Sunday, February 25, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part IX: How Doctor Polidori Failed at Success

Doctor Polidori always claimed that the idea for "The Vampyre" came from a certain lady he knew while in Geneva, generally identified as the Countess Breuss, a Russian noblewoman whose house was a popular hangout for high society that summer. He dashed out the story in two or three days, and left it in the Countess's possession, apparently thinking nothing more of it.

But in April 1819, the story appeared in The New Monthly Magazine. Moreover, it was attributed not to Polidori, but to Lord Byron, and accompanied by a letter purporting to be from a traveler who was a huge fan of Lord Byron. Said traveler, finding himself in Geneva, decided to explore Byron's old haunts and find what he could about Byron's stay, and in so doing met with Countess Breuss and obtained from her "The Vampypre," along with "the Tale of Dr. --------" (i.e., Ernestus Berchtold) and an outline of Frankenstein, all of which he helpfully passed along to The New Monthly.

British copyright law in this period being quite lax, the magazine was able to publish "The Vampyre" without consulting the author, real or purported. Not only that, but the publisher arranged for it to appear as a standalone book, set to be released a few weeks after the magazine hit shops.

At least that's the official story. What actually happened in harder to pin down.

The magazine's editor, A. A. Watts, gave a very different explanation to Byron's publisher, John Murray, which Murray described in a letter to Byron:
The Editor of that journal has quarrelled with the Publisher, and has called this morning to exculpate himself from the baseness of the transaction. He says that he received it from Dr. Polidori for a small sum; Polidori averring that the whole plan of it was yours, and that it was merely written out by him. The Editor inserted it with a short statement to this effect; but, to his astonishment, Colburn [the publisher] cancelled the leaf.... He informs me that Polidori, finding that the sale exceeded his expectation and that he had sold it too cheap, went to the Editor and declared that he would deny it."
And Polidori did just that, writing a letter to The Morning Chronicle in which he took credit for the story and expressed outrage that it had been published under someone else's name without his permission. But despite contradicting the bulk of Watt's account, he does confirm a key point:
Mr. Watts, as Editor of that magazine, stated in his notice that the tale which accompanies the letters "we also present to our readers without pledging ourselves for its authenticity as the production of Lord Byron"; and he continues, "We should suppose it to have been committed to paper rather from the recital of a third person." This, however, after the publication of 700 copies, was cancelled by the publisher, and another notice inserted stating it to be decidedly his Lordship's, in direct opposition (as I am informed) to the Editor's will—who has since retired from the conduct of the magazine.
How Polidori knew this isn't clear. Did he get it from Watts? In that case we're seeing two slightly different versions of one man's tale, which could very well be an attempt by Watts to distance himself from the error. But conversely Polidori may have gotten his account from another employee of the magazine. This would explain one of the differences in the two accounts -- in Polidori's version, the original editorial note attributed the story to Byron but noted they couldn't confirm it, whereas what Watts told Murray makes it clear they knew Polidori was the author from the beginning, merely working off Byron's "plan," and were going to publish the story as such. The version Murray heard thus puts Watts in a better light, and makes the publisher look like a purveyor of lies, whereas what Polidori reports makes Watts and the publisher look equally foolish. The fact that Polidori has exact quotes from the original printing suggests his version is more accurate, but, for reasons that will soon become apparent, we can't take that for certain.

Polidori's letter to the newspaper complicated matters further by saying:
I at the same time wrote to the publishers of the tale in its separate form, and to those of the magazine, to stop its sale under his Lordship's name. On Monday the publishers of the magazine called upon me, and promised it should be instantly announced as mine.... When I came to claim my share in the profits, I was offered £30, instead of nearly £300.
So both Watt and the doctor agree that Polidori tried to haggle over payment, but they disagree whether he was in on the scheme from the begin, or if he was trying to wrangle his fair share out of an unscrupulous publisher.

But Polidori's letter to The Morning Chronicle never appeared in print. In the preface to Ernestus Berchtold, Polidori explains that,
in  consequence of the publishers representing to me that they were compromised as well as myself, and  that immediately they were certain it was mine, that they themselves would wish to make the amende honorable to the public, I allowed them  to recall the letter which had lain some days at that  paper's office.
For his part, Lord Byron, who was by now living in Italy, first learned of "The Vampyre" through a newspaper aimed at British expats on the Continent, which featured an ad for a new story by him that he'd never heard of. He was incensed, not only because his name was being attached to someone else's work, but because he had an exclusivity agreement with Murray which this could threaten. He managed to hide his anger in a letter to the newspaper requesting a retraction:
I presume that it is neither unjust nor ungracious to request that you will favour me by contradicting the advertisement to which I allude. If the book is clever it would be base to deprive the real writer whoever he may be of his honours and if stupid I desire the responsibility of nobody's dullness but my own.
He added, "I have besides a personal dislike to 'Vampires,' and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets," which suggests that whatever his original design for his story, it would've evolved in a completely different direction.

