In 1819 a story called The Vampyre was published, in which the creature who traditionally looked like a hobbit and lived down a mole hole was refashioned as a melancholy aristocrat in riding boots and frock coat. The authorship was attributed to Lord Byron but The Vampyre was in fact the product of Byron’s physician, a troubled and troublesome scamp called John Polidori.
What happened was this. Three years earlier, beset by rumours of madness, incest and sodomy, Byron left England for ever, taking with him Polidori, who idolised his travelling companion and nurtured his own dreams of becoming a writer. Having quarrelled their way through France – Byron got pleasure from putting Polidori down – they arrived in Geneva and hooked up with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was on the run with his teenage girlfriend, Mary. One stormy night in June 1816, holed up in an old house on the shores of the lake, the party held a ghost story competition. Mary produced Frankenstein, while Byron began and discarded a slick tale about a debonair bloodsucker hiding in plain sight. Retrieving the poet’s fragment, Polidori fleshed it out, turning the sexual predator into a recognisably Byronic figure and allowing the finished product to be published under Byron’s name. Because Byron was known to be monstrous – women would faint with fear when he walked into a room – readers of The Vampyre were quite willing to believe that he had written a horror story about himself.
Polidori’s revenge was complete: feeding off Byron’s celebrity in order to get himself published, he memorialised the man in such a way that from now on the term “Byronic” would conjure up a sallow outcast rather than a bestselling poet. Bram Stoker later modelled Dracula on Polidori’s Byron, and dozens of novels have subsequently revamped the story told by the jealous doctor, who took his own life in 1821, aged 25.
As we reach the bicentenary of that infamous competition, two things are worth noting. First, that Polidori sired a spawn of vampiric writers, and second, that judging by the novels under review here the vampire season is upon us once more.
A vampiric writer is one who sinks his, or her, fangs into the flesh of another writer, and in so doing gives him or her a second life as a fictional figure (who is often, but not always, similarly vampiric). In many ways vampiric writers do the job of biographers and I am a great admirer of this hybrid form, which works within the constraints of the facts while using fiction to tap in to a deeper truth.
Novelists and poets often make good subjects for fiction because the source of their strength is so mysterious, and because we do not know who they are when they are not writing; who they are, that is, in the unsettling sense defined by T S Eliot, who described the difference between the man who suffers and the mind that creates. This is the terrain the vampiric writer explores. Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004) is an example of vampiric writing at its finest; when I think of Henry James, it is Tóibín’s scorned, vulnerable creation who comes to mind, rather than the lion of Leon Edel’s magisterial biography. And, in giving us a fictional James, Tóibín consolidated his own fame; vampires live off their prey. Similarly, the Oscar Wilde I hold in my imagination is not Richard Ellmann’s biographical reconstruction but the battered pariah of Peter Ackroyd’s early novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), written in the form of the playwright’s diary.
Currently our most vampirised writer is Virginia Woolf: no one, it seems, is afraid of her. Having recently featured in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Woolf is now the subject of two electrifyingly good novels, Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister and Norah Vincent’s Adeline. Both Parmar and Vincent find Woolf in her speech – these are books in which a great deal is discussed – and both impersonate their subject’s quick-fire prose while observing her effect on other people.
The central immovable fact around which Vanessa and Her Sister circles is the flirtation between Virginia Stephen, as she was before she married, and her sister Vanessa’s husband, Clive Bell. The narrative unfolds by way of Vanessa’s (fictional) journal entries and postcards sent from Lytton Strachey to Leonard Woolf, then resident in Ceylon. “Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings,” writes Strachey. “Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us flounder about in a state of breathless, pitching exaggeration.” Virginia repeatedly careers into Vanessa’s majestic calm like a ship hitting an iceberg. Vanessa “is not someone to love too lightly”, Strachey warns, but Virginia loves her heavily, like a jealous mistress. Parmar is quite clear about this: Virginia was in love with Vanessa. While Vanessa’s character “rings low and true in a single pure note”, Clive Bell, says Virginia, “is a great round ball of unrooted, well-decorated nothing. He has no character. He lacks bottom.” With Bell’s lack of bottom and Virginia’s breathless exaggeration, tragedy is inevitable. “Our relationship is unbreakable,” Virginia insists to Vanessa, having ruined her sister’s marriage and sucked her dry. “Nothing is unbreakable,” Vanessa replies. “Virginia stood still, all her wildness tamed.”
