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.

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