Tag Archives: John William Polidori

#amwriting: Physician to The Vampire

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He was best known for his involvement in the Romantic movement, an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. He is considered by many as the originator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story The Vampyre (1819), which was the first published, modern vampire story.

Perhaps because John Polidori was a physician, he was able to bring all the disparate elements of 19th-century vampirism mythology into a coherent, compelling short story.  With just that one short story, he spawned an entire literary genre.

How did this come about? The story had its genesis in the summer of 1816, the Year Without a Summer when Europe and parts of North America underwent a severe climate abnormality.

Lord Byron and his young, twenty-year-old physician, John Polidori were staying at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.

On the run from creditors and Shelley’s ailing, understandably jealous wife, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, visited them.

The group was kept indoors by the incessant rain of that cold, wet, unpleasant summer during a three-day stretch in June. Bored at being cooped up, the five turned to telling fantastic tales, and which inspired them to write their own.

Reportedly, they were fueled by ghost stories such as the Fantasmagoriana, William Beckford’s Vathek, and laudanum, to which Byron was addicted. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley, produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Polidori was the outsider, the man who was only included as he was in the employ of Byron. Lord Byron made him the butt of many jokes at dinner parties, taking great pleasure in humiliating him. This cruel treatment of anyone in his power was well documented by his contemporaries.

the-vampyrePolidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron’s, Fragment of a Novel (1816), which is also known as “A Fragment” and “The Burial: A Fragment.” Over the course of several mornings, he wrote “The Vampyre.” The manuscript was overlooked for three years when it was discovered by a disreputable publisher, Henry Colburn. He published it in his New Monthly Magazine under the title “The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron.” It was received with acclaim, much to Polidori’s surprise and chagrin.

Polidori struggled to assert his rights to the work, and Lord Byron did have the grace to declare promptly the work was Polidori’s and not his. Despite that assertion, proper credit for authorship of the story was muddy for many years.

Still, Byron was firm that he was not the author. Apparently, Byron felt that the destruction of a man’s soul was no great thing, but theft of his intellectual property was a crime.

Polidori’s work had an immense impact on his contemporary readers. Numerous editions and translations of the tale were published. The influence of The Vampyre as described by Polidori has continued into the twenty-first century, as until recently, his work was frequently considered the primary source of what is accepted as “canon” when writing about vampirism.

What are the traditional tropes of vampire fantasy? First of all, we must think Lord Byron. He was an arrogant, self-centered, charismatic, sociopath with a gift for writing brilliant poetry. From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot and by the time he hired Polidori, he was addicted to laudanum which had been prescribed for the pain. He treated the young Polidori atrociously, engendering deep antipathy for his patient in the young doctor.

John_William_Polidori_by_F.G._GainsfordWithin the pages of Polidori’s diary, I see “The Vampyre” as an allegory of Byron’s abuse of John Polidori himself. It is easy to visualize Byron as a man possessed of the power to drain one of their soul when seen through the eyes of the man he had in his power, and whom he treated abominably as an employer.

Byron was described as the devourer of souls in the book, Glenarvon, by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron’s former lovers.  “Ruthven” is the name Lady Caroline Lamb referred to Byron as in her novel. Polidori had read Glenarvon that summer, and blatantly used Lamb’s protagonist’s name for his vampire, and Byron proudly admitted he was the role model.

The Public Domain Review article, The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire, says this about the rocky relationship between Polidori and Byron:

“It was no great leap for Polidori to believe that Byron was sucking the life from him, just as others had accused Byron of possessing a charismatic power that eclipsed their own identities. Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron had charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.”

So we know vampires are charismatic and seductive. Their bite would enslave their victims. Folktales from hundreds of years ago tell us they can take the form of bats and fly through the windows of even the tallest buildings. Historically, vampires are powerful, but unable to withstand the light of day, which would burn them, and destroy them forever.

A patch of Dry Skin, Stephen SwartzHowever, that which was once canon regarding vampires is no longer set in stone.

Modern vampires are often able to stay outside during the day, and some even sparkle.  Many are model citizens who get their blood from robbing blood banks.

I love Stephen Swartz’s medical take on vampirism in his book, A Dry Patch of Skin.

But underneath it all, I still have a fondness for the mad, bad, dangerous to know Lord Byron style of vampire.

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Mary Shelley and the Era of Romanticism

Mary_Shelley_by_Reginald_Easton.

