I know the beginning of the semester (or really any time during the semester) is not the best time for a book recommendation. But, I think you’ll forgive me because this is a fun one and packed with your favorite “literary characters.” Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Poet and the Vampyre was released late in 2014 and is a biographical amble through the events great and small surrounding the fateful weekend in Diodati that produced the monsters we have come to love. Yet, it also self-consciously dances around that stormy night—one that we can all agree fascinates scholars but has been written about to (un)death—in favor of an in-depth look at the relationships amongst these young poets and poetesses that brought them together and split them apart, primarily focused on Byron’s influence (and curse) upon his young doctor, John Polidori. For years, I have been an apologist for Polidori and his novella, The Vampyre, both of which often get shoved to the side for being important but not necessary or enjoyable. Here is finally an attempt to bring Polidori to life, not just as the spiteful tag-along of more successful poets but as the sympathetic victim of other people’s celebrity.
I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by Stott at the New York Public Library (where he did much of his research) in early January, to an intimate mixed audience of scholars and readers, some who had read the book, some who hadn’t, some with an obvious background in Romanticism and some who merely love a good bit of scandalous history. For most of this post, I will be recounting what Stott said on that cold winter evening rather than drawing from the book itself, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in the potential for writers to turn themselves into fictions so similar to the ones they publish. Stott, in fact, made clear that he is not a Romanticist but he saw this text as a “history of fame,” speaking a great deal about the rise of celebrity and “the performance of Byronism.” Though he insisted several times that the book is really about Polidori, he admitted that Byron did get the best lines and the most entertaining descriptions, and the audience couldn’t help but gear most of its questions toward this spectacle of a poet. Byron, Stott explained, was invested in a performed identity most likely derived from inadequacies, not about his literary abilities (these, Stott claimed, were merely an afterthought) but about his body and inheritance: his club foot, his weight struggles, his constant crushing debt. The book opens with a clear picture of some of these obstacles as he flees in exile from England, in typical dramatic style, bringing scandal, obsession, and destruction with him, as well as far too much baggage.
No, despite Byron’s many attempts to steal the show, this is not a book about him; this is a book about those who were “damaged” by him, sucked into “the Byron vortex,” as Stott called it: drawn to this enigmatic and inexplicable man, only to be flung violently from him after years of gradual (and not so gradual) abuse: John Polidori, Claire Clairmont, and even Shelley and Mary to a lesser extent. Youthful and inexperienced Doctor Polidori, interested in advancing his literary talents and constantly commenting on the women he encounters during their travels, looks “like Byron if you were going to imagine Byron.” Yet, he is nonetheless snubbed at every turn by the intellectuals with whom he longs to mix, including Byron. Early on in their contentious relationship, Stott writes,
John, who had been reading a review of Byron’s works, turned abruptly to the poet and said, “Pray, what is there excepting writing that I cannot do better than you?” There were three things, answered Byron, calmly. ‘First,’ he said, “I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of that door—secondly, I can swim across that river to yonder point—and thirdly, I can give you a damned good thrashing.” (109)
It would be a thrashing that would last Polidori the rest of his life, and Stott explains this as one of the reasons he had little interest in writing extensively about the conception of Frankenstein: he finds Polidori to be much more interesting and unexamined. A man “feeling suffocated by the achievements of the person standing right next to [him],” Stott said, Polidori struggled to exert his existence and to keep his envy under control. It is, then, little surprise that, for his “ghost story,” he writes of a Byronic lord who preys off his young companion, “leaching and depleting his self-worth,” a story that then becomes attributed to Byron in one final, poetic/vampiric appropriation (however unintentional).
Though it is unclear exactly how The Vampyre made it to print years after it was written, this simple fulfillment of what Polidiori had always wanted became the hill down which he would steadily decline. Seeing his work with Byron’s name on it devastated the young doctor, and he vehemently insisted on his own authorship, a claim that was met with accusations that he was trying to use Byron to boost his own literary reputation, a notion that just enraged him further. Soon, he found he was the subject of speculation in literary circles, not in such a way that made continued literary accomplishments promising. He tried his hand at a revised version, one over which he could exert more control before it reached audiences; he tried a sequel to the printed version; he failed at both of these endeavors and, sadly, abandoned his dreams of literary success for a series of other vocations, all failing just as miserably. Falling into drinking and gambling, Polidori committed suicide in 1821. One member of the audience asked Stott if Polidori ever received credit for The Vampyre during his lifetime. The answer was very simple: “No.”
“I’m not trying to make an argument,” Stott said, “except that Byron is not the only character in this story, and the stormy night is not the only night.” He delivered his talk and responded to questions with the same energy and humor that I found while reading his book. Painstakingly researched, this historic account reads more like a tale of intrigue: entertaining and pleasurable even if (maybe especially if) you already know much of the story. His prose has a way of sucking you into Byron’s world along with everyone else, making you laugh with the absurd details of the eccentric poet’s behavior, shake your head at Shelley’s often naïve search for ways to live out his high ideals, and worry for the way that Mary, Claire, and especially Polidori got dragged into it all. Polidori plays the straight man in this comedic act, often the butt of every joke: when the two men stopped at a blacksmith and John noticed that the man was sick, he “pulled down his medicine chest to provide the man with some relief—‘Physicked him,’ Byron told Hobhouse. ‘I dare say he is dead by now’” (53). In spite of this, the young man keeps coming back for more, and Stott’s portrayal of him cannot help but endear him to us. Getting to know this young doctor, who had no idea how his life would change once he signed on with this Byron fellow, gives The Vampyre an extra dimension of the author’s presence, making both author and novella so redeeming that you cannot help but find hints of an enduring kind of destructive celebrity throughout it, as well as the frantic and vulnerable victims of its poison in every one of the vampyre’s prey.
Stott, Andrew McConnell. The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters. New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.