John Polidori and the Infinite Sadness

Accompanying episode: John Polidori and the Infinite Sadness

John Polidori

Born on 7th of September, 1795 in London.

Died aged 25 on the 24th of August, 1821, in London

Polidori wrote his thesis on sleepwalking during his time studying at the University of Edinburgh (name-checked more than once in our Body Snatchers episode with Courtney from Cult of Domesticity). He became a qualified doctor of medicine at the age of 19.

Sleep-walking plays a role in 19th and 20th-century vampire mythology, but this isn’t attributed to Polidori. Dracula, Carmilla and Varney all use sleepwalking as a kind of hypnotic state induced by the Count.

The young doctor was employed by on Lord George Gordon Byron, to accompany him while he was on his Grand Tour of Europe which would eventually lead them to The Villa Diodati, we’ve covered that here, so I’m going to go ahead and skip this bit. Except I better mention that Polidori was paid 500 pounds to keep a diary of the exploits of the “rockstar” poet by publisher John Murray.

The Fragment Debacle

Byron wrote a Fragment as part of the infamous ghost story challenge, Mary started Frankenstein and both Percy and Polidori started stories that they gave up on soon after. But when Byron discarded the fragment, Polidori used it as a springboard for his novel The Vampyre. Utilizing aspects of the fragment such as the character Arthur Darvill he created a full narrative, a far cry from the discarded document. Polidori took that fragment and turned it into what is believed to be the first vampire story written and published in English. The Vampyre was published a magazine without his permission (CORRECTION ALERT: I stated he gave permission in the Villa Diodati episode but that doesn’t seem to be true) and attributed it to Byron. I’m not sure how The New Monthly Magazine got hold of the manuscript but publishers had heard of this lost fragment of Byron’s and seem to have presumed that The Vampyre was it.

Byron and Polidori both printed corrections but the damage was done, particularly to Polidori’s psyche. He had tried to appeal to Percy and Byron to help him with his writing career and Byron annihilated him. The once The Vampyre was no longer attributed to Byron the public and critical reception turned bad. People no longer wanted to read it and actively condemned it.

Embarrassed and depressed he tried to enter the monastery and become a monk but that didn’t work out, then he tried to study law, but that didn’t work out either. He began to accumulate gambling debts and eventually felt so hopeless that he drank prussic acid and died aged 25.

Excellent Public Domain Article on this By Arthur McConnell Stott

His some of his published works were his thesis, The Vampyre (attributed to Byron), a poem The Fall of Angels (published anonymously in 1921) and his diary which would only be released in edited form in 1911 by his nephew.

ReWriting History

Mary Shelley disagrees Polidori’s actions at the Villa Diodati. In her 1831 introduction to a reprint of Frankenstein she says that it was a conversation between Byron and Shelley:

“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life”

-Mary Shelley 1831

William Rosetti’s edited version of Polidori’s Diary indicates it was likely Polidori:

The conversation between Shelley and Polidori about “principles”and “whether man was to be thought merely an instrument” appears to have some considerable analogy with a conversation to which Mary Shelley and Professor Dowden refer, and which raised in her mind a train of thought conducing to her invention of Frankenstein and his Man-monster. Mary, however, speaks of Byron (not Polidori) as the person who conversed with Shelley on that occasion. Professor Dowden, paraphrasing some remarks made by Mary, says: “One night she sat listening to a conversation between the two poets at Diodati. What was the nature, they questioned, of the principle of life? Would it ever be discovered, and the power of communicating life be acquired? Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things. That night Mary lay sleepless,” etc.

-William Rossetti 1911

He must have really upset her, possibly when he propositioned her while she was on holiday with her boyfriend and her small child? That could do it!

Or alternately was Polidori misattributing Byron’s conversation to himself?

She also mentions Byron’s Fragment without making so much as a mention of The Vampyre, simply judging Polidori for his abandoned attempt at the lakeside Villa that night. Shelley does not owe Polidori any charity, but it is curious how willfully she avoids attributing him with even the slightest value.

Family Legacy

Polidori, continued to be a footnote in literary and cultural history as his nieces and nephews would go on to be much more critically acclaimed; Dante (poet and artist), Willian (writer), Maria (writer) and Christina Rossetti (Poet; My essay on Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market) Polidori never met them, he died before they were born.

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Bysshes Love Poetry – Percy Bysshe Shelley

This article is part of The FrankenPod‘s (A Frankenstein Podcast) continued exploration of Frankenstein and its author Mary Godwin/Mary Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Born: 4th of August, 1792 in Sussex, England

Died: 18th of July 1822, by drowning in Lerici, Italy

Percy Bysshe Shelley is a strange and even a little elusive character; not destructive like Byron, but certainly not without his own brand of violence and willfulness. Elusive actually is probably a fair assessment, he is only elusive in the same way that most of us are, in that we can’t really guess at his motivation for many of the actions he takes, some of which seem totally inexplicable.

