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.

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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