I see in my copy of Maurice that I read it on October 28, 1998. I just checked my journal to see what else I was up to that day. It looks like a day of reading and writing and errands (not much has changed in the ensuing seventeen years!). Lawrence Block’s new Matt Scudder novel (Everybody Dies—hopeful title) arrived in the mail; I had some Jack London correspondence (my obsession with him and his work was evanescing: Mary Shelley had taken over); I was reading Ernestus Berchtold, 1819, a novella/long story by Dr. John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron during the “Frankenstein summer” of 1816 in Geneva.
Okay, I just felt myself drift away from Maurice and feel compelled to write a bit about Polidori, who was barely twenty when he went with Byron to Geneva. There, Byron soon soured on his acquaintance (Polidori was a bit … uppity, considering his talents in a league with Byron’s and Bysshe Shelley’s; not quite) and frequently made fun of him, left him behind on boating excursions on Lake Geneva, and the like. He developed a crush on Mary (a hopeless crush, I should add) but joined in the “ghost-story competition” and wrote, as I’ve mentioned before, some of the story that became The Vampyre (1819), one of the first vampire tales.
But he also wrote Ernestus, which I was reading at the same time I read Mary’s Maurice. In his introduction to the book, Polidori said that he had begun it back in Geneva. It’s another supernatural tale—told in coming-of-age fashion. Young Ernestus grows up, joins the military, has some adventures, gets involved with the daughter of a Count, a man whom Ernestus observes apparently communicating with some kind of spirit. And the ghost of Ernestus’ mother appears to him to offer some advice.
Then there’s a story-within-a-story about Count Filiberto Doni, the girl’s father, who tells about his contract with a “malignant being,” a contract that results in murder and deception. The end.
Byron fired Polidori in Geneva in 1816. The physician went on to Italy for a while, then returned to London, where he abandoned medicine and studied law. Despondent, he committed suicide. He was twenty-five.