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Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Eruption of Mt. Tambora

The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year, The Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death), because of severe summer climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years. The Little Ice Age, then in its concluding decades, may also have been a factor.

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Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption.

The English governor of Indonesia, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, wrote of the erruption in his “History of Java” (1817). This was later incorporated in Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” (1850):

Island of Sumbawa, 1815. –
In April, 1815, one of the most frightful eruptions recorded in history occurred in the province of Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, about 200 miles from the eastern extremity of Java.
In the April of the year preceding the volcano had been observed in a state of considerable activity, ashes having fallen upon the decks of vessels which sailed past the coast. The eruption of 1815 began on the 5th of April, but was most violent on the 11th and 12th, and did not entirely cease till July.

The sound of the explosions was heard in Sumatra, at the distance of 970 geographical miles in a direct line; and at Ternate, in an opposite direction, at the distance of 720 miles. Out of a population of 12,000, in the province of Tomboro, only twenty-six individuals survived.

Violent whirlwinds carried up men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within their influence, into the air; tore up the largest trees by the roots, and covered the whole sea with floating timber. Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro mountain, reached the sea.

So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings in the town, uninhabitable. On the side of Java the ashes were carried to the distance of 300 miles, and 217 towards Celebes, in sufficient quantity to darken the air. The floating cinders to the westward of Sumatra formed, on the 12th of April, a mass two feet thick, and several miles in extent, through which ships with difficulty forced their way.

The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night. Although this volcanic dust when it fell was an impalpable powder, it was of considerable weight when compressed, a pint of it weighing twelve ounces and three quarters.

“Some of the finest particles,” says Mr. Crawfurd, “were transported to the islands of Amboyna and Banda, which last is about 800 miles east from the site of the volcano, although the south-east monsoon was then at its height.” They must have been projected, therefore, into the upper regions of the atmosphere, where a counter current prevailed.
Along the sea-coast of Sumbawa, and the adjacent isles, the sea rose suddenly to the height of from two to twelve feet, a great wave rushing up the estuaries, and then suddenly subsiding. Although the wind at Bima was still during the whole time, the sea rolled in upon the shore, and filled the lower parts of the houses with water a foot deep. Every prow and boat was forced from the anchorage, and driven on shore.

The town called Tomboro, on the west side of Sumbawa, was overflowed by the sea, which encroached upon the shore so that the water remained permanently eighteen feet deep in places where there was land before. Here we may observe, that the amount of subsidence of land was apparent, in spite of the ashes, which would naturally have caused the limits of the coast to be extended.

The area over which tremulous noises and other volcanic effects extended, was 1000 English miles in circumference, including the whole of the Molucca Islands, Java, a considerable portion of Celebes, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the island of Amboyna, in the same month and year, the ground opened, threw out water, and then closed again.

In conclusion, I may remind the reader, that but for the accidental presence of Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java, we should scarcely have heard in Europe of this tremendous catastrophe. He required all the residents in the various districts under his authority to send in a statement of the circumstances which occurred within their own knowledge; but, valuable as were their communications, they are often calculated to excite rather than to satisfy the curiosity of the geologist. They mention, that similar effects, though in a less degree, had, about seven years before, accompanied an eruption of Carang Assam, a volcano in the island of Bali, west of Sumatra; but no particulars of that great catastrophe are recorded.

The Year Without a Summer was an agricultural disaster. Historian John D. Post has called this “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”.The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on most of New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of central and northern New England and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average between about 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C) and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an extreme rarity.

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John William Polidori : Author of The Vampyre

John William Polidori : Author of The Vampyre

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer

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and physician, and Bath native. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the 1819 short story, The Vampyre, the first published modern vampire story. Although originally and erroneously accredited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the story is Polidori’s.

Polidori was one of the earliest pupils at recently established Ampleforth College from 1804, and in 1810 went up to the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on sleepwalking and received his degree as a doctor of medicine on 1 August 1815 at the age of 19.

In 1816 Dr. Polidori entered Lord Byron’s service as his personal physician, and accompanied Byron on a trip through Europe. Publisher John Murray offered Polidori 500 English pounds to keep a diary of their travels, which Polidori’s nephew William Michael Rossetti later edited. At the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the pair met with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their companion (Mary’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont.

One night in June, after the company had read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German horror tales, William Beckford’s Vathek and indulged in quantities of laudanum, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley,produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Shelley wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” and wrote down five ghost stories recounted by Matthew Gregory (“Monk”) Lewis, published posthumously as the Journal at Geneva (including ghost stories) 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“.

Dismissed on bad terms, by Byron, Polidori travelled in Italy and then returned to England. His story, “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”, much to both his and Byron’s chagrin. Byron even released his own “Fragment of a Novel” in an attempt to clear up the mess, but, for better or worse, “The Vampyre” continued to be attributed to him. 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.

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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”. Later printings removed Byron’s name and added Polidori’s name to the title page.

