Book Review: The Poet and the Vampyre
The young London physician John Polidori was (briefly) the personal doctor of Lord Byron, but he’ll always be best known as a participant in the most celebrated writer’s workshop of them all, the nighttime gathering in June of 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, during which Byron wrote his “Fragment of a Novel,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a handful of ghost stories, and Mary Shelley laid the groundwork for her immortal classic Frankenstein. Polidori’s famous contribution was the beginning of what would later become his 1819 book The Vampyre, widely cited by modern genre critics as the first modern-era vampire novel.
The Vampyre would be overshadowed a generation later by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, and Polidori himself was even more thoroughly overshadowed in his own day by Byron himself, who seems to have kept the young doctor around mainly to serve as the butt of jokes and the fulcrum of boasting monologues, and Andrew McConnell Stott’s new book, The Poet and the Vampyre, seeks to redress that imbalance by giving readers a fully detailed and sympathetic account of John Polidori’s life and times.
As one of Byron’s contemporaries very accurately put it, “In the 19th Century, there is but one alternative, to be a blockhead or a monster,” so any such effort to paint a more accurate picture of Polidori is automatically praiseworthy. It’s hampered in this case mainly by two facts: Byron wasn’t in fact entirely a monster (McConnell Stott’s subtitle about a “curse” notwithstanding) and Polidori was in fact entirely a blockhead. The book’s stressing of Byron’s louche morals while in exile starts to feel a little insistent, however fluidly and evocatively presented:
To live in Venice was cheap, but even so Byron had already managed to spend five thousand pounds, funded by the sale of Newstead Abbey and the generous proceeds of his writing, which had finally allowed him to begin the ascent from debt to wealth. Half of that sum had gone on the rent for a grand palazzo and summer villa staffed by fourteen servants in blue and white livery. The other half had been spent on women.
It’s not Byron’s fault that he can so easily commandeer a book away from a putative subject as milquetoast and annoying as John Polidori, and although McConnell Stott is as thorough and sympathetic a biographer as the young doctor could want, the book is always more interesting when it’s focused elsewhere, especially on the larger scene-setting for which our author has a noticeable skill, as when he shows us the tourist hot-spot that was Geneva in the spring of 1816:
Geneva was lousy with English. Lady Frances Shelley, a distant and unacquainted relation to Percy Bysshe, put the number of British visitors that summer at somewhere over a thousand. The Swiss had traditionally held Britons in high esteem, but this most recent generation of tourists, rolling down the slopes to take the air, was a different breed entirely, comprised not merely of the gentry ‘but all classes,’ sniffed the traveller Louis Simond, ‘and not in the best of all classes, either.’
(about this ‘different breed entirely,’ McConnell Stott writes they were “a curiously uncurious gaggle who harangued the locals in impatient English, haggled over every penny, and let it be known that the local cheese was the cause of diarrhoea.”)
The Poet and the Vampyre has only comparatively modest goals as a Byron-studies game-changer; the bulk of the book consists of the old familiar stories about the poet, his mistresses, his neglected child, and his various hangers-on, and that story, however familiar, is always worth re-telling. Polidori stands out no more heroically in that story than he ever did, but perhaps this book will prompt a few readers to seek out The Vampyre and read it. This would be extremely unwise – the book stinks – but if those readers then re-read Dracula (or, God forbid, Byron’s own poetry), the time won’t be wholly lost.