Dark Satanic Milieu: The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron Andrew McConnell Stott Canongate, 464pp, [Pounds Sterling]25
Mullan, John, New Statesman (1996)
This book begins in motion, as if to dramatise the restlessness that characterises all of its main characters. Lord Byron, best-selling author of his age, is leaving England for exile, first in Switzerland, later in Italy. Percy Bysshe Shelley is leaving too, with his mistress, Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. We head with them, first of all, for the shores of Lake Geneva (where Frankenstein will be hatched) and eventually for Italy. Also in the company is the 20-year-old John Polidori, Byron's personal physician, treated with varying degrees of scorn by his employer, who dubbed him "Pollydolly".
There have been thorough biographies of all the protagonists and most of their letters and journals have been published. What can be new? Only the narrative trick of seeing things from the camp follower's point of view. As the relationship between Shelley and Godwin deepens, we are invited to feel Clairmont's ennui as she has to sit and listen to them calling each other "Pecksie" and "Elfin Knight".
When Polidori leaves the Villa Diodati and travels on foot across the Alps to Italy, we travel with him and are only allowed to meet Byron again when Polidori does. Stott writes with a brio and wit that make every page a pleasure, yet he has nothing new to tell us. The mysteries that previous biographers have failed to solve--notably whether there was a sexual relationship between Clairmont and Shelley--remain resistant.
His narrative logic makes the gravitational pull of Byron and Shelley seem mysterious. Some of their poetry is mentioned en passant but we are offered hardly any reason to share the powerful feelings of their admirers. It was Byron's poetry, after all, that persuaded the teenage Clairmont that she had to give herself to him, body and soul. Here, Byron is impossibly conceited and selfish; Shelley is a dreamer with ideological fixations, who hardly notices the casualties around him. Arguably, while less vampiric than his lordly friend, Shelley made as many victims, including his rejected wife, Harriet, and Mary's half-sister, Fanny, who both committed suicide within a month of each other in 1816.
Yet it is Byron who is to be the demon, his intimacy a "curse". The book's title recalls Byron's own poetic self-image--rendered in darkly self-referential works like Cain or Manfred--as a fallen angel, destined to live beyond normal moral boundaries. The vampire metaphor was on everyone's mind. Shelley's deserted wife, Harriet, told a friend that the man she had once loved was dead and had become "a vampire". …