Was Lord Byron a Vampire?

Lord Byron was, without a doubt, a terrible terrible person. He was cruel, arrogant, self-absorbed, and impulsive. But it was in part because of this that he was an object of such extreme fascination. Lady Blessington — one of his acquaintances — once described him as ‘the most extraordinary and terrifying person [she had] ever met’. Caroline Lamb, who would go on to write a bestselling tell-all on Byron, called him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ — the title of many Byron biographies. He was, as Camille Paglia puts it, a narcissistic sex symbol of European high society, and quite possibly, the very ‘first celebrity’ (O’Brien):

‘Lord Byron in Albanian dress’ by Thomas Phillips (1835)

His infamy led him into the lexicon under the word ‘Byronic’, which, ‘to this day, connotes excess, diabolical deeds and a rebelliousness answering neither to king nor commoner’. In more ways than one, his reputation preceded him. As Emily Brand writes in The Fall of the House of Byron, he was brought up hearing ‘outlandish tales of [his] inherited instability’:

Byron was thus the template for the Romantic hero; that ‘melancholy, brooding and defiant man, haunted by some secret guilt’ (Bloom). But I was surprised to learn that Byron was also the inspiration for what would become the iconic modern vampire.

It all began, quite literally, on a stormy night, with a group of friends telling horror stories. This group — which included Lord Byron, the poet Percy Shelley, Shelley’s wife-to-be Mary Godwin, Godwin’s step-sister Claire Clairmont (who was pregnant with Byron’s baby), and Byron’s physician John Polidori — were cooped up in a ‘holiday villa overlooking Lake Geneva’, and began telling stories — one of which would become Godwin’s famous Frankenstein, another: ‘the most influential horror story of all time’ (Frayling). As Christopher Frayling recounts in his literary history of the ‘Vampyre’:

Claire, Mary, Percy & Byron from ‘Mary Shelley’ (2017)

Not only was The Vampyre attributed to Byron, it was also based on his ‘mean, moody and magnificent image’. Even in Caroline Lamb’s first novel Glenarvon, which is a fictionalized account of her affair with Byron, his description reads very vampiric:

As Frayling notes, ‘This, more than all the other villains, with their ‘gaunt faces’ and ‘piercing eyes’, who epitomized the ‘metamorphoses of Satan’ in the Gothick novel, represents the prototype for the Byronic vampire’.

As an interesting aside, in Nick Groom’s history of the Vampire, he writes that certain peoples, including the West Slavic Kashubians, believed that ‘a vampire (vjeszczi or wupji) is destined from birth, indicated by being born with a caul’ (‘an amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus’ — google at your peril). Interestingly, in Edna O’Brien’s biography of Byron, she remarks in passing that, after a ‘torturous’ labour, the baby Byron was ‘born with a caul over his face’…

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Eddie Ejjbair

Eddie Ejjbair

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‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’