I realized, and with that thought it occurred to me that I was focusing in varied ways too much on the creator and not the creation, and decided to give up Geneva for a while and head to Ingolstadt, the Bavarian city where the Creature was born, specifically at the University of Ingolstadt.

With a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, the Old City in Ingolstadt is colorful and whimsical. It does not at all seem like the place where the "new born" and rejected Creature would stumble around in the middle of the night.

With a mixture of Gothic and Baroque architecture, the Old City in Ingolstadt is colorful and whimsical. It does not at all seem like the place where the “new born” and rejected Creature would stumble around in the middle of the night.

Founded by Louis the Rich, Duke of Bavaria in 1472, the University became a medical and scientific center of Europe.[1]  The Ingolstädter Alte Anatomie (Old Anatomy Building) was the foremost establishment specializing in anatomy and biology.  It is the lone survivor of the University, which closed in 1800 to move to Landshut, and is today known as The German Museum of the History of Medicine in Ingolstadt.

Ingolstadt looks more like the model home neighborhood of the Gingerbread man than the breeding ground for mad science. Cobblestoned streets were lined with thin, pastel baroque houses with playful modern rooftop accoutrements. That aside, the old city seems unchanged from the late eighteenth century Frankenstein walked out of, making its innocuous and darling streets more jarring in my expectations. Perhaps it was because the Universal films tinted my mind’s eye with scenes of grayscale overcasted gloom illuminated by lightning storms that I expected a damp, stark, and sparse village.  Even so, it was here in this light and whimsical city that a young man defiled corpses and sewed them into a newborn man. Even Kenneth Branagh’s attempt at a more faithful adaption (filmed inside and outside at the Old Anatomy Building) is lost in the auteur’s cinematographic gothic glaze.

The front entrance to the Ingolstädter Alte Anatomie, one of the last relics of the University of Ingolstadt. It is here that Victor Frankenstein's learned the skills and had access to the tools needed to make his creation.

The front entrance to the Ingolstädter Alte Anatomie, one of the last relics of the University of Ingolstadt. It is here that Victor Frankenstein’s learned the skills and had access to the tools needed to make his creation.

When I came upon the grey door of the pollen-yellow Ingolstädter Alte Anatomie, panic set in that I had somehow become the punchline to a slip-media/time-stream gag devised by the Internet, Global Tracking, Mary Shelley, and probably the Illuminati. However, once I entered and saw a gold coin of Mary Shelley’s face in the gift shop, I knew I had found my mark. The contents of Frankenstein’s lab are never described, but one could easily furnish it with the museum’s scientific artifacts.  Filled with medical apparatus spanning from ancient Greece to modern day, the true highlight of the museum’s collection is its second floor, the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, where Victor would have spent most of his classroom time at the university, and where perhaps the same cadavers he would have studied now stand on display. The progressive professors of Ingolstadt created a proto-plasticization method made of bone glue, linseed oil, wax, and earth pigments to color the veins that enabled them to keep a ready anatomical reference on hand, and to (albeit unknowingly) allow curious tourists, 200 years later, to see what those students, including the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, saw.

Here, young Victor studies for two years, where he masters chemistry, mechanics, physics, biology, and, most importantly, galvanism—the field marrying anatomy and electricity.  These fields, combined with a self-taught education in alchemy, lead Victor to stumble upon a possible solution for creating life.

In the gardens, students like Victor Frankenstein learned about the pharmacological properties they would eventually use to treat their patients, as well as get a visual reprieve in-between anatomy classes.

In the gardens, students like Victor Frankenstein learned about the pharmacological properties they would eventually use to treat their patients, as well as get a visual reprieve in-between anatomy classes.

Driven by his theories, he locks himself up in an attic-room “…separated from all the other apartments by a galley and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation, …The dissecting room and the slaughter house furnished many of my materials…”[2]  Tracing Victor’s laboratory in Ingolstadt is a vain task, as most of the surrounding campus area has been converted into urban spaces.  The local high school is said to have been dormitories during the University’s heyday, and it would be easy to see a pale, anemic, stress-ridden science student burning midnight oil in one of the high school’s narrow windows.  In any case, in this attic-room, he builds his Prometheus and, horrified by the results, hides from family and friends in his quarters until his baby brother’s murder beckons him back to Geneva.

This frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein shows the Creature being born in quarters with similar architecture as the Ingolstadt high school. Not the window.

This frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein shows the Creature being born in quarters with similar architecture as the Ingolstadt high school. Not the window.

This local high school may have been the sight of Victor's sequestered dormitory quarters where the Creature was born.

This local high school may have been the sight of Victor’s sequestered dormitory quarters where the Creature was born.

