John Polidori and The Vampyre

 On a frigid June evening in 1816,  Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Claire Clairmont, and Doctor John Polidori huddled together in their summerhouse on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.    With a  thunderstorm raging outside, Byron  passed the time by reading out loud from Das Gespensterbuch (The Ghost Book). Upon finishing, he challenged each occupant to write a ghost story.  Mary Godwin would go on to pen, Frankenstein.  

John Polidori would pen the first English vampire tale, The Vampyre.

 The darkly handsome physician had always been ambivalent towards the medical profession.   Sensitive and insecure, Polidori had been bullied as a child and turned to poetry for solace.  Now he wished to win Byron’s respect.   Unfortunately, the infamous poet never missed out on a chance to mock Polidori’s literary ambitions.

The day after the challenge was announced, Polidori wrote in his journal, “The ghost-stories begun by all but me.” 

Byron began a piece featuring a mysterious aristocrat named, Augustus Darvell, who made the narrator of the story promise to bury him after he died, but to tell no one of where.   More at home with poetry than prose, Byron soon abandoned his ghost story.

Mary Godwin Shelley later recollected, “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole.”

Polidori abandoned that story and at some point turned his attention towards, The Vampyre.  Leaving behind the hideous features of Nosferatu, Polidori modeled his vampire into a sauve, sexually-attractive gentleman.  Naming the vampire, Lord Ruthven, (pronounced with a silent “th”) was hardly coincidental.  Byron’s spurned lover, Caroline Lamb, had used the same name in her own novel, Glenarvon, a fictionalized account of their affair. 

  Polidori cast himself as the innocent Aubrey who dies in a failed attempt to save his sister from the clutches of Lord Ruthven.

Evil triumphed.

The Vampyre first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on April 1, 1819.   The story had reached the magazine editors along with a note regarding the circumstances of which it had come about during the summer of 1816.   The letter also claimed Byron as its author.  After Byron denied authorship, Polidori came forth, explaining in a letter to the magazine editor, “I beg leave to state, that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale, in its present form, to Lord Byron.  The fact is, that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron’s, its development is mine. . .”

Although Byron continued to deny authorship, and stated he disliked the whole subject of vampires and had no interest in writing about them, many readers still believed the famous poet was the author of the tale.  Byron’s suspected involvement in writing the tale, helped spur huge sales.   Polidori’s fragile ego was smashed once again.  To make matters worse, the book had been registered by the book publisher, which meant that Polidori lost the copyright.  The Vampyre became a bestseller.   Within two years, the novel was translated into German, French, Spanish, and Swedish. Polidori received a token payment of thirty pounds.

Polidori continued his literary pursuits.  In 1819 he published an unsuccessful play entitled, Ximenes.   This was followed by Ernestus Berchtold: The Modern Oedipus, a seamy tale involving the supernatural and incest.  Only 199 copies were sold.

 By 1821, Polidori was back living with his family in London, and deeply in debt.

On August 24th, 1821, John Polidori committed suicide.  It was a month before his twenty-sixth birthday.

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40 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That was such an interesting post! Just goes to show how frail writers can be.

  2. I wonder if this story was the basis for a similar sounding German movie, one of the first talkies called Vampyr. It was a spooky, surreal movie, that if you look at it, seems more 2010 than 1929. Interesting.

  3. Gypsy, I tagged you for a meme. http://smsarber.blogspot.com/2009/06/meme-time-better-than-mime-time.html

    YOU MUST OBEY, Woo-Ha-Ha-Ha (evil laugh)

  4. Haha, I’ve sucked you in (pardon the expression) to my vampire obsession 😉

    Fascinating account of Polidori’s life. So tragic that he died so young, is it certain it was suicide? Now I’m more interested than ever in reading his story. And I just found it online at Project Gutenberg:

    The Vampyre

  5. Thank you, Patricia!

    It definitely couldn’t have been easy for someone as already fragile as Polidori to become the emotional whipping boy for Byron.

