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John Polidori & the Vampyre Byron

It has taken nearly 179 years but finally the mortal world is beginning to acknowledge the vision of Dr John Polidori, with a plaque now honouring him at his birthplace in Great Pulteney Street, London. Bloodstone delves a little deeper into his short life, his passion for Byron and the undeath of his most infamous creation, Lord Ruthven. Truly a vampire who is... mad, bad and dangerous to know!

In the summer of 1816, a group of literary friends were travelling through Switzerland on their way to Italy, when thunderstorms halted their progress. They were ensconced for a few days in the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, and in order to pass the time they devised a game whereby each would tell a ghost story to entertain and terrify the others. In theory the competition was open to all four – Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley and Polidori – but in actuality it was a test of rivalry between Byron and Shelley to see which of them was the greater creative persona. Mary Shelley and Polidori were largely discredited. It is interesting therefore to note that the works which sprang out of that encounter – Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' and Polidori's 'The Vampyre' – are now more famous than the works produced by Byron and Shelley on this occasion, 'Frankenstein' on its own merits, and 'The Vampyre' because of the attraction and influence it held to inspire later writers of vampire fiction, notably Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe and most famously Bram Stoker. In this essay I intend to examine this influence and to highlight the characteristics of Polidori's vampire which have now become a staple part of vampire fiction: the handsome, aristocratic, sexually exciting figure in black with the hypnotic stare and inscrutable will.

John Polidori was born on September 7th 1795 in London, the son of the former secretary to the poet/dramatist Alfieri. Polidori junior studied medicine and by the age of 20 had become personal physician and travelling companion to Lord Byron, on the suggestion of a mutual friend. Initially the two got on well but the ghost story competition and Polidori's success there must have angered and frustrated Byron and their friendship gave way under the pressure. Polidori was dismissed in September and returned to England, where he practiced medicine once more, began studying for the Bar, and fairly soon afterwards died. The truth about his death may perhaps never be known.

After his death, the journal covering the period in Switzerland was published by one of his nephews, William Michael Rossetti. It is from this initial report that we gain our truest picture of the relationship between Byron and his physician.

As I have previously stated the competition of the ghost stories was – reading between the lines – simply one between Byron and Shelley. What is certain is that the input to the competition of the other two, and the literary works which sprang out of that encounter, can scarcely have been expected to gain any kind of status, either with the 'real' writers of the party or with the general public. Even as the daughter of two celebrated writers and political theorists, it cannot have been imagined that Mary Shelley had much to offer compared to her husband and his illustrious friend. Polidori's case was surely even more deplorable. He had only his literary aspirations with which to gain favour as he was in real terms playing more the role of the servant than the friend on an equal level with such poetic genii as Byron and Shelley.

What was it then that inspired Polidori to create a short story which so many other writers right up to the present day – whether they realise it or not, taking their inspiration direct from Bram Stoker without being aware of his own influences – have admired and sought to emulate?

The short answer is Byron. 'The Vampyre', to give it its proper credit, was inspired by a tale told earlier in the evening by Byron, one which was very much later published as 'A Fragment', and which bears startling theoretical and literary similarities to Polidori's piece. The influence of Byron was such that when 'The Vampyre' was originally published in 'The New Monthly Magazine' in April 1819 it was attributed to him. The rift between the two men having widened in the interim few years however, Byron denied all authorship and a month later Polidori stepped out of the shadows and claimed it for his own whilst admitting the influence of his great friend in its conception. "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." As all great writers draw influences from those around them, from Nature, from God, so Polidori had adapted a tale of his then friend and perhaps hero to create his own tale, the original basis of which he might not, as a doctor, have felt able to provide convincingly. I cannot help wondering whether his position as a doctor might not have been damaged as a result of his propounding this theory of life beyond the grave, but no evidence of this exists – although he gave up medicine shortly before his untimely death – and it is safest to assume that the initial audience of 'The Vampyre' took this tale as it was meant to be taken, as pure fiction.

