By Pam Norfolk
The famous meeting of literary minds at the Villa Diodati in the stormy summer of 1816 has always read like the Gothic novel it spawned.
This iconic juncture in the lives of troubled poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with Shelley’s lover Mary Godwin, gave birth to a series of personal tragedies, the classic novel Frankenstein, the embryo of an authorship dispute and a scandalous story as powerful today as it was 200 years ago.
But there were two others at the notorious gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva, two victims of the cult of celebrity whose lives would be blighted by events both before and after a legendary wet weekend of intense creativity and steamy sexual tensions.
In The Vampyre Family, an elegant and dynamic re-telling of a familiar story, Andrew McConnell Stott focuses on the demise of Byron’s doomed camp followers… his teenage travelling companion and doctor John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont.
Claire, already pregnant to the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ Byron, will face rejection and then the death of their daughter Allegra aged just five, whilst Polidori, disillusioned by the failure of his own literary ambitions and heavily in debt, will kill himself by drinking acid.
McConnell Stott, Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, argues that it was as much the corrosive Romantic obsession with fame as the turbulent wake of cruel, self-absorbed literary giant Byron that ‘infected them forever.’
For these two hapless young people, the caustic flame of celebrity brought only pain, and helped to mould them into the archetypes of ‘grievance,’ a destructive sense of bitterness that would become increasingly recognisable as the 19th century progressed.
By fusing the biographies of the five characters who played out that centuries-old Swiss drama, and viewing their lives and times from an inspired new perspective, McConnell Stott imparts fresh insight and vitality to the popular parable of genius, madness and suffering.
By the spring of 1816, 28-year-old Byron was the greatest poet of his generation and the most famous man in Britain but his personal life was in meltdown. With the jeers of a hostile crowd still echoing in his ears, he fled to Europe leaving behind mounting debts, rumours of an affair with his half-sister Augusta and his angry, humiliated wife Annabella.
With him was his inexperienced personal physician John Polidori who had only been in service with the poet for a week and who harboured literary aspirations of his own.
Handsome, dark-haired Polidori, who looked more Byronic than Byron and dressed in the same flamboyant style as his master, quickly took the opportunity to show Byron his own work, three plays written as a medical student and more precious to him than his profession.
When Polidori found his prized plays mocked mercilessly rather than praised, the seeds of their ill-fated future relationship were sown before they had even left the shores of England.
In hot pursuit of Byron was the pregnant Claire Clairmont, accompanied by Mary Godwin and her married lover Shelley who were also running away from scandal at home. For three months in a summer of rain, storms and sexual tensions, this party of young bohemians met regularly at their neighbouring villas near Lake Geneva.
Inevitably, it also became a period of extraordinary creativity culminating in Byron’s famous ghost story challenge, Mary’s Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, Byron’s poem Childe Harold, Shelley’s ode Mont Blanc and Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s classic book Dracula.
The Swiss sojourn guaranteed immortality for Byron and the Shelleys but for Clairmont and Polidori, it was the start of a slippery downward slope. Five years later, after The Vampyre had been erroneously and controversially published under Byron’s name, Polidori took a fatal dose of prussic acid.
Allegra, Clairmont’s daughter by Byron, died of typhus in the convent where she lived even though her father had pledged to keep her in his care. Clairmont spent the rest of her long life declaring that ‘only a few minutes of pleasure’ with Byron had given her ‘a lifetime of trouble.’
Through immaculate research and lively, accessible prose, McConnell Stott reveals both the myths and the realities of the Romantics legend through the prism of Clairmont and Polidori, allowing us to witness how their adoration and devotion to Byron’s bright star turned to disappointment and despair.
As many have already surmised and as the author exposes so powerfully, Byron, ‘a human tiger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain,’ the intellectually gifted but impractical Shelley and the not-so-saintly Mary were all flawed geniuses, arrogant, egotistical, insensitive and intensely human.
Those who came within their orbit risked being burned and no one knew better than Byron the fierce and yet fleeting nature of celebrity.
About Pam Norfolk: Born In Lancaster and educated at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, Pam Norfolk (née Wolfendale) trained as a journalist on a newspaper in Morecambe. For over 30 years, she has worked as a reporter and sub-editor on various evening newspapers as well as a national newspaper, gaining a first-class degree in English along the way and now book reviewing for over 20 North West of England newspapers, including the Lancashire Evening Post. She is married to fellow journalist John Norfolk and has three children and two granddaughters.