A small green City of Westminster plaque adorns the wall of 38 Great Pulteney Street in Soho, London; it belatedly commemorates the writing of John William Polidori, the Anglo-Italian doctor who accompanied Lord Byron on his flight into exile in 1816. Polidori haunts the gothic fringes of the Romantic circle who made the year without a summer so memorable in the annals of literary history. Gathered in Geneva, John, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, his soon to be wife, Mary and Claire Clairmont sheltered from the electric storms prompted by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. They wrote, they drank, and amused themselves with the telling of stories, which led to the famous challenge issued by Byron: ‘We will each write a ghost story…’
That such a dark summer spawned Frankenstein is a matter of common knowledge. Indirectly, it also led to the writing of Percy Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, along with Byron’s ‘Darkness’ and ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’. Few remember John Polidori’s The Vampyre and fewer still the plot that he first conceived in the days following the fateful challenge, Ernestus Berchtold. The reasons for Polidori’s retreat into the shadows of history are complex, although the main cause is the allegation of plagiarism arising from the fact that his vampiric story was originally attributed to Lord Byron.
In more than one biography of the poet his doctor stands accused of passing The Vampyre off as his former employer’s work, thereby basking in the glow of Byron’s notoriety. That Polidori based the story on a fragment written by Byron at the time of the challenge is beyond dispute, but a comparison of the two works soon uncovers many differences in style and direction. Polidori takes Byron’s protagonist, Augustus Darvell, and turns him into Lord Ruthven, the aloof darling of London society. John claimed to have been unaware of The Vampyre’s publication in 1819, when it appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, and his desire for literary recognition would have made the idea of using Byron’s name anathema, not least because he had parted from his employer on less than favourable terms.
Polidori was born in 1795 at the family home in Great Pulteney Street to an English mother and an Italian father, Gaetano Polidori, once the secretary of flamboyant dramatist and author Vittorio Alfieri. Gaetano knew the perils of working for a famous man and strongly suggested that his son decline the offer of travelling as Byron’s physician. Struck by the aristocrat’s reputation, desperate to advance a career in letters and lacking opportunities in medicine owing to his young age, the good-looking medic accepted the role as the poet’s doctor, which also entailed the making of travel arrangements and keeping of household accounts.
From the outset of their journey across Belgium and then down the Rhine, Byron’s ego and personality clashed with the eager, puppy-like behaviour of Polidori. As spring progressed into summer and the pair settled at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, a growing mutual antagonism developed into hostility, fuelled by Polidori’s jealous mistrust of the new arrival, Percy Shelley, and Shelley’s intolerance of John’s outbursts. Byron nicknamed him, Pollydolly, an effeminate parody of the affectionate family diminutive Poli. Matters came to a head when an outraged Polidori, ridiculed at losing a boat race, threatened Shelley with a duel. Shelley laughed in the doctor’s face, whilst Byron pointedly advised that he had no qualms in taking his friend’s place.
A mutual parting of the ways was inevitable, a separation finally settled by the intervention of John Cam Hobhouse, Byron’s closest friend. Unbeknownst to the party who remained behind at the Villa Diodati, Polidori had been exacting a sweet written revenge for all the slights he had suffered from the poet’s acid tongue and world-weary attitude. During the summer John had often escaped across the lake to a light-hearted social gathering hosted by the Countess Breuss, where he met a certain Madame Brelaz, who fell for his charms. It was in this company that he penned The Vampyre, a conscious step away from the sinister cloisters inhabited by Matthew Lewis’s Monk.
Lord Ruthven, named after the lead character in Glenarvon written by Lady Caroline Lamb, is the first patrician vampire, an archetype now firmly embedded in our consciousness. Ruthven is, of course, Byron by another name, a harvester of souls, a man capable of the most aloof distain. The story is told from the perspective of Aubrey, attracted, like the author, to the aristocrat’s superficial charm and tales of the East. It is on a trip to the Levant that Ruthven dies, only to re-emerge as one of the undead, after having implored Aubrey to conceal his death. The final horror is revealed when Ruthven takes Aubrey’s sister as his wife.
Polidori left the manuscript behind in Geneva, with either the Countess Breuss or Madame Brelaz. Seemingly forgotten, it reappeared in London, prey to the unscrupulous machinations of Henry Colburn who was responsible for printing it under Byron’s name. Copies of the text spread quickly across Europe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe even considered it the poet’s best work. John battered down doors, harangued, cajoled, and threatened law suits to get the novella attributed to his name. Mutually recriminatory accusations flew back and forth between Polidori and Colburn, before a fudge was agreed upon. John was expecting an ‘amende honorable’, but Colburn went to ground.
Whatever the truth, the damage, however, had been done. In the same year, Polidori had published the other tale he had worked on during that Genevan summer, Ernestus Berchtold. Berchtold is the adopted son of a Swiss pastor whose life of patriotic combat against the French is corrupted by an Italian adventurer, Olivieri. Ernestus marries Olivieri’s sister and after consummating the relationship is confronted with the alarming truth that she is his own lost half-sister; another nod to Lord Byron and his scandalous relationship with Augusta Leigh.
The book received a good review, but sold just a handful of copies. Polidori’s literary reputation would forever be unfairly tarnished by his status as the man who tried to pass himself off as Byron. He did not help his cause by also persisting in the writing of poetry, a medium in which he was far less comfortable. Some modern critics, notably James Rieger in a 1963 edition of Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, have tried to resurrect his standing. Rieger says that ‘had he fulfilled the promise of Ernestus Berchtold, (he) might now hold a place in the nineteenth-century hierarchy slightly above Charlotte Brontë’.
After leaving Byron, Polidori wandered Italy in search of a patron. Despite having an uncle in Arezzo and friends of the family in Pisa, he refused to settle. He hatched aborted plans to travel to Brazil, but eventually succumbed to the pull of home. Back in England, he retreated to Norwich, a place where he had spent happier times before becoming Byron’s ill-fated physician. Always accident-prone, he was driving a gig through the grounds of Costessey Hall when he collided with a tree. Depressed, concussed and increasingly directionless, the scandal prompted by the appearance of The Vampyre only made matters worse.
Polidori was never the same after his accident; his mood varied from minute to minute; he often became taciturn, monosyllabic, or incoherent; his ability to stick at any task wavered more than usual. In an effort to change career, John even made a dilatory attempt at becoming a lawyer. Over a period of days spent in Brighton, he gambled away what little money he had left. Having returned to London, he was found lying on the bed in his quarters, in a state near to death. He was carried back to the family home in Soho where he died. Despite an inquest verdict of ‘Death by the Visitation of God’, conventional wisdom reports his demise as suicide by the swallowing of prussic acid. In the 1960s a Bostonian doctor, Henry Viets, examined the records and cast doubt on this, yet Polidori is still remembered, if at all, for killing himself.
Like his lead character, Ruthven, John has been unquiet in death. He was buried in St Pancras Old Churchyard, coincidentally near to Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. To make way for a railway extension, the then engineer and would-be author, Thomas Hardy, had part of the burial ground dug up and the corpses reburied in a communal pit. Mary Wollstonecraft was left untouched, John’s grave was removed. His headstone is now one of the moss-covered, weathered specimens that ring what has become known as the ‘Hardy Tree’.
William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel, and John’s nephew, once reported that he had contacted Polidori in a séance. He asked his uncle if he was happy on the other side, only to receive the tapped out reply: ‘”not exactly.” Posterity remembers his creation, if not his name. Christopher Frayling, in his scholarly dissection of the literary vampire phenomenon, has said that Polidori’s novella is ’the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre.