Was Lord Byron the First English Vampire?
A Halloween Essay
Lord Byron, the quintessential rake, was renowned for his outrageous sex life, and inspired equal parts fascination and disgust in the minds of men and women alike. In 1812, he became obsessed with Lady Caroline Lamb, a wife and mother, and tried to break up her marriage that he might possess her completely. Smitten with the dashing poet, Lady Caroline engaged in a well-publicized affair with him. Soon, however, Byron became bored with his conquest and abandoned her. Lady Caroline was devastated.
Her heartbreak evolved into a bitter hatred in the subsequent years, as Byron fathered a child with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and then married Lady Caroline’s cousin, Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke. Their marriage proved to be an unhappy one, due in large part to Byron’s incessant philandering.
Portentously, in April 1815, the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora erupted, blanketing Europe in a thick cloud of volcanic ash. Global weather patterns would be seriously disrupted for several years, leading to famine, riots, and bizarre weather phenomena.
The following January, Lord Byron’s wife left him immediately after the birth of their daughter. Depressed, Byron eased his pain with Claire Claremont, the step-sister of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. A month or two later, his divorce was finalized, and Byron decided to leave for the continent.
At that same time, Lady Caroline Lamb finally got a measure of revenge against her former lover with the May 1816 publication of her novel Glenarvon. The title character, “Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon,” was a thinly-disguised satire of Byron, and proved to be the villain of the piece, leading the female protagonist into a tragic love-affair and paying the ultimate price for his treachery. The novel, understood to be a “kiss-and-tell” fictionalization of her relationship with Byron, immediately sold out and went into multiple reprintings and revised editions.
As the scandalous novel came out, Byron hired a 20-year-old doctor, John W. Polidori, as his personal physician and secretary, and they left England to tour Europe. Within a month, they settled in Switzerland, where Byron received some visitors in what may be the most famous vacation in the annals of English literature: Percy Bysshe Shelley, his fiancée Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her step-sister Claire Claremont (Byron’s erstwhile lover).
As the weather was unusually miserable, due to the after-effects of the recent volcanic eruption, the group was forced to remain indoors, and they struggled to find ways to entertain themselves. (One of Byron’s pastimes involved getting Claire Claremont pregnant.) One night, after reading aloud from a book of horror stories, Byron suggested that they all come up with ghost stories and have a contest to see whose was the scariest. Mary invented the basis of the story of Frankenstein, and Byron produced a fragment of a story that he would never finish. Dr. Polidori, who was clearly out of his league, came up with a tale of a skull-headed woman, whose uncanny appearance was a supernatural punishment for peeping through keyholes. His contribution was cruelly derided and mocked.
Polidori’s relationship with Byron soured for various reasons, and he was soon dismissed from his job. The doctor returned to his father’s native Italy, and there decided to get his own form of literary revenge on Lord Byron. Inspired by Lady Caroline Lamb, Polidori created a character called “Lord Ruthven” (pronounced riven, by the way), drawing the name from her own version of Byron. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven was a vampire, but unlike the vampires of traditional folklore, this one was a suave aristocrat who preyed on the young women of the British upper class, destroying their lives with his evil. The character was, again, a thinly-veiled satire on Byron and his hijinks. To rub salt in the wound, Polidori plagiarized Byron’s ghost story and created a novel called The Vampyre.
The following year, after marrying Percy, Mary Shelly turned her ghost story into the novel Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, which was first published in January 1818 and quickly became a popular success. Over a year later, in April 1819, Polidori’s novel was published, without his permission, in a British magazine. To make matters worse, the tale was attributed to Lord Byron, which infuriated both men and set off a bitter public feud. Meanwhile, The Vampyre became a smash hit in France.
The Vampyre is credited as the first work of the vampire genre in English, and also the first anywhere to portray the undead creature as an aristocratic sex-fiend rather than a gruesome monster. It served as one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the end of the century, though its authorship was in dispute for a long time, which prevented Polidori from cashing in on Lord Ruthven’s popularity.
In 1821, Dr. John W. Polidori committed suicide. (Interestingly, some years after his death, his sister, Frances Polidori Rossetti, gave birth to Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and their siblings.)
For his part, Lord Byron died in 1824 from an illness which was exacerbated, ironically, by having blood drained from his body by his doctors.