Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Byron, the Shelleys, and the rough wake of cruel genius

How many times can we read again of Byron, the Shelleys, Lake Geneva, and the Year without a Summer? Surely the topic has been exhausted by now?

Perhaps. Perhaps there's nothing truly new to be discovered from that stormy sojourn. But that doesn't keep me from hungrily devouring yet another account, if it's well told--which Andrew McConnell Stott's The Poet and the Vampyre certainly is. Stott improves on the usual tale of hothouse creativity by simultaneously broadening his lens--telling of the months leading up to and following the Lake Geneva stay--and focusing it on characters usually seen as peripheral, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. We've always known that Byron and Shelley are, in their distinct ways, largely monsters, but close attention to Polidori and Clairmont renders the poets' darkness and insensitivity utterly comprehensible. Neither Polidori nor Clairmont is anywhere near wholly sympathetic as a character--indeed, while Clairmont has a certain magnetism, it takes an act of serious historicization, of remembering the limitations he faced in society, for us not to find Polidori almost entirely unlikeable, short-tempered and full of ill-founded self-regard. Yet Clairmont and Polidori are both, importantly, familiar: we all know that feeling of wanting, more than anything else in the world, to have a secure place in the orbit of someone more popular, charming, and talented than we are--and of having that person capriciously tack from friendship to dismissal. In Stott's hands, the desire that fuels both Polidori and Clairmont becomes palpable, its off-hand rejection cruel beyond belief.

At the same time, the reason we come back to Byron again and again is that charm, that heedless, headlong selfishness, that insistence that the world is there for him to play with. And the book is full of that, too: anecdotes, scenes, and quotations that further cement Byron as a larger-than-life figure, a man of whom it seems reasonable of a woman who meets him in Rome to say to her daughter, "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at."

Today, however, I'll turn away from Byron and focus instead on Polidori and medicine, the field to which he ill-fatedly committed himself young. First, I'll share this jaw-dropping anecdote from Polidori's time at the University of Edinburgh:
The neglect of practical studies was responsible for some of the worst abuses at the university, specifically in the case of anatomy. Edinburgh's professorship in this key area had been occupied for a total of 126 years by three men, all of whom had been named Alexander Munro: father, son and grandson. This was not unusual in a nepotistic age when, of the ten professors hired in the two decades prior to John's arrival, eight were the sons of professors already in residence. By sheer good fortune, the first two Alexander Munros had been men of parts, but by the time John was there, the post had devolved to Alexander Munro III, who treated it as a tiresome inheritance. Appearing in class with his clothes in runkled disarray, Munro mumbled through the notes his grandfather had written almost three-quarters of a century before without even bothering to omit such obvious anachronisms as the phrase "when I was a student in Leyden in 1714"--a passage that took on such a mythic status that its annual utterance became something of a fete, the students showering the professor with peas when they heard it while Munro sputtered on.
Extra credit to Stott for using "runkled," which I was pleased to have to look up.

After such stellar instruction, Polidori graduated from the University of Edinburgh at twenty . . . only to discover that he couldn't practice medicine in London until he passed the boards, which no one under twenty-six was even allowed to sit. Thus, when Byron was looking for a physician to accompany him on his European exile, Polidori jumped at the chance, income and idol-worship creating a compelling combination.

After Byron fired Polidori, largely because of his irritability, profligacy, and jumped-up pretensions (which Byron alternately encouraged and scoffed at), Polidori attempted to latch on with a number of nobles as a personal physician, without much luck. In Pisa, he briefly succeeded in building a practice, but either his Edinburgh training or his faulty stars showed through:
None of [his patients] lasted long. Lord Guilford died first, falling to chronic alcoholism and such tumorous guts that John had to remove his intestines and embalm the body before it could be sent back to Britain for burial. In February 1817, Francis Horner succumbed to a heart condition, followed shortly afterwards by Thomas Hope's young son, who died of scarlet fever.
Byron was no more understanding than usual, writing to his friend Scrope Davies that Polidori was
on his way to England with the present Lord Guilford--having actually disembowelled the last at Pisa and spiced and pickled him for his rancid ancestors.
"Rancid ancestors"--it's phrases like that which bring me back, again and again, to Byron's letters. In another letter, Byron suggested to John Cam Hobhouse that Polidori might suit Lady Westmorland, whose service he hoped to enter. Her eye for young men was on Byron's mind as he offered a vulgar assessment:
He suggested to Hobhouse that John might be on the verge of securing his fortune, the key to which lay in his handling of "Lady W's Clitoris, which is supposed to be of the longest", and ability to talk her into a quick marriage, "if only to fill up the gap which he has already made in the population."
I'm now about 100 pages from the end. Byron, untouched by anything as always, is resident in Venice, drunkenly swimming its canals. Clairmont, meanwhile, is in despair, having borne Byron's child and surrendered it to him; Polidori has returned to London, tail between his legs, and is trying to figure out his career from there. Will they recover some equilibrium, or will they be more like the suicides strewn in the Shelleys' wake? Even knowing the outcome, I find I want to race through Stott's telling to learn more. If you're half the sucker for this story that I am, you should grab this book and do the same.

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