John William Polidori : Author of The Vampyre
John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer
and physician, and Bath native. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the 1819 short story, The Vampyre
, the first published modern vampire story. Although originally and erroneously accredited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the story is Polidori's.
Polidori was one of the earliest pupils at recently established Ampleforth College from 1804, and in 1810 went up to the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on sleepwalking and received his degree as a doctor of medicine on 1 August 1815 at the age of 19.
In 1816 Dr. Polidori entered Lord Byron'
s service as his personal physician, and accompanied Byron on a trip through Europe. Publisher John Murray offered Polidori 500 English pounds to keep a diary of their travels, which Polidori's nephew William Michael Rossetti later edited. At the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the pair met with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
, and her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley
, and their companion (Mary's stepsister) Claire Clairmont.
One night in June, after the company had read aloud from Fantasmagoriana
, a French collection of German horror tales, William Beckford's Vathek
and indulged in quantities of laudanum, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley,produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
. Shelley wrote "A Fragment of a Ghost Story
" and wrote down five ghost stories recounted by Matthew Gregory ("Monk") Lewis, published posthumously as the Journal at Geneva (including ghost stories)
Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron's, Fragment of a Novel
(1816), also known as "A Fragment" and "The Burial: A Fragment", and in "two or three idle mornings" produced "The Vampyre
Dismissed on bad terms, by Byron, Polidori travelled in Italy and then returned to England. His story, "The Vampyre" was first published on 1 April 1819 by Henry Colburn in the New Monthly Magazine
with the false attribution "A Tale by Lord Byron", much to both his and Byron's chagrin. Byron even released his own "Fragment of a Novel" in an attempt to clear up the mess, but, for better or worse, "The Vampyre" continued to be attributed to him. The name of the work's protagonist, "Lord Ruthven", added to this assumption, for that name was originally used in Lady Caroline Lamb's novel Glenarvon
(from the same publisher), in which a thinly-disguised Byron figure was also named Lord Ruthven. Despite repeated denials by Byron and Polidori, the authorship often went unclarified.
The tale was first published in book form by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones in London, Paternoster-Row, in 1819 in octavo as The Vampyre; A Tale
in 84 pages. The notation on the cover noted that it was: "Entered at Stationers' Hall, March 27, 1819". Later printings removed Byron's name and added Polidori's name to the title page.
The story was an immediate popular success, partly because of the Byron attribution and partly because it exploited the gothic horror predilections of the public. Polidori transformed the vampire from a character in folklore into the form that is recognized today—an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society.
Polidori's work had an immense impact on contemporary sensibilities and ran through numerous editions and translations. An adaptation appeared in 1820 with Cyprien Bérard’s novel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires
, falsely attributed to Charles Nodier, who himself then wrote his own version, Le Vampire
, a play which had enormous success and sparked a "vampire craze" across Europe. This includes operatic adaptations by Heinrich Marschner (see Der Vampyr
) and Peter Josef von Lindpaintner (see Der Vampyr
), both published in the same year and called "The Vampire". Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexis Tolstoy all produced vampire tales, and themes in Polidori's tale would continue to influence Bram Stoker's Dracula
and eventually the whole vampire genre. Dumas makes explicit reference to Lord Ruthwen in The Count of Monte Cristo
, going so far as to state that his character "The Comtesse G..." had been personally acquainted with Lord Ruthwen.
In the story, Aubrey, a young Englishman, meets Lord Ruthven, a man of mysterious origins who has entered London society. Aubrey accompanies Ruthven to Rome, but leaves him after Ruthven seduces the daughter of a mutual acquaintance. Aubrey travels to Greece, where he becomes attracted to Ianthe, an innkeeper's daughter. Ianthe tells Aubrey about the legends of the vampire. Ruthven arrives at the scene and shortly thereafter Ianthe is killed by a vampire. Aubrey does not connect Ruthven with the murder and rejoins him in his travels. The pair is attacked by bandits and Ruthven is mortally wounded. Before he dies, Ruthven makes Aubrey swear an oath that he will not mention his death or anything else he knows about Ruthven for a year and a day. Looking back, Aubrey realizes that everyone whom Ruthven met ended up suffering.
Aubrey returns to London and is amazed when Ruthven appears shortly thereafter, alive and well. Ruthven reminds Aubrey of his oath to keep his death a secret. Ruthven then begins to seduce Aubrey's sister while Aubrey, helpless to protect his sister, has a nervous breakdown. Ruthven and Aubrey's sister are engaged to marry on the day the oath ends. Just before he dies, Aubrey writes a letter to his sister revealing Ruthven's history, but it does not arrive in time. Ruthven marries Aubrey's sister. On the wedding night, she is discovered dead, drained of her blood — and Ruthven has vanished.
Whilst in London, Polidori lived on Great Pulteney Street (Soho). He died in London on 24 August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid (cyanide), the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.
Polidori's long, Byron-influenced theological poem The Fall of the Angels
, was published anonymously in 1821.