‘What a set! what a world!’

The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron
By Andrew McConnell Stott (Canongate 434pp £25)

Vampyre_FamilyWhen a degree in English literature was finally floated at Oxford University in the late 19th century, there was no shortage of historians, classicists and other robust types to protest about so girly an option. It was Edward Augustus Freeman, the Regius Professor of Modern History, who uttered the famous killing phrase during a testy debate in Congregation: the new school, he said, lacked all rigour and objectivity and threatened to degenerate into ‘mere chatter about Shelley’. His quip has lasted rather better than his voluminous works about the Norman Conquest – usually in the improved version, ‘chatter about Harriet’. And generally, it must be said, people have agreed with Freeman, be they strenuously scholarly or exquisitely aesthetic. ‘Give us their poetry,’ the essayist Andrew Lang once imagined a reader protesting, ‘and leave their characters alone: we do not want tattle about Claire and chatter about Harriet; we want to be happy with “The Skylark” or “The Cloud”.’ Still, as Lang went on to reflect, if indeed ‘a man’s genius must be builded on the foundations of his character’, then the life of writers is not so obviously ‘chatter’ after all; and while a modern biographer wouldn’t put it in quite those terms, seeing what an author did with what life dealt him evidently remains something of interest both deep and wide.

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