‘Reading the Vampire’ Week 2: From the Peasant to the Aristocrat: the Birth of the Romantic/Byronic Vampire

Our second workshop tonight amidst yet more torrential rain. All the students arrived back for the second session (always a relief that they want to return). Our workshop texts were: Lord Byron, Augustus Darvell( 1819); John Polidori, ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), in John Polidori, The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, ed. by Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 1-23, 246-251.

We excitedly anticipated the arrival of the Romantic/Byronic vampire in fiction and interrogated differing perspectives on the textual relationship between Byron and Polidori. We began with a discussion around a ‘Vampire Timeline’ which identified literary vampires post Byron and pre Dracula (1897). Romanticism’s contribution to the vampire was here laid bare with references to Goethe, Keats, Southey, paintings by Burne-Jones and more.

Byron as a real life model for the new aristocratic vampire was then investigated alongside issues of nationality, ethnicity and social class. The following articles informed our discussion: L. Skarda, ‘Vampirism and Plagiarism: Byron’s Influence and Polidori’s Practice’ ; ‘Conrad Aquilina, ‘The Deformed Transformed; or, from Bloodsucker to Byronic Hero – Polidori and the Literary Vampire’, in Open Graves, Open Minds, pp. 24-39; Ken Gelder, ‘Vampires in Greece: Byron and Polidori’, in Reading the Vampire, pp. 24-41.

Most histories gesture towards a multiplicity of origins for the vampire, whereby the creature’s identity is thoroughly dispersed across history and place. Vampirologist Montague Summers – described him as a ‘citizen of the world’ (from Goldsmith). Interestingly Marchand uses this very term to describe Byron (Byron A Portrait, 1971). Summers however reminds us somewhat inconsistently that ‘in no country has the vampire tradition more strongly prevailed and more consistently maintained its hold upon the people than in modern Greece’ (p. 217). The connection between vampire fiction and Greece has been long standing- unsurprisingly in the first English vampire story Aubrey journeys to Greece (just as Harker journeys to Transylvania in Dracula).

Q. Why does Byron choose Greece as the setting for his vampire story?

Byron had already successfully travelled through Greece and Turkey on The Grand Tour (1809-10), later accompanied by Polidori. ‘The Giaour’ and his vampire fragment were undoubtedly influenced by his experiences there. Polidori was commissioned by John Murray to keep a diary of his Grand Tour with Byron it was never published but ‘The vampyre’ serves as a kind of substitute. Interestingly, the Byronic image of a solitary wanderer in a perpetual state of exile became immensely popular as a touristic posture within Romanticism (relationship to vampire figure and to the later representation of Dracula noted)

‘The Giaour’ (difficult to pronounce) seems to be a lament for a ‘lost’ or ‘fallen’ Greece trampled by Turkish colonisers and no longer ‘alive’;‘Tis Greece, but living Greece no more/ So coldly sweet, so deadly fair’ (lines 91-2). Greece as ‘undead’ or ‘living dead’ (vampiric). Byron here is romantically involved with a Greece whose identity and classical heritage remains lost – ‘like many vampire narratives the fantasy indulged in here is one of incompletion; the Giaour remains a vampire so long as national identity is unattainable’ (Gelder, p. 29).

With this in mind we looked at how Greece is represented in both Byron and Polidori and why it is significant. Then, after discussing the legendary evening that produced Byron’s vampire fragment (following readings of phantasmagoria and storytelling with Romanticism’s creative best – Mary Godwin (Shelley), Shelley, Polidori, Clare Clairmont), and Lamb’s thinly disguised portrayal of Byron as Lord Ruthven in Glenarvon, we were impelled to ask some questions re: Polidori’s suspected plagiarism of this tale and his own shadowing of Byron. What is the relationship between Byron’s fragment ‘Augustus Darvell and Polidori’s tale?; What does ‘The Vampyre’ actually take from Byron’s text?; What is the significance of the name Ruthven?; How might we discuss Ruthven as a vampire archetype?; What role does Ianthe play? What does she symbolise? Can we make links back to Calmet and Tournefort? How has the representation of the vampire and its origins changed?

