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Poets and Monsters,
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This review is from: The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and The Curse of Byron (Hardcover)
The events at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 read, appropriately enough perhaps, like something from a Gothic novel: a mad tale of brilliant poets, ghost stories, violent storms, sublime mountainous landscapes and heated sexual intrigue. The focal point for the events, somewhat inevitably given his fame and reputation, was Lord Byron who had rented the villa after fleeing certain marital difficulties at home. Travelling with him was his physician, John Polidori and in hot pursuit was a former lover, Claire Clairmont, travelling together with her step-sister Mary Godwin and Mary's lover Percy Shelley. It was all unavoidably, as they finally met up on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, going to end with something of a bang.
The Vampyre Family is a fascinating book, not least because it provides a new angle on a familiar story. Anyone with an interest in the Romantics will know that the events at the Villa Diodati - with the fireside discussions of galvanism and ghost stories on the one hand and the intoxicating mixture of sexual tension and incessant thunder storms on the other - ultimately led to the writing of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein and Polidori's short story The Vampyre; two works which have fascinated and influenced subsequent generations ever since. What The Vampyre Family does brilliantly however is address in detail the events leading up to the summer of 1816 together with the aftermath for those who were there. Byron, as is always the case with Byron, steals the show but Polidori and Claire Clairmont in particular emerge from the book as rounded, passionate, flawed and very human characters. Giving such prominence to Claire in particular adds considerable depth to the tale itself and allows for a fresh perspective on the behaviour of Byron (usually fairly bad); Polidori (star-struck, jealous but with character and passion); Mary Shelley (not always the saint) and Percy Shelley (likeable, brilliant, but not always of much practical use).
I loved this book. It is well-researched and beautifully written (in particular I liked all of the little character sketches which brought to life even the most peripheral characters - the hack writer John Mitford for example, an alcoholic so derelict he apparently only ate cheese and onions, washed his clothes in a pond and regularly spent the nights asleep in a field). Also by giving John Polidori and Claire Clairmont equal billing with their more famous contemporaries the book achieves a beautiful balance between dazzling literary endeavour and human pain, regret and suffering. The events at the Villa Diodati form a familiar tale of course but I have never before seen them given such an elegant and insightful rendering as they have received here. Highly recommended.