Second Name Basis – The Vampyre by John Polidori

Accompanying episode of The FrankenPod : John Polidori and the Infinite Sadness

The Vampyre is one of those novels that has no chance of living up to its legacy. The fraternal twin of that famous ghost story competition that birthed Frankenstein, The Vampyre had a lot to live up to purely based on its genesis. John Polidori published the tragic tale of the Aubrey family and the monster that plagues them in 1819. The much-maligned novel is not as awful as many Byron scholars would have you believe, but it is a just proto-vampire narrative to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its ilk. There is certainly much to be said for this short story which I can’t help but feel would have had lower expectations to strive for if it did not have the origin story it did, and might have been critiqued more charitably. Or simply forgotten.

 

What’s in a Name?

We don’t really come to care all that much about the characters, save possibly Aubrey. Lord Ruthven is suitably inaccessible and mysterious which is an excellent choice for a vampire that would be much more effective if Polidori had taken the time to juxtapose the removed otherness of the Lord with more fleshed out mortal characters. Unfortunately, we only get a cursory insight into many of the characters, and all except the damsel figure Ianthe are not given a first name. It’s a small omission but it sure makes a difference

 

220px-A_Fragment_1819_Lord_ByronThe Fragment

The true origin of Polidori’s The Vampyre does not take place in Polidori’s room at the Villa Diodati but rather, Lord Byron as part of the ghost story challenge penned the discarded fragment that Polidori would then build on to create the predatory Lord Ruthven. When The Vampyre was mistakenly attributed to Byron, Byron published the fragment as a way to explain the confusion and distance himself from a story that he was embarrassed to have associated with his literary “genius”.

 

Byronharlow
Byron by Harlow

The Byronic Vampyre

The most interesting reading of Polidori’s narrative is the often alluded to in the reading of the text as a vengeful satire of Polidori’s cruel employer, notorious celebrity poet and letch, Lord Byron. Polidori watched Byron’s sexual exploits throughout his time as his consulting physician on his grand tour. For a less confident young man with substantially less social capital, it must have been at best annoying and frustrating. Polidori decided to render his vision of Byron as a kind of predatory parasite that drains the life from people, who seem oblivious to his evil machinations. The legacy of Polidori’s short story is the aristocratic, Byronic, vampire which would become standard in vampire fiction for many years to come.

So can I link The Vampyre to Frankenstein?

This was a tricky one. I didn’t want to go the route of the monster because I feel we’ve trod that territory so frequently that the land has become barren and infertile, so we will rest that particular section of land until it is capable of yielding a harvest.

This metaphor is OUT OF CONTROL.

Can we talk about the trope of the bride being killed by a monster on her wedding night instead? In the case of Frankenstein, Elizabeth is killed by the Creature her husband brings to life. In The Vampyre Miss Aubrey, who is presumably Lady Ruthven at this point, is killed by her husband. There is an uncomfortable lack of identity for Miss Aubrey, as she never truly exists outside of her relationships with first her brother, then Lord Ruthven. She has no name of her own. Elizabeth certainly had an identity even if her agency is crushed by the consequences of Victor’s hubris. But these dissimilar brides experience a similar fate. There is probably a whole rabbit hole we could go down about the fear of female sexuality and male commitment… but that is for another time I think.

Good talk

Morgan

Advertisements

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.

The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati

byron-greek-dress
Lord Byron in Greek dress

This article was written to accompany The FrankenPod episode “The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati” and our continuing exploration of Frankenstein, Or the Modern Day Prometheus and it’s author Mary Shelley.

In 1816 the after-effects of a devastating eruption of Mount Tambora the year beforehand were seriously messing with weather patterns and consequently the harvest. Farmers across the globe were struggling to make ends meet and cost of food and produce skyrocketed. Byron was still travelling. He left England in disgrace and he would never go back until they transported his cold lifeless corpse back to England against his wishes. Mary, her husband Percy and her stepsister Claire were travelling too. Referred to as the Shelley Party, or Shelley and his two little wives. The two parties would cross paths between 10 June to 1 November 1816 at Lake Geneva that would be intensely documented and scrutinised.

 

Whilst Mary and her novel may be our primary point of interest, she is not the driving force behind the gathering of these remarkable people. No, it is her persistent and enamoured 18-year-old step sister, who had organised for the two parties to meet up using the kind of Machiavellian manipulation that only a strong-willed 18-year-old woman can orchestrate. Claire Clairmont had, through written correspondence, pursued Lord Byron and, he, exhausted from the constant scandal was absolutely willing to have an affair with a pretty, chaperone-less young lady who was the stepdaughter of one of the most esteemed thinkers of his age.

Their affair was short-lived and Byron unceremoniously ditched her. Claire, however, was not done with him and she began to utilize all the social capital she had at her disposal. If you haven’t caught on yet Byron is an arse. He was accused of all sorts of adulterous and licentious behaviour including a rumoured affair with his half-sister. He spent his time hopping from scandal to scandal, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His behaviour was particularly devastating to the women he had affairs with as the scandal could ruin their lives. He was very assured of his own genius and place in the world and he thought nothing of dismissing the affections of this young woman until she introduced Percy and Mary into the mix.

Byron, like Percy and numerous other young writers of the time, was fascinated by Mary. This daughter of two literary greats must be special indeed. And Percy had previously sent Byron a copy of Queen Mab in which the older poet saw a budding poetic voice emerging. Plus Byron had dealt with his fair share of public scandal so he felt a certain affinity with the young unwed couple.

However, Byron was leaving for Geneva and Claire was not going to give up just yet. She asked for the address.

He said no.

She asked again but this time she offered to bring Mary and Percy along.

This idea appