Regency Bicentennial:   Horror at Villa Diodati

"It was a dark and stormy night . . . "   Is that not the quintessential opening line of a horror story? But in this case, it had been a dark and stormy summer, for two hundred years ago, it was the "Year Without a Summer." The constant and often violent storms had kept some of the most creative minds in English literature at the time confined indoors in a villa near the shores of Lake Geneva. Naturally, such ingenious individuals would not be content with a few hands of cards or other dull amusements. Instead, they hit upon the idea of writing horror stories and their efforts would result in the development of two of the most terrifying characters in all of classic horror.

The accouchement of monsters at the Villa Diodati . . .

So many factors came into play to ensure this particular group of people were together at that particular place in the summer of 1816. Egregious debt, atheism, scorned women, the scandal of adultery and even incest, not to mention one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in the history of our planet, all played their part in this tale. In order of occurrence, first came the eruption of Mount Tambora in April of 1815. Though this volcanic eruption took place in Indonesia in the spring of 1815, it would have a devastating effect on the climate of Europe for most of the following year. In particular, the particles of volcanic dust which were forced high into the atmosphere would circle the globe, partially blotting out the rays of the sun, and denying most of Europe any real summer in the year 1816. Instead, most of the Continent would be plagued with frequent heavy rains and fierce thunderstorms. Even on the days the sun was visible, its rays brought little warmth.

The dramatis personæ of this singular event were Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to become Mrs. Shelley), Claire Clairmont, and John William Polidori. (Of this time, Shelley wrote to friends that Byron had a peacock, a monkey and a dog with him, plus there were at least five cats and six other dogs housed at the villa, as well as a crow and a falcon, all of whom had full run of the house. However, so far as we know, their only contribution to the tales of horror which were written that summer in Switzerland was the horrendous noise about which Shelley complained in his letter to his friends.) Lord Byron, deeply in debt, had married a woman he believed to be an heiress, almost solely for her money, though he had a strong emotional attachment to his married half-sister. Eventually, his poor treatment of his wife, his many adulterous affairs and her suspicions with regard to his half-sister, caused her to file for a separation soon after she had given birth to the poet’s only legitimate child. Byron’s mounting debts, as well as the growing scandal of his adultery, and possible incest, swirling around him, finally drove the famous poet from Britain at the end of April 1816. He hired Dr. John William Polidori, a young man with literary aspirations and a powerful case of Byronic hero worship, to accompany him as his personal physician.

Percy Shelley, his pregnant young mistress, Mary Godwin and their infant son, William, had also left England under a cloud, since Shelley had not only carried on an adulterous affair with a young woman, he had deserted his wife and children. Perhaps even worse in the eyes of some, he was an avowed atheist and an advocate of free love. Percy and Mary were prompted to travel to the Continent by Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who had had an affair with Lord Byron earlier that year, before he left Britain. She knew she was carrying his child and hoped to be reunited with him. Claire was aware of Byron’s travel plans and knew he would be stopping in the area of Lake Geneva in the late spring. Fortunately for Claire, Percy Shelley had never met Byron and was eager to do so. Claire was also aware that Byron had wanted to meet Shelley and she believed her step-sister’s paramour would be a potent lure to bring Byron back into her sphere. As it happened, the Shelley party arrived in the Lake Geneva area several days before Byron and Polidori.

On Saturday, 25 May 1816, Byron’s party arrived in Sécheron, which was about a mile outside of Geneva. The Hotel d’ Angleterre, a hotel very popular with English travellers, was located in the town. After several days of jouncing over the bad roads of the region, even in his new travelling coach, Byron was exhausted and put down his age in the hotel register as 100. Somehow, Claire Clairmont got a look at the hotel register and the next day wrote Byron a teasing note, saying she thought he must be closer to 200, since it had taken him so long to arrive. She also importuned him to meet with her as soon as possible. He managed to avoid her for a couple of days, while he sought a house in the area that he could rent for the summer. But his luck ran out on Tuesday, 28 May, when, after rowing across Lake Geneva to look over the Villa Diodati, in which he was interested, Byron and Polidori stepped out of their boat to find the Shelley party on the dock. This was the first meeting between the two poets, both of whom were painfully shy. Though uncomfortable at first, each soon found a number of subjects in which they had a mutual interest, and their friendship would flourish from that day on. Byron soon dubbed the idealistic Shelley "Shiloh," after the unborn babe which the prophetess Joanna Southcott had claimed she had conceived the previous year by Divine intervention and would come into the world as the second Messiah.

