Earthly celebrity and supernatural immortality were, in 1816, the intermingled obsessions of the notorious clique, presided over by Lord Byron, which convened at Switzerland’s Lake Geneva during a torrentially rainy summer and produced some of English literature’s most seminal works. So it’s spookily fitting that the exploits of those young bohemians, all then under 30 and most not long for this world, have been granted an apparently eternal afterlife, exerting as powerful a fascination as ever almost 200 years after Byron reclined at Villa Diodati’s fireside, reading ghost stories with fellow aristocrat-poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley’s 18-year-old lover and the mother of his young child), Claire Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s lover, also 18), and a new doctor named John Polidori, engaged as Byron’s personal physician but, like everyone present, a burningly ambitious scribe.
Various books and films—including, memorably, Ken Russell’s eighties campfest Gothic, starring Gabriel Byrne as Byron—have drawn on the events of that summer, when the soon-to-be Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein and Polidori wrote The Vampyre, regarded as the originator of all the vampire-lit that followed. But a thrilling new biographical study by Andrew McConnell Stott, The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron, takes a fresh approach with its elegant, sharp-eyed depiction of the individual dramas that propelled each person to Geneva, and the tragic paths they were consequently doomed to follow.
It began, for them all, with the urge to seek some form of liberty and escape the stultifying conventions of Regency England. Byron, having diligently cultivated a wild, promiscuous persona—“mad, bad, and dangerous to know” in the supposed words of his ex-lover Caroline Lamb—found that “Byromania” had spiraled out of control. Reviled as much as idolized, abandoned by his humiliated wife, in debt, and with every scurrilous rumor about his private life making daily headlines, in April 1816 the 28-year-old poet left his native land in a monumental huff, accompanied by two carriages and his new doctor. Polidori, darkly handsome and artistically disheveled—“more Byronic than Byron”—had completed his medical training but, at 20, was too young to legally practice in London. For this aspiring playwright with an overbearing Italian father, joining Byron on his travels was a thoroughly enticing alternative.
One of the many sexual conquests left in Byron’s wake was Claire Clairmont, though it would be more accurate to say that she’d made a conquest of him. Part of a crowded household that included her mother, Mary Jane, her stepsisters, Fanny and Mary—the daughters of pioneering feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, who died eleven days after giving birth to Mary—and Mary Jane’s husband, the radical philosopher William Godwin, Claire had come of age in an atmosphere of intense intellectual competitiveness. “In our family,” she said, “if you cannot write an epic poem or novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.” But almost as impressive an accomplishment—especially to her principal rival, Mary, who was not only cleverer but had won the glorious prize of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom they both loved—was a relationship with the notorious Byron, whom Claire bombarded with letters, finally slept with, then pursued to Lake Geneva, Mary and Shelley in tow.
“Poor Polidori,” said Byron, “it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
Claire, eclipsed throughout history by the Shelleys’ fame, emerges as the most intriguing and complex figure in McConnell Stott’s account, which portrays with great sympathy her callous treatment at the hands of Byron. He, in turn, comes across as less the charismatic iconoclast of the popular imagination, more a spoiled and vain sociopath with many ludicrous habits (including refusing to see women eat). But the idealistic teenage Claire, infatuated with the man characterized by Shelley, her confidante and protector, as “mad as the winds,” couldn’t accept that Byron just wasn’t that into her, or indeed that into anyone but himself. In Geneva, she was barely acknowledged: his Lordship wouldn’t be seen in public with her, spoke to her contemptuously if at all, and only deigned to have sex at her initiation. “A man is a man,” he told a friend, “and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours there is but one way.” Still, after Claire left Switzerland with Mary and Shelley at the end of August, she wrote to Byron: “I would die to please or serve you with the greatest pleasure nay I should feel as happy in so doing as I now feel miserable.” By then, she was pregnant with his child.
