Prof. Burstein has been teaching a class in the “Nineteenth-Century Gothic” this semester and I have been reading around in the syllabus, just the works I had not read, so no Frankenstein or Jane Eyre or James Hogg right now. Mostly the, how to say this, lesser Gothic. Third-tier Charles Dickens ghost stories. Elizabeth Gaskell magazine fiction. Enjoyable, but I am not expecting to stumble on the equivalent of A Christmas Carol or Cranford.
Thus John Polidori’s The Vampyre; A Tale (1819) is the worst book I have read in a long time. It is a milestone in, you know, vampire literature, but more importantly it is built on an outstanding joke, which is that Polidori’s pal Lord Byron, the most famous writer in Europe, is a – is the – vampyre. Polidori does everything he can to encourage the association.
The punchline comes after the story proper (“Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!” as if anyone cares), in the “Extract of a Letter, Containing an Account of Lord Byron’s Residence in the Island of Mitylene,” which on the surface has nothing at all to do with The Vampyre, and just below the surface acts as a denial that Byron deserves any of his notoriety. His reading, for example, is not only not especially shocking; he is just a poet, a scholar:
On the tablet of the recess lay Voltaire’s, Shakespeare’s, Boileau’s, and Rousseau’s works complete; Volney’s Ruin of Empires; Zimmerman, in the German language; Klopstock’s Messiah; Kotzebue’s novels; Schiller’s play of the Robbers; Milton’s Paradise Lost, an Italian edition, printed at Parma in 1810; several small pamphlets form the Greek press at Constantinople, much torn, but no English book of any description. Most of these books were filled with marginal notes, written with a pencil, in Italian and Latin. The Messiah was literally scribbled all over, and marked with slips of paper, on which also were remarks.
The last line is the culmination of the joke, that Byron’s attention is focused on the era’s great religious poem. When he is not reading, Byron gives Greek girls money for – their dowries – what did you think I was going to say? “He also bought a new boat for a fisherman who had lost his own in a gale, and he often gave Greek Testaments to the poor children.” He bought another “most beautiful” girl a piano.
Lord Byron’s character is worthy of his genius. To do good in secret, and shun the world’s applause, is the surest testimony of a virtuous heart and self-approving conscience.
I don’t know how much of this is true; that is the third level of the story, the put-on. Byron wasn’t a vampire, that part I know is untrue.
Prof. Burstein has The Vampyre paired with Byron’s Manfred (1817), an inversion of Goethe’s Faust in which Byron is a wizard who spends his time summoning demons who then refuse to serve him. Kind of ineffective. But Byron is doing the same thing Polidori would later do, practically demanding that his readers identify the demented Byronic character with the celebrity author.
The Vampyre is most interesting as a landmark in the literature of celebrity.