SITA: The Year Without A Summer

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

SITA: The Year Without A Summer

Anyone who has ever watched a horror movie or read a book knows the story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein. 

During the rainy summer of 1816, the "Year Without a Summer", the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.  Mary Shelley, aged 18, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until dawn.

Among other subjects, the conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter.  Sitting around a log fire at Byron's villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale.  Shortly afterward, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.  I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.  Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

But two other stories were written that had their seeds planted on that same holiday at Villa Diodati.  I have always been fascinated by the creative environment that helped inspire Mary Shelley and wondered if anything else ever came out of it.  Maybe I’m just naive but I only recently discovered these other works and their shared origins with Frankenstein.

 

Darkness

Darkness is a poem written by Lord Byron in July 1816.  That year was known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tambora had erupted in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, casting enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe.  This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem.  Literary critics were initially content to classify it as a "last man" poem, telling the apocalyptic story of the last man on earth.  More recent critics have focused on the poem's historical context, as well as the anti-biblical nature of the poem, despite its many references to the Bible.  The poem was written only months after the end of Byron's marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke.

Byron also uses the hellish biblical language of the apocalypse to carry the real possibility of these events to his readers.  The whole poem can be seen as a reference to Matthew 24:29: “the sun shall be darkened.”  In line 32 it describes men “gnash[ing] their teeth” at the sky, a clear biblical parallel of hell.  Vipers twine “themselves among the multitude, / Hissing."  Two men left alive of “an enormous city” gather “holy things” around an altar, “for an unholy usage”—to burn them for light.  Seeing themselves in the light of the fire, they die at the horror of seeing each other “unknowing who he was upon whose brow Famine had written Fiend."  In this future, all men are made to look like fiends, emaciated, dying with “their bones as tomb less as their flesh."  They also act like fiends, as Byron says: “no love was left,” matching the biblical prophecy that at the end of the world, “the love of many shall wax cold."  In doing this, Byron is merely magnifying the events already occurring at the time.  The riots, the suicides, the fear associated with the strange turn in the weather and the predicted destruction of the sun, had besieged not only people's hope for a long life, but their beliefs about God's creation and about themselves as well. By bringing out this diabolical imagery, Byron is communicating that fear; that “Darkness [or nature] had no need / of aid from them—She was the universe.”

Byron's pessimistic views continue, as he mixes Biblical language with the apparent realities of science at the time.  As Paley points out, it is not so much significant that Byron uses Biblical passages as that he deviates from them to make a point.  For example, the thousand-year peace mentioned in the book of Revelation as coming after all the horror of the apocalypse does not exist in Byron's “Darkness.”  Instead, “War, which for a moment was no more, / Did glut himself again.”  In other words, swords are only beaten temporarily into plowshares, only to become swords of war once again.  Also, the fact that the vipers are “stingless” parallels the Biblical image of the peace to follow destruction: “And the sucking child shall play in the whole of the asp.”  In the poem, though, the snake is rendered harmless, but the humans take advantage of this and the vipers are “slain for food.”  Paley continues, saying “associations of millennial imagery are consistently invoked in order to be bitterly frustrated."

 

The Vampyre

"The Vampyre" is a short story or novella written in 1819 by John William Polidori which is a progenitor of the romantic vampire genre of fantasy fiction.  The work is described by Christopher Frayling as "the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre."

"The Vampyre" was first published on 1 April 1819 by Henry Colburn in the New Monthly Magazine with the false attribution "A Tale by Lord Byron".  The name of the work's protagonist, "Lord Ruthven", added to this assumption, for that name was originally used in Lady Caroline Lamb's novel Glenarvon (from the same publisher), in which a thinly-disguised Byron figure was also named Lord Ruthven.  Despite repeated denials by Byron and Polidori, the authorship often went unclarified.

The tale was first published in book form by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones in London, Paternoster-Row, in 1819 in octavo as The Vampyre; A Tale in 84 pages.  The notation on the cover noted that it was: "Entered at Stationers' Hall, March 27, 1819".  Initially, the author was given as Lord Byron.  Later printings removed Byron's name and added Polidori's name to the title page.

The story was an immediate popular success, partly because of the Byron attribution and partly because it exploited the gothic horror predilections of the public.  Polidori transformed the vampire from a character in folklore into the form that is recognized today—an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society.  Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron's, Fragment of a Novel (1816), also known as "A Fragment" and "The Burial: A Fragment", and in "two or three idle mornings" produced "The Vampyre".

Polidori's work had an immense impact on contemporary sensibilities and ran through numerous editions and translations.  An adaptation appeared in 1820 with Cyprien BĂ©rard’s novel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires, falsely attributed to Charles Nodier, who himself then wrote his own version, Le Vampire, a play which had enormous success and sparked a "vampire craze" across Europe.  This includes operatic adaptations by Heinrich Marschner and Peter Josef von Lindpaintner, both published in the same year and called "The Vampire".  Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas and Alexis Tolstoy all produced vampire tales, and themes in Polidori's tale would continue to influence Bram Stoker's Dracula and eventually the whole vampire genre.  Dumas makes explicit reference to Lord Ruthwen in The Count of Monte Cristo, going so far as to state that his character "The Comtesse G..." had been personally acquainted with Lord Ruthwen.

In England, James PlanchĂ©'s play The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles was first performed in London in 1920 at the Lyceum Theatre based Charles Nodier's Le Vampire, which was based on Polidori.  Such melodramas were satirized in Ruddigore, by Gilbert and Sullivan (1887), a character called Sir Ruthven must abduct a maiden, or he will die.

Aubrey, a young Englishman, meets Lord Ruthven, a man of mysterious origins who has entered London society. Aubrey accompanies Ruthven to Rome, but leaves him after Ruthven seduces the daughter of a mutual acquaintance.  Aubrey travels to Greece, where he becomes attracted to Ianthe, an innkeeper's daughter. Ianthe tells Aubrey about the legends of the vampire.  Ruthven arrives at the scene and shortly thereafter Ianthe is killed by a vampire.  Aubrey does not connect Ruthven with the murder and rejoins him in his travels.  The pair is attacked by bandits and Ruthven is mortally wounded.  Before he dies, Ruthven makes Aubrey swear an oath that he will not mention his death or anything else he knows about Ruthven for a year and a day.  Looking back, Aubrey realizes that everyone whom Ruthven met ended up suffering.

Aubrey returns to London and is amazed when Ruthven appears shortly thereafter, alive and well.  Ruthven reminds Aubrey of his oath to keep his death a secret.  Ruthven then begins to seduce Aubrey's sister while Aubrey, helpless to protect his sister, has a nervous breakdown.  Ruthven and Aubrey's sister are engaged to marry on the day the oath ends.  Just before he dies, Aubrey writes a letter to his sister revealing Ruthven's history, but it does not arrive in time.  Ruthven marries Aubrey's sister.  On the wedding night, she is discovered dead, drained of her blood — and Ruthven has vanished.


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