Byron and Shelley as Vampires?

Implausible? For Regency revolutionary heroes, who knows? The image of the Vampire looming over the inert body of his/her victim in an intimate exchange of body fluids is a classic kind of Romantic fantasy.

I’ve just finished reading, Tim Powers’ novel “The Stress of Her Regard,” (Amazon) first published in 1989, which cleverly weaves many incidents of the years Byron and Shelley — and their circle of girlfriends and hangers-on — spent together in Switzerland and Italy into a narrative that, if can’t convinces us of their Vampirism, at least convinces us to “suspend disbelief”. What more can we ask of fiction?

In brief, Byron is portrayed as the victim of an ancient vampirism; as is Italy under the Austrian yoke. The pre-Adamite race of the Nepehlim have been resurrected centuries earlier by a mystical surgery on an Austrian Duke who, preserved by his vamprisim, commands the invasion of Italy and the occupation of Venice. The ethereal Percy Bysse Shelley, too, by an accident of birth, is a half-breed of the Nephelim and, although he controls his nature, his mania — essential to his poetry — seeped into his realtionship with Mary (Godwin) Shelley and has inspired, too, her writing (Frankenstein).

Byron, it turns out, was infected (“polluted”) by Lord Grey (Henry Edward Yelverton); a vampire who leased Newstead Abbey from him and who, according to Byron’s biographers, “made advances” (Byron refused to discuss the incident) to his handsome teenaged landlord during a visit the latter made to his ancestral home in 1803.

Powers’ clever imagining and reworking of the outré mysteries and ceremonies of the Nephelim and their ‘neffer’ human lovers; the revolutionary history of Italy; the secret society of the Carbonari (in which Byron really did become involved, at least peripherally); the dramatis personae of Byron’s life, especially the ridiculous Dr Polidori but also his dramatic Venetian mistress Maria Cogni and his entourage of servants, is masterful. He borrows plausibly from Shelley’s poetry in the epigraphs to each chapter to substantiate the poet’s conflict with between his humanity and his ‘otherness’ (as a half-caste of the race of Nephelim) and even the documented deaths of Shelley’s and Byron’s children and the tragedy of Shelley’s drowning at the height of his poetic career become milestones in a smoothly perverted history. Somehow, François Villon, as the un-dead, estranged spouse of a Vampire “bride” — the Nephelim seem to be sexually ambidextrous when not flying reptiles — also makes it into the cast of Powers’ book.

The plot? It revolves around two purely imaginary characters; an english obstetrician named Crawford and Aikman (among other names) who has the bad-luck accidentally to ‘betroth’ a vampire, and; his autistic, self-harming sister-in-law who spends the first part of the novel, and most of the second half, trying to kill him but who, finally, becomes his champion and his wife. It’s complicated but Powers handles the implausible bits, mostly, with aplomb.

I loved it. Closely researched and delightfully faithful to Byron’s history and character. The only time I was jolted out of the illusion was by this passage:

“Crawfords eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the room enough for him to see that the sheets were scribbled with six-line stanzas. It was probably more of Don Juan, the apparently endless poem Byron had started writing in Venice in 1818”

Huh? Six lines! Don Juan is, of course, in ottava rima! Eight lines to every stanza! I was astonished that Powers — whose research seems otherwise impeccable — made this mistake and that his editors (if they still had such things in 1989) did not pick it up.