Initially, Byron was told that the Villa Diodati had been promised to an English family, which was a great disappointment to him, since the Diodati family had a link to the English poet, John Milton. Byron also preferred the villa’s rather isolated location, as he did not care to become a spectacle for the amusement of the locals and visitors to the area. However, several days later, he was informed that the villa was once again available for the summer. Byron rented the villa from 10 June to 1 November 1816. Shortly before Byron took the Villa Diodati, Percy Shelley rented a smaller house, Maison Chapuis, below the villa, at Montalègre. This house had its own small harbor and a boathouse near the shore. Shelley persuaded Byron to split the cost of a small rigged boat, on which the two young men sailed around the lake to celebrate Byron’s acquisition of the Villa Diodati. But that was to be one of their few sailing excursions, as the weather that summer seemed to go from bad to worse. It rained for days on end, punctuated with fierce, frighteningly powerful thunderstorms.

Since he had the larger house, Byron regularly invited the Shelley party to visit him when the weather was bad. Byron may not have minded the need to stay indoors, since he had learned that at least two of the local inn-keepers had installed telescopes on their premises. Both had trained their telescopes on the Villa Diodati and were charging visitors for the chance to spy on the scandalous English poet. Initially, the group amused themselves with conversation, but at some point, one of the party found a copy of Fantasmagoriana in the library of the Villa Diodati. Published in Paris, in 1812, Fantasmagoriana was a French translation of an anthology of German ghost stories. They took turns reading the stories aloud, each reader trying to make the story they read as frightening as possible. The effect of the stories may have been enhanced by the fact that at least some members of the group were indulging in laudanum from time to time. It is known that at one point, Percy Shelley went running from the room, screaming hysterically at a terrifying hallucination during the reading of a story and had to be treated by Dr. Polidori. Other members of the party reported suffering from disturbing nightmares.

Perhaps unsettled by the results of these readings, or bored with the lack of creativity, some time in mid-June, Byron challenged his fellow writers to a contest to see who could write the most terrifying ghost story or tale of the supernatural. Those included in the contest, in addition to Byron, were Shelley, Mary Godwin and Dr. Polidori, who had aspirations as a writer. Since Byron did not consider Claire Clairmont a writer, she was not included in his invitation. Byron, who did not like clever or educated women, would have also excluded Mary, but he could not do so without offending his new friend, Shelley. Over the course of the next several days, Byron taunted his fellow contestants, each morning asking them if they had yet thought of a story, though he was not doing at all well with his own story.

Mary Godwin struggled for several days, until finally, a germ of a story came to her in a hideous nightmare. The story she created out of that nightmare is probably the most well-known of the stories written at Villa Diodati that summer. It was, of course, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Though Percy Shelley was not able to come up with a viable story of his own, he actively encouraged Mary in her efforts to develop her tale from what she had originally intended to be a short story into a full-length novel. Two years later, in London, Percy also acted as Mary’s agent and shepherded her book along to publication. Though initially the novel received unfavorable reviews from the critics, it very quickly became popular with the general reading public.

Byron jotted down the rudiments of a story about two friends travelling to Greece, one of whom dies, then returns from the dead, but he abandoned it after a few days. However, his physician, Dr. Polidori, did write a story, in which he took some revenge on Byron’s treatment of him, by modelling his monster on Byron himself. Polidori had been plagued with motion sickness during their jorney from Britain and had been teased unmercifully by Byron for his weakness. Byron also taunted the sensitive young man with tales of his own physical triumphs to show up the doctor’s lack of spirit and courage. By the time they had arrived in Switzerland, Byron had taken to calling his physician "Pollydolly," which grieved and embarrassed the younger man.