In Adeline, Norah Vincent gives us Woolf as she plans her suicide. An unpredictable force teetering on the edge of destruction, she looks back on the selves she might have been and talks to the child she once was, a girl called Adeline (this was Woolf’s first name, and the name of an aunt who died young). Vincent also gives us Woolf in the bath, her “nipples pruned in the morning air”. It is quite an image for those who have never before thought about the nipples of Virginia Woolf, but Vincent is a master of discomfort. Adeline is composed of toe-curling encounters, such as the time when T S Eliot and his first wife, Vivien, come to tea, in which the wrong thing is said, usually by Woolf. The Eliots quaff Martinis “as though they had been bitten by venomous snakes and these are the antidotes”, while the Woolfs, “looking like a pair of vicars”, sip sherry. Virginia grandly proposes a toast “to marriage”; the Eliots, whose own marriage is falling apart, mumble assent. After which all attempts at civility come to an end. “You are nothing more than what you have always been,” Virginia reminds Vivien, both women beating back madness, “a dull-witted and failed arriviste clinging to the coattails of your betters.” Alone with Leonard or Lytton Strachey, Woolf always says the right thing. Discussing how biography can possibly tell the truth about someone “when the truth is not to be had”, she explains that “this is why I have taken refuge in fiction when telling the stories of real people’s lives. Fiction is all there is.”
Vincent’s Virginia Woolf is still fixated on Vanessa: “If she could have shot herself into Vanessa’s veins, she would have done so long ago.” Only this time it is Vanessa who is jealous; her sister’s affair with Vita Sackville-West has threatened to sever their
“umbilical cord”. After a lifetime of Virginia’s “lethal little games”, Vanessa’s hate comes roaring out: “Who, really, has escaped your onslaught? Who haven’t you tried to possess? . . . They call it your wit, your charm, your brilliance, but all it really is, or ever was, is waste.” In many ways, Adeline is the perfect companion to Vanessa and Her Sister; the two books, best read together, are not so much rivals as siblings who look to one another for meaning.
The Lovers of Amherst, William Nicholson’s take on Emily Dickinson’s family feud, is less fearless by far. Parmar and Vincent look deep into the wolf’s throat but
Nicholson (whose wife, the historian Virginia Nicholson, is Woolf’s great-niece) stays on the surface of the drama. Biographies of Dickinson pivot on a single scene: while the reclusive poet, known locally as The Myth, sat in an upstairs bedroom crafting her explosive staccato lines, her married brother, Austin, conducted his own explosive affair in the downstairs parlour with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a newly appointed university lecturer. From their self-regarding letters, we know that Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd saw their passion as the greatest ever, but Mabel had more interest in the ghostly poet above them (whom she would never meet) than in her all-too-solid brother. After the deaths of Emily and Austin, Mabel muscled in on the editorship of the poems (which were found on scraps of paper in a chest of drawers) and granted herself the privilege of presenting Emily Dickinson to the world.
There are few figures more frightening to women, or alluring to men, than Mabel Loomis Todd, and perhaps this is where the problem lies: Nicholson does not feel her malevolent force. When Mrs Todd moved to Amherst in 1881 it was as if Lady Macbeth had sashayed into Peyton Place. Her impact on the community was incalculable: having destroyed Austin’s marriage, she purloined the Dickinson legacy, leaving the poet’s much-loved sister, Lavinia, and beleaguered sister-in-law (Sue Dickinson, wife of Austin) reeling and gasping for breath. Nicholson might have written a nerve-racking tale of idolatry and theft, but his Mabel is less the Undead of Amherst – whose life began again with Emily’s death – than a feisty sex-kitten. “I’ll never be bored with my beautiful puss,” purrs her pervy husband, who likes to watch her in flagrante with Austin. “You know I can’t stop looking at you.”