Byron was more blunt to his publisher:
[Polidori] may do, say, or write, what he pleases, but I wish he would not attribute to me his own compositions. If he has any thing of mine in his possession, the MS. will put it beyond controversy; but I scarcely think that any one who knows me would believe the thing in the Magazine to be mine, even if they saw it in my own hieroglyphics.
So what is the truth of the matter? Did Polidori, as Watt claimed, submit the story himself, or was there really some anonymous traveler in Geneva who obtained it from Countess Breuss without understanding its provenance, and sent it to The New Monthly?

To figure that out, we have to look at what had happened to Polidori in the intervening three years.

When Byron let Polidori go, he gave the doctor £50 in salary and another £20 for the trip back to England. But Polidori had no desire to return home. Although he'd graduated from medical school, he'd had no luck in establishing a practice and been forced to move back with his parents. He'd taken the job with Byron in a desperate bid to get out of the house, but his father had opposed him going off with a man of such notoriety. The last thing Polidori wanted was to slink back home after getting fired.

Instead he set off to see his ancestral homeland of Italy. He stopped first in Milan, which at that time was under an oppressive occupation by the Habsburg Empire, which was trying to root out the republican spirit that had grown there under French occupation. Polidori fell in with a group of liberal-minded nobles and gentlemen, most notably the French author Stendhal, who had exiled himself there after the fall of Napoleon. But given the state of Milan, there wasn't much they could do besides party and gamble.

But Polidori's quarrelsome personality proved an ill fit for the Habsburg occupation. One night at the opera, the doctor picked a fight with a guardsman that got him arrested. As it happened, Lord Byron had arrived in the city recently and was at the opera that night, too. Upon learning what was going on, Byron intervened to get Polidori out of custody. But the next day Polidori received a notice from the governor that he was to leave the city within twenty-four hours or else. His friends attempted to get the exile rescinded, but to no effect.

Polidori spent several months roaming the country, taking what work he could as the personal physician to various British travelers -- who developed an unfortunate tendency to die under his care. (This doesn't seem to have been malpractice, but pure bad luck. He remained on good terms with the families of his patients, at the very least.) Eventually, though, Polidori found himself at loose ends and had no choice but to return home.

Once back in London, he resumed his attempts to set up a private practice, but to no avail.

And then tragedy struck. One evening while out in his carriage, he drove off the road and suffered a severe concussion. The prognosis was dire, and for a time his family was convinced he was going to die.

He didn't, though Harriet Martineau, a young lady who may have had a romantic eye upon him, later remarked that it would've been better if he had, for then "he would have remained a hero."

When Polidori regained consciousness, he seemed a different person. He'd always been prickly and quick to argue with people, but only in a scrappy, Italian kind of way. After the accident, though, he was meaner and lacked self-control, the sort of person who would borrow a large sum of money from a relative to pay his debts, only to blow it on gambling.

Which is a trait, you will note, that he now had in common with Ernestus Berchtold.

Indeed, there are many points of commonality between Polidori's post-Byron adventures and the novella. After being a hero in the Swiss war against France, Ernestus moved to Milan, where he took up with high society and was introduced to gambling and debauchery. This isn't to say that Ernestus is a stand-in for Polidori the way Aubrey is in "The Vampyre". For instance, the sequence where Olivieri falls into French custody is clearly inspired by Polidori's trouble in Milan, with Ernestus taking on the role of Polidori's friends.

But this means Polidori couldn't have written Ernestus Berchtold to completion in Geneva. This is hardly surprising -- Mary only managed a handful of chapters of Frankenstein while there; the whole book took nearly a year to complete. Though Ernestus Bechtold is only about half that length, it was still a chunky bit of writing. 

And yet the editorial note in The New Monthly claims the traveler in Geneva had provided them with Polidori's contribution to the writing contest. There is a possible innocent explanation. Recall that in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary's recollection of Polidori's story is only that a woman peeked through a keyhole and saw something dreadful. Perhaps that's all Polidori wrote while in Geneva, and that's what he left with Countess Breuss. If so, he may only have left a copy with her, or he may've retrieved the manuscript from The New Monthly during the contretemps over "The Vampyre" and decided to complete it -- after all, "The Vampyre" had received some acclaim, even if most of that was from the presumption that Byron had written it.

But I doubt it.


Because the ending of "The Vampyre" also seems to have an autobiographical element. Towards the end of the story, Aubrey's guardians become convinced he's going nuts and confine him to his room under a doctor's care. This isn't exactly what happened to Polidori, but the main elements are there. After his accident, he had to stay abed while he fully recovered, and his friends and family started viewing him as having something wrong in his head.

Which means, Polidori completed both stories in Britain, in which case only he could've submitted them to The New Monthly. This fits with Watts' account. Polidori brought "The Vampyre" to the magazine and told them he'd written it out based upon Byron's fragment and what Byron had told him of the rest of the story. Watts was willing to publish it with an editorial note to that effect, but the publisher overruled him. When Polidori found out, he was outraged both at being denied credit, and fearful that was opening himself to retribution from Byron. He wrote the letter to The Morning Chronicle hoping to cover himself, but was dissuaded from publishing it, though he did eventually offer a version of events in the preface to Ernestus Berchtold.

In any case, the whole sordid affair ruined whatever hopes Polidori had of a literary career. When Berchtold came out, it was roundly derided. His attempts at starting a medical practice also failed to go anywhere. For a while he considered changing career and going into law, but his self-destructive tendencies made that unlikely. Finally, after losing an immense sum on gambling, Polidori took his own life with a glass of prussic acid.

