Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Byron, Polidori, and The Vampyre

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: -- upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein: -- to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, "A Vampyre! a Vampyre!" 

Dr John Polidori
Think vampires originated with Bram Stoker? Then you'd be out by at least 78 years - and counting. The author of Dracula was heavily influenced by a short (8200 words) story by an English physician and writer called John William Polidori who wrote his classic, The Vampyre, as a direct result of a challenge thrown down by his employer, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', Lord Byron. Among others who responded to this same challenge, was the poet Shelley's soon to be wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who wrote the precursor to her seminal work, Frankenstein as her entry.

Both The Vampyre and Frankenstein began life on the shores of Lake Geneva, where, in 1816, Byron rented a house called the Villa Diodati as part of a trip across Europe. Polidori and Byron were joined by Shelley and his fiancee, along with her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had been conducting an affair.

After dinner, one night in June, the assembled group read from a collection of horror stories called, Tales of the Dead. Byron then suggested each of them write a ghost story. He soon abandoned his own effort - Fragment of a Novel - although his main character, Augustus Darvell, became the model for Polidori's own Lord Ruthven in The Vampyre. Shelley wrote, A Fragment of a Ghost Story.

Lord Byron
Although the proven creative talent within that group comprised two of them - Shelley and Byron - it is ironic that their offerings paled into the shadows, eclipsed by those of two 'unknowns', namely Polidori and Mary.

Soon after this momentous night, the mercurial temper of Byron flared and he sacked Polidori. The two men went their separate ways, but future events would ensure they could never fully extricate themselves from each other.

Polidori returned to England and practiced medicine again. he also studied for the Bar. Then, in April 1819, The New Monthly Magazine published The Vampyre without his knowledge. Worse than that - they attributed it as a new work by Lord Byron.

Byron was quick to disown it, and Polidori issued a statement to the magazine:

"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."

 The story became an instant hit. there had simply never been anything like it. By the time of Polidori's untimely death two years later, it had been translated into French, German, Spanish and Swedish and had also been adapted into a stage play. Now, it is generally regarded as one of the first - if not, the first - vampire story in the English language. Certainly it is the first to feature an aristocratic, sexually charged vampire. Its legacy lives on through Dracula, Anne Rice's vampire Lestat, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga and a host of others.

Polidori - who was the uncle of Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti - suffered a tragic fate. He died on August 24th 1821, Depression and gambling debts led to much well founded speculation that he had committed suicide, Not that he, a doctor, chose an easy way out, if this was true. It was said he took his own life by cyanide poisoning. Perhaps to preserve a fellow physician reputation, the coroner issued a verdict of death by natural causes.

Byron died three years after Polidori. While preparing to launch a heroic attack on the Ottomans at their fortress at Lepanto, he contracted sepsis and a violent fever. His then physician was unable to save him and he died on April 19th 1824.
Byron's memorial has been in Westminster Abbey since the early twentieth century, once his notoriety died down and he became more acceptable to the establishment. Finally, after many years of lobbying, a plaque commemorating Dr John Polidori was placed on the wall of his former home at Great Pulteney Street in London in 1998.

The father of the modern vampire story was finally recognised.


  1. There are a couple of bizarre little B movies out there about that fateful summer.

    1. There are indeed, Suz. Hope you're enjoying your birthday!

  2. Cat...wonderful post doll. Loved it. Happy birthday Suz. Not the most fortunate little group were they in some ways?

  3. Thanks, Shey. Indeed they weren't. Byron and Shelley particularly trod the shaky path between genius and madness. Others flew too close to their intoxicating light and suffered for it.

  4. As the leading expert on the life and works of John William Polidori - have you read my book THE VAMPYRE AND OTHER WRITINGS OF JWP pub 2005 by Fyfield Press? It had a good review in The Times Literary Supplement.