Nicholson further dilutes Mabel’s effect on small-town life by including a parallel plot set in the present day: a girl called Alice (who has appeared in his earlier novels) comes to Amherst to write a screenplay about Austin’s affair but is drawn into an affair of her own which inspires a sentimental meditation on the nature of love. Written in workmanlike prose, The Lovers of Amherst makes the extraordinary seem ordinary; for the sheer astonishment of Dickinson’s poems and the brute horror of the story that surrounds them, I needed to return to Lyndall Gordon’s biographical account, Lives Like Loaded Guns.
Death and Mr Pickwick is another tale of theft and, in contrast to Nicholson, Stephen Jarvis stops at nothing in demonising Charles Dickens. This is a doorstopper based on an incident that Dickens biographers pass over in a sentence: the suicide of Robert Seymour, his collaborator on The Pickwick Papers. The truth of what happened remains murky: Dickens told one story – which Jarvis describes in an “Address to the Reader” as “not true” – and Seymour’s angry widow, Jane, told another. What is established is that Seymour, an illustrator once as famous as George Cruikshank, came up with the idea for a set of images, based on an amiable figure called Samuel Pickwick who enjoyed country pursuits. His publishers, Chapman & Hall, thought his comic illustrations should be accompanied by a few words of text and Charles Dickens, a 22-year-old parliamentary reporter, was chosen for the job.
Jarvis imagines the only meeting between them known to have taken place, and Seymour yelling, “Mr Pickwick is mine!” as Dickens takes control of the project. “I am a hired pencil,” Seymour tells his wife before shooting himself in the head. He had produced only three illustrations for The Pickwick Papers when he died, but they contained the heart and soul of the project. Unfazed by the tragedy, Dickens produced the book that become the phenomenon. Not a penny of the profits went to Seymour’s widow and children.
Jarvis presents the unstoppable force of Dickens’s genius as dehumanising: here was a writer first and then a human being. A considerable writer, too (Death and Mr Pickwick is an impressive debut), Jarvis speaks up for the power of pictures, which can say more than words will ever do. But after the first 400 pages Death and Mr Pickwick becomes less of a novel than a campaign; in his rage for justice, Jarvis cannot stop building his case. We see Seymour from every angle – holding his first pencil, being bullied as a child, fishing with friends, drinking in the tavern, having homosexual experiences, falling out with editors, taking to his bed, feeling happy, unhappy, confused, excited, all the time collecting the names, characters and ideas that will go towards creating the immortal Pickwick and his friends, which book will be his death sentence.
If the power of a poem by Emily Dickinson lies in its brevity, the force of Death and Mr Pickwick rests in its sheer bigness (Dickens is not even mentioned until page 442). Bigness, however, as Joseph Conrad said of the Titanic, is not strength, but “exaggeration”. Bigness is also impersonation: writing against the vampiric Dickens, Jarvis has ultimately produced a Dickensian novel.
Sophie and the Sibyl also combines hero-
worship with iconoclasm, and Patricia Duncker explains in an afterword that she has mixed fact with fiction in “outrageous ways”. The biographical fact on which the novel rests – considered outrageous in its own right – is that of George Eliot’s marriage, a year after the death of her beloved George Henry Lewes, to the much younger John Walter Cross (who tried to commit suicide on their honeymoon). The events are seen through the eyes of her handsome publisher, Max, who also proposed impulsively to Eliot after sharing with her a “catastrophic combination of Darwin and Wagner”. Max is now married to Sophie, whose passion for George Eliot’s novels turns to frost when she discovers in Daniel Deronda scenes stolen from her own life and spun to show her to disadvantage. The writer and the woman, Sophie learns, bear no relation to one another, save that they feed off other people. As a writer, George Eliot is an intellectual moral beacon, but as a woman she is monstrously envious and cunning. When she wrote, Eliot was possessed by someone “not herself”; she was propelled by “a sinister power, primitive and overwhelming”.
The closing lines of this beguiling novel offer a warning:
Beware the imagination which seizes the roots of our times, reads the underground seams, clutches at the pulse of our common blood, then stares, unflinchingly, into the darkness ahead.
This is also true of what happened when Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens and, heaven help us all, Mabel Loomis Todd, put pen to paper. All writers, it seems, are vampiric in their work, and as friends or relations they can drain the living daylights from you.
Frances Wilson’s biography of Thomas De Quincey, “Guilty Thing”, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year