By that point, he was the third suicide to have come out of the Frankenstein summer.

NEXT TIME: "This World Is All Too Wide to Thee"

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VIII: The Revenge of Doctor Polidori

The house party at Lord Byron's villa is a seminal event in the development of horror fiction, but not just because that's where Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein. Though Doctor Polidori's contribution to the contest has sunken into obscurity, it's impact on the horror genre is just as profound. Without him, we would have no Dracula, Lestat, Angelus, or even Edward Cullen.

Of the two stories Polidori wrote that summer, the first is the least notable. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary dismisses it completely.
Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted.
This is a muddled description of an event late in Polidori's novella Ernestus Berchtold, though it's possible that Polidori, like Mary, began with a sketch of a frightening scene and expanded it into a full narrative later, in which case Mary may never have read the completed story. (Though the fact that Victor's brother in Frankenstein was named Ernest suggests some cross-polination.)

Polidori's novella begins with an old man and a young, pregnant woman stumbling into a remote Swiss village. The man drops dead from a gunshot wound, but his companion manages to give birth to twins, one boy and one girl, before expiring. The local priest, Father Berchtold, takes in the kids, naming them Ernestus and Julia and raising them as his own. Their only clue to their origins is a locket with a miniature of their mother painted inside.

Years go by and the French Revolution breaks out. As the French amass an army to "liberate" the Swiss from their feudal lords, Ernestus encounters a mysterious and beautiful lady on a mountaintop who urges him to go and defend his country. He's so inspired that he rounds up the local militia and marches them to the front. They take part in many battles in which they display great heroism in the face of the overwhelming French forces. Ernestus meets up with another young commander, an Italian named Olivieri, whose life he saves in a fierce battle.

Eventually the Swiss army crumbles, but Ernestus isn't willing to give up that easily, and he takes to the mountains and becomes a partisan. He has several more encounters with Louisa, the mysterious woman from earlier, eventually learning that she's Milanese and Olivieri's sister. When Ernestus is captured, she arranges for him to escape, and brings him and Julia to Milan to live with her wealthy family, though old Father Berchtold dies before this can take place.

This whole section of the story is quite tedious, with lots of descriptions of battles and running from French troops, all done with the assumption that anyone reading would be intimately familiar with the Franco-Swiss front of the Napoleonic Wars. The main point of interest is that Polidori shows Swiss women taking part in the war just as fiercely as the men.
The combat was obstinate, our chief attack was upon the artillery, with which the enemy was attempting to cross the road. Our women did not shrink, they rushed forward, threw themselves upon the wheels of the guns, and allowed themselves to be hewn to pieces ere they would quit their hold.
Indeed, he even portrays the women being more bloodthirsty than the men.
I could have induced the men to give quarter, but the women were outrageous, they followed our soldiers, and dispatched the wounded, whom their more merciful companions had spared, while they excited the Scweitzers to slaughter even those who threw up their arms; none were saved.
Once the action moves to Milan, the story changes tone completely. Filberto, the father of Olivieri and Louisa, is a minor scion of the noble Doni family, but somehow -- no one quite knows how -- he's amassed wealth far in excess of the main branch of the family. He lives in a palace, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers.

Olivieri, it turns out, is a contrarian who loves to confound people's expectations of him. That's why he joined the Swiss army -- he didn't actually believe in the Swiss cause; he just thought it'd be a way of confusing people. Once he's back in Milan, he changes persona completely, turning into a whorehound and extravagant gambler. He lures Ernestus into his way of life, and the next thing you know Ernestus is deep in debt to some very bad men. Filberto gives him money to pay off those debts, but Ernestus ends up gambling that away too.

Then bad things start happening. First Olivieri disappears, then Louisa gets sick and wastes away. Julia runs away, and when she returns, she's dying after giving birth to Olivieri's son. Before she passes away, Julia relates a story to Ernestus: she'd noticed various curious things about Filberto's behavior, and so one night she decided to spy upon him in his room -- not through a keyhole, but rather a convenient hole in the wall. She witnessed him performing a occult ceremony and conversing a spirit.

Soon after Julia's death, news comes from France that Olivieri's been arrested as the leader of a gang of bandits. Ernestus takes a large part of Filberto's fortune and tries to bribe Olivieri's way out of jail, but he's recognized as an enemy of France and betrayed. Olivieri's bandits come to the rescue, though Olivieri is killed in the escape, and Ernestus barely manages to make it back to Milan alive.

Ernestus and Louisa (who's now recovered from her illness) decide to get married, but their happiness is only fleeting. As a present to Filberto, Ernestus and Louisa hire an artist to paint his portrait, and while they're at it, they decide to have him do a full size version of Erenestus's mom, basing it upon the locket that she left behind. But when Filberto sees the paintings, he freaks out and locks himself in his room. Soon thereafter he dies, but he leaves behind a manuscript revealing the horrible, shocking truth.

