A fictional biography presented as pastiche, in which disappointed John Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor and physical double, tries on the notorious poet’s identity, with disastrous consequences.
Markovits (Fathers and Daughters, 2005, etc.) pens a sad tale of failed ambition presented as a literary conceit, with a prologue that ascribes the manuscript to a mysterious teaching colleague of the author. Polidori was an unemployed 19-year-old medical graduate when invited to join the poet, who was traveling through Europe. Quickly disappointed by his lesser status in Byron’s circle—he calls himself “a tassel on the purse of fame”—he begins to resent as well as envy his gifted, libertine but charismatic employer, who comes between even Polidori and his sister. At the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, during the famous ghost-story-writing episode at which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, Polidori writes The Vampyre, based on an outline supplied by Byron. Published anonymously in London, and assumed to be Byron’s work, it is an enormous success. Polidori, moody and jealous (he reads Byron’s correspondence, tries on his clothes), is dismissed. Returning to England, he is mistaken for his ex-employer by self-deluding Eliza Esmond, who pretends acquaintance with his lordship although it was really her sister who danced with Byron at a ball years earlier. Despite mounting debts, Polidori borrows funds and takes Eliza on an extravagant jaunt to Brighton, where, after consummating their relationship, they confess to each other. Eliza, now ruined, is horrified and rejects Polidori, who acknowledges his own pathetic situation—“He had no life of his own. For years he had fed off the blood of everyone around him”—and takes small comfort in outdoing Byron in one significant particular: taking his own life.
A sophisticated, technically and intellectually accomplished exercise of limited appeal.