The young Percy was born into a family of means and went to Syon House Academy in London for his early education where he showed a particular interest in science, and a violent response to bullying. This may have planted the seed that lead to the poet pushing back against all forms of control and governance, which he saw as a form of bullying, for the rest of his life³. This anti authoritative streak inevitably drew him to the great antiestablishment thinker of his time, the often anarchsitic writer and philosopher, William Godwin (The father of Mary Godwin, later Shelley). But before we end up at William Godwin’s residence in The Polygon we must first address the often pushed aside figure in this story¹:

ianthe_shelley_bw
Ianthe Shelley

Harriet Westbrook/Shelley

Harriet Westbrook was born on the 1st of August 1795. She was intellegent, witty and the daughter of a coffee house owner in Grosvener Square². Harriet forged a friendship with Shelley’s younger sister Helen, and the match appears to have been encouraged, at least by the Westbrook’s as a marraige between the two would mean an elevation in class for their daughter². The two eloped to Scotland when Harriet was 16 and Percy, 19. The legality of the marraige was dubious so they remarried 3 years later. They had two children, Charles and Ianthe together, but not long after the birth of their first child Percy began disappearing for long periods of time. Supported by her family, and given financial support from Percy, the rapid and messy separation did not leave her financially destitute, but emotionally the whole ideal had caused a great deal of distress and trauma. This grief, for grief we must call it, was intensified when Percy and Mary ran off together. There is talk of her taking a lover, and it is documented that she took lodging away from her family as she had become pregnant again, this time out of wedlock.

At some stage after this, still pregnant, in 1816, the year of the events in the Villa Diodati, she wrote emotional farewell letters to her family, and drowned herself in the Serpentine River.

I think we’ll end this post here with the death of Harriet Shelley nee Westbrook and pick up on Percy’s narrative another time, because this tragedy is too often glossed over.

At what cost do we have Frankenstein in the form Mary wrote it?

It’s certainly not worth the life of a 21 year old, who never asked to be part of this romantic tragedy in the first place.

References

  1. Knarf.english.upenn.edu. (2018). Percy Bysshe Shelley. [online] Available at: http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/PShelley/pshelley.html [Accessed 27 Feb. 2018].
  2. Knarf.english.upenn.edu. (2018). Harriet Shelley. [online] Available at: http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/People/hshelley.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2018].
  3. Bieri, J., 2004. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Youth’s Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816 (Vol. 1). University of Delaware Press.
  4. Featured image: Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran- National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1234

Lord Byron vs. The World – Part 1

Byron was the subject of intense gossip during his lifetime, and as you’ll recall from our Villa Diodati episode, people would pay money to find out about the choicest Bryon gossip. 196 years later people are still researching, writing and reading about the scandalous Lord’s life and the many controversies that surround him. Byron rumours are still a sought-after commodity and with the many notable biographers and scholars who have written extensively on his life, I really didn’t think I would do the wealth of information justice. So here are a few of the more tame Byron stories to get us started

 

The Unlucky Caul ¹

The caul is a membrane sack that some babies still have surrounding them when they are born. There was a superstition which stated that a preserved caul, carried by a seafaring person would prevent them from drowning. Byron was born with a caul and it was sold to a sailor… who drowned. Not baby Byron’s fault obviously but it sets the tone for a lifetime being “dangerous to know” (Lady Caroline Lamb in 1812, maybe²).

 

 

He kept a bear at Cambridge³

This well-documented fact is less of a scandal these days and more of an oddity, provided you don’t think about it too hard. In protestation of the university’s rules against keeping animals, Byron acquired a bear and kept it in his rooms. The quality of life that the bear experienced is the part that is less funny and more tragic.

 

Lord Byron’s orthopaedic boot, England, 1781-1810
Lord Byron’s orthopaedic boot, England, 1781-1810 http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display?id=92636

His Club Foot¹

Much has been made of Byron’s clubfoot, perhaps because it is one of the few solid facts we have in a sea of speculation about the Lord’s physical condition. His reaction to it as a child was to periodically overcompensate for the impairment with intense physical exercise, referred to as “violent”. This is not the last time that we will encounter the word violent in relation to the Lord’s life. It is speculated that perhaps the club foot and other medical issues may stem from infantile asphyxia caused by that cursed caul.

 

Part 2 Coming Soon

 

 

Citations

  1. Celestin, Roger. “Pathos and Pathology in the Life of Lord Byron.” West of England Medical Journal 106.4 (1991): 105–106. Print.
  2. David, Stenhouse. “Just Nuts about Byron.” Sunday Times, the, n.d. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.deakin.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=7EH3316029372&authtype=sso&custid=deakin&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  3. University of Cambridge. (2018). Lord Byron and the bears beneath Cambridge. [online] Available at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/lord-byron-and-the-bears-beneath-cambridge [Accessed 25 Feb. 2018].