It undoubtedly took the civilised world by storm, being translated into French, German, Spanish and Swedish and adapted into a stage play all in Polidori's own lifetime. Considering that he died just two years after its publication that is quite some achievement. In contrast Anne Rice's 'Interview with the Vampire' (1976) took nearly 20 years to get onto the screen.

The notoriety of the tale was unquestionable: many great commentators of the day declared it a fine work, and it would probably be rather cynical to imagine that all of the praise came while people still laboured under the misapprehension that it was the work of Lord Byron. Goethe's famous comment about 'The Vampyre' being the best thing Byron had ever written should, I feel, be taken ironically.

What then of the text itself, and the characteristics both physical and psychological of the vampire, Lord Ruthven, which so inspired later generations of vampire writers? The first thing to say is that this is not as might have been suggested the seminal vampire text. It is not this by any means, although it does lay claim to being the first such text in the English language. On the continent, a great tradition of vampire literature had been blooming for some time, and the folkloric tales of the undead had indeed centuries of history behind them. Interesting as it would be to detail the folkloric history of the vampire, I must here confine myself to the literature which be said to truly start as fiction, not as folklore or as allegorical history, with Bόrger's 'Lenore' of 1773. Goethe's 'Die Braut von Korinth' (1797) and Southey's 'Talaba the Destroyer' (1801) carry on the themes discussed in Bόrger's work. All these texts may be seen as mediaeval or gothic works, but the core difference between these and Polidori's work is not so much in the setting but in the character of the vampire.

The earlier texts all deal with the vampire as characterised in folklore: from the peasant classes, living a rural existence, uneducated, dirty and quite frankly having no appeal whatsoever for its victims. This is clearly the Nosferatu, a violent scavenger, a brainless revenant seeking only for the blood it needs to survive. The fact that in many cases the Nosferatu returns to kill members of its own family may perhaps be put down more to a familiarity with the landscape than to any emotional or romantic attachment to its loved ones. Subsequent treatments of the Nosferatu legend have attempted with some success to infuse a little of the 'Dracula magic' into the Nosferatu character, creating a being hideous to see but with rather more imagination and intelligence than earlier accounts allowed it. At this time however the Nosferatu was the familiar shape for the vampire to take.

With the advent of Polidori the figure of the vampire took a dramatic leap forward, leaving behind the shabby, stupid, blundering image of the Nosferatu for a more sophisticated and refined social animal, the Toreador or Byronic vampire. Here is a creature in strictly human form, with no huge teeth in the front of its mouth (the canine fangs were a later invention), and no bald head or pointed ears, a creature with human emotions and human drives, a creature that can pass freely in the world of men and need not fear detection in the enlightened society through which he stalks. The aristocratic figure who mingles in high society, delighting and thrilling all with his strange mannerisms and moods, is a far cry from the lonely beast rampaging through the forest tearing out the throat of any passing creature in order to carry on his vile existence. Here instead we have a creature altogether more terrifying in its sheer plausibility: it looks human, acts almost human, talks like a human, and moves among the highest echelons of society. Surely the menace inherent in such a creature is of a more insidious and horrifying kind than that of the weird, supernatural entity of the Nosferatu. Even the term 'Byronic vampire' shows the influence of Polidori's master, and the fact that Lord Ruthven was based on his benefactor has been taken by some critics to point to a homosexual liaison between the two men. Personally, though this is a fascinating explanation for the character and appearance of Polidori's vampire, I feel this assumption is hardly borne out by the text itself. After all, though the central point of the text is the pursuit and persecution of Aubrey by Ruthven, there is no sexual conquest involved and all of Ruthven's victims are decidedly female.

Working chronologically backwards from the present time, the physical side of Polidori's Ruthven is immediately recognisable in the knowledge we have of Stoker's Dracula, but it is just as obvious in the emotional and psychological motivations of both the characters. Ruthven and Dracula both pursue one main heroic figure – Aubrey pre-shadowing Harker in more ways than one – and both take advantage sexually and emotionally of someone close to that hero – Aubrey's sister parallels Harker's wife in the later work. The character of Ianthe could also by this means be said to mirror Lucy Westenra. Ruthven is aristocratic, wealthy, a stranger to the society in which he finds himself, cold, aloof, physically different to the men around him, sexually tempting and alluring, often violent, and remorseless in his quest for the fulfilment of his desires. Dracula is all of these things, and Polidori's influence on Stoker is evident.