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Gothic Horrors: The Regency Vampyre

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The “modern” vampire genre (or Vampyre, if you will) stems from James Polidori’s 1819 novel, The Vampyre, however the Gothic craze of the entire Regency era led to this printing, and in fact, real events in Europe led to the fascination of all things mysterious and horrible, as characterized in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. It should come as no suprise, then, that Northanger Abbey has finally been rewritten as an actual Vampire inspired novel (see Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, 2014). Writers have been trying to mash the two genres for years now, beginning with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (supposedly a nod to Pride and Prejudice) and Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, to Jane Bites Back, and other similar tales.

According to legend, vampires are mythical beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures (not unlike General Tilney, one might suppose…) In folkloric tales, undead vampires often visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the neighbourhoods they inhabited when they were alive. They wore shrouds and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or dark countenance, markedly different from today’s gaunt, pale vampire which dates from the early 1800s. Although vampiric entities have been recorded in most cultures, the term vampire was not popularised until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe,although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.

Frotspiece to Polidori's "The Vampyre".
Frontispiece to Polidori’s “The Vampyre”.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. However, it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula which is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.

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Mr Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange

When Lady Catherine de Bourgh tells Elizabeth Bennet that Mr. Darcy comes from an ancient family…well, she isn’t just being a snob.

The beginning of the newlywed Darcys’ life together, in which Mr. Darcy takes advantage of the Peace of Amiens to show his wife continental Europe, should be a time of unalloyed happiness for Elizabeth Darcy–after all, if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad–but her joy in her marriage and her love for her husband are dimmed by worry. Why did she surprise a look of pure torment on Darcy’s face only a few hours after their wedding? Why does he not consummate their marriage, despite the obvious passion that they share? And why is Elizabeth dreaming of events that occurred over a hundred years previously–and of a mysterious, compelling gentleman who is not her husband? The mystery builds to a thrilling, chilling climax and a completely satisfying ending. There is plenty of romance and a few dangerously tender moments between the newlyweds. (Let’s face it, the whole bloodsucking thing is not a metaphor for playing whist, know what we mean?)

However, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is more than just the simple addition of vampire lore to P&P; instead, Amanda Grange has crafted a clever homage to the Gothic novels that Jane Austen so enjoyed. As in all of Ms. Grange’s Austen-inspired novels, she has clearly done her homework, and Mr. Darcy, Vampyre most strongly echoes Ann Radcliffe’s tales of psychological horror, incorporating all the elements that knowledgeable fans of the Gothic expect: a trip through the roughest and most picturesque parts of the Continent; loving descriptions of the scenery (though fortunately, unlike Radcliffe, they don’t go on for page after tiresome page, and there is no doggerel poetry further slowing things down); mysterious castles with oddly-behaving servants; banditti, mercenaries, and fearful, violent villagers; an accident that, Elizabeth is told, portends death; a story of another young lady just like Lizzy who arrived under similar circumstances and met a bad end; and there even is a “black veil” moment, when our heroine sees something so horrid she has no choice but to swoon. The reader is not immediately enlightened to the horror, though we can guess it; and, again fortunately unlike Radcliffe, Ms. Grange does not keep us hanging until the end of the book and then come up with a lame afterthought to close the loop. We also felt echoes of Dracula, Polidori’s seminal story The Vampyre, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and even a smidgen of Harry Potter.

The book is an homage, not a parody, but there is a deep-lurking humor that recognizes the fun in Gothic novels, a tone set by the dedication (we won’t give it away, as we were not expecting it, and it made us laugh for a solid minute), and one that seems to us peculiarly English, and peculiarly in the style of Jane Austen’s humor. Just because Jane parodied The Mysteries of Udolpho and other horrid novels in Northanger Abbey doesn’t mean she didn’t like horrid novels. Like Henry Tilney, Jane likely read them in two days, her hair standing on end the whole time, and afterwards laughed at herself for falling for it; she could not have written such an affectionate parody in Northanger Abbey otherwise. Make no mistake: Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is absolutely not the kind of thing that Jane Austen wrote, but it certainly is the kind of thing she read.

Unlike recent Austen/monster “mashups,” nothing is overdone, there is not as much angst as one might expect, and there are no gross-outs. This is an Austen-inspired scary story for Janeites, by a Janeite, done with affection and delivered with a very subtle British wink, and completely suitable for a 21st-century audience. Our inner Catherine Morland thought it was tremendous fun, and knows not to take it too seriously; like the heroine of a horrid novel just kidnapped by three villains in horsemen’s great coats, hang on and enjoy the ride.

List Price: £7.99
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc (21 Aug 2009)
ISBN-10: 140223998X
ISBN-13: 978-1402239984


Margaret C. Sullivan is the Editrix of AustenBlog and the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World. She read Mr. Darcy, Vampyre in two days, her hair standing on end the whole time.

Read an excerpt from the novel, here