Academic

John Polidori: Edinburgh University’s Tragic Romantic and the Influence of The Vampyre

Written by Melissa Kane. A writing competition amongst travel companions in 1816 would birth some of the most influential works of Gothic and Romantic fiction. Among those was Edinburgh alumnus John William Polidori whose short story would give rise to the Vampire literature genre.

The famous ghost-story competition held in Geneva at the Villa Diodati in June 1816, is known for producing one of the greatest literary works of gothic fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In attendance at the Villa was Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their illegitimate son, as well as his literary friend Lord Byron and his mistress, Jane ‘Claire’ Claremont, who was also Mary’s stepsister. Also present was Byron’s personal doctor and recent travelling companion, Dr John Polidori, the author of ‘the first sustained-fictional treatment of vampirism in English’, The Vampyre. 

John Polidori was born in 1795, the eldest son of a distinguished Italian scholar and translator. He was educated at a Catholic college near York and later became an alumnus of Edinburgh University’s Medical School, earning his medical degree in 1814 at the unusual age of 19. 

During the same time, Lord George Byron had burst into the public sphere at the age of 24 as an ‘eroticised literary sensation’, establishing his scandalous celebrity persona as an ‘aristocrat of great dignity, but also as a brooding, moody romantic with a flash of danger running through his heart’, as Greg Jenner states. 

In April of 1816, Polidori had become Byron’s personal physician and was invited to join him in the continent after he was forced to flee England due to growing debts, as well as rumours that deemed him ‘a lunatic, a serial seducer, a drunk, a traitor, a sodomite and a practitioner of incest’. However, the likelihood is that Polidori was compelled to join Byron after being offered ‘no less than a sum of £500 for an account of [Byron’s] forthcoming tour’ by his publisher, John Murray.  

The companions made their way to the Villa Diodati, with the Shelley’s taking up residence at the nearby Maison Chappuis, making frequent visits to the Villa, so much so that neighbouring English tourists spread rumours of diabolical meetings. However, it was later revealed they had only entertained themselves through reading German ghost tales, which eventually led to the famous ghost story competition on the 17 June.  

Each member of the group was to produce a piece of what we would now deem as gothic fiction to entertain the rest of the group. Claire and Percy defunct on their stories, with Mary beginning what would later become the classic Frankenstein. Polidori also began an original work set in Geneva about a “skull-headed lady”, according to Mary, but was very aware that Byron had commenced a story that would become the doctor’s legacy.  

Byron’s fragment was no piece of immense literary value in and of itself. Named “Augustus Darvell”, he outlined the basis of a story about a young man travelling in Greece with a mysterious English aristocrat. The titular character then slowly begins to lose strength and waste away for no clear reasons. After stopping in a cemetery, Darvell appears to die and demands his companion swear an oath to keep his death a secret. 

Supposedly, Byron had already planned the rest of the story and he had probably explained it to Polidori and the others, although it seems he did not deem it worthy of finishing. Polidori makes reference in his account of Byron’s tour of a conversation with the Countess of Breuss about the fragment, who questioned whether anything could be made of it, resulting in the conception of The Vampyre. 

Polidori’s own story follows a very similar narrative of a young Englishman, Aubrey, who meets the mysterious aristocrat Lord Ruthven and accompanies him on a European tour. After numerous suspicious events, the pair are attacked by bandits, and Ruthven is mortally wounded. Similar to Byron’s story, Ruthven makes Aubrey swear not to tell anyone for a year and a day. Aubrey then returns to London only to see Ruthven seduce and marry his sister on the final day of the oath. Aubrey meanwhile suffers a mental breakdown, but he manages to write a letter, telling his sister of Ruthven’s mysterious nature. However, Aubrey dies soon afterward, and his sister succumbs to the vampyre before she can ever read the letter.  

Scholars have frequently cited the similarities between the friendship of Aubrey and Lord Ruthven to Byron and Polidori’s own friendship; the mysterious and seductive aristocrat who takes the innocent Englishman on a European tour filled with drama and secrecy. The tensions depicted in The Vampyre are also said to represent their turbulent relationship which eventually led to Polidori’s fall from the favour of his decadent patron. He left to travel around Italy for a short period of time, leaving behind his manuscript in Geneva, before returning to England in 1817 and settling in Norwich to establish a medical practice. 

