Ruthven, Lord

Ruthven, Lord

(pop culture)

Eight decades before anyone had heard of Dracula, the vampire Lord Ruthven was created by John Polidori and introduced to the world in the first vampire short story, “The Vampyre,” published in 1819. Within a few years, Lord Ruthven would appear on both the Paris and London stage and inspire a generation of literary activity. “The Vampyre,” derived from a story fragment written by Lord Byron, was developed by Polidori after his break with Byron, who served as the model for the leading character. The story concerned Aubrey, a wealthy young man who became friends with Lord Ruthven, a mysterious stranger who entered London society. Ruthven was pale in complexion and somewhat cold in demeanor, but a favorite of the women. He freely loaned money to people to use at the gaming tables, but those who accepted his money generally lost it and were led further into debt and eventual degradation.

As Polidori accompanied Byron on a continental journey, so Aubrey traveled to Rome with Ruthven in the story. Here he became upset at Ruthven’s attempts to seduce the young daughter of an acquaintance. Unable to stop his course of action, Aubrey left Ruthven and went on to Greece without him. In Greece he found himself attracted to Ianthe, the daughter of the innkeeper. It was she who introduced him (and the reader) to the legend of the vampire. While Aubrey lost himself in his new relationship and the visiting of the local sights, Ruthven arrived. A short time later, Ianthe was attacked and killed by a vampire. Aubrey, recovering from his loss and not yet connecting Ruthven and the vampire, rejoined him to travel around Greece. As they journeyed across the country, they were attacked by bandits. Ruthven was killed in the attack, but before he died, he made Aubrey swear to conceal the manner of his death and of any crimes he might have committed for the period of a year and a day. The bandits carried Ruthven’s body to a nearby site where it would be exposed to the moon‘s light. Aubrey returned to London and along the way began to realize that Ruthven destroyed all upon whom he showered his favors, especially the women who became his lovers. Upon Aubrey’s return to London, Ruthven reappeared and reminded him of his promise of silence. Aubrey had a nervous breakdown and while he was recovering, Ruthven ingratiated himself with the sister. They were engaged to be married, and Aubrey, because of his oath, felt unable to prevent the occurrence. The marriage took place on the day the oath ran out, but not in time to prevent Ruthven from killing the sister and disappearing to work his evil elsewhere.

Polidori developed Lord Ruthven from elements of European folklore that had become well known across Europe after the vampire epidemics of the previous century. In his introduction, Polidori refers specifically to the Arnold Paul vampire scare and the survey of vampirism written by Dom Augustin Calmet. And while the vampire had been the subject of some German and British poems, Polidori, as noted by Carol Senf, took the crude entity of European folklore and transformed it into a complex and interesting character, the first vampire in English fiction. No longer was the vampire simply a mindless demonic force unleashed on humankind, but a real person—albeit a resurrected one—capable of moving unnoticed in human society and picking and choosing victims. He was not an impersonal evil entity, but a moral degenerate dominated by evil motives, and a subject about whom negative moral judgments were proper.

Because “The Vampyre” originally appeared under Byron’s name, it attracted much more attention than it might have otherwise. In France, before the matter of its authorship was cleared up, it was widely reviewed and greatly affected many of the new generation of romantic writers. Playwright Charles Nodier was asked to review it and wrote the preface to the French edition. His friend Cyprien Bérard wrote a two-volume sequel to the story, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires, which appeared early in 1820. Because it was published anonymously, many ascribed it to Nodier; however, Nodier wrote his own version of the Ruthven story in Le Vampire, the first vampire drama, which opened in Paris in the summer of 1820. In Nodier’s tale, Ruthven finally was forced to face the fatal consequences of his evil life. Within two months, James R. Planché adapted Le Vampire and brought Lord Ruthven to the London stage in The Vampire, or, The Bride of the Isles. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Lord Ruthven appeared in four other vampire plays—two serious melodrama, two comedic—before the year was out. He made his debut in Germany in 1829 in an opera, Der Vampyr, by Heinrich August Marschner.

Before he left Paris and retired to Belgium, Lord Ruthven made his last appearance on the Parisian stage in 1852 in Alexandre Dumas‘s final work. After Dumas’s play, Lord Ruthven went into retirement as a character to be succeeded by Varney the Vampyre, Carmilla, and Dracula. He would not be rediscovered until 1945. Ruthven served as the initial inspiration for a movie, The Vampire’s Ghost, produced by Republic Pictures. However, by the time the script was developed the story line little resembled the original, and its leading character had only the vaguest likeness to Lord Ruthven. Lord Ruthven also made a brief appearance when Vampire Tales, the Marvel comic book, adapted “The Vampyre” in its first issue in 1973.

The most recent revival of Lord Ruthven, a new version of Marschner’s opera, appeared on BBC television in 1992. In Der Vampyr—A Soap Opera, Ruthven was now a modern Londoner and his name had been changed to Ripley the Vampyr.


Goulart, Ron. “The Vampire.” Vampire Tales 1 (1973): 35–48.
Macdonald, D. L. Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of ‘The Vampire. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 333 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.