Well, it's supposed to be shocking, but when Ernestus Berchtold was published in 1819, the publisher decided to cash in on Frankenstein's success by giving it the subtitle The Modern Oedipus, which gives the game away. Yes, Ernestus and Louisa (not to mention Julia and Olivieri) are half-siblings, their mom having married Filberto but then abandoned him. Oh, and Filberto's wealth came from a genie who visited misfortune on the family every time it fulfilled a wish. It is in fact Ernestus's gambling debts that led to this bad end. You half expect Rod Serling to appear at the end and deliver a moral lecture.

All in all, Ernestus Berchtold is a standard Gothic novel with nothing in the way of originality. The main point to recommend it is that certain plot points seem to be veiled criticisms of Byron and Percy, something that would become much more prominent in the other tale Polidori wrote that summer.

When Byron went on his trip to Vevey, he left behind the first few pages of his ghost story. It's a first person account of a young Englishman who sets off on the Grand Tour of Europe with an older gentleman of mysterious background. Along the way they decide to take a detour to Turkey and see the ruins of Smyrna. They end up camping out one night at an old Muslim graveyard, where the older man takes ill and dies. Before expiring, he gives a ring to his young companion and instructs him,
"On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis: the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour."


"You will see."

"The ninth day of the month, you say?"

"The ninth."

The story breaks off soon thereafter, with the mystery of what would happen next unresolved, though Byron apparently told Polidori that the young man would return to London and witness the dead man walking down the street, still alive.

At some point Polidori showed Byron's fragment to "a lady, who denied the possibility of such a ground-work forming the outline of a tale which should bear the slightest appearance of probability." Polidori took this as a challenge, and since Byron wasn't around, he decided to finish the story himself, calling it "The Vampyre".

But Polidori didn't simply write a continuation of what Byron had done. Rather he took Byron's work as a seed which he grew out in his own way. In Byron's fragment, the backstory between the narrator and the mysterious gentleman is disposed of in a couple expository paragraphs. Clearly Byron was rushing to get to the graveyard scene, where the real meat of the story would begin. But Polidori went back and fleshed out this early part of the tale, to the point that his version of the graveyard scene doesn't happen until nearly two-thirds of the way through the story.

Polidori begins with the arrival of a mysterious gentleman named Lord Ruthven in the London social scene. Ruthven is "more remarkable for his singularities, than for his rank," and soon attracts all kinds of attention, particularly from women of ... low character, let us say, who all but throw themselves at him -- to no effect. Ruthven spurns them all, preferring the company of young ladies of sterling character.

Soon after Ruthven makes his debut, a young man named Aubrey arrives in London. Aubrey is a classic Country Mouse character, a good hearted young man who grew up in the boonies with little conception of the big bad world that awaits him in the City. His parents died when he was young, leaving him and his sister in the care of distant relatives who didn't much give a damn about him but were more interested in taking care of his inheritance. Raised by servants, "he cultivated more his imagination than his judgement."

Aubrey gravitates toward Ruthven, though Ruthven is aloof to him. But when he learns that Ruthven is about to leave for the continent, Aubrey plucks up the courage to mention he's planning to go on the Grand Tour himself. Ruthven shrugs and says, "Yeah, sure, you can come with me, whatever."

Their trip goes smoothly at first, but while they're staying in Italy, Aubrey receives a letter from his guardians warning him that Ruthven is not to be trusted -- soon after they left London, it had come out that Ruthven had been debauching all those pure young ladies he'd been hanging out with.

Aubrey is skeptical, but he also knows Ruthven has recently been paying attention to a girl from a fine Italian family, so he decides to tail the man. He discovers that Ruthven has rented a room where he's planning to deflower the girl that very night. Aubrey goes immediately to the girl's family and warns them about Ruthven, and they promise they'll keep the girl out of his reach.

The next morning Ruthven is out of sorts, his plans with the girl having been dashed, but he shows no sign that he knows Aubrey is responsible. Aubrey, though, can't go on with Ruthven, and announces he'll be continuing the Grand Tour on his own.

Aubrey heads to Greece, where he becomes obsessed with archaeology, spending his days at ancient ruins digging up potsherds. While there, he stays with a local family, and falls in love with their daughter, Ianthe, though he knows they're too far apart on the social scale to be able to have a relationship.

Ianthe is a font of local folklore, and she tells Aubrey of a local forest where vampires live. According to Ianthe, vampires are eternally young, but to stay that way they have to drink the blood of a maiden once per year. Aubrey doesn't believe her, not even when she warns him that he must never get caught in the woods at night.

Naturally the next night he gets caught in the woods after spending too long on a dig. He finds an abandoned hovel and figures he'll spend the night there, but he's woken by the sound of a woman screaming. He runs into the forest, where he encounters some local rustics who inform him a girl's been kidnapped. After searching around, they discover -- and I know this is going to be a shocking surprise -- the body of Ianthe with her throat torn out and all her blood drained.

Aubrey falls into a swoon, and when he recovers, he's back in the house of Ianthe's parents. And who should be there with him but Lord Ruthven.

After recovering, Aubrey decides to go sightseeing with Ruthven, but they're waylaid by bandits. Ruthven gets shot and seems on the verge of dying, but before he does, he makes Aubrey swear to mention nothing about their trip to anyone for a year and a day. The bandits, following Ruthven's last request, then take his body up to a mountain and lay it out in the moonlight, but when Aubrey goes up to see it later, he finds it's missing.

