Polidori, John

Polidori, John (1795–1821)

(pop culture)

John Polidori was the author of “The Vampyre,” the first modern vampire story. Polidori attended Edinburgh University from which he received his medical degree at the age of nineteen. He wrote his thesis in 1815 on the nightmare. Polidori, however, had ambitions to be a writer and thus was delighted to be invited to be the traveling companion of Lord Byron, who was leaving England for a tour of continental Europe in the spring of 1816. In Geneva, they were joined by Claire Clairmont, Mary Godwin, and Percy Shelley.

Several days later, occasioned in part by bad weather that limited their movements, Byron suggested that each person begin a “ghost” story. He primed the pump somewhat by reading some tales from Fantasmagoriana to the small group. One evening, each began a story, but Mary Godwin was the only one who took the project seriously. Her story eventually grew into the novel Frankenstein. Polidori began a story about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeking through a keyhole, but like the rest, soon lost interest in developing it very far.

Polidori kept a journal of his experiences in Europe, including some detailed notes on the evening of the storytelling, and most importantly, a synopsis of Byron’s story. It concerned two friends traveling in Greece, where one of them died. Before his death, however, he extracted an oath from the other that he reveal nothing about the conditions leading to his death.

Upon his return to England, he discovered his dead friend very much alive and having an affair with his sister. Byron saw no future in his story and so abandoned it.

Polidori took the plot of Byron’s summer tale and developed it into a short story of his own. “The Vampyre” was published in the April 1819 issue of New Monthly Magazine. He took at least a light swing at Byron in his choice of the name of the vampire, Lord Ruthven, the name chosen by Byron’s former lover Caroline Lamb to lampoon Byron in her novel, Glenarvon. The story was published under Lord Byron’s name, which caused it to receive far more immediate attention than it otherwise would have gotten.

Goethe pronounced it Byron’s best, and it was quickly translated into French and hailed as a new Byron masterpiece. The May issue of New Monthly Magazine included Polidori’s explanation of the circumstances surrounding the writing of “The Vampyre,” and Byron wrote a letter to Gallignani’s Magazine in Paris, but by then it was too late. The New Monthly Magazine‘s owner continued his insistence that he had published an original Byron story, and emphasized the assertion by publishing it separately as a booklet also under Byron’s name.

One can only speculate what might have happened had the story been published under Polidori’s name. It launched the first wave of interest in the vampire and went on to become, with the exception of Dracula, the most influential vampire tale of all time. The young Parisian romantics immediately saw its potential. Cyprien Bérard wrote a lengthy sequel detailing further adventures of its vampire character, Lord Ruthwen ou Les Vampires (1820). Charles Nodier, who wrote the preface to the French translation of “The Vampyre,” turned the plot into a three act play. The play launched a theatrical fad that saw five Paris playhouses offering vampire productions by the end of the year. Lord Ruthven periodically reappeared during the next thirty years, his last ventures being recounted by Alexandre Dumas in 1852.

Unfortunately, Polidori did not live to see the far-reaching results of his story. His life took a negative turn and in 1821 he committed suicide. He was twenty-six years old.

Sources:

Bleiler, E. F., ed. Three Gothic Novels. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. 291 pp.
Hanson, Robert R. A Profile of John Polidori with a New Edition of The Vampyre. Columbus, OH: Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1966.
Macdonald, D. L. Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of “The Vampire.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 333 pp.
Polidori, John. Ernestus Berchtold, or the Modern Oedipus. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1819. 275 pp.
———. “The Vampyre.” New Monthly Magazine (April 1819).
Senf, Carol A. “Polidori’s The Vampyre: Combining the Gothic with Realism.” North Dakota Quarterly 56, 1 (Winter 1988): 197–208.
———. The Diary of John Polidori. William Michael Rosetti, ed. London: Elkin Mathew, 1911. 228 pp. Rpt. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Library, 2009. 246 pp.
Switzer, Richard. “Lord Ruthwen and the Vampires.” The French Review 19, 2 (December 1955): 107–12.
Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981. 219 pp.
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