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Thursday, May 5, 2016

“The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters”, by Andrew McConnell Stott

464 pages, Pegasus, ISBN-13: 978-1605986142

First things first: I, for one, do not take umbrage with the title as it is a simile for the moral character of Lord Byron as evidenced by his famed poetry and a nod to his antecedence of John Polidori’s The Vampyre. So obviously the title of this book was created by the publisher: use the words “Vampyre”, “Curse”, “Monster” and (especially) “Byron” to make a splash sell it. In fact, the book has little to do with any of these things (the reviewer for The Washington Post said the book would more accurately be called “The Doctor and the Sister-In-Law”). What it is in reality is a collective history of the intertwined lives of Byron, Shelley and their circle centered around a summer of cohabitation in 1816, both the before and after. It is a fascinating story of tragedy, betrayal, disappointment, suicides and deaths, all involving supremely talented and/or interesting (though not particularly likable) people. It is very well-researched with one fourth of the text relegated to documentation, but The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters reads like a novel, crisscrossing between the various players of this tragic tale.

I was interested to read some background on the infamous Dr. John Polidori, especially how many (if not most) of the young people of their generation were forced into situations that were more pleasing to their parents than to themselves (it seems that their parents were given an excessive amount of control over their children’s lives, the likes of which our parents today do not enjoy). Upon graduating from medical school, John Polidori became the physician to the fallen Aristocrat, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, who had skyrocketed to international fame with his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; his flamboyant and notorious reputation marks him as one of the best known of the Romantics, and although Stott suggests that it was his wife who fed the rumor mill in an attempt to retain custody of their child, it is my belief that there was enough truth regarding his antics to lead a person to believe just about anything that was said about him. He was no angel, that is for certain, but it is possible that some of the things that were said of him weren’t the whole truth.

All in all, it seemed that both Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori were ripe for each other at a time in their lives when, for different reasons, they found themselves in need of the other. The Vampyre was inspired by Lord Byron, a charming womanizer with a streak of cruelty who lead a debaucherous life and was a manic egocentric, and while Polidori’s book would hit it big time he would barely scrape by, seeing as the copyright laws of the time were psychotic. To add insult to injury, The Vampyre would in due time become the inspiration for the most popular of all vampire stories ever written, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After being released from Lord Byron’s service he traveled Italy and went about Europe trying to procure employment. Lord Byron settled in Venice and sent his daughter to a nunnery (where she ultimately dies aged 5-years-old surrounded by Nuns). Lord Byron would die in 1824 helping the Greeks against the Turks, and John Polidori would die in his sleep (suicide?), a debt ridden wreck.

What had started out as a gathering of some unconventional young people turned into something so much more, a crucial point in the genre and in the lives of these people, and this is what, perhaps, I like best about this book: it is about more than Lord Byron, it’s about his circle of friends and how their lives were all changed after their stay by the lake. Claire Clairmont, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s stepsister, was involved intimately with Byron and her relationship with him (and with Shelley) set her on a collision course with her own mixed up emotions. Lord Byron was a catalyst for all of this, the match that lit the kindling that set the world on fire, a man who knew no boundaries and who lived by a different set of rules than those of the conventional men of his time – because, being wealthy and forgiven his excesses by the public because he was a “genius”, he could live unconventionally. He was many things to many people, and most of all, an enigma even to himself and those closest to him. Byron was a brilliant poet and an uneasy soul.

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