Aubrey pays the bandits to let him go, and then heads back to England. As he's packing his stuff, he also goes through Ruthven's things and discovers a sheath that matches an oddly shaped knife found near Ianthe's body.

Soon after getting home, it's time for Aubrey's sister to make her social debut. Aubrey doesn't feel up to it, but he agrees to escort her to a debutante ball in London anyway. He leaves her alone for most of the evening, preferring to sulk in a corner. When he goes to take her home, he finds her surrounded by fawning young men. And in that crowd, he spots Lord Ruthven.

Aubrey tries to warn his sister against Ruthven, but every time he opens his mouth, he hears Ruthven whispering in his ear, "Remember your oath." As the weeks go by, his sister and Ruthven become closer, and eventually they announce their engagement. Aubrey realizes their wedding date is set for the day before his promise expires, and he does everything in his power to get them to delay, but to no effect. Everyone assumes he's having a nervous breakdown, and his guardians lock him in his bedroom under the supervision of a doctor.

Of course the wedding day comes and tragedy strikes, very sad, very sad, and utterly predictable.

The obvious thing about "The Vampyre" is that it's about Polidori's relationship with Byron. Aubrey represents the doctor as he wished to see himself, with his more pugnacious aspects elided.
He had, hence, that high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners' apprentices. He believed all to sympathise with virtue, and thought that vice was thrown in by Providence merely for the picturesque effect of the scene, as we see in romances: he thought that the misery of a cottage merely consisted in the vesting of clothes, which were as warm, but which were better adapted to the painter's eye by their irregular folds and various coloured patches. He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life.
Lord Ruthven, then, is Byron. The very name gives this away -- Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's former lover who so famously described him as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know," had just penned a roman a clef about her relationship, in which the Byron stand-in is also a Lord Ruthven. Anyone following literature in the early 1800s would've instantly made the connection.

When Aubrey first sees Ruthven, he's smitten, but Polidori, in his role as narrator, makes clear that Aubrey's first impression is deluded:
He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.
As the story progresses, Aubrey is disillusioned, just as Polidori must have been as he saw how Byron treated other people. Aspects of Byron's behavior are, of course, cranked up for the story -- Byron may have metaphorically fed on people around him and left them in ruin, but he never killed them.

There may also be aspects of Percy in Lord Ruthven. The woman Aubrey falls in love with is named Ianthe, a name that was in common circulation among 19th Century poets. Byron himself had dedicated Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to "Ianthe," which was his nickname for Charlotte Harley, the daughter of one of his lovers. But more pertinently, Ianthe is a central character in Percy's Queen Mab, which Polidori read during his stay in Geneva. (Percy also named his daughter with Harriet Ianthe, but it's not clear Polidori would've known this.)

In Queen Mab, Ianthe is an innocent girl that the Fairy Queen takes on a cosmic tour, showing her all the injustice of the world, but also revealing a vision of a utopian future. When she first appears in the poem, Ianthe is in a slumber so deep she appears dead:
Hath then the gloomy Power
Whose reign is in the tainted sepulchres
Seized on her sinless soul?
Must then that peerless form
Which love and admiration cannot view
Without a beating heart, those azure veins
Which steal like streams along a field of snow,
That lovely outline, which is fair
As breathing marble, perish?
Must putrefaction's breath
Leave nothing of this heavenly sight
But loathsomeness and ruin?
Spare nothing but a gloomy theme,
On which the lightest heart might moralize?
Or is it only a sweet slumber
Stealing o'er sensation,
Which the breath of roseate morning
Chaseth into darkness?
Will Ianthe wake again,
And give that faithful bosom joy
Whose sleepless spirit waits to catch
Light, life, and rapture from her smile?
Yes! she will wake again,
Although her glowing limbs are motionless,
And silent those sweet lips,
Once breathing eloquence
That might have soothed a tyger's rage,
Or thawed the cold heart of a conqueror.
Her dewy eyes are closed,
And on their lids, whose texture fine
Scarce hides the dark blue orbs beneath,
The baby Sleep is pillowed:
Her golden tresses shade
The bosom's stainless pride,
Curling like tendrils of the parasite
Around a marble column.
Despite the revelation that Ianthe is merely asleep, this opening passage has enough macabre imagery to make a goth giddy. The description of blue veins on white skin could come straight from Anne Rice. Compare this to the finding of the other Ianthe's corpse in "The Vampyre":
But what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corpse. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, "A Vampyre! a Vampyre!"
Given the amount of time Polidori spent with the Shelley party, and particularly with Mary and Claire, he must have learned about their tortuous history and twisting relations, and given his quarrels with Percy, it seems he came to view the man the same way he did Byron -- as a monster who ruined the lives of those around him.

The decision to create a vampire in the mold of Byron and Shelley would have an enormous impact on subsequent literature. In traditional folklore, vampires were more like what we'd think of as zombies -- shambling corpses driven more by instinct than actual intelligence, and decidedly unsexy. But after "The Vampyre" came out, that changed. Subsequent vampire stories almost always followed Polidori's lead in making vamps into sexy, smooth-talking aristocrats.