The importance of the vampire's physical attractiveness is a strong one, and one to which the reader's attention is constantly drawn in seemingly paradoxical references such as this, to be found at the beginning of the tale: 'In spite of the deadly hue of his face... its form and outline were beautiful.' The pallor of course is the most immediately visible sign of preternature, and Stoker too takes up this image when we first encounter Dracula.

Vampirism is not exclusively of a physical nature of course, and the psychological emphasis of Polidori's work has a powerful effect. The mental decline of Aubrey, firstly on the 'death' of Ruthven, then the death of Ianthe, and finally on seeing Ruthven once more alive – 'Lord Ruthven again before him... he could not believe it possible... the dead rise again!... It was impossible that it could be real' – is mirrored in Harker's mental collapse in the face of the horrors he unearths in Castle Dracula. The conflict between the rational if somewhat fanciful man of logic and the man bewildered by supernatural phenomena which he finds it impossible to believe in – even though he has the proof of his own eyes in which to trust – enmeshes the reader just as much as the physical violence of the vampire. This character, so completely rounded in emotional terms, is a far advancement from the ravening monster of earlier vampire texts.

The similarities between the text of 'The Vampyre' and its source material, Byron's 'A Fragment' – published with 'Mazeppa' in 1819 – are startling, leading many people even now to overlook Polidori's work in favour of Byron's. After all, Byron is the internationally renowned poet, the celebrity, the fiery spirit of the age; Polidori by contrast is a shadowy, little-known figure, a man of medicine with literary pretensions but no great literary output. It would be easy to simply denounce Polidori as a plagiarist and be done with it, but is it truly just to put the authorship of the final tale down to a strange quirk of Fate? I feel not. Polidori may not have the status or weight of Byron, but his literary aspirations still led him to adapt a fragmentary tale which his great companion did not wish to develop. Perhaps Byron felt such a task beneath his capabilities, perhaps he grew bored with the concept. Whatever the reason, Polidori took it to heart and chose to work on it to the best of his abilities. That his creation inspired so many writers of a later age right down to the present day is surely the mark of some small genius.

The first major writer of later vampire fiction is undoubtedly Edgar Allan Poe, although his works tend to focus more on the psychological vampirism of people, objects and even buildings than on the blood and fangs of what may be termed modern vampire literature. Stories such as 'Morella' (1835), 'Ligeia' (1838) and 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839) all demonstrate this fascination. Although here we do not have a figure like Lord Ruthven with whom to identify, the fundamental elements of psychological vampirism as propounded by Polidori are clearly to be found.

The first truly modern era vampire tale is the rambling 'Varney the Vampyre' (1847) in which the eponymous antihero takes on a vaguely Byronic form in which to terrorise his victims. A minor character is named Count Polidori: could there be a clearer hint of the writer's debt to his predecessor?

To all of these writers, Polidori, and Lord Ruthven, were clearly something of a benchmark. Never before had a text been so widely available which dealt with such a disturbing yet fascinating matter. There was an instant and enduring challenge to write something in, excuse the pun, a similar vein. I would in fact argue that the creation of Polidori's Lord Ruthven had a similar effect upon the writers of the 19th century as the creation of Bram Stoker's Dracula has had upon writers and film makers of the 20th century. To rank Polidori with Stoker is perhaps no great accolade – Stoker was never exactly famed as a writer in his own lifetime either – but to compare his creation to arguably the most famous horror figure of all time is surely the greatest praise with which one can honour a writer. The honour is all the more noteworthy as it belongs to a little-known, little-recognised doctor, whose literary talents were confined to that one brief exploration of the art.

see also on this site: Gilles de Rais Catherine de' Medici Mozart Aleister Crowley Bathory More Bathory

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