"Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know": Le Vampyre, the Gothic Novel, and George Gordon, Lord Byron
By Lezlie Kinyon
1 December 2003
Literary critic Tom Holland wrote in his 1999 essay "Undead Byron" that "vampires remain recognizably Lord Byron's descendants." Volumes can and have been written supporting and detracting this statement so boldly made. The legend of the vampire, be it nosferatu, Dracula, Lestat, or Ruthven does have roots deeply embedded in European folklore. Bram Stoker's seminal portrait, Dracula, was based, in part, upon a real aristocrat, a 13th century Prince (or voivode) Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia, also known as Vlad Tepes, generally translated as "Vlad the Impaler". He fought to keep Wallachia (somewhat) independent from the Turks during the Ottoman Empire, and much of his legend is based upon this ruthless battle.
The ancient vampire of Eastern Europe came from the imagination of peasant culture: rough-hewn, covered with the mud of the grave, entwined in a moldy shroud. Tracing the origins of this figure from its roots in the pre-literate societies of Europe to the comically demonic images presented by reruns of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer on cable TV could fill an entire volume. In the 20th century, vampires became the palely beautiful, expensively tailored, cunningly charming, aristocratic, and hypnotically erotic image presented by such as Bela Lugosi or the more recent portrayals in film by David Bowie's stylish -- and, ultimately tragic -- vampire in The Hunger to Anne Rice's Lestat. Above all, vampires, whether wicked reprobates or noble righters of ancient wrongs carrying the weight of a tragic secret, are the purveyor of the forbidden: dark, repressed eroticism and immortality. The modern vampire is a paradoxical mixture of repressed sexuality, ecstatic hallucination, madness, death, and a romantic (small "r") fascination with an earlier, less cynical age. Again, Holland: "As such the modern genre of vampire fiction may be seen as perhaps the most vital and enduring of all the varied expressions of Byronism." Ironically so, as the association of vampirism and George Gordon, Lord Byron, arguably began with the publication of a tale by John Polidori, an embittered employee of the poet, entitled The Vampyre. It was reputedly written during that famous summer when the celebrated literary ménage of Byron and the Shelleys engendered an enduring legend of both film and psychoanalysis.
If we examine the time and place of that meeting more closely, we find within this strange tale roots of modern literary convention, the rise of the cult of celebrity in literature and the commodification of the arts during the Industrial Revolution. There, exquisitely tailored, loved and loathed by his contemporaries, is a figure of legend and shadowy scandal, the poet, Lord Byron. Not only has Byron influenced the modern vampire, he became, himself, the archetype of poet. Byron is also important as a seminal figure in the Romantic movement within literature, a movement whose influence is felt in our day in the conventions of the gothic novel and in modern fantasy literature -- be it Tolkienesque or dark phantasmagoria.
During the years between 1783 and 1832 Romanticism was characterized by a reaction against the modernism and perceived nihilism of the Paris salons and the concurrent philosophy of rationalism, put forth by Hume, Locke, and their followers. According to the literary historian Bernbaum in the Anthology of Romanticism:
The Romantic movement rose to its heights during the period from about 1783 to 1832. Most of the leading authors were active through nearly the entire period, but it may be subdivided into two parts. The first extends from 1783 to 1812, during that the most important works to appear were the poems of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Scott. The second continues from 1812 to 1832, during that the outstanding works were Byron's poems, Scott's Waverly novels, the critical writings of Coleridge, Hazlett, Lamb, and De Quincey.
These are the names found in any English 101 course as the "greats" of the early modern era who influenced both the conventions of the modern novel and trends in literature down to our own day. These poets and writers were celebrities of their own day as well, celebrated in soirees and in "writing societies".
These artists and dreamers were a paradox of conservatism and libertarianism, and the Shelleys, Byrons, and De Quinceys who pepper those years occasion a raised eyebrow among scholars even today for their sexual and hallucinogenic adventurism, and a literary stance that "looked to" the past: a mythic past that painted a golden, agrarian, pre-industrial world filled with graceful, beautiful "ladyes", honorable nobility, and heroes of valor far beyond the mere mortals of the early materialistic, gritty, and corrupt Industrial Revolution. That supernatural and folkloric themes and imagery formed the heart of this literary movements, including occult themes and the darker medieval tales of shapeshifting werewolves, fairies, witches, succubi, demons, and the vampire is not surprising, as every mythic Golden Age has a shadow, to borrow a term from Carl Jung.
