Byron, the Shelleys and Frankenstein
Part II -- Villafication
by Kyla Ward
First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote many works, and created two legends. One rests in the text of Frankenstein, published in 1817 and having never since been out of print. The second rests in the text of the introduction she wrote for the Standard Novels edition in 1831.
In the summer of 1816 we visited Switzerland and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first, we spent our pleasant hours on the lake or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one amongst us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.But you know the story! A modern legend, which has inspired generations of young writers to suggest; 'I know, what if each of us, you know, try and make up a ghost story?' But sans the surroundings of the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, these efforts seldom have such success. The public at the time found the situation equally as intriguing, though for not altogether literary reasons. What makes that summer at the Villa Diodati of such vitality for us, apart from the base of scandal, romance and fame that enthralled the tourists at the Hotel d'Angleterre across the lake, is its effect as a junction in literature.
For the first, all the currents involved in the creation of Gothic horror could be said to conjoin here -- in some cases literally. And all the ideas of decadent aristocracy, the pressure of public morality and the corresponding excitement of 'bad' books, literate women, and collections of folktales, they were all represented in situ.
Secondly, the initial phase of the Gothic was reaching, perhaps, the natural extent of its energy. As says the thinly-disguised Mr Flosky in Thomas Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (of which more shortly);
It lived upon ghosts, goblins, and skeletons (I and my friend Mr Sackbut served up a few of the best), till even the devil himself, though magnified to the size of Mount Athos, became too base, common, and popular, for its surfeited appetite.Out of this meeting, it is not pushing the truth to say, the new energy of the horrific was generated. Thirdly, as hinted, the whole situation itself was so gothic as to be irresistible, but let me cover my points in some order.
George Gordon Byron, the sixth Lord Byron, was the paying public's choice of decadent aristocrat. Comparison of the rumours current after his 'exile' from England, and the incidents discussed in his own letters to friends, lead one to consider that the gossips actually lacked imagination. Tales that the English Lord had murdered one of his mistresses and drunk her blood from a cup made of her cranium sound stagy, beside the actual exploits of the man who travelled -- recall, this is in the first years of the nineteenth century -- to Constantinople and the Turkish courts, rode through the wilds of Albania and climbed the mountains in the Swiss Alps; and, if we are indeed to take certain letters from Venice as prima facia, spent in two years half of five thousand pounds on sex 'of one kind or another', adding that to be sure, he had plenty for the money. We are considering someone who made his literary name with the epic Childe Harold, a fictionalised account of his own young life.
Byron consciously cultivated his image, until it rebounded on him. In the spring of 1816, his wife of under a year left him and he was to all intents and purposes exiled. A social exile; both he and Annabella Milbanke were powerful aristocrats in the same circle. As in a way that still happens today, with the general addition of televised trials, matters like this could only become a war with sides and partisans, and the loser finding life in the 'set' unbearable.
So it was Byron who took up the lease on the Villa Diodati, and invited all his English friends to visit; including the notorious Matthew 'Monk' Lewis. Shortly after, he met Percy Shelley, heir to a baronetcy in Sussex and conceivably in more trouble than he was. Byron, perhaps due to his romantic image, was an outcast but still a respectable one. His sins were suitable to his rank and vocation, it has even been suggested this was why he went out of his way to fall from grace. Percy Shelley's were not.
Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for publishing, under his own name, and furthermore refusing to retract a pamphlet The Necessity Of Atheism in 1811. Now, five years later, he signed the occupation section of the visitors book at the Hotel d'Angleterre with the same term. His travelling companions added that their destination was Hades, (Byron for his part signed his age as 100). Byron's poem The Corsair had sold 14,000 copies on its first day of printing in 1814, but Shelley's first major work Queen Mab had, the year before, to be privately printed and circulated, and it was condemned even at that level. Shelley was the type of vehement reformist and political radical that had become unfashionable after the French Revolution to the point of treason. At this epoch, radical could be roughly translated as anti-religious and anti-monarchist. Queen Mab is a delightful piece, an excellent antidote to Milton, containing as it does the portrait of a God who created and proceeded then to torture mankind to divert his eternal ennui. But what the same gossips who delighted in discussing Byron's mistresses appreciated, was his blatant infidelity to his own wife, and his taking up with the definitely lower class daughter of two other infamous intellectual radicals. To acquire some taste of the situation, consider this record of their meeting from the journal of Doctor John Polidori.
Getting out L.B. met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her sister, and Percy Shelley... Dined: PS, the author of Queen Mab came: bashful, shy, consumptive, twenty-six: separated from his wife; keeps the two daughters of Godwin, who practise his theories; one L.B.'sThe journal of Doctor Polidori, officially there in capacity as Byron's personal physician, but strongly likely to have been acting as Byron's accountant upon the request of his publishers, looks at these matters from a usefully external view.