Although we generally think of vampire literature as beginning with Dracula, with Polidori's story being a distant, almost forgotten antecedent, the truth is Polidori inspired numerous imitators, starting almost immediately with Cyprien Berard's knock-off, Lord Ruthwen, or the Vampire (1820). Indeed, the major explosion of vampire lit occurred in France, with numerous books published throughout the 19th Century, including Paul Feval's The Vampire Brothers (1860), The Vampire Countess (1865), and Vampire City (1874), Marie Nizet's Captain Vampire (1879), and Leon Gozlan's The Vampire of Val-de-Grâce (1862) among many others. This period also saw the first female vampire seductresses with Etienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon's The Virgin Vampire (1825), and most famously Theophile Gautier's "Clarimonde" (1836).

Polidori's impact on Britain was less pronounced, but the titular character in the infamous penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (serialized 1845-47) is very much a dumbed-down version of Ruthven, while Sheridan LeFanu's lesbianic tale Carmilla is derived second-hand by way of the French. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, Polidori's influence on vampire fiction was so pronounced that Stoker needn't have read the original story for it to have affected his writing.

But for "The Vampyre" to have that effect, it first needed to be published. How that came to be is a twisting and confusing tale in itself.

NEXT TIME: How Polidori failed at everything, even success.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VII: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

It was a dark and stormy night.

Most nights in the summer of 1816 were dark and stormy. It was a dark and stormy year. The eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indes was wreaking havoc on weather around the world, leading people to call 1816 The Year Without a Summer. While there wasn't a Westeros-style winter-that-never-ends, there were occasional summer snowfalls, and overall temperatures were low enough that crop yields were down for the year, leading to widespread food shortages.

Whatever hopes the Shelley and Byron parties had of a pleasant summer on the lake gave way to long days indoors, trying to find ways to amuse themselves. And so it was that on 16 June 1816, Percy, Mary and Claire visited Byron and Polidori at their rented villa, just as they had most days since the pair moved in.

Polidori was laid up with a sprained ankle. The day before, he and Byron had been on the balcony when they'd spotted Mary traipsing up the muddy lane to the house. Byron remarked that a true gentleman would jump from the balcony, run to Mary and offer her his arm. Polidori took the bait, but when he landed on the muddy ground, he slipped and twisted his ankle. Byron had to carry him back inside, where he'd been lounging around ever since.

On the 16th, the party did what they often did on bleak evenings, and picked a book from the library to read aloud. That night Byron chose the Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories. By the time they finished reading for the evening, it was late and the storm outside showed no sign of letting up. Mary, Percy and Claire decided to spend the night, and Byron made the suggestion that everyone should take a hand at writing a ghost story to pass the time.

According to Mary, in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she couldn't think of anything at first.
I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
However, Polidori's diary for the next day claims, "The ghost-stories are begun by all but me." Either Mary didn't want to come across as assertive (which would be in keeping with the spirit of the preface)  and so portrayed herself as a meek woman who was no match for those great men of letters who had more ideas than they could use; or she was so mortified about not having an idea that she misled Polidori into thinking she'd already begun.

In the preface, Mary describes what finally inspired her to start writing:
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.
After that, she went to bed and had a nightmare:

 I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
By Mary's account, while she lay in bed trying to shake off the nightmare, her mind turned back to the story contest and she realized, "Wait a minute, if that dream was enough to scare me, then surely it'll frighten readers." And so the next morning she announced that she finally had a story idea.

However, Polidori's diary records the same conversation, but he places it on the night before the ghost story contest, and he presents himself as Percy's interlocutor, not Byron.
Shelley etc. came in the evening; talked of my play etc., which all agreed was worth nothing. Afterwards Shelley and I had a conversation about principles,—whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.
Since Polidori's account is contemporaneous, and he had no way of knowing that some random late night bull session would prove to be of utmost importance to literary history, we should take his account as more accurate than Mary's recollection fifteen years after the fact. It is quite possible that Mary was misremembering when she wrote the preface, though given the other, obviously intentional inaccuracies in the preface, it's more likely she was trying to aggrandize her work by making it appear inspired by two of the greatest poets of the 19th Century, rather than one poet and an obscure physician.

So then, the most likely course of events is that on 15 June, Mary listened to a conversation between Percy (a science nerd) and Polidori (a doctor) on what medicine had to say about the nature of life, and they both gravitated to the idea that it's utterly mechanistic, and with enough study it could be measured and recreated. The details of the discussion gave Mary a horrible nightmare.

The next night, Mary and her companions stayed up late listening to ghost stories, and then Byron proposed they should all try their hands at writing their own. Mary's mind flashed to her nightmare and fastened on it as a suitable subject for a horror story. She started fleshing out the dream and committing it to paper. The next day, when everyone was discussing the contest, she announced that she'd had an idea just like everyone except Polidori, leaving the doctor feeling left out. After Percy encouraged her to continue, she began expanding her initial sketch, going both backwards to create Victor's childhood, education and initial experiments, and forward to describe the creature's eventual vendetta against him.