After much discussion we agreed the following significant changes to the figure of the vampire:

Elevation of social rank- the vampire is no longer associated with the East European peasant only -links to the aristocracy in England have been established. There seemed never to have been an urban vampire, nor an educated bourgeois vampire prior to this. A predatory sexuality has been introduced in relation to the vampire. We see for the first time the vampire as rake or libertine a real ‘lady killer’.

The vampire has abandoned his peasant roots and left his calling card in polite society!!

Genres and archetypes were then discussed including the significance of Calmet – read by Romantics like Southey and known to Polidori and Byron; Romanticism’s interest in folk tales – in rescuing them from vulgar superstition and finding in them moral significance was also acknowledged.

Polidori’s story marks the beginning of European literature’s fascination with the figure of the vampire, appearing in a monthly journal (a form of popular literature). The story was later published in book form, running through seven editions in 1819 alone. It was quickly adapted for the stage in 1820 in London and France and translated into German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.

We decided that Polidori had unwittingly succeeded in founding the entire modern tradition of vampire fiction!

Critical approaches were then introduced:
Conrad Aquila (in OGOM book) cements links to Romanticism and fast forwards into Rice as further rejection of folkloric vampire
Skarda (notoriously scathing of Polidori)
Gelder (attempts to rescue Polidori and explain Greek element)

Further questions were raised at this point. What does Gelder’s reading of Polidori and Byron tell us about the relationship between classical texts and folk narratives, between peasants and aristocrats? How might Polidori’s role as a plagiarist be reconsidered?

We noted that Gelder sets himself up as an angry antagonist to Skarda and to academic conventions that prioritise Byron’s literary fragment over Polidori’s sensationalist gothic tale. We needed to ask whether Polidori used the material creatively, ironically rather than slavishly? Or was it a crude narrative written under the influence of a greater more subtle talent (i.e. Byron)?

Our conclusion:

Polidori’s re-writing of the tale is also a rejection and disruption of Byron’s view of Greece, in short a Gothic inflexion of it. It is suggested that Lord Ruthven the English aristocrat murders Ianthe, the true symbol of Greece (and the heroine of the tale though a peasant). According to Gelder, ‘Polidori’s story seems to suggest that British ‘society’ itself is vampirish; its aristocratic representatives prey upon ‘the people’ wherever they go’ (p. 34). Themes of ethnicity, national identity and social class stubbornly prevail (with Marx waiting in the wings to be introduced in week 4). The troubled and ill fated relationship between Lord Byron and his lowly physician Polidori is everywhere evidenced in the text, in the travels to Greece and in the fraught encounters between the hapless, quixotic Aubrey and the ruthless, bloodsucker and corrupter of innocence, Ruthven. The influence of Byron is here represented as a new form of moral contagion.

Next week curtains up for the vampire on the stage, the legacy of Ruthven in Victorian melodrama.

See you there for a full house!

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire

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0 Responses to ‘Reading the Vampire’ Week 2: From the Peasant to the Aristocrat: the Birth of the Romantic/Byronic Vampire

  1. firekrank says:

    This was really interesting. Especially given my current research on imperialism and its ‘civilising’ effects on the wilderness. It also made me think of Erik Butler’s ‘The Bourgeois Vampire and Nineteenth Century Identity Theft’ in his book ‘Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film’. He writes about the satirical and political use of the vampire and how that connects with Lord Ruthven’s performance of aritistocracy in ‘The Vampyre’ (which points to the same performance in ‘Dracula’ as critiqued by Moretti). Like Gelder, Butler is critical of the model of the ‘universal vampire’ which he argues is actually an attempt to give a relatively new monster (at least in the Western canon) a noble lineage. This is certainly something which I think applies to the representation of the figure of the werewolf in recent studies.

    Just want to double-check when the ‘Twilight’ session is so that I can come along and add my two-pennies’ worth.

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