Lord Byron and the Birth of Vampires

Sexual politics meet literary monsters in a new book by Andrew McConnell Stott.
By Ted Scheinman,
Dracula's castle. (Photo: Felix Garcia Vila/Flickr)

Crede Byron, said the family seal: “Trust Byron.” Never before was concision so happily coupled with bad advice. The poet once remarked that he was “born for opposition,” and his contrarian aesthetic pertained equally in his radical politics, iconoclastic poetry, and sordid personal affairs. In his European travels between 1816 and 1822, Byron was flighty in friendship, taking umbrage where none was offered and making paranoiac pronouncements about “spies” who had allegedly followed him through Geneva or Flanders, collecting gossip for the papers back home. After a nasty split from his wife and the attendant publicity, Byron—ever the martyr of his own making—embarked on a Napoleonic exile, in a replica of Bonaparte's own carriage, no less. His trip through Europe over the next few years would unite him with some of the most brilliant men and women of his age, few of whom would survive his influence.

This is the period of Byron's peripatetic life that concerns Andrew McConnell Stott in The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature's Greatest Monsters, an excellent work of critical biography that compasses not only Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley but, equally important, the favors and snobberies that defined the two men's relationships with their lettered female friends, their college pals, and their doctor, a first-generation Italian named John Polidori, whose novel The Vampyre—a bestseller for which the doctor never saw a penny—established the script for most bloodsucking chronicles we read to this day.

Lust and fear, attraction and repulsion—is this not the same formula that keeps us watching monster movies?

Stott's book reads with crispness and frequent deadpan, offering the pleasures of fiction without relying on unseemly liberties in the scholarship. The Poet and the Vampyre is a fascinating tale about the intersections of poetry and performance, ego and libido, friendship and rivalry among history's flashiest poetic coterie. Most provocative, Stott illustrates how this circle promulgated tropes of monstrosity and horror through terrible behavior in real life. Polidori's fiction is terrifying; Byron's reality, more so.

The ingénue of the book is Claire Clairmont, stepsister to Mary Shelley, who pursues Byron to Geneva and (more the pity) beds him, becoming pregnant with a beautiful daughter whom the poet alternately ignored and abducted. In Stott's telling, Claire is hardly less gifted than Mary, and the two are amply qualified to improve chatter at the Shelley dinner table. All the sadder, then, that Byron allowed himself to lay ruin to this young woman, leaving her with a lifelong sense of bereavement and betrayal. Byron's rank narcissism is never more apparent than when he laments the death of their daughter: “The story of this Child's burial is the epitome or miniature of the Story of my life.” For her part, Claire consoled herself with Byronic satires of the first class—here is her recipe for writing like Byron:

1st Prepare a small colony, then dispatch the mother by worrying and cruelty to her grave afterwards to neglect and ill treat the children — to have as many dirty mistresses as can be found; from their embraces to catch horrible diseases, thus a tolerable quantity of discontent and remorse being prepared to give it vent on paper, and to remember particularly to rail against learned women.

Critics have caviled that Stott's subtitle misleads the reader, and it is true that we don't learn a great deal about the notorious ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati that led to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. But Stott is up to something different: not a literary etiology of Romantic monsters, but a biographical one—the notion that Byron's place in a burgeoning magazine culture of literary fame had engendered a mania for monsters, with Byron a magnet for (equally prurient) admiration and calumny. Lust and fear, attraction and repulsion—is this not the same formula that keeps us watching monster movies?

One cannot address the book without noting too the dry, parenthetical hilarity of Stott's footnotes. (“Shelley was not the most observant of people. In France, he had mistaken an old woman for a nine-year-old child.”) The Poet and the Vampyre also includes one of my favorite paragraphs in non-fiction this year. From the epilogue:

Mary Marshall was a stout woman with a strong Cockney accent and the ability to speak with the dead. From her home in Maida Vale, she had gained a reputation as London's most powerful medium, able to channel spirits by guiding a pencil across an alphabet, or rapping on a table that would levitate and glide across her living-room floor. She also took in washing.

Stott's character sketches are characteristically stylish if unsparing throughout, his treatment of the Polidori and Clairmont tragedies sensitive and rich with animating empathy. He evokes Byron's delight in the mock-heroic, as in a battlefield episode at Murten, where he collected a handful of bones: “a leg and a wing ... as much as may have made the quarter of a hero.”

As for the Byron lifestyle, Stott provides useful catalogs of the poet's various diets and menageries. For a while he ate only biscuits and green tea; he forbade women sharing his table because he “loathed above all to watch women eat.” Some days he woke as early as 2 p.m. And ate thin bread and tiny peas. But, “despite suppressing his appetite with cigars and soda water, [Byron] could rarely stick to his diets.”

 His boatman, a vain little Swiss named Maurice, recalled being once summoned to take his lordship out to swim in the early hours as Byron breakfasted on cold duck and four bottles of wine, then lobbed the empties into the lake.

In England Byron had kept birds, a squirrel, and, at university, a pet bear; in Venice, he kept a fox, a variety of monkeys, cats, and dogs, and a quartet of horses. Expats in the Veneto liked to joke that there were eight horses in Venice: “four brass ones over the cathedral of San Marco and four in Lord Byron's stable.” There is a hovering suggestion that Byron considered people a constituent of his zoos. Certainly he seems to have treated the horses rather better than he did his friends. In the moral ambit of Stott's book, Byron is literature's greatest monster. As with manticores and satyrs, Mount Parnassus would be incomplete without him.