One of literary history's legendary events really did happen on a dark and stormy night. While the "rain descended in sheets" on Lac Léman (now known as Lake Geneva, Switzerland), western culture's most famous monster was conceived and the modern vampire first imagined. Andrew McConnell Stott's "The Poet and the Vampyre" explores the sexual politics (and sexual relations) among the three men — Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori — and the two women — Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley) and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont — who sat at a blazing fire telling ghost stories that night in 1816.
Stott's book is a lusty, lively literary history that tells how the group came together that fateful night and what happened to each of them thereafter. Packed with intimate details and personal anecdotes from a rich array of sources, Stott suggests that the complicated sexual dynamics among the group shaped their personal and professional choices. For Polidori and Mary Shelley in particular, the relationships influenced the monsters they later wrote about.
In 1819 Mary Shelley published "Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus" and Polidori released the alpha of vampire stories, "The Vampyre." Stott posits that Lord Byron is Polidori's beast, the man-monster who harassed and humiliated Polidori whenever circumstances allowed.
As much as Byron tormented Polidori, the worst he could do to him was never as bad as the worst he could do to Clairmont because of her gender. Whereas Mary Shelley wrestled with her demons in her fiction, Clairmont tackled hers in public (a pregnancy Byron refused to acknowledge), and although Percy Shelley was Clairmont's first love, the monster in her life was most certainly also Lord Byron.
Stott's narrative skillfully balances the lives of the five, but Byron is its fulcrum. A "universal object of speculation," according to Stott, Byron reveled in his "satanic majesty." Women threw themselves at his feet and he stomped on them. His most infamous breakup was with Lady Caroline Lamb, who published an exposé of their affair disguised as a novel. It was a bestseller.
At a time in our culture when instant fame or viral infamy is possible at a click, it's easy to forget that we are not the first culture to entertain a cult of celebrity. In fact, as Stott so engagingly shows, the 19th-century Romantics had an "obsession with celebrity" and "its corrosive pathogens." Eventually, caricatures of Clairmont and Polidori showed up in Gothic Romances as "the female hysteric" and "the embittered bourgeois," while Byron, the monster who created them both, became the literary hero.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She is at carolebarrowman.com