The fate of their daughter, Allegra, turned love to hate. When she was four, Byron—who had insisted on custody of the little girl, while assiduously avoiding contact with her mother—placed her in an Italian convent to be cared for Capuchin nuns, against the impassioned objections of Claire. Concerned for Allegra’s health in the “gloomy, damp” convent, Claire had premonitions of the child’s death and even devised a plan to snatch her away, only to be dissuaded by Mary. Yet those fears were borne out when, at the age of five, Allegra died of typhus. According to Mary, Byron at last felt remorse for his actions, admitting that “death had stamped with truth the many and often urged prophesies of Claire.” Just two years later, his life would also be over—he died in Greece of uncertain causes—but its mythologizing had barely begun, much to Claire’s disgust. Her brief passion for him, she wrote in 1826, “discomposed the rest of my life,” leaving “my heart wasted and ruined as if it had been scorched by a thousand lightnings.”
The Shelley circle was shockingly blighted by death in the period following the Geneva gathering. In October 1816, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum; in December, Shelley’s estranged and pregnant wife, Harriet, drowned herself. Two years later, Mary’s one-year-old daughter with Shelley, Clara, died from dysentery, and less than two years after that, their three-year-old son, William, died of malaria. (Their first child, a girl, had died at twelve days old; only their fourth, Percy, survived into old age.)
Meanwhile, Mary had successfully published Frankenstein, the novel she embarked upon after Byron uttered the now-legendary words: “We will each write a ghost story.” Frankenstein’s dark maternal fantasies, stemming from both her mother’s death due to infected placental residue and the author’s own trauma at seeing her firstborn’s lifeless, twisted body in its cradle, must have felt even more horribly apt in light of her subsequent bereavements. (In 1815 she had written: “Dream that my little baby came to life again, that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.” Dr. Frankenstein, of course, works to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”) Still more bereavement was imminent: in 1822, Shelley drowned in a boating accident in Northern Italy’s Bay of Spezia. The celebrated author just barely outlived his acquaintance Polidori, who committed suicide in 1821 by swallowing prussic acid. “Poor Polidori,” said Byron, “it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
He was right in a way: Polidori’s dashed hopes of literary success had exacerbated his depression. But while he was inherently emotionally fragile, McConnell Stott makes a convincing case for Polidori’s fleeting entanglement with Bryon as a decisive factor in his ultimate despair. At Villa Diodati, the young doctor’s confidence in his own literary talent was cruelly punctured by the narcissistic poet, who ridiculed a play of his when reading it aloud to Shelley, Mary, and Claire. (As Polidori noted in his diary, “talked of my play, etc. which all agreed was worth nothing.”) Then in April 1819, when Polidori was struggling to establish himself as a writer, baffling news arrived. His story, The Vampyre, which he’d loosely based on an abandoned outline of Byron’s in Geneva, inexplicably appeared in a magazine under the latter’s authorship, alongside a gossipy letter from a Geneva “tourist.” The letter featured accurate tidbits about the “revels” of Byron, Shelley, Mary and Claire, purportedly via a friend of Polidori’s. Bad enough that he wouldn’t be paid for the story, which was also to be published in book form; for it to seem like he had colluded in the whole exercise was intolerable. Attempts to set the record straight only fueled the scandal, and neither his reputation nor his spirits would ever recover.
And yet, here in the 21st century, with NBC broadcasting a lavish new adaptation of Dracula—whose titular antihero, as conceived by Bram Stoker, was inspired by the seductive blood-sucking aristocrat of Polidori’s imagination—the notion that his life was a failure, at least as measured by cultural impact, has been dramatically refuted. In the epilogue to The Vampyre Family, the author describes William Rossetti, Polidori’s nephew and brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina, being present at a séance in 1865 when “Uncle John” came through: “Rossetti asked his uncle, ‘Are you happy?’ Two hard raps followed, meaning, ‘Not exactly.’” One can only hope that he’s still surveying earth from the spirit realm, because McConnell Stott’s compassionate, perceptive, and satisfyingly score-settling book will cheer him up immensely.