Mary Shelley, by Reginald Easton

We often think that the great authors and artists of history were somehow wiser than we are.  We read their brilliant works, and they shine, as if they were slightly superhuman, and perfect in every way.

This is not always true. Sometimes they were wild teenagers with unrealistic ideals, haring off on adventures while their parents had nervous breakdowns over their behavior.

Mary Shelley , famous as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797. Her father was the political philosopher, William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were famous in their day, and are still well known.

Mary’s mother died when she was eleven days old. Afterwards, Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay (her mother’s first child by an affair with a married man) were reared by their father. When Mary was four, her father married his neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary Jane had a two year old daughter, Clara (Claire). Godwin considered all three girls his daughters and raised them accordingly.

William Godwin provided his three daughters with a good education, encouraging them to adhere to his liberal political theories, and values. He raised them to think independently, to his eternal regret.

Joseph Severn, 1845, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound in Italy.

Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound in Italy, Joseph Severn, 1845

In 1814, at the age of seventeen, Mary Godwin began a romantic relationship with one of her father’s political followers, the married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Together with Mary’s stepsister, fifteen-year-old Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy left for France and traveled through Europe.

Their relationship created a huge scandal among the nobility. Mary’s father completely disowned her, which both surprised and hurt her deeply.

Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy faced social ostracism, they were in constant debt (often fleeing creditors), and they also suffered the death of their prematurely born daughter.

640px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall

In 1816, the couple famously spent the summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont near Geneva, Switzerland. While the weather was horrendous, the summer was the most important, in literary terms, of any summer since.

This is where Mary conceived the idea for her novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was also the infamous summer with no sun, a volcanic-winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia).  It was the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years, and, falling in the Little Ice Age as it did, caused worldwide famine in the year that followed.

They were prompted to go to Geneva by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who, in competition with her sister, had initiated a liaison with mad, bad, and dangerous to know Lord Byron the previous April.  Obsessed with him despite the fact that Byron’s interest in her had already waned, Claire used the opportunity of introducing him to the Shelleys to act as bait to lure him to Geneva.

The Shelleys and Byron rented neighboring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. According to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge:

Claire Clairmont, by Amelia Curran

Claire Clairmont, by Amelia Curran

While on a boating tour the two took together, Shelley was inspired to write his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, often considered his first significant production since Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps inspired Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.

Shelley also encouraged Byron to begin an epic poem on a contemporary subject, advice that resulted in Byron’s composition of Don Juan.

Mary and Percy married in late 1816 after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.

John William Polidori, by F.G. Gainsford

John William Polidori, by F.G. Gainsford

This reads more like a modern soap-opera than what we nowadays think would be the accepted behavior of well-to-do people living during the early 19th century.

But it was the Era of Romanticism.  Again, the Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, has this to say about that:

The German painter Caspar David Friedrich said “the artist’s feeling is his law.”

To William Wordsworth, poetry should begin as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet then “recollect[s] in tranquility,” evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art. 

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

In order to express these feelings, it was considered that the content of the art needed to come from the imagination of the artist, with as little interference as possible from “artificial” rules dictating what a work should consist of. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others believed there were natural laws which the imagination, at least of a good creative artist, would unconsciously follow through artistic inspiration if left alone to do so.

In other words–they were hippies, and it was the Regency equivalent of the summer of love.

The Shelleys left Britain in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a prolific author. She wrote

  • History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817)
  • Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
  • Mathilda (1819)
  • Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823)
  • Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824)
  • The Last Man (1826)
  • The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830)
  • Lodore (1835)
  • Falkner (1837)
  • The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839)
  • Contributions to Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men (1835–39), part of Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia
  • Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844)

She also wrote numerous short stories and articles that were widely published, along with many children’s stories, and numerous other unpublished work found in her papers after her death. After 200 years of being just Percy Shelley’s wife who got lucky with the popularity of Frankenstein, scholars now admit that Mary Shelley was a major figure of the Romantic Movement, significant for both her literary achievements and her political voice as a woman and a liberal.

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley died at the age of 53 from a brain tumor.

Her life was not long, by today’s standards, but she lived it to the fullest. She gave up everything to follow Percy, and while he loved her, she nevertheless had to sit by while he had affairs, even with her stepsister, Claire.

Mary suffered terrible personal losses, the deaths of her children and her husband, and her sister Fanny. She lived every day of her life with passion, and dared to write articles and stories with a sharp political edge, and she got away with it in an era when women had no voice. Percy Shelley himself called her a “child of love and light.”

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