SEPTEMBER 24, 2014
ONE OF THE MOST famous incidents in the course of the Romantic movement is the ghost-story challenge issued by George Gordon, Lord Byron, in the course of a summer evening in 1816 at the Villa Diodati, outside Geneva. The evening is remembered as a literary event, because the fruit of the challenge was not only John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the first English prose vampire tale, published in 1819, but also Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818.
The details of the evening have now been well explored by scholars. In attendance were Byron, then 28, the oldest of the group and an international celebrity; the rising poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, 24, married for five years to a woman named Harriet Westbrook, who remained behind in England with their two children; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, age 18, Shelley’s lover of two years and soon to be his wife; another young Englishman, John Polidori, 20, engaged for the summer as Byron’s physician; and Mary Godwin’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, also 18. Contrary to some accounts, the group was not living together at the Villa, rented by Byron; Shelley, Mary, and Claire were camped a short distance away, in another rented house.
The meeting was apparently engineered by Claire, who had met Byron in London and set out to start a relationship with him, using the calling cards of Shelley’s reputation as the “bad boy of Oxford” and the pedigree of Shelley’s paramour Mary. Godwin was clearly someone whom Byron wanted to meet, only partly because she was the fiercely intelligent and well-read daughter of two great celebrities of the English intellectuals, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin had also demonstrated her independence when, at the age of 16, she ran off with the married Shelley. Furthermore, rumor had it that Shelley had sexual relations with Godwin’s stepsister at the same time, and the three lived and traveled together. All of these combined to make Mary someone who interested Byron very much.
Many versions of the incident have been depicted. The gathering was fictionalized as the prologue to the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, but in that version only Byron, Shelley, and Mary appear. Two feature films have imagined an evening of sex, drugs, and mind-games: Gothic (1986), a fictionalized version in which John Polidori is a homosexual, and Haunted Summer (1988), based on a book of the same name.
In truth, it appears that the evening was probably relatively staid. There had been a series of such evenings in May 1816, during which a variety of intellectual topics had been debated. It was raining relentlessly, and Polidori was laid up with a sprained ankle. They passed the time reading aloud a French translation of a collection of grotesque German stories, during the course of which Byron suggested a competition. There was not much zeal for it: Polidori put off his start until later that evening; Shelley, overwrought by supernatural fantasies (he had a vision of a woman with eyes in place of her nipples), had to be sedated by Polidori until he regained his composure and went to bed. The weather improved, and Byron abandoned his piece. Shelley wrote nothing that was preserved. Only Mary took up the challenge with seriousness, and later, Polidori worked at his idea.
The summer evening — hailed by many as the event that germinated into the flowering of the genres of vampire fiction, science fiction, and horror — is covered in less than two pages in Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters (New York: Pegasus Books, 2014). Those looking for an analysis of the ideas that were in the air, the literary influences that produced The Vampyre and Frankenstein, or any revelations relating to “literature’s greatest monsters” will be sadly disappointed by Stott’s book. The Curse of Byron, however, is an apt subtitle, and the material that the book does cover is fascinating.
Later in 1816, Mary’s half-sister Francis, just 22, and Percy’s wife Harriet, then 21, committed suicide. Within five years, Polidori would also die of apparent suicide, still only 25. Shelley died less than a year after that, at the age of 30, and Byron only two years after Shelley, at the age of 36. Claire Clairmont got her wish, to her great sadness: Byron impregnated her. He then cut all relations with her and took custody of their child, Allegra. Allegra died the same year as Shelley, who saw her ghost on the lake in which he, only weeks later, would drown.
Stott, using Polidori’s journals as well as copious letters and memoirs of the group as his sources, begins the story in April 1816, when Byron fled from England in the midst of a divorce and assorted scandals, exacerbated by the publication in May 1816 of Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, a thinly disguised tale of her affair with Byron. Shelley, Mary, and Claire (who was clearly complicit in Mary’s elopement with Percy in 1814) were growing restless and uncomfortable, and Claire convinced the couple to accompany her to Geneva, where she promised to introduce them to Byron. After all left Geneva (Claire already pregnant with Byron’s child), they wandered Europe: Byron moved on to other adventures, both political and romantic. The Shelleys and Claire moved from place to place, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Polidori returned to England, having, he believed, failed in his undertakings. The book concludes in 1822, with the death of Allegra, age four-and-a-half, and Shelley.
In the six-year span covered by Stott, he traces the complex relationships between Shelley, Mary, and Claire on the one hand and Byron and his friend Polidori on the other. Polidori is depicted as a sycophant, whose great ambition was to be, if not a writer of the celebrity of Byron, at least his friend. Claire, who lived until age 80 and never said a kind word about Byron after his death, is shown as desperate to hold on to her child, the only part remaining of her brief fling with Byron. Byron himself emerges as largely unfeeling — not so much mad or bad, but clearly “dangerous to know,” careless of those he used and cast off. Shelley comes across as sincere but bedeviled by his own principles of equality and free love. He was distracted not only by his complicated relationship with his first wife, Harriet, and their children, but also by his soul mate Mary and his friend Claire, with whom he may have had a child and on whose behalf he constantly interceded with Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is actually given the least attention of the subjects, although it is clear that she idolized Shelley and never liked Claire.
Byron, facing an ugly public divorce proceeding, fled from England to seek solitude and recuperation, away from the spotlight. In this he was sadly misguided: wherever he traveled, he was the center of attention, in no small part by reason of his unrelentingly outrageous behavior. When he settled in the Villa Diodati, neighbors — including numerous English tourists — focused telescopes on his lodgings in hopes of viewing the scandalous conduct said to be on display there. Shelley left England behind in hopes of establishing his principles of “free love” in an idyll somewhere in Europe, where he could live cheaply and distant from his critics and creditors. Claire Clairmont had convinced herself that she loved Byron and could only be happy in his company. She soon discovered, however, that she was satisfied to be even a peripheral part of his circle, contenting herself with serving as his amanuensis. Polidori clearly took on his position as Byron’s physician in hopes of boosting his own fledgling literary career, only to find himself and his writing the butt of many jokes and criticisms at Byron’s hand. Only Mary Shelley seemed to be unscathed by celebrity, perhaps because of her upbringing amidst a circle of prominent intellectuals. Her journey seems to have been motivated only by youthful rebellion and love for Percy, with no thoughts of self-advancement.
Where, then, is the promised history of “the birth of literature’s greatest monsters”? Despite the publisher’s misleading title, Stott’s work never delivers any insights into the inspirations for these creatures of horror, unless Byron himself can be said to be one of them. There are, of course, ample speculations elsewhere about the aftermath of the French and American revolutions, the ferment in the scientific community, and the echoes of Gothic literature — Stott’s book draws instead a hypnotic picture of celebrity, of the seekers and critics of celebrity that can only seem familiar to those who read the tabloids and follow the lives of contemporary icons of pop culture from Michael Jackson and Britney Spears onward. Little appears to have changed in 200 years, except that Polidori, Byron, and the Shelleys depended on the printing press, rather than electronic media, to make their splash. In revealing the humanity of these 19th-century icons, without ever needing to draw explicit parallels with today’s popular artists, the book makes a valuable contribution to an understanding of art and its costs.
Leslie S. Klinger is The New York Times–bestselling editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The New Annotated Dracula, and, most recently, The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft for Liveright Publishing/Norton, as well as Annotated Sandman (Vertigo/DC Entertainment).