The Byronic Vampire and the Romantic Ideal

There is a story that many will have heard and which has entered the popular mythology. On a dark and stormy night in 1816, a group of friends, talented and under the influence of narcotics, gathered together and agreed to tell each other horror stories to while away the rainy nights. From this gathering came arguably the first modern horror novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but of her companions that night: her future husband Percy Bysse Shelley, their friend Lord Byron and his lover 'Claire' Clairmont, and Byron's physician, Dr Polidori, she was not alone in creating a lasting legend.

Polidori's tale -- the short story, The Vampyre -- though little known today, shaped the way that his contemporaries and future generations viewed the vampire. He took the obscure folk-tales about the blood-sucking vampires of the east of europe, and combined it with his troubled view of his employer Byron and created the first 'Byronic' vampire: Lord Ruthven.

Ruthven was everything that the medieval vampires were not. He was of noble breeding and bearing, tall, dark and romantic. His techniques for feeding involved not the animalistic stalking of his precursors, but rather seduction and guile: hunting within rather than upon the edges of, mortal society. As the medieval vampires had been beasts of their time, so too was the byronic vampire ideally suited to the heady days and wild romanticism of the 1800s.

When published, The Vampyre became extremely popular and many who read it immediately associated Ruthven with Byron . In fact, the author was though to be Byron himself, and the piece autobiographical, and it was even included in a collection of Byron's works. When it was removed in a later edition, people were so annoyed that they did not buy the book and the publishers were forced to reinstate the story for later printings. By that time, Byron was a legend in British and continental society. He had already shocked and scandalised society by a rumoured affair with his sister and various other sexual dalliances, and was an exile in Europe. But despite, or perhaps because of, the scandal, all tales about the darkly handsome aristocrat were read eagerly, and in this climate, the explanation that he was a romantic monster fitted well with people's image of him.

The turn of the 18th century brought a society in flux. In France and the American colonies, there had recently been revolution; Napoleon had recently been defeated at Waterloo and insurrection was in the air -- rebellions which Byron, among other, championed. And yet, for all this political revolution, the social and industrial changes were yet to begin and the upper echelons of society were still ruled by a complicated web of etiquette, while the lower classes still toiled on the land. It was in this climate -- stultifying and cloistered, that the need grew for an escape, if only through literature and a new slant on popular mythology.

The needs of the populace in 1816 differed greatly from that of the 15th century Hungarian peasant. Gone was the need to rationalise their fears, and instead was a desire, a need, to express new ideas: a imperative that was difficult to do openly in the social climate. 'Gothick' fiction was already popular by time of Byron: authors had been experimenting with dark fiction (often under the influence of laudanum or deliberately induced nightmares) for some years, and Byron himself based his image upon the heroes of such novels.

But with The Vampyre, Polidori took the genre a step onwards and while to most outwardly it was merely another horror story, albeit with a different and new type of villain, it undoubtedly touched a nerve in the popular subconscious. Here was the monster archetype updated for the age, reflecting the sexual and social concerns of the time. The myth had moved on.

Further online reading

A full text of Polidori's "The Vampyre" is no longer copyight and so is available at various sites on the web, including here and here.

To come: Blood and Sex: the Victorian Vampire

(c) 1998 Helen Steele. All rights reserved.

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