By Andrew McConnell Stott
Pegasus. 434 pp. $29.95
Friday night, at least a few vampires and Frankenstein monsters will knock on our doors even as old Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi films play once more in darkened family rooms. Some of us may even sit down to reread Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
But how many people even know about John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), the first story in English about a magnetically charismatic aristocrat who acquires renewed vitality by preying thirstily on beautiful young women? While Polidori may call this fiend Lord Ruthven, he nonetheless obviously is modeled after the poet who was notoriously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”: Lord Byron.
In “The Poet and the Vampyre,” Andrew McConnell Stott, a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, has produced a learned, constantly entertaining and deliciously gossipy account of the erotic and personal entanglements that led up to, and away from, the most famous wet evening in Romantic literature: As the rain poured down outside the Villa Diodati in Switzerland on June 16, 1816, the restless, self-exiled Byron announced to a group of friends, “We will each write a ghost story.”
Those friends included the poet, atheist, vegetarian and political radical Percy Bysshe Shelley; his teenage lover and future wife, Mary, who was the daughter of the political thinker William Godwin and the feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft; and Byron’s doctor, the 20-year-old John Polidori, whose sister Frances became the mother of the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (notorious himself for having his wife’s grave dug up so he could retrieve the poems he had impulsively thrown into her coffin). In the next day or so, Byron scribbled “eight leaves” about the mysterious Augustus Darvell, then stopped; Polidori worked on a similar tale, perhaps adopting some of his patient’s ideas, and then forgot about it. Only Mary persisted, and over the next 18 months she produced a masterpiece, “Frankenstein.”
Away from the villa that night, though a key figure in this story, was 18-year-old Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Mary and soon to be the mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra. Of them all, she was the most hurt by what Stott calls “the curse of Byron.”
And what is that? Nothing overtly supernatural, it was simply the poet’s callous selfishness and psychological cruelty to those around him, especially the adoring Claire and the youthful Polidori. But what can you expect from the equivalent of a rock star? Byron slept with scores, perhaps hundreds, of women (including, it is widely believed, his sister) and quite possibly a few young men. His coach was an exact replica of Napoleon’s. Adoring fans asked for strands of his hair, sometimes his pubic hair.
Though infinitely kinder, the emotionally fragile, ethereal-looking Shelley steadfastly rejected all constraints on human liberty, no matter what the cost. When he first ran off with the then 16-year-old Mary, his wife, Harriet, was expecting their second child. The guilty couple brought Claire along as a supposed chaperone, though the world believed, and Stott suspects, that Shelley eventually slept with her, too.
Because the two stepsisters couldn’t get on together, Claire eventually was sent away, but — possibly from a desire to one-up Mary — she began to write letters to the famous author of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” frankly offering herself to him. After resignedly granting her wishes, Byron never really wanted to see her again, but when Claire turned up in Switzerland, what choice did he have, especially when the woman begged for a renewal of their intimacies?
If Byron found Claire tiresome, he regarded Polidori as an egregious upstart. The young doctor yearned for recognition as a playwright; the merciless Byron laughed at his verse dramas and, after four months, fired him. Polidori then wandered around Italy, looking unsuccessfully for a medical position before finally returning to Britain, “having been abroad nine days shy of a year, during which time he had attempted suicide, been arraigned for assault, traversed the Alps on foot, threatened to kill Shelley, and been sacked by the only paying patient [Byron] who hadn’t died.”
Back in London, Polidori still dreamed of literary success. One afternoon he opened the New Monthly Magazine to discover that his horror story, the one he had worked on at the Villa Diodati, had been published without his permission and attributed to — you guessed it — Byron. How this came about is unclear even now, but worse was waiting: “The Vampyre” proved wildly successful and was translated into several languages, but poor “Polly” — as Byron called him — never saw a cent. Disappointed and despairing, the 25-year-old gave up and poisoned himself with prussic acid.
In fact, suicide and sudden death haunted Byron’s circle. Mary and Claire’s stepsister Fanny overdosed on laudanum. Shelley’s long-suffering wife, Harriet, drowned herself. Three of Mary’s four children by Shelley died young: a girl 12 days after birth, Clara as a baby, and William at 3. Pretty, blue-eyed Allegra, in her turn, succumbed to typhus at 5, partly because Byron, who stubbornly insisted on bringing her up, soon neglected her. Stott ends “The Poet and the Vampyre” just as 29-year-old Shelley and his friend Edward Williams arrive at the Bay of La Spezia, where they both drowned while boating.
Byron himself succumbed to fever at 36 in 1824, fighting for Greek independence. Mary, fierce guardian of Shelley’s reputation, lived till 1851. After rejecting a proposal from the smitten Thomas Love Peacock (author of the gothic parody “Nightmare Abbey”), Claire spent her life as a governess to many of the aristocratic families of Europe. She ended her days in Italy, living with a niece and, because she had kept valuable letters and manuscripts from her youth, being prey to fortune-hunters. These last years — she died in 1879 — inspired Henry James’s ironic masterpiece “The Aspern Papers.”
Because Stott’s approach in “The Poet and the Vampyre” is entirely biographical, he does not discuss “Frankenstein,” nor does he examine the development of the Byronic vampire in 19th- and 20th-century literature. What this excellent book offers instead is an enthralling, if ultimately tragic, soap opera and lots of fascinating information.
One paragraph describes all of Byron’s maladies, another tells exactly how a body-snatcher would remove a corpse from its coffin, and still another reveals the erotic possibilities of the various boxes at Milan’s La Scala opera house. Did you know, moreover, that M.G. Lewis, author of “The Monk,” visited Villa Diodati that same momentous summer or that Shiloh was Byron’s nickname for Shelley? Not least, I particularly relished Stott’s sprightly diction: “a rialto of possibilities,” “the brutal comedy of his worldliness,” “temulent illusions,” “a horde of corvine devotees.”
In the end, Stott writes, Claire Clairmont and John Polidori were the victims of “the low-grade fever that was the Romantic obsession with celebrity.” Once exposed, it infected them forever and brought them nothing but pain. That, in truth, is the real curse of Byron.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday in The Washington Post.