A literate woman -- a professional -- was automatically radical. This is the root of Polidori's comments about Mary's father, William Godwin, with the implication of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is still commonly read today; moreso than the accompanying A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), an essay supporting the principles of the French Revolution, or her husband's most famous text Political Justice (1793). This pair strongly shared the same principles, including upon the implications of traditional marriage. By the time of her daughter's advent upon the literary scene, Mary Wollstonecraft had died and Godwin had married a second time, a woman who brought to the household a previous daughter known as 'Claire'.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, though at this time still Godwin, as Polidori is careful to note, was really the perfect offspring of the couple. She wrote and read widely from an early age, and by the time she met Shelley had formed her own resistance to her position in society, both of class and sex, that informed her later adventures and the actions she took after Shelley's death. In a milieu where it was commonplace for a woman to publish anonymously, she joined the thin ranks of publicly celebrated female authors, and for a considerable part of her life supported herself and her surviving child by writing and editing. As her 'Preface' shows, and her various other memoirs and biographical contributions extend, she was certainly canny enough to utilise her association with Byron. Poets, in those days, held a glamour and type of respect that novelists could not approach, the fame of Mary and of Ann Radcliffe notwithstanding. Byronic, let us face it, is an adjective.
Claire, or actually Mary Jane Claremont fits more, perhaps, into the idea of decadent nobility, being 'L.B.'s'. Monk Lewis had not arrived, by the time of the 'ghost stories', but he and a whole string of others, including the poet Coleridge and Percy Shelley's good friend Thomas Peacock, could be said to be represented one way or another, friends or enemies of one or another of the group. In fact, the gathering here can almost be said to parallel the one at Nightmare Abbey, in Peacock's above-mentioned satire, published in 1818. As well as a perfect take-off of the classic gothic novel, which is referred to as the Morbid Anatomy of Black Bile, the central character is a portrait of Shelley, who apparently managed to appreciate the joke. The two female protagonists represent his successive wives, as Harriet Westbrook committed suicide whilst he and Mary were in Geneva. The quoted Mr Flosky -- an arcane pun in classical Greek meaning 'lover of shadows' -- is Coleridge. And even Byron makes a cameo as 'Mr Cypress', who is criticised by the Shelley character for his perceived rejection of politics. Mr Cypress replies;
Sir, I have quarrelled with my wife; and a man who has quarrelled with his wife is absolved from any duty to his country. I have written an ode to tell the people as much, and they may take it as they list.The final element, the ghost stories. The collection containing the stories mentioned in the 'Preface', is the Fantasmagoria of Jean Baptiste Benoit Eyries, published in 1812. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the 1800 English translation of Johann Ludwig Tieck's Wake Not the Dead was on the reading list; but it is clear that the party were all quite familiar with vampires, and that is one of the earliest examples of the genre proper.
It is clear that all the conventions and history of the gothic were familiar to the party -- a slightly younger Byron had been known to pronounce Vathek as his bible. Shelley, while still at Oxford, had published anonymously two apparently, highly overdone 'horrors'. Both had proven quite capable of more mature macabre, such as in Byron's The Giaour (1813), where the unhappy heroine is sewn into a sack and flung into the sea to drown. The perpetrator is then cursed;
But first on earth as vampire sentPolidori published a novel of his own in 1819, entitled Ernestus Berchtold, which also involves supernatural elements. His journal indicates that it was a version or summary, perhaps as Frankenstein by Mary's record first existed, of this novel that was his contribution to the evening. His journal also gives some indication of the atmosphere in the Villa, during the renowned stormy nights.
Began my ghost story after tea. Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. L.B. repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs S., and suddenly thought of a women he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.That is the only genuine reference there is to any pharmaceutical's. Unlike the case of William 'Vathek' Beckford, whose memoirs contain lengthy descriptions of opium dreams, all we know is that Shelley on occasion did take laudanum for nervous headaches, and that Byron was known to take a popular commercial tranquilliser known as 'Black Drop', which contained opiates. All else is legend.
Byron's contribution was, again according to Polidori, a tale of which 'A Fragment' was written down, and later printed for reasons we shall arrive at.
It depended for interest upon the circumstances of two friends leaving England, and one dying in Greece, the other finding him alive, upon his return, and making love to his sister.What make this especially interesting is that it is a near perfect description of the novella The Vampyre that Polidori wrote and which was published in 1819 under Byron's name in The New Monthly Magazine. Byron published The Fragment at the end of his poem Mazeppa that same year, to try and convince people it wasn't him. Unfortunately for both of them the novella was so popular that it was included in the first and third editions of Byron's collective works. The confusion was serious, and Polidori ended up receiving thirty pounds for a work, in its own way, as influential and long-lasting as his master's own, even if it appears he stole it.
It was popular, because everyone knew perfectly well that Lord Ruthven was a portrait of Byron. Although we may regret Byron never completed his version, as judging by the prose of the fragment it would have been something genuinely superb, Polidori encapsulated a certain energy that made vampires -- specifically, the aristocratic, masculine demon -- what they still are in the public mind, Anne Rice not withstanding.