    Byron wrote an initial rejection for Polidori’s, “Ximenes”. It began:
    “Dear Doctor-I have read your play
    Which is a good one in its way
    Purges the eyes and moves the bowels
    And drenches handkerchiefs like towels…”

  6. Hi Bettielee,

    I’ve seen Vampyr. It is very cool and surreal. (for anyone interested, it’s on youtube)

    I just checked Wikipedia. Evidently, the film was based loosely on a couple of Sheridan Le Fanu stories.

  7. D D,

    Heh. I almost felt like I was stepping on your vampy toes. 😉

    It does seem like it was suicide. Polidori asked a servant to leave him a glass and not to disturb him. The next day he was found near death. Two doctors came and pumped his stomach, but it was too late.

    According to the book, “Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein” by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, “Deagostini (Polidori’s godfather) later testified that one of the doctors drank some of the liquid left in the glass, to show that it was not poison. However, there had been a considerable period of time when Deagostini was left alone with the body, and the family had an interest in averting a coroner’s verdict of suicide since that would mean Polidori could not be buried in consecrated ground.”

    Byron wrote in a letter to a friend he suspected that Polidori took prussic acid (which he’d always talked about).

    I also found the story on Gutenberg. Plan to read it soon. 🙂

  8. Steven,

    I am, “SHE WHO NEVER MUST OBEY”.

    Nevertheless, I shall go see what this meme is all about…

  9. What a sad story! But interesting. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  10. Byron could be a real…arse.

  11. Hi Jenna,

    It is pretty heartbreaking, especially when you consider how young he was. We’ll never know what he might have been able to accomplish.

  12. Hey Ralfast,

    Indeed! From what I’ve read about him, Byron strikes me as someone who wasn’t purposely cruel, but extremely narcisstic and self-centered.

  13. I have just developed a deep loathing for Byron.

    I did read somewhere that all writers were narcissistic. I think that conclusion is derived from the fact that writers often have to examine their own lives and experiences closely to get insight into the world outside. In some, I am sure it feeds narcissism and makes them progressively mroe eccentric while in others like Polidori with already fragile psyches it drives them deeper into lonesome isolation. I feel sad for a young writer with obvious promise that that’s how his life ended.

    Great research and post as always.

  14. Hey Venus,

    Thank you! I’m really glad you liked the post. 🙂

    I have to disagree with whoever it was that stated all writers were narcissistic. I’d think it more likely that very *few* of us are. Writers spend so much time not only on self-reflection, but on *others*. Trying to understanding the world and the people around us.

    What has always struck me the most regarding the narcissists I’ve had the displeasure of knowing- was their utter lack of empathy and disregard for anything but themselves. And while they spend all their time thinking about themselves, they never seem to do any real, honest self-reflection.

  15. “What has always struck me the most regarding the narcissists I’ve had the displeasure of knowing- was their utter lack of empathy and disregard for anything but themselves. And while they spend all their time thinking about themselves, they never seem to do any real, honest self-reflection.”

    I agree 100% with this being that I have the great honor of knowing closely two such personalities. What is interesting is how often they have all the appearance of self-reflection and how rarely it is truly about objectively looking at their own behaviors. I also agree that most writers are not narcissistic given how important empathy or at least conscious understanding of different viewpoints is needed in creating a complete story. But like most things in life negative stereotypes get more attention. Well-adjusted writers are hardly as glamorous as disturbed ones. Not to say that some of those disturbed geniuses really aren’t geniuses but some are too self-involved to ever step outside themselves. so, again, I agree.

  16. Excellently said, Venus.

  17. Nice post and comments. In reseaching a book I want to write, I’ve come to see Lord Byron as deeply disturbed, if not narcisstic. He had a total lack of regard for the feelings of others, even those he claimed to love. But what can you expect of a man who wore paper curlers to bed so that his hair would look good!

  18. A wonderful post gypsyscarlett, brilliantly researched as usual. Byron was such a wicked guy, it seems. Polidari was emotionally fragile and Byron could have used this vulnerability to encourage and sustain him. How sad that story was, thankyou for sharing it.