In Germany, the political and cultural conservatism of the early Romantic movement led the Romantics Schlegel and Novalis to seek the future in the past. "[To] replace the rationalistic nature of the state or nation they looked to the cohesiveness of the Volk to provide a basis for political unity and stability," says historian Frank Tobin, in his 1995 exploration of the development of the Romantic view of the medieval cloistered mystic: Mechthild von Magdeburg: A Medieval Mystic in Modern Eyes.
In consequence, the language of the people, the Volk was viewed as a source of vitality and creativity. In Germany, this took on an almost magical quality, "explaining the inner strength, [and] authenticity" to be found in the language and the people.
The yearning for the infinite that was characteristic of the Romantics -- given their orientation -- was also a yearning for the past and the political, social, and religious forms of the past. Against the forces of republicanism, they praised the virtues of nobility. Rejecting the naturalistic rationalism of deism, they embraced supernatural and suprarational in religion.
Movements that, on one hand, preserved and rediscovered much that had been lost or forgotten since the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, and, on the other, influenced Germany's slide into Fascism and extreme nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, according to Tobin.
This "looking to the past" set the stage for the development of the later Romantic Era during the lifetime of Byron, Shelley, and their contemporaries, and also a generation later in the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and later still with the early 20th century Symbolists such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Against this backdrop, along with the emerging business of books and literature, the idea of celebrity in literature also emerged.
The first instance of a celebrity literary figure in the modern sense of the word, was, arguably, George Gordon, Lord Byron. Lord Byron was born in 1788 the heir to a lordship: he would become the 6th Baron of Rochdale. Byron was, most famously, the third in the aforementioned celebrated historic literary ménage à trois with Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in that moment when what has been the most enduring of Gothic novels, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was first conceived. This moment has been celebrated and fictionalized by filmmakers of the 20th century almost beyond its historic import, and certainly beyond recognition -- most especially by those personalities who were there. One need only evoke Andy Wilson's 1992 production of Dead Poets Society to find the myth of Byron and the Shelleys:
Byron: "If you would be a poet of Byronic stature, then let your greatest inspirations be opium, claret, wriggling navel and the honourable member for Cockshire. By the time I was eighteen, I'd tupped more women than I can count; broke their hearts, minds and kidneys without regret or remorse. I've caught the pox twice, attended several black masses; murdered men both in anger and cold blood, got my sister with child."
That evening of ghost tales engendered both Shelley's Frankenstein, and Polidori's The Vampyre (published by Byron's personal physician, J. W. Polidori, as a "story of Lord Byron's" in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine). Polidori's blatant usage of Byron's name and legend to publish his tale of "Ruthven" became the subject -- and part and parcel -- of one the most famous cases of plagiarism in English literature. Byron himself, thinly disguised, was the prototype of Ruthven in The Vampyre, a tale of a brooding man who lives in an Abbey and infects his victims with an "unholy sexual need." When Polidori's The Vampyre appeared attributed to Byron, he denounced the tale as "none of mine." Later, he said, "I have a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets."
This would not be the only instance of Byron's association with vampires in literature; his most infamous mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, also penned a tale featuring a thinly disguised Byron as a wicked and seductive vampiric character in her cathartic book, Glenarvon, published in 1816.
The archetype of today's vampire tales, from the filmic adventure of Blade to Anne Rice's moody portrayal of Lestat, mixes the forbidden fruits of eroticism and death, Byron's legend, his poetic works, and Polidori and Lamb's tales. It is sadly ironic that, at the end of his life, Byron was bled to death by the archaic use of leeches to cure malaria in Missolonghi.
Byron created a "cult of personality" based on the "Byronic hero", defiant, melancholy, brooding upon some mysterious past. He affected costumes to suit his concept of the Byronic hero, and had portraits painted of himself "in character": as the brilliantly garbed Le Corsair; in sailors' togs in a Romantic portrait on the rugged Scottish coastline, and as an "Egyptian" bandit, among others. Each image is noble, tragic: an outsider, a masquerade derived from his literary works. Byron was the consummate showman, careful never to dispel the illusion.
