Was Lord Byron a Vampire?
terrible (adj.) “causing terror, awe, or dread; frightful”
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):
Hearts fluttered, senses went haywire, Lady Rosebery almost fainted and Lady Mildmay said that when he spoke to [her] in a doorway [her] heart beat so violently that [she] could hardly answer him. What can he have said? His ‘underlook’, as it was called, excited them, as indeed did the rumours that he was an infidel and dreadfully perverted. His lameness, while evoking pity, also quickened desire. The combination of genius and Satanism was irresistible, all thirsting for an introduction if only to receive a lash of his bitter tongue or maybe, maybe, to feature ‘in his lays’. The Duchess of Devonshire, writing to her son Augustus Foster in Washington, described the enthusiasm and curiosity that surrounded him dwarfing any mention of the war in Spain or Portugal, flattered and praised wherever he appeared. One lady, Annabella Milbanke, sighting him in that intoxicating season of his fame, found him ‘wanting in the calm benevolence that would touch [her] heart’, though she would go on to fall in love with him (O’Brien)
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’:
The man [Byron] will grow to be is known to history for many things: his love affairs, his taste for the flamboyant, his lust for adventure and–above all–his poetry. But by the time he takes that first tour of Newstead his family name is already steeped in tragedy, romance and adventure […] (‘There always was a madness in the family’, he remarks one day to a Harrow classmate, interrupting himself in the middle of a cheerful tune, ‘My father cut his throat.’) (Brand)
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’:
Incessant rain–it was the worst summer on record–encouraged Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and Dr John Polidori to scare each other with ghost stories late at night as a kind of family bet. After Mary Godwin had read out the ‘operation’ scene of her Frankenstein, Lord Byron began a tale about a blue-blooded aristocrat who dies in a Turkish graveyard–and promises to return. Some of the participants in the session had been reading about the vampires of folklore, and the still-active controversies surrounding the epidemics of vampirism which were said to have spread through peasant societies in Eastern Europe and Greece since the early eighteenth century. The story told by Lord Byron that night in June was subsequently rewritten and expanded by Dr Polidori, Byron’s physician during the Geneva summer, and published without permission in 1819 under the title The Vampyre. Byron was furious. But it was too late to stem the flow. The Vampyre was a runaway bestseller, instantly copied and adapted for the stage. Not only did some editions of the story bear the tantalizing initials ‘L. B.’ on the title page, but Goethe–no less–considered it ‘the English poet’s finest work’. The aristocratic literary vampire had been well and truly launched, with the best possible calling-card (Frayling)
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:
It was one of those faces which, having once beheld, we never afterwards forget. It seemed as if the soul of passion had been stamped and printed upon every feature. The eye beamed into life as it threw up its dark ardent gaze, with a look nearly of inspiration, while the proud curl of the upper lip expressed haughtiness and bitter contempt; yet, even mixed with these fierce characteristic feelings, an air of melancholy and dejection shaded over and softened every harsher expression (Lamb)
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’…