The first imitations appeared within the year. A full length, two-volume novel came from Paris, entitled Lord Ruthven ou les Vampires, described as 'ce Don Juan vampirique' -- which masterpiece Byron had started by now to publish. With the type of turn-around only demonstrated by John Grisham novels these days, the theatrical adaption was out as well. In fact, as copyright prevents these days, there were two, and a couple of spoofs.
Charles Nodier, a noted theatrical entrepreneur and collector of weird tales was responsible for one, the playwright James Planchés for the other. In 1826, the Planchés Vampyre was being performed at the English Opera House as a double bill with, and some trends do start very early, Frankenstein, or The Man and The Monster, by Milner.
Another adaption was produced by no less than Alexandre Dumas in 1853; this is bypassing the actual opera version, created by Heinrich Marschener and librettist Wilhelm Wolbrucke in 1828. But Dumas had actually attended a performance of the Nodier version which he describes in a quite incredible episode of his memoirs. He is watching the play, which description makes Polidori's work seem literary, when a stranger sitting next to him says, this is just too absurd. The young Dumas is about to reply he thinks the play is actually quite good, when the man continues; no. Vampires don't behave like that at all.
When Mary Shelley returned to England after the death of her husband, she saw the play Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein by R. B. Peake, and by all reports appreciated it greatly. This was in 1823, the Milner play had been on the stage, again, a few months after publication of the novel. The sensation surrounding Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus was of a different note to The Vampyre. The first edition was indeed published anonymously, although dedicated to Charles Godwin. What most people thought was, of course, that the work was Percy's. One of the most vital of the early reviews, by Sir Walter Scott in Blackwoods Journal, was of this opinion. Mary wrote to him expressing thanks for his kind words, and telling him the truth; Lord Byron had been spreading the word about via his friends in any case. He seems to have been genuinely impressed by Mary's achievement.
That the author of Frankenstein, a ghastly tale of science-sorcery, body-snatching and multiple murders, was a young woman was, like Byron's, exactly the right sort of notoriety. Much was made of the contrast between the demure and beautiful young lady and the horrific book she had conceived of in a dream. This was still, remark, being done with all apparent sincerity in 1935, when James Whale 'prefaced' his film The Bride of Frankenstein with a cut to the Villa Diodati, to quote;
BYRON: Astonishing creature...The only real difficulty is that too much of this has on occasion inspired people to go back to saying that she actually couldn't have. I have even heard it said that this was because the story was so 'male'. All actual evidence aside, this must witness an incredibly blinkered reading of the work. An author cannot help but put of themselves and their surroundings in their work, though perhaps not always to the extent of Childe Harold, (or indeed The Vampyre). Comparison with the other Mary Shelley novel known to modernity, The Last Man, there are themes and styles in Frankenstein that mark it unmistakably.
The Bride of Frankenstein then proceeds to do something that has proved of equal intrigue to adaptors, and is possibly as unwise; to equate the various members of the Diodati party with characters in the book. This is possibly to do with an anecdote about Shelley experimenting with electricity at Oxford; there isn't even a numerical correspondence available otherwise. At least Bride gave the author the dignity of being the creature, instead of Elizabeth.
This is what the eventual Frankenstein opera did, along with the at least unprecedented move of viewing the whole thing through the eyes of Claire. Vampires have a greatly different type of appeal to the Creature, so it had to wait until 1991 when Mer de Glace by Richard Meale, librettist David Malouf, premiered at the Sydney Opera House, and then until the Second Act. It is said with some real grounding that the central characters of The Last Man are modelled on Shelley and Byron. I will go one step further, and suggest that in the characters purported to be Shelley, one may also seek and find Mary.
Perhaps needless to say, I have made no attempt to treat these fascinating figures from the Villa Diodati, apart from the influences I see them as generating and evincing. The only available way to consider the people, George Gordan Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is to read their works.
That The Vampyre and Frankenstein, or, a Modern Prometheus were something new, generated out of the original gothics, is hardly contestable. Please note that The Vampyre held the field for almost a century until the advent of Dracula. However, gothics still they were, in their essential images of exploration of a dark side, and of dark desires, the things that must not be. These ideas were to be taken down two paths: one hand in hand with Melmoth the Wanderer in the direction of French Decadence. The other emerged eventually in the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the 'American Gothic'. But here we have our essential legend, of an old house and a stormy night, of unstable genius and dark passions.
Checklist* Byron and the Shelleys, the story of a friendship, Jane Blumberg, Collin and Brown, 1992. Excellent survey.
 Vampyres, Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling, Faber and Faber, 1992. You mean you haven't read this yet?
* Gothic (Ken Russell, 1986) Did you know this film is one huge quote? From various sources, genuine and speculative. There must be five minutes of original dialogue tops.
* Haunted Summer (Ivan Passer, 1988), Another version of 1816 with Laura Dern as guess who.
* Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian Aldiss, 1973. Interesting variant on the dead film star syndrome. The film version in 1990 was by Roger Corman.
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