Two hundred years ago today Lord Byron wrote a brief, untitled Gothic fragment that is now known as ‘Augustus Darvell’, the name of its central character. The most famous author in the world at the time, Byron produced the tale when he was living at the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, and in the daily company of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley), and John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician. Wet, uncongenial weather had for several days kept the party indoors, where together they read a collection of ghost stories, and Byron issued a challenge that produced some of the most spectacular results in English literary history: ‘We will each write a ghost story,’ he declared. Shelley produced a verse fragment beginning ‘A Shovel of his ashes took,’ which may constitute a vestige of his contribution to the competition. The other three got further. Byron wrote ‘Augustus Darvell’. Polidori composed The Vampyre. Mary Godwin created Frankenstein.
Polidori openly acknowledged that ‘Augustus Darvell’ lay the groundwork for The Vampyre. In both tales, two male friends travel from England to the Levant, where one of them dies, though not before securing ‘from his friend an oath of secrecy with regard to his decease.’ At this point, Byron’s story breaks off, but in Polidori’s tale, the dead friend of course comes back to life as a vampire, returns to England, and gluts his thirst at the throat of his friend’s sister. Byron does not explicitly mention vampires in ‘Augustus Darvell’ but as he made clear three years earlier in his immensely successful ‘Oriental Tale,’ The Giaour (1813), they enthralled him. ‘But first, on earth as Vampire sent, / Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,’ he writes;
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race,
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life.
Perhaps most remarkably, as Polidori used ‘Augustus Darvell’ as the model for The Vampyre, so he used Lord Byron himself as the model for Lord Ruthven, the blood-sucking lady-killer of his tale. Like Lord Byron, Lord Ruthven is a man of wealth, good-looks, mobility, callousness, and keen sexual appetites. In transforming the bestial ghoul of earlier vampiric lore into, in effect, Lord Byron with fangs and eternal life, Polidori created the modern vampire, a glamorous figure whose potency both attracts and appals us, and whose grip on the popular imagination has for two centuries now remained fascinatingly strong. Given Byron’s contribution to the tale, it is perhaps not surprising that, when it was first published in April 1819, it appeared under his name, though Polidori was soon able to establish his authorship, in part because Byron published ‘Augustus Darvell’ in response, and in order to demonstrate how far it resembled The Vampyre.
The importance of Byron’s tale, though, goes beyond its role in the formation of the modern vampire. ‘Augustus Darvell’ also gives voice to the complicated nature of Byron’s sexuality. Britain in his day was more homophobic than at any other time in its history. ‘Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man from which he can never recover,’ Byron declared. When men were convicted of ‘sodomitical’ acts, they were hanged, and scores of men in Byron’s day met this fate. On the Continent, however, homosexuality was not even illegal, let alone punishable by death. In Italy, as Byron quipped in 1820, ‘they laugh instead of burning.’ During his first tour of the Levant in 1809-11, Byron revelled in more than two hundred homosexual encounters, though when he returned to England he went straight back into the closet, and for the next four years all his known intimacies were heterosexual (though he enjoyed it a lot when Lady Caroline Lamb dressed up for him as a page boy). Scandal drove Byron back to the Continent in April 1816, less than two months before the writing of ‘Augustus Darvell’, and before long he was enjoying physical relationships with both sexes, though it seems clear that his deepest passions were reserved for young men.
Nearly eighty years before Lord Alfred Douglas wrote of the ‘love that dares not speak its name,’ Lord Byron suggestively invokes his own homosexuality in ‘Augustus Darvell’, whose private history contains ‘peculiar circumstances,’ and who is ‘prey to some cureless disquiet.’ Darvell can control, but he cannot altogether disguise, the intensity of his feelings, for like Byron and many other homosexual men in the nineteenth century and far beyond, he has had to develop ‘a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another.’ It is the strain of pretending to be what he is not, of having to hide his love away, that seems to be producing in him ‘an inquietude at times nearly approaching to alienation of mind.’ It may also be the reason why this tale of an intimacy between two male friends and travelling companions hinges on one of them taking an oath of secrecy regarding the other.
In The Vampyre, Polidori reimagines ‘Augustus Darvell’ as a tale in which Lord Ruthven’s relationship with his male companion is subsumed in his sinisterly opportunistic consumption of women, which Polidori elevates to the level of myth. In ‘Augustus Darvell’ itself, Byron concentrates on the relationship between the two men. During the previous four years he had been the most famous man in England, before falling spectacularly from grace, and in response to his own challenge to write a ghost story, he produced a tale in which he conjures both the terrors of sodomitical persecution in Britain, and – from the safety of the Continent – his own hidden life of alienation, secrecy, and homosexual desire.
Featured image: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Villa Diodati via The British Library, Free from known copyright restrictions.