  19. Hi Janie,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. 🙂

    Are you writing a novel in which Byron appears? Or one generally set in the Regency era?

    That’s hilarious about the paper curlers. Yeah, he was mighty vain.

  20. Hi Kateri,

    Thank you!

    Regarding Byron, I think Caroline Lamb got it right with her infamous, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

    I do think he must have been a fascinating person to converse with. It was the ones who worshipped him, that he seemed to have disdain for. He cultivated his image, wanted to be worshipped, but then looked down at people who actually did worship him. Including poor Polidori.

    Although to be fair, as much of a bastard as Byron could be, Polidori did make his own decisions.

  21. Funny thing about that quote Tasha is that a version of Byron’s death posits him in a small vote in a Greek lake with his lover (which sounds exactly as it is, as in Freud was right) and drowning when the dingy capsized.

  22. In the story I am writing, Byron is a character.–Of course he’s dead. Laughing. It’s 1878. I’ve decided to make it a YA novel. But it’s one Gothic tale. I love your blog!

  23. Hi Ralfast,

    Thank you for that tidbit. Do you recall where you read it?

  24. Hi Janie,

    Thanks so much for the compliment on my blog 🙂

    Your novel sounds great. I’m fascinated by all the figures who gathered together that infamous night.

    You might enjoy Tim Powers’, “The Anubis Gates”

  25. Must be in one of my college Lit books, don’t know if I still have a copy somewhere around here.

  26. Reminds me of the Amadeus movie – sounds sort of like Mozart and Talieri.

  27. Uppington,

    Surprisingly, I’ve never seen Amadeus. (no doubt it’s totally my cuppa tea)

  28. ’tis a brilliant movie. Worth the watching.

  29. I second the recommendation for Amadeus. F. Murray Abraham stole the show as Salieri.

  30. Such an interesting post! Byron cut quite a swathe, didn’t he? The more I read about him, the more he reminds me personality-wise of Picasso: brilliant, hugely egotistical, moody, compelling, and extremely charming when he wanted to be.

    Good lord, that poor man. Being one of the meek among the mighty rarely ends well.

  31. Excellent post! I never heard of any of this before.

  32. Hey Amy,

    thanks!

    “Good lord, that poor man. Being one of the meek among the mighty rarely ends well”

    – Oh, so true! I just want to hug the poor guy. (well, maybe not in the condition he must be in now…)

  33. Hi Malanie,

    Thank you!

    btw, I’ve been trying to get over to your blog for awhile but my link isn’t working. 😦

  34. Oh thank you. Your link is not broken, I deleted the blog as it was distracting me from finishing my book! Right now my time is spent reading, researching and writing. I am still frequenting yours though!

  35. Hi MaLanie,

    Ah, okay. I miss your blog, but I totally understand. You have to do what’s best for you. Keep in touch and let me know how your book is coming. 🙂

  36. John Polidori died on the 24th August, not the 23rd and he definitely committed suicide, no matter what people say about natural death or “death by the visitation of God”, ignore the rumours. I adore John so much. I do a lot of writings about him. It’s good to know he is being recognised. My love for him goes A LOT deeper than just “research about a historical figure…”

  37. It is also interesting to know how much people like John and HOW they became interested in him? GypsyScarlett, are you a serious fan or is it just a passing fascination? 🙂

  38. Thank you for stopping over my blog, Mrs. Polidori (cool name, btw). And also thank you for kindly alerting me of the error concerning his date of death. It has been fixed.

  39. Mrs. Polidori,

    I can’t say I’m honestly a fan of his, but I am intrigued by him as I am of many writers and artists of that time period. I do have a habit of correcting people when they call “Dracula” the first vampire novel. Polidori deserves his due on that.

  40. 🙂 Yeah, John deserves all the recognition now, for the lack of recognition then, if you see what I mean. I hate the bad things that people say about him like he’s “weak”, “pathetic”, etc, He was not any of them, and I know that for sure.

    Oh, he was such a handsome man though… I love him… 😀


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