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Jan/Feb 2014 Reviews & Interviews

The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron

The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron
Andrew McConnell Stott.
Canongate. 2013. 434 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84767 871 3.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! This book begins dramatically with Lord Byron's doctor, John Polidori, standing over his patient as he tries out someone else's grave for size. Unfortunately, although Stott writes well and has clearly done extensive research, I found the book most frustrating. Most of the interesting events in the lives of the so-called "Vampyre Family"—Byron, Percy Bysse Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Polidori—have been extensively written about by others, so Stott reaches for a great deal of incidental material, some of which is interesting but only remotely connected to the lives of his subjects. In spite of his subtitle reference to "the curse of Byron," there is a lack of focus to this book, and the chapters skip from person to person, place to place, and from one time to another, so rapidly that it is often hard to keep up.

The early chapters rely largely on the travel diary of John Polidori as he flees England with a debt-ridden Byron and his entourage. They then jump back in time to deal with Polidori's biography, his medical training in Glasgow (including such incidentals as the methods of Glasgow "resurrection men"), the life and ancestry of John's father, John's ambitions, and his meeting with Byron. Interspersed with all this is Byron's biography and the reasons for his notoriety. Stott also gives us the biographies of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley's father and mother), the second Mrs. Godwin (Claire's mother), Shelley, and quite a number of much less well-known people.

We follow, in touristic detail, two separate journeys across different parts of Europe. That of Byron, Polidori, and their travelling companions, and that of the Shelley family and Claire Clairmont. Eventually, after much peregrination, a variety of travelogue details (including a pause at the battlefield of Waterloo for Byron to collect some bloody souvenirs), and a considerable number of changes of residence, both parties end up in Geneva, where the Shelleys and Claire take up residence in the Maison Chappuis and Byron rents the nearby, but grander, Villa Diodati. It is in the Villa Diodati that the famous write-a-ghost-story challenge is issued and where Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was begun. It was here, too, that Polidori found, in some random notes of Byron's, the inspiration for his own novel, The Vampyre.

The phrase "The Vampyre Family" comes, apparently (the reference given in the endnotes does not check out), from an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which attacks the character of Dr Polidori after he was publicly accused of plagiarising Byron's work. Yet although he was with this "family" for only three months, we continue to follow his life story until his death. We also follow the Shelleys' travels, and those of Claire Clairmont until the death of Clara Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron. The final chapter ends with Shelley, very much alive, sighting the ghost of Allegra on the moonlit waters of the Bay of Spezia. The Epilogue, which begins on the next page, jumps in time from 1822 to 1865, and we are suddenly introduced to whole new cast of characters. It is typical of the disorientating structure of this book that we then follow the story of these characters until it links up with that of Claire Clairmont in her final days. Shelley's death is mentioned only casually, and the later lives of his wife and child not at all.

There is plenty of passion and envy in this book, but we are left none the wiser as to what constituted "the curse of Byron." It is clear that Polidori and Claire were as much the cause of their own misfortunes as anything Byron did. And, rather than vampires, it is the number of suicides and attempted suicides in the lives of the people in this book which is surprising. Eleven people are listed under "suicide" in the Index. Far from suffering from any sort of Byronic curse, half of them never even met him, and his own name is included in the list.

 

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