Dr. John Polidori and The Vampyre

Though Dracula and Lestat are far better known today, modern vampire literature owes a great deal to Polidori’s Lord Ruthven. The original article I wrote can be found here.

John_William_Polidori_by_F.G._Gainsford

Born John William Polidori in September 1795, the creator of the earliest English vampire story actually trained as a physician, obtaining his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh at the age of nineteen. But his true wish was to be a writer, and with a view to realizing that dream, he took a post as personal physician to Lord Byron, a position that thrust him into the very center of the vanguard of literary romanticism. According to letters and diaries written by acquaintances, Polidori was apparently roundly disliked, but his lucky association with Byron would open up a wealth of opportunity and ensure his minor legacy.

Villa Deodati and the Haunted Summer

Like several other significant works of the period — most notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — Polidori’s vampire story had its genesis in the infamous “haunted summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron invited a handful of luminaries to spend time with him at his villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Polidori soon found himself in the company of the freethinking poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was also Byron’s lover. The unconventional writers evidently took some delight in teasing Polidori for his uptight nature and literary ambitions; Polidori was so stung by the mockery that he challenged Shelley to a duel, which never came to fruition.

In the by now well-known scenario, Lord Byron challenged his guests to each write an original ghost story. Mary Godwin’s, of course, was later published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley, Byron, and presumably Clairmont each wrote fragments of poems or stories, some of which were later fleshed out and published. Byron’s novel fragment, which he quickly lost interest in and abandoned, was picked up by Polidori, who used it as the basis of his own story, which he called “The Vampyre.” The vampiric character of Lord Ruthven, in fact, was very obviously based on Lord Byron himself.

The Vampyre Published…and Misattributed

Lord Byron had never felt that warmly toward Polidori — by his own admission, he found the doctor silly, pretentious, jealous and insecure, and once threatened to give him “a damned good thrashing.” Tensions between the two men came to a head shortly after the summer of 1816, and Byron dismissed Polidori from his post as physician.

The following spring, “The Vampyre” was published in the New Monthly Magazine, but without Polidori’s permission; worse, it was attributed to Lord Byron. Publisher Henry Coburn had evidently obtained the story through unknown channels and thought slapping Byron’s name on it would help sell more copies. Polidori protested and threatened to sue; Coburn paid him £30 and republished the story as “related by Lord Byron to Doctor Polidori,” but the damage had mostly been done, and Byron would be credited with writing “The Vampyre” for many years to come, even after he had published his original novel fragment, the one that Polidori had based his own story on.

The Vampyre Finds Fleeting Success

Perhaps due to rumors that Byron was its true author, or knowledge that the vampire in the story was based on him, “The Vampyre” was a rousing success, with five editions printed in 1819 alone. Critical opinions of the tale were a mixed bag; some derided it as “trashy,” while no less an authority than Goethe claimed it was the best thing Byron had ever written. Whatever its literary merits, though, the gothic tale of the vampiric and debauched Lord Ruthven traveling the continent with a young man named Aubrey in his evil thrall was unquestionably the very first English-language vampire tale, and hence the dark godfather to every fictional bloodsucker that followed — from Dracula to Lestat to Edward Cullen.

The Tragic End of John Polidori

Polidori continued his medical practice, using his literary notoriety as leverage to woo high-society patients. His ministrations were often fatal, however, and he later abandoned medicine to go into law. His writing impulse never left him; in 1819 he published a novel called Ernestus Berchtold which sold less than 200 copies, and two years later produced a Byronesque poem called The Fall of the Angels which likewise garnered scant attention. The thwarting of his ambitions led to a depressed gambling spree, and with debts spiraling out of control, Polidori committed suicide by taking prussic acid, a month shy of his 27th birthday.

Polidori has turned up as a character in several films and novels, many of which revolve around Byron, the Shelleys, and the summer of 1816. He is nearly always portrayed negatively, as a vain, talentless hanger-on with pretensions that outstripped his abilities. But his legacy lives on as the seed out of which all of modern vampire literature has sprouted.

Sources:

Davenport-Hines, Richard (1998). Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. North Point Press. ISBN: 086547544.

Hoobler, Dorothy (2007). The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. Back Bay Books. ISBN: 0316066400.

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