While Victor’s more fleshy “materials” are better known in the construction of his creature, Victor’s success relies largely on technology provided by the University and the favor of an eccentric professor, M. Waldemar:  “He [M. Waldemar] took me into his laboratory and explained to me the uses of his various machines, instructing me as to what I ought to procure and promising me the use of his own when I should have advanced far enough in the science not to derange their mechanism.”[3]  Those instruments promised by Professor Waldemar are on display, such as brass and tubular microscopes; gadgets with Steampunky names like “Mechanical ‘dynamometer’” (a pendulum looking scale that somehow measures the muscle strength in hands[4]); and medical oddities like cyclopean and Siamese baby skeletons, a skull that served as a phrenological textbook, an anatomy table that could have played a part in an off-screen scene where Victor first puts scalpel to flesh, and, perhaps most relevant, a galvanic battery.

Roughly the size of a shoe box, the “Improved Electric Magneto Machine,” as its lid’s labeling reads, is a wooden box housing brass gears and electrical strips that generated electricity through two copper coils connected to iron magnets that would be applied to the patient–all activated and propelled via a hand-crank.

While cinematic renderings of Frankenstein’s lab abound, they have furnished our collective consciousness with a dungeon electrified by Tesla coils and machine-age contraptions. The museum artifacts at Alte Anatomie suggest a more eclectic and less ominous working environment with its small university-loaned instruments.  The unimposing wooden-cased devices on display would need considerable improvement to present the ominous environment of the iconic “Frankenstein’s Lab.” Fittingly, such tinkering and modification happens to be what Frankenstein becomes notorious for on campus.

As for Ingolstadt itself, Shelley devotes very little page time to it. But Frankenstein’s materialist education in Ingolstadt is important for its contrast with Romantic Geneva, which informs the backdrop for most of Frankenstein’s drama.  Perhaps because the Villa Diodati was the nest where Mary first took flight, she preserved it within the book that was born there.  Victor Frankenstein’s childhood home is the Villa Belrive,[5] an allusion to the manor’s original moniker, Belle Rive, before Lord Byron re-christened it, and occupies the same plot on the Lake as Diodati.

Whereas Victor waxes poetic about the iconic Mont Blanc looming over his hometown valley, his only description of Ingolstadt is upon his arrival, where he tersely describes “the high white steeple of the town” meeting his eyes, perhaps disappointed at a landmark that pales next to Geneva’s high white alps.  While unapparent this early in the novel, Ingolstadt establishes a pattern where Victor cannot practice science within Genevan environs.

Photo 4--white chapel of old town

The “high white steeple of the town” that met Victor’s gaze upon his arrival to the Bavarian city.

This moral symbology is implicity reverberated throughout Victor’s geographical descriptions, and establishes an underlining morality that commands the novel.  When Victor returns from Ingolstadt, his homecoming is tainted by the consequences of his scientific achievements abroad[6], and finds the idyllic Geneva haunting rather than comforting.  Even so, later in the novel, when the Creature blackmails Victor into constructing a mate, Frankenstein flees to England, Scotland, and Ireland to attempt the deed.   Geneva, and its surrounding nature, represents the core of Frankenstein’s principles, and all locales outside of it, beginning with Ingolstadt, characterize the irreversible materialist corruption he has committed against the Sublime.  This is a notion initiated in Germany, but isn’t fully explored until Frankenstein’s bloody homecoming, and his attempts to find reprieve in Chamonix at the glacial church of Mont Blanc. So, a homecoming I must recreate.

I could try and find a graveyard or two to mull around in, but I believe what I sought here has been found. I must catch the next train back to Geneva, traversing through the Black Forest with the Creature, who ventured westward for his own answers.

I shall be at the Manotel Royal if you need to reach me.

Until then,

S

Bio pic--me at Alte Anatomie door



[1] Habrich, Christa and Hofmann, Siegfried. Trans. Nicolas H. Llyod.  The German Museum of the History of Medicine in Ingolstadt. Press Office of the City of Ingolstadt. 1991. Pp. 9-21.

[2] Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  With an Introduction by Stephen King. Pp. 53

[3] Ibid.  Pp. 48.

[4] Habrich, Christa and Hofmann, Siegfried. Trans. Nicolas H. Llyod.  The German Museum of the History of Medicine in Ingolstadt. Press Office of the City of Ingolstadt. 1991. Pp. 103.

[5]  “Villa Diodati.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Diodati.  Accessed August 15, 2010.

[6] The creature’s murders happen mostly around Geneva’s perimeter: Victor’s baby brother William is murdered in the forests of Plainpalais, as is their servant Justine, (who is hung for the crime, framed by the Creature). Victor’s new bride, Elizabeth, is throttled the night of their honeymoon in Evian. Only one murder occurs abroad in Ireland, when the Creature kills Victor’s companion, Henry Clerval.

3 replies to “Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. Pingback: Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein | S.J. Chambers | Weird Fiction Review | The Gothic Society

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  3. A fascinating tour, with thought provocking reflection. Though I have long decried the faithless film versions, the concept of visiting the locales was one that I have never considered. I am compelled to point out, however, that it is Victor, not the Monster, who is the Modern Prometheus, as it is that rebellious Titan of forethought who gives life to mankind against the wishes of Zeus. Unlike the doctor, Prometheus protects and defends for his creation and is ultimately punished for his caring act.