Amanda’s post on eating and dieting reminded me of yet another cast of rich, thin, often aristocratic characters, who share what one might also call an eating disorder.
I mean, of course, all those vampires on our TV screens and in our TBR piles.
I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t seen True Blood
yet. Nor have I gotten around to J.R. Ward’s Brotherhood
But I can quote you chapter and verse from Buffy
. I gulped down Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight
in one long overnight binge, in order to learn what had caused my then-eleven-year-old niece to draw little hearts all over its table of contents -- she’d read the book so many times the front cover had fallen off.
And I’ve got a half-finished vampire story on my hard drive and an idea in my head for a novella that will recast a particularly vexing novel from the literary canon as erotic vampire fiction (and no, I’m not telling which
Who opened the cultural door to this horde of blood-sucking fiends?
In the English literary vampire tradition as in so much else (including the roster of famous dieters) one central and indispensable figure is Lord Byron.
He isn't the first vampire writer. Other English writers (including Coleridge and Southey) referred to vampire myths in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the word appears in the OED some 50-70 years before Byron used it. But as Anne Williams, editor of Three Vampire Tales
, points out, the word must not have been very widely used because Byron was able to milk it for its exoticism -- and to call attention to his own travels in Greece -- in an annotation to his 1813 poem The Giaour
The Vampire superstition [he wrote] is still general in the Levant…. I recollect a whole family being terrified by a scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror.
Scary, foreign, exciting, and hinting here at a strange, quasi-incestuous eroticism, The Giaour
was vastly popular; Captain Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion fairly swoons over it while he grieves for his dead fiancée. The word “vampire” appears in the text as part of a horrid curse put on the hero, who has killed the murderer of his lover, a member of a sultan’s harem:
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
Byron was to write again about a vampire again -- this time in more extended form -- three years later, during the summer of 1816, as his contribution to that famous story-telling session at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in the company of Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont
, Dr. John Polidori, and (needless to say) Mary Shelley.
It was the story-telling session that produced Frankenstein
And just how astonishing is it that the vampire figure also made an important entrance into the English literary tradition that summer, during that same extraordinary meeting of… I was going to say of minds
, but that would have been a bloodless, indeed an inaccurate, way to describe the overheated goings-on among this brilliant, passionate cast of characters, none of them older than twenty-eight (Byron), while Mary and Claire were still in their teens.
The events are generally known, but the details can still overwhelm an audience that might think itself jaded by Gossip Girl
Mary -- at nineteen the mother of a baby son -- was really still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She’d run away with Shelley at seventeen, but wouldn’t marry him until some months after the story-telling summer, after Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide.
Claire, Mary’s stepsister, had coolly initiated an affair with Byron the preceding spring, and was now pregnant with his child.
Shelley may or may not have slept with Claire, but certainly (and to Mary’s ongoing distress) continued to endorse the utopian ideal of group marriage.
Byron, who was tired of Claire and avoiding her (except when he wasn’t), had recently fled England to avoid his debts, his shambles of a marriage, the continuing notoriety of his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, and (according to biographer Benita Eisler) an incestuous love affair with his half-sister August Leigh.
?… Also, unkindly, called "PollyDolly"... or "poor Polidori," in Mary Godwin's account of the events:
We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron... The noble author began a tale, a fragment…. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole...
John Polidori was Byron's twenty-one-year-old private physician, secretary, and traveling companion, though Byron had begun to tire of him as well and they parted company soon after
the story-telling summer. And actually, "tire of" is also a pretty bloodless way to describe this deteriorating relationship. In Eisler’s words, Byron and Shelley
...persecuted the thin-skinned “PollyDolly” with a savagery that seemed to replay all the torments they had suffered at Eton and Harrow.
Or might have suffered at Sunnydale High.
Neither Shelley nor Claire came up much of a ghost story, but of course we know that Mary created Frankenstein
and changed the literary landscape forever. As for Byron's "fragment," it was the first chapter of a vampire novel, later published, as Mary said, at the end of his poem Mazeppa
, in 1819.
But the interesting thing here is that by the time this fragment was published, it had been scooped by another, better, story -- The Vampyre
, which had appeared in the New Monthly Magazine
some months before. Published anonymously but with an introduction that refers to the episode at Lake Geneva and includes the vampire portion of The Giaour
, The Vampyre
has a villain called Ruthven (pronounced "Riven," this was Caroline Lamb’s name for Byron in her well-known -- and vindictive -- roman à clef, Glenarvon
). The story even offers a paraphrase of Byron’s annotation of the word “vampire” that I quoted above.
It was wildly successful and most of its readers thought it was written by Lord Byron.
But it wasn’t. As was soon enough revealed, The Vampyre
was written by Polidori. And while it follows Byron’s original, and probably owes a great deal to Byron’s plans for extending the original, it’s a far more compelling read than the one Bryon actually got into print -- largely, I believe, because of Polidori’s portrait of Byron as Ruthven was far more deeply etched than Byron could have done himself.
Partly this is because of the success with which Polidori’s story creates a foil for Ruthven. Resonating with the pain of adoration and rejection, The Vampyre
creates an innocent hero, Aubrey, a young gentleman of “that high romantic feeling of honor and candor, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices.” It’s the sort of line Byron might have tossed off before breakfast (and perhaps did, in Geneva), mouthed by someone who so passionately imagines himself an Aubrey that he manages to convince me of the pathos -- at the very least -- of what it felt like to imagine this. What Polidori intuited (or perhaps invented) is the drama of prey and predator -- human and more (or less) than human, used and using.The Vampyre
is surely a plagiarism -- a mode of using, by a man who clearly felt himself used, drained, ruined (in a kind of “daily” way) by a man he must have adored.
But is it entirely a plagiarism? Where is the using and who was zooming who here?
Was Polidori’s contribution to our contemporary cultural figure of the vampire perhaps indispensable? Did the notion of the “couple” of vampire and victim originate with him after all and not Byron? Or does it perhaps owe something to another famous literary couple -- the creature and creator, both of whom we now call “Frankenstein,” in semi-conscious recognition of the inextricability of their two figures joined into perpetuity?
According to Wikipedia, “Polidori died in London on August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid, the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.”
While throughout the nineteenth century, The Vampyre
continued to inspire other vampire creations, especially in the theater, across Europe. And just last year, the Polidori/Byron story formed the basis for what sounds like
an utterly fascinating novel -- Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits
.Do you read vampire fiction?
Watch the movies or TV shows?
What accounts for your attraction to it, what are your favorites and what relationship do you think it has to romanticism and to today's popular romance fiction?
Labels: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Byron, Frankenstein, Imposture, Polidori, Twilight, Vampire; True Blood; J. R. Ward