Byron was heralded as a good-looking man of his age, yet he had an obsession with a birth defect, a clubfoot. As he aged, he gained and lost weight obsessively, finishing his life at thirty-six on a monkish diet of biscuits and water. Byron was the victim of child sexual abuse by an alcoholic governess and, later, by a man, Lord Grey de Ruthyn, who rented his childhood home, Newstead Abbey, from his mother, the Scottish noblewoman, Catherine Gordon. Byron's poetry became "best sellers" in a series of books sold in small, fashionable bookstores -- a new phenomenon in Byron's era -- to the youth of Regency England and Europe.
Annabella Milbanke, Byron's wife and mother of his only legitimate child, described Byronic phenomena in The Byromania as "smiling, sighing over his face/In hope to imitate each strange grimace." "The Byronic 'look' was mimicked everywhere by people who practiced at the glass, in the hope of catching the curl of the upper lip, and the scowl of the brow."
The parasitic nature of the vampire is a theme that haunts (if I may use the term) the myth of Byron. He explores this theme in "The Giaour" in this passage:
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corse shall fall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race:
There from the daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life.
Ghislaine McDayter in "Conjuring Byron: Byromania, Literary Commodification and the Birth of Celebrity," explores the vampiric nature of the literary marketplace and Byron's place in it. Romantic mythology has been populated for decades, if not more, with "Byronic" figures, the "melancholic artist isolated away from society by the sublimity of his vision." The Dorian Greys and "listless poetesses" (sic), soulful Draculas of literature, and the filmic caricatures of such as Keats, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, inform an image created by Byron, his imitators, his followers, and his detractors.
In a differing light, this can be viewed as the manifestation of the materialist nature of the literary marketplace: "I would like to suggest that this well known imagery of metaphysical angst simultaneously veils, even as it reveals, an underlying concern for writers in the literary market of the time. Byron and the writers of his day were well aware, as are the writers today, of the material nature of their work." McDayter goes on to say,
All of the Romantics repeatedly used metaphors of parasitic consumption and alienation to describe their perceived loss of cultural and interpretive authority. But Byron had a personal stake, if you will, in this vampirism of commodification, for although recent the development of mass market publishing made it possible for him to become one of the most popular writers of the time, his spectacularly successful commodification by these forces instilled a deep-seated anxiety about his role in, and authority over, the production and reproduction of his literary corpus.
Although the literary luminaries of London ruthlessly criticized his work, he continued publishing on his own, and satirized his detractors equally unmercifully in "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," Byron's answering journal.
Byron became the darling of the era: invited into the soirees and salons of the elite, afforded the prestige of audiences with royalty and a figure young ladies sighed over. When those sighs became something more, Byron was happy to oblige. Byron was an acknowledged bisexual, and his affairs with men and women became the daily gossip of London. Lady Caroline Lamb -- a subject of volumes of literary and psycho-historical prose herself -- wrote of Byron in her journal as, "mad -- and, bad, and dangerous to know."
In March 1812 the long poem he had begun in Greece was released, renamed Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He said "I woke up one day and found myself famous." Handsome, charming and with a reputation for wickedness, he was the star of London's social season of spring 1812. Byron and the waltz became the fashion of the drawing rooms of London at the same time. Because of his twisted foot, he stood apart from the dance, apparently brooding darkly in depreciation of the frivolities of society. This enhanced his melancholic reputation and his sexual attractiveness.
Among his "indiscretions" were a young boy, John Edleston, and his half sister, Augusta Leigh. When Leigh became the mother of a daughter, Elizabeth Medora in 1814, generally acknowledged to be Byron's child, rumors began to emerge among the fashionable and elite of England and, eventually, this meant his departure from Britain, permanently.
According to McDayter:
Reports of the poet's "real" sexual exploits were transformed from fashionable gossip to sensational tales, each new adventure awaited with as much excitement as the latest novel from the pen of Radcliffe. And arguably, Byron gave society plenty of material with which to work: from his outrageously theatrical affair with Caroline Lamb, to his habit of "galling upon the chambermaids of Europe like a thunderbolt," the poet's assumed supernatural propensity for seducing women with his Byronic creations (both personal and poetic) became the stuff of legend.
