Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“The Poet and the Vampyre”

With a title like The Poet and the Vampyre, you have to wonder what you’re getting into.

No, it’s not a new installment of the Twilight series. The full title of the Andrew McConnell Stott’s book provides a better idea: The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters.

Stott, a professor of English at State University of New York – Buffalo, is the author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (2010), the story of Britain’s greatest comedian, and Comedy: The New Critical Idiom (2005; second edition 2014). In The Poet and the Vampyre, he tells the story of George Gordon, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelly in the period from 1816 to 1820, and what happened one cold June night at a villa on Lake Geneva that gave birth to both the story of Frankenstein and the first published work about the vampire legend (written some 80 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

But this isn’t an account of fictional monsters. Instead, it’s the account of the lives of two Romantic poets, which often assumed a reality and shape more startling that anything in fiction. Even by today’s loose standards, the two poets led lives that often exceeded the scandalous.

The Poet and the Vampyre is a marvelous account, fascinating in its detail and outstanding in meticulous research turned into a highly readable story.

Shelley was already married when he met Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin, daughter of the London bookseller and radical thinker William Godwin. He promptly abandoned his wife; he and Mary became lovers and moved in together. They decide to travel to the continent, taking with them Mary’s sister Claire, who is in love with Lord Byron and determined to become his lover.

Lord Byron had just reached the pinnacle of fame and celebrity, attracting a horde of lovers ranging from Lady Caroline Lamb to chambermaids, when his relatively new wife accused him of nefarious misdeeds (likely false but also believable). Celebrity turned into notoriety, and Byron left England for the continent. He’s accompanied by his doctor, the young John Polidori, son on an Italian immigrant and who has his own literary ambitions.

Andrew McConnell Stott, hamming it up in front of Buckingham Palace
Shelley and his entourage meet up with Byron and his entourage in Switzerland. And one night, in a villa on Lake Geneva, with the weather unexpectedly gloomy and cold, Byron suggests they all write a ghost story. He and Shelley eventually abandon their efforts; Byron at this time is working on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and other poems, and Shelley on his own poetry.

But Mary Shelley (she and Percy do eventually marry after the death of his wife) begins a story that will become Frankenstein. And John Polidori begins to write a story about a vampire, which when published would first be falsely attributed to Byron (publishers could be rather unscrupulous at a time when copyright was at best a very fluid concept) (a notorious aristocratic poet would sell better than an unknown doctor).

The two poets eventually go somewhat separate ways, Shelley with a pregnant Claire in tow. Shelley returns to England, while Byron travels to Italy. Polidori is also dismissed by Byron and after some time in Italy returns to England.

A host of literary, political and military characters move easily across the pages: Napoleon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, John Keats, and a raft of British and European aristocrats. Stott uses a rather extensive archive of letters and documents related to the poets, and broadens the reader’s understanding with accounts of travel in the period and literary life in the first two decades of the 19th century. He does this so well that the reader feels joined to the story, deeply experiencing the lives of the five main characters.

The Poet and the Vampyre is a story of ambition, radical social beliefs carried out to the fullest, and sometimes shocking behavior, framed by poetry and two works of fiction whose effects still reverberate today.

Top illustration: Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

1 comment:

Susan said...

A read a novel (Passion by Jude Morgan) partially based on these lives and would love to read more. Great review!