In the autumn of 1818, the London New Monthly magazine received a package containing several documents pertaining to the summer of 1816, including a mysterious manuscript. The text, entitled The Vampyre, was assumed to be the work of Lord Byron by the magazine’s proprietor, Henry Colburn. The manuscript seemed to follow the pattern of his previous works, such as the Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18). It was believed to be a work of self-portraiture that encapsulated the dramatic persona of Lord Byron in the character of Lord Ruthven, his own Byronic hero. All the work lacked was an authenticating signature.  

Colburn saw the appearance of the package as a miracle, as the magazine was facing a decline in sales against a competing publication. An introduction for the piece was commissioned to present it to an English audience still largely unfamiliar with Eastern European folklore, which announced the work forthrightly that of Lord Byron when it was published in early 1819. 

The publication was a sensational success, sparking a public fascination with vampire lore that ‘still shows no sign of subsiding’. It instantly became a classical piece of gothic literature, inspiring later works such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and Stoker’s Dracula. Before the 19th century, vampire fiction had indeed existed, but vampires were always depicted as ugly revenant creatures of the undead.   

The Vampyre, however, was unique in its descriptions of Lord Ruthven. No longer was he a foul creature, but rather a mysterious and seductive aristocrat with elegant manners and defined beauty; the intimate imposter of the social inner circle, just as Byron had been.  

The work propelled public interest in the gothic macabre as the New Monthly magazine became the home for eerie, folkloric ghost stories for the next twenty years. Yet, the astronomical success of The Vampyrewas likely not due to the novelty of Polidori’s interpretation of the lore, but rather the fact it was published under Byron’s infamous name and not his own.  

Almost immediately after it was published, Polidori wrote a letter to Colburn whereupon he stated ‘I shall not sit patiently by and see [the story] taken without my consent, and appropriated by any person’, demanding the edition be republished under his own name. However, by the time Colburn’s mistake was amended, the public cared very little about the nature of the publication – it was forever linked to Byron and his persona. In Britain, The Vampyre was included in Byron’s collected works well into the 1890s. The intrinsic link between Byron and the character of Lord Ruthven would forever obscure the name of John Polidori.  

Despite his medical career, Polidori did not give up his writing aspirations after the success of The Vampyre, producing a full-length novel in the same year named The Modern Oedipus. Two years later, The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem appeared. However, Polidori was not able to reap the financial and cultural success of his first work, leading his later publications to fall as he had done into obscurity. By this time, he had also fallen into deep debt, entering a depression as he became dissatisfied with both his medical and writing career. In 1821, he swallowed a tumbler of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in his father’s house, taking his own life at the age of 26.  

Polidori’s take on the Byronic vampyre was influential in changing our perceptions of Eastern European folklore, which has filled stories and tales for over 200 years. Although the work was by no means novel, and tales of the bloodthirsty undead did not begin with The Vampyre, he brought an interpretation of the lore that fundamentally changed our understanding and perception of the classic monster. The basis of Lord Ruthven on the dramatic Lord Byron created the idea of the vampire as an incubus, one that hides in plain sight, stringing darkness, and horror in their wake. His downfall lies in his obscurity, shadowed by the character of Byron, without whom it is unlikely that the work would have ever been published and gained the notoriety it did. Polidori was a tragic character, whose story seems destined to remain, like Lord Ruthven, in the shadows. 

Written by Melissa Kane

Bibliography  

Coghen, Monika. “Lord Byron and the Metamorphoses of Polidori’s Vampyre.” Studia Litteraria Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis, no. 6 (2011): 29-40. 

Ellis, David. Byron in Geneva That Summer of 1816. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011. 

Hughes, William. “John Polidori” in Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012. 

Jenner, Greg, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver ScreenLondon: W&N2020. 

Morrison, Robert and Baldick, Chris (eds.), The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Polidori, John William. The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, 1816, Relating to Byron, Shelley, Etc. Project Gutenberg. 

Süner, Ahmet. “The Gothic Horrors of the Private Realm and the Return to the Public in John Polidori’s the Vampyre.” Moderna Språk 112, no. 1 (2018): 187-200. 

Wassif, Mariam. “Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Portraits.” The Wordsworth Circle 49, no. 1 (2018): 53-61. 

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