I’m standing at the square of Plainpalais in Geneva trying to escape the clutches of Frankenstein’s monster, my expression one of horror and disgust. The monster stands a couple of feet taller than me, its hair disheveled, its serrated chest exposed, its eyes focused creepily at the park in front where skateboarders and BMX bikers buzz around carefree.
“That’s good, hold it right there,” says Cyrille and takes a picture with my cellphone.
Historian and guide Cyrille has been taking me around the Swiss city on a Frankenstein tour and the statue of the monster at Plainpalais, the site where it committed its first murder, was too good a photo opportunity to miss.
Frankenstein is a niche but growing attraction in Geneva, fueled by the bicentenary of the monster’s creation. It was in June 1816, 200 years ago, that a group of five young people from England gathered in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva and tried to scare each other with ghost stories.
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One of them, 18-year-old Mary Godwin, had a “waking dream” which she recounted one night and transfixed her audience, which included the English romantic poet Lord Byron.
Mary was accompanied by her future husband, the 23-year-old poet Percy Shelley, who had abandoned his first wife and children to elope with Mary. They were all free-thinking bohemian spirits – what we would call today alternative creatives.
Byron encouraged Mary to write her scary story down; she started immediately and called it “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.”
Byron sent her manuscript to his publisher with the comment “pretty good work for a girl of eighteen.”
A copy of that first edition stares me in the face. It’s one of the six author copies Mary Shelley received herself and it’s full of annotations; most would find their way into the second edition.
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The Geneva-based Fondation Martin Bodmer, one of the biggest libraries of rare books in the world is celebrating the bicentenary of Mary’s nightmare with an exhibition. There are portraits, paintings, first editions and manuscripts that explain the background and recreate the setting of that literary summer.
Professor David Spurr from the University of Geneva, curator of the exhibition, fills me in.
“That was ‘the year without a summer’,” he says. “Mount Tambora had erupted in Indonesia in 1815 in the largest explosion in recorded history. “The volcanic ash cooled down the atmosphere causing freak weather patterns for three years afterwards.”
He shows the 1816 meteorological records from Switzerland; the maximum temperature in June varied between 10-12 C (50-53 F). A handwritten note says that even at the end of the month “there was not a single leaf on the oak trees.”
“The miserable weather forced the party to invent their own entertainment,” he adds. “Byron took up lodgings at Villa Diodati at the top of a hill in Cologny, while the Shelleys stayed at a small house in Montalegre, 10 minutes walk away by the lakefront.”
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Today Villa Diodati is privately owned, but the beautifully manicured gardens are occasionally open to the public.
Birches, pines and lime trees rise over the mixed scents of rose gardens, lavender hedges and rows of citronella bushes. Muscat vines surround the villa hills, as they did in Byron’s time; and in the distance the Jura mountains rise gently over Lake Geneva. The gardens are a place for inspiration now as they were then.
In the villa, the young friends read an anthology of German ghost stories by candlelight. When that was completed, Byron encouraged them to invent horror stories of their own.
This is where Mary Shelley came up trumps with her contemplations of what would happen if a scientist created life using electricity. Experiments with this new physical phenomenon were all the rage at the time and people were particularly fascinated with its ability to cause convulsions.
In 1803 Giovanni Aldini, an Italian scientist, famously passed an electric current through the body of a hanged man in front of an invited audience in London; the crowd roared as his dead jaws began twitching and his lifeless limbs started moving.
Mary’s book was published to great popular success, but the first edition did not bear her name; the publisher believed that sales would suffer if readers knew that it was the work of a young woman.
What about the name Frankenstein that has become synonymous with terror and revulsion? There’s actually a village called Frankenstein that lies in Pfalz, 40 kilometers to the west of the Rhine river in Germany.
The place scores highly on atmosphere, its ruined castle overlooking an overgrown cemetery.
Less than 100 kilometers to the northeast of the village, on the other side of the river, rise the walls of Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, the German birthplace of Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist who later experimented with human bodies.
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The Shelleys sailed on the Rhine on the way back to London. It’s possible, but unknown whether Mary had time to visit those two sites.
Professor Spurr offers another option; he presents me with a French volume by Francois Felix Nogaret, called “The Mirror of True Events” published in 1790.
“In the book, an inventor called Frankestein, creates clockwork automata (robots) for a beautiful girl who compares him to Prometheus,” he says. “Nogaret could well have been in Pfalz or Darmstadt or heard of Dippel; the Shelleys were in Paris in 1814, so Mary could have read the book.”
Whatever the inspiration, it’s Mary Shelley’s creation that became the object of our fascination; she can rightfully call “Frankenstein” her own.
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The Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny, Geneva, is open Tuesday through Sunday 2 to 6 p.m.; Adults $15, concessions $10. The Frankenstein exhibition is open until 9 October 2016
Local historian and guide Cyrille Wohlschlag firstname.lastname@example.org does a two-hour Frankenstein tour of Geneva for $140 (independently of the number of persons).
John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He’s written or co-written 15 books, including the “Michelin Green Guide to Switzlerland.”