However, the story contest proved faddish. In the preface to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein, Percy (writing in Mary's voice) notes that the bad weather cleared up the next week, and he and Byron left on their trip to Vevey, forgetting all about their stories, and leaving Frankenstein as the only one to be written to completion. Percy doesn't even mention Claire and Polidori, either because he didn't think they merited inclusion with such illustrious personages as himself and Byron, or to avoid even a vague allusion to the scandals of that summer. But while Claire doesn't seem to have produced anything of note, the same cannot be said for Polidori. In point of fact, the doctor produced two stories that summer, though he didn't publish them until after the success of Frankenstein.

NEXT TIME: The Revenge of Doctor Polidori

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VI: A Scandal in Geneva

In 1816, Percy Shelley was gaining renown amongst those who followed poetry closely, but he'd made little impression on the general public. But if Percy were the Frank Black of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron was the Kurt Cobain. He'd burst onto the scene four years prior with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which had become a blockbuster success and marked the beginning of the second wave of Romantic poetry.

Byron had also developed a reputation as a sex fiend that made Shelley look like a monk. There were even rumors that he'd had sex with his sister, Augusta Leigh, and modern biographers are convinced he was bisexual and had relationships with numerous men as well. But unlike Percy, Byron didn't try to justify his behavior with political rhetoric. He just liked to screw.

And as a superstar poet, he had more than ample opportunity, and could pick and choose as he pleased. So when Claire Clairmont showed up on his doorstep, she was nothing special. However, she had something that other women didn't have -- she knew Percy Shelley. Byron was familiar with Percy's work and was eager to learn more about the author, which got Claire's foot in the door. But even then, Byron sensed there was something a little bit off about the situation. Like maybe she wasn't really interested in him but was rather trying to get revenge on her sister for hogging Percy. Byron's good sense told him he should avoid a tryst with Claire.

But this is Lord Byron we're talking about. Given the choice between listening to his good sense or his penis, there was no contest. Here was a girl in front of him practically demanding to have sex with him. Who was he to say no? As he put it later, "A man is a man – & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way."

He quickly realized his mistake. At this point he was already planning to leave the country -- partly for his health, partly to escape rumors about him and his sister -- so he gave Claire the, "So sorry, so sorry, but I gotta run" treatment and took off for the Continent.

Claire was having none of that, though. She learned that Byron's destination was Geneva, and she went to her sister and Percy and told them, "Hey, I happen to know Lord Byron is going to be this summer. Wanna go meet him?" Mary had given birth by this point, and her son, William (nicknamed Willmouse) was already four months old and looking healthy, so they agreed. In fact, by taking the direct route while Byron went sightseeing, they managed to arrive before him.

Now Byron was an early practitioner of safe sex -- in fact, the first thing he did upon arriving in Europe was to write a friend asking for him to send him some condoms. This would explain how it is that, despite his infamous promiscuity, he only has two illegitimate children attributed to him[1]. The first was with a maid, Lucy Monk, whom he knocked up when he was barely twenty-one and perhaps not yet wise to the idea of birth control. Though their stations in life made a marriage impractical if not impossible, Byron provided her with child support in the amount of £100 per annum (for comparison, Timothy Shelley provided Percy with £200 a year, and though Percy was constantly low on funds, that was due to his profligacy).

Byron's second bastard was with Claire.

It's not clear when Claire realized she was pregnant. She gave birth 12 January 1817, so the conception was probably early to mid-April 1816, though since first pregnancies often go long, it may've been as early as March, which is when her affair with Byron commenced. She left England with Mary and Percy on 3 May, which was probably too early for her to have realized anything was up, but she likely knew by the time Byron arrived in Geneva in late May, or soon thereafter.

When Byron found out, he was less than chuffed, especially since he suspected, not unreasonably, that he was being set up to take the fall for Percy (a suspicion that Godwin shared when he heard about the situation). Nonetheless, Byron did agree to take responsibility, though what that responsibility would consist of was a question for debate. Byron was already married, and though he and his wife were separated, under British law all divorces had to be approved by the House of Lords, which made them virtually impossible to obtain; and besides, Byron's wife had already borne him a daughter, the future Ada Lovelace, so a divorce would only shift the problem around. Byron felt that Claire was too flaky to face the challenges of single-motherhood on her own, so he insisted that she not raise the child herself. Byron wrote to his sister to see if she'd take in the child, but with the rumors already swirling around her, Augusta had to decline. In the end, Byron decided to raise the child -- a girl he'd named Allegra -- himself, though due to his constant travels she spent much of her life being passed around to friends. Eventually he put her in an Italian convent to be educated, over the objections of Percy and Claire, both of whom were horrified at the idea on consigning a child to Papists. As cold as that might sound, Byron did visit Allegra regularly, until she died from typhus at the age of five.

But those were issues for the future. In the meantime, the mood in Geneva was not the genteel garden party that Mary suggests in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.
While Mary and her companions undoubtedly managed to find some moments of pleasure that summer, it beggars belief that it could've been the cheery affair she describes. Even Percy, who normally would've been self-centered enough to find fun while everyone around him was miserable, was out of sorts. Dr. Polidori, who was traveling with Byron as his personal physician, described Percy as looking consumptive after first meeting him, and later described an incident in which Percy suffered what sounds like a bad acid trip.
Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. Lord Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. Shelley, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.
Such incidents could only have added to the stress Mary must've been experiencing as a mother with an infant to take care of, to say nothing of dealing with Claire's mess of a life.