There are many who believe that one of the reasons that Byron was forced to flee England was the publication of Lady Caroline Lamb’s Gothic Roman à clef, Glenarvon. But in fact, the novel was not published until early May, nearly two weeks after Byron’s departure. He first learned about the scandalous new novel by his former lover in a letter from his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, the day after he had arrived in Switzerland. Hobhouse had sketched out the basics of the story in his letter, which it seems Byron shared with his doctor and his new acquaintances. The title character, Lord Ruthven Glenarvon, was a harsh and thinly disguised version of Caro’s former lover, Lord Byron. Lord Glenarvon eventually destroys Calantha, the heroine of the tale, and Caro’s fictionalized depiction of herself.

Though Dr. Polidori had probably not yet read Glenarvon in June of 1816, he would have known the gist of the story and the names of the main characters from the letter that Hobhouse had sent to Byron. By that time, Polidori had not only ceased to worship Byron, he had come to believe that the famous poet was sucking the life from him. Therefore, his ghost story was about a creature who fed off the lives of others. In his story, The Vampyre, the main character is Lord Ruthven, an urbane and mysterious English nobleman who circulates in London high society. Ruthven seduces and kills a number of women in the story, and his cruel behavior also leads to the death of a young orphan gentleman who had befriended him. Prior to Polidori’s tale, the vampire of European lore was a vile monster, hideous and evil. But in Polidori’s version, the vampire becomes a seductive and beguiling creature whom women, in particular, find impossible to resist. Lord Ruthven of Polidori’s The Vampyre, based on Lord Byron, became the prototype of a number of vampires though the years, including the suave and hypnotic Dracula himself.

Byron eventually became so annoyed by Dr. Polidori that he terminated the physician’s employment that September. Polidori returned to England and his story, The Vampyre, was published by Byron’s own publisher, John Murray, three years later, in 1819. Upon initial publication, the story was attributed to Lord Byron, which made the poet furious when he learned of it. Polidori’s authorship was made clear in subsequent publications, though there were still some who believed Byron had written it. The story was produced as a play a few years later, and would heavily influence other authors who subsequently wrote about vampires, in England and on the Continent. The concept of an alluring and romantic vampire, along with the other themes in Polidori’s tale, would provide the archetype for Bram Stoker when he wrote his classic story of Dracula at the end of the century.

As sometimes happens, dozens of factors aligned, in just the right order, at just the right time, to make possible the creation of two of the most frightening, yet strangely sympathetic, of all of the monsters in classic horror literature. If any of those factors had not been part of the equation, we might never have had the vicarious thrill of reading about, or watching, the tales of Frankenstein’s monster or the suave and romantic vampire, both of whom were born that stormy summer on the shores of Lake Geneva. Vampires, like werewolves, had been part of the lore of multiple cultures for millenia, though a sympathetic werewolf character wold not be introduced into the literature of horror until the twentieth century. However, the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born, new and full-blown, during that cool and rainy June of 1816, making Frankenstein’s monster the youngest of the three classic horror monsters. We are also obligated to Dr. Polidori, and perhaps even his mistreatment by Lord Byron, for the metamorphoses of the crude and repulsive vampire of ancient European lore into the mysterious but magnetic nobleman who could not only walk among humans, but attract them with his good looks, elegance and sophistication. And so it was that, two centuries ago this month, the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, was the birthplace of two of our favorite classic horror monsters.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Horror at Villa Diodati

  1. Poor Polidori could not have guessed that his creation would lead to travesties like sparkly vampires… Byron got a severe poke in the hubris from those two stories.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Clearly, and apparently mercifully, I have missed “sparkly vampires.” Which I consider a blessing! 😉 However, IMHO, Byron got what he deserved for his cruelty and mistreatment of Polidori. After the way he had been treated as a young man, you would think he could have found some compassion in his heart for poor Polidori.

      It does seem clear that Polidori’s “Byronic vampire” had a major influence on the genre, since prior to his story, vampires were hideous sub-human monsters. His new take on the monster opened whole new vistas, and, I think, led to an even more frightening creature, one that could be so romantic and attractive, yet so very deadly.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • …hence the ghastly sparkly vampire, which I assure you I largely eschew apart from sending them up in my spoof gothic horror [the vampire is killed by the obligatory dragon, helped by Rogi, who used to be four people his master knew].I don’t just write serious Regency romance.

  2. Pingback: 1816:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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