John Polidori was a promising writer who died tragically young. His reputation has suffered at the pens of the Byron circle, of which he was briefly a member, and their biographers. He is best known for his story ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), which created the modern myth of the aristocratic undead that endures to this day. In terms of the recognisably modern vampire archetype, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven set the standard almost eighty years before Count Dracula landed at Whitby.
Born in London in 1795, John was the eldest son of the immigrant Italian writer and publisher Gaetano Polidori, former secretary to the poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, while his sister, Frances, was the future wife of Gabriele Rossetti. Polidori attended Ampleforth Catholic College, and set aside military aspirations to study medicine at Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1815. While in Edinburgh, he befriended the radical scholar William Taylor of Norwich, who helped edit Polidori’s doctorate and introduced him to German Romanticism. At the recommendation of Sir William Knighton, Polidori was engaged as Byron’s personal physician in 1816, and when Byron went into self-imposed exile, he took ‘Pollydolly’ with him. Polidori had already published a play and a discourse on the death penalty, and his literary promise and oft-noted good looks, youth and flattery undoubtedly appealed to Byron. There might have been some sexual tension, but this is largely conjectural; Polidori’s diary also indicates a huge, heterosexual crush on Mary Godwin.
John Murray advanced Polidori £500 to play Boswell to Byron’s Johnson, but the great poet soon tired of his rather moody chronicler, and quickly banished Polidori to the second coach and took to merciless teasing. (A popular public joke was that Polidori had no other patients as he had killed them all.) The ‘hot-headed’ and ‘passionate’ Polidori was finally dismissed in September the same year, after a summer spent on the shores of Lake Geneva with Byron’s entourage: Shelley, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont. Polidori’s diary account of this period was not published until 1911; it had been selectively transcribed by his sister, Frances, and edited by her son, William Rossetti. Although Polidori’s own documented adventures often show him, as Rossetti wrote ‘not very advantageously’ (he once challenged Shelley to a duel), this journal, along with Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, offers a vivid sketch of that most seismic of events in gothic fiction and Romantic legend: the night Byron and his friends decided to make up a few ‘ghost stories’ at the Villa Diodati (Rossetti: 1911, i). Mary famously conceived Frankenstein, Percy got bored, and Byron managed ‘A Fragment’ later appended to Mazeppa. ‘Poor Polidori,’ wrote Mary, ‘had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady,’ but what he ultimately produced was ‘The Vampyre; A Tale,’ which, in tandem with Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny,’ went on to become arguably the most iconic figure in the literature of the fantastic, endlessly re-written for page, stage and screen (Shelley: 1831, viii).
Like Polidori, Aubrey, the tale’s luckless bourgeois protagonist, becomes the companion of a charismatic, sexually magnetic nobleman. Lord Ruthven is a rake, and, appalled at his ‘irresistible powers of seduction,’ Aubrey sabotages an intrigue in Rome and flees to Athens (Polidori: 1819, 7). (‘Ruthven’ was the name of the Byronic anti-hero of Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon, so Polidori’s personal allegory is far from subtle.) In Athens, Aubrey falls for the beautiful Ianthe, who speaks of the ‘living vampire,’ a creature who ‘prolongs his existence’ by ‘feeding upon the life of a lovely female’ (Polidori: 1819, 9). Victims are found drained of blood, bite-marks on their throats. Although Aubrey hears a ‘pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven’ in the account, he remains English and rational, although he does note that there are ‘many coincidences’ (Polidori: 1819, 10). Before they can marry, Ianthe is killed by a vampyre. Feverish with grief, Aubrey is attended by the apparently reformed Ruthven. They resume their travels, and Ruthven is mortally wounded by bandits. He begs Aubrey to keep his misdeeds and death secret for exactly one year. Aubrey swears, and Ruthven’s corpse disappears. In London, Aubrey finds a resurrected Ruthven seducing his sister. Sworn to silence, Aubrey’s agitation appears mad. His sister becomes Ruthven’s wife and victim on the final night of the oath, while, after recounting his story, Aubrey dies of rage and a broken blood-vessel. Ruthven disappears, remaining at large and unpunished at the end of the story.
Polidori’s major Diodati project was actually the novel Ernestus Berchtold; Or, The Modern Oedipus (1819), which only contains a limited supernatural element, but legend has it that the Countess of Breuss challenged him to complete Byron’s ‘Fragment,’ a gothic immortal prologue where ‘Augustus Darvell’ dies in a Turkish cemetery, swearing a younger travelling companion to secrecy and decomposing before his eyes. ‘The Vampyre’ manuscript was subsequently submitted anonymously the New Monthly Magazine. Henry Colburn, the magazine’s publisher, attributed the story to Byron, who did rather resemble the title character, and published it in the April edition of 1819. Polidori and Byron protested while Colburn hedged, initiating a protracted dispute that was vicious even by Regency magazine standards. Polidori was now a physician in Norwich, although he was still writing. In 1817 he had suffered an accident from which he never fully recovered, and by the time ‘The Vampyre’ was published he was beset by financial and health problems. The scent of fraud unfairly clung, and a fixed fee for ‘The Vampyre’ meant he saw no profit from the numerous reprints, translations and stage adaptations. Increasingly desperate, Polidori returned to London in 1820, resolving to take up law. After a three-week gambling binge in Brighton in 1821, he returned to his father’s house, horribly in debt, and committed suicide by drinking prussic acid. He was twenty-five years old. Out of sympathy to the family faith, the coroner ruled death by natural causes.
Purists may argue that Goethe got there first with The Bride of Corinth, that Scott has a vampire in Rokeby, as does Byron in The Giaour and, indeed, ‘A Fragment.’ Yet Byron’s public image owed more to the gothic romance than the genre did to him, and it was the dead grey eyes of Lord Ruthven, Polidori’s version of Augustus Darvell, that seized the public imagination and re-invented both the slobbering ghoul of European folklore and the eighteenth century literary rake as the suave, sensual, protean and indestructible blood-sucker that we all know and love. Without Lord Ruthven, Sir Francis Varney, Carmilla Karnstein, Count Dracula, Lestat de Lioncourt, Buffy, True Blood and Twilight would be unimaginable. Polidori, himself, has been fictionalised and dramatized many times, most notably in the movies Gothic (directed by Ken Russell, 1986), Remando al viento (Rowing with the Wind, 1988, dir. Gonzalo Suárez), and Haunted Summer (dir. Ivan Passer, 1989); the play Bloody Poetry by Howard Brenton (1984); and the historical novels Lord Byron’s Doctor by Paul West (1989), and Fire on the Water by P.J. Parker (2013).
The full text of ‘The Vampyre’ can be found on Project Gutenberg.
A shorter version of this profile was first published in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic (2012) edited by W. Hughes, D. Punter & A. Smith.
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Polidori, John. (1819). ‘The Vampyre.’ In Robert Morrison & Chris Baldick, (Eds). (1997). The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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