A contemporary of Byron's wrote a review showing how Byron's work had become not only the subject of indiscretion and seduction, but also how, against the political clime of the day, it became dangerous. The fear of the mob was in the minds of the aristocratic classes, and the French Revolution was in recent enough memory to evoke the "suggestion of a glassy-eyed, idolatrous mob which had displaced the government of France." At the publication of "The Giaour" in 1814, at the height of Byron's fame, critics expressed fear about his poetry's seeming hypnotic -- vampiric -- ability to control his admirers. It was all the more dangerous, because, in the final analysis, Byron was a very good poet, not only by the standards of his era, but also by our own.
According to a contemporary reviewer:
Lord Byron possesses, in eminent degree, the facility of embodying the strong commanding passions of the soul -- of being able to mould to his own purposes and of bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.
When the Geneva trio with the Shelleys and Polidori parted ways, Byron traveled to Venice, where he boasted that he had a different woman every evening for 200 evenings. Coupled with gonorrhea, and a growing paranoia concerning the real threat of plagiarism of his work, malaria set in with complications caused by possible drug addiction, and Byron died a pauper, after joining a military campaign in Missolonghi, on April 19, 1824. The records of the day state that he died suddenly from a seizure and complications resulting from a leeching procedure. His fame and mystique live on, and he remains the prototype of the Romantic poet: a dissolute figure given to depression and sexual adventurism, dangerous and erotically compelling. As such, the legend of Lord Byron also has become the prototype of the hero of the Regency in romance fiction -- a large portion of today's popular fiction market.
In films, we can see Byron's figure in the modern portrayal of Dracula, from that of the early "talkies" to the recent PBS production. Byron most likely heavily influenced Bram Stoker himself. Certainly, Dracula is informed by the moody, darkly Romantic poetic portrayals of death and the "wasting disease" (tuberculosis) epidemic in that age before antibiotics.
Byron was the first "superstar" of the literary world now dominated by the cult of celebrity and the developing business of art. Byron and his contemporaries and their legacy in the history of literature became the prototypes of the proposed psychoanalytic connection between art, the artist, and madness in the 20th century, as is discussed in therapeutic texts such as Kay Jamison's influential text: Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
The work and the lives of the romantic poets, and most especially, Lord Byron, has also become the heart of the "gothic hero" in romance and fantasy literature: romantic, handsome, mysterious, and tragic. A hero with vampiric power of persuasion and erotic charm; at times a man of action, who, nonetheless, haunts the shadows to hide a tragic secret, set apart, alone, an outsider. Sometimes, as a charmed villain who seduces the reader into a supernatural world of shadows and terrifying impossibilities. And, more often of late in literature, a mixture of both, le Vampyre, indeed, but one, who, like the fictional immortal Connor MacLeod, The Highlander, defends the underdog with an archaic sensibility of noblesse and a bloody secret carried through centuries unimagined. As Byron himself wrote in "The Corsair":
Mark -- how that lone and blighted bosom sears
The scathing thought of execrated years!
Behold -- but who hath seen, or e'er shall see
Man as himself -- the secret spirit free?
Copyright © 2003 Lezlie Kinyon
Lezlie Kinyon is a mild-mannered scholar living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has one daughter, one mother, and one brother, none of whom live with her. Herpotted plants and the neighbor's orange cat both seem to think they live with her. She collects old books, and is a fan of SF & fantasy, Yeats, baseball, Mediterranean cooking, and Celtic music. Her current "big" project is her Ph.D. dissertation.
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Frances Wilson, Ed. (1999). Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth-and Twentieth Century Culture. New York: St Martin's Press.
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Mott, A. R. (1998). Byronmania: A Web Site of Fact and Fiction about George Gordon Lord Byron 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale the real original Regency Romantic hero in boots, tight pants and many caped coat bisexual athlete revolutionary philosopher poet. BC: Canada.
Jamison, K. R. (1994). Touched with fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press Paperbacks.