Of all those present at Lake Geneva, Claire must've been the most miserable. Ever since she'd run away from home two years previously, Percy had been filling her head with his theories of free love and sexual liberation. When he set her aside in favor of Mary, Claire had set out to prove that she could be as much of a rake as any man by seducing the greatest seducer of the age. And now here she was, pregnant and facing an unknowable future, reliant on a pair of men of questionable character. She had, in fact, stumbled upon the same hard truth that caused Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin to reconsider their ideas about sex and relationships twenty years before: Women cannot have sexual freedom if it doesn't come with legal, economic and social equality.

And most galling of all, this meant her mother had been right. Jane had been strict with Fanny, Mary and Claire precisely to prevent them from finding themselves in this situation.

In later years, Claire would become much more traditional in her worldview, to the point that she eventually converted to Catholicism, and in a memoir she wrote in her old age, she'd portray herself as an innocent girl beguiled by Percy and Byron:
Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery -- under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women who under the influence of free love ... loved him.
 Certainly what Percy did to her and Mary could be considered predatory -- the way he pressed his ideals upon them (and upon his wife Harriet as well) smacks of a sexual predator grooming a young victim (and they were young -- none older than sixteen when he turned his attention on them, though he himself was little older).

Her charge against Byron is more questionable. Her accusation is undoubtedly true for other women who fell under Byron's sway, but by all accounts Claire was the pursuer in their relationship -- quite literally; she followed him several hundred miles to Geneva, and she did so before she knew she was pregnant, so she had no justification for doing so beyond stalking him. Her mind may already have been poisoned by Percy, but Byron can't be faulted for that.

As for Byron, he had fled Britain to escape scandals, only to find a new one waiting in Geneva. He may've produced radiant verses during his stay, but his mood couldn't've been good. His relationship with Claire was tense, and any interest he had in Mary faded once he realized she wasn't going to sleep with him. That left him with Percy and Polidori to keep him company. The former was the one bright spot of his summer. As two poets of similar age and upbringing, they had much to talk about, and they spent much of their time together, including a lengthy trip to Vevey, Switzerland by themselves.

Byron's relationship with Polidori was much more fraught. Indeed, Polidori's relationships with most people were fraught. His diary for the trip is full of references to quarrels he had with various people along the way. For instance:
 Went to Rossi's—had tired his patience
Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
And my favorite:
An apothecary sold some bad magnesia to Lord Byron. Found it bad by experiment of sulphuric acid colouring it red rose-colour. Servants spoke about it. Appointed Castan to see experiment; came; impudent; refused to go out; collared him, sent him out, broke spectacles. Laid himself on a wall for three hours; refused to see experiments. Saw Lord Byron, told him his tale before two physicians. Brought me to trial before five judges; had an advocate to plead. I pleaded for myself; laughed at the advocate. Lost his cause on the plea of calumny; made me pay 12 florins for the broken spectacles and costs.
But most pertinent is an entry from 4 June:
Came home. Went on the lake with Shelley and Lord Byron, who quarrelled with me.
After Percy and Byron returned from their trip to Vevey, Polidori's diary breaks off for two months, only resuming after the Shelley menage decamped for Britain:
September 5. —Not written my Journal till now through neglect and dissipation. Had a long explanation with Shelley and Lord Byron about my conduct to Lord Byron; threatened to shoot Shelley one day on the water. Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
It's not clear whether the September entry is referring back to the quarrel in June, or if they quarreled again during the gap. Either way, relations between Byron, Percy and Polidori were clearly problematic, and Byron let him go soon after the Shelley party left Geneva.

For her part, Mary downplays Polidori in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, his presence and the problems he caused clearly not fitting in with the happy narrative she was pushing (she likewise erases Claire), but Polidori's journal shows that he spent a significant amount of time with Mary, at least up until July when his diary breaks off. For instance, during the nine days when Byron and Percy were away, he records meeting with Mary eight times, often for dinner, but once spending the entire day with her. He also records helping her study Italian by reading the poems of Tasso together, and taking Willmouse for immunization.

While Mary and the others were suffering through these dramas, the people of Geneva -- including a number of Brits there on holiday, were taking note. Byron was, after all, a literary star with a scandalous reputation, and Percy, though less famous, was still of note by himself. And here they both were, running around with a couple of teenage girls -- sisters no less, and one of them dragging around a baby, no one knows whose. Rumors quickly spread that Byron's villa was Orgy Central, and Genevese merchants started renting out spyglasses so curiosity seekers could catch a glimpse of the wild sex that everyone knew was taking place in there. These stories soon filtered back to Britain, where they became the scandal of the decade, and would lead to tragedy for both the Godwins and Shelleys.

And yet, despite all that, if Mary and her companions hadn't had such a miserable time in Geneva -- if their stay had been the cozy vacation that Mary describes in her preface -- genre history would be very different.

NEXT TIME: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

[1] There were scurrilous rumors that his sister's daughter, Elizabeth Leigh, was Byron's, but this is purely speculation; his sister, Augusta, was married at the time, so there's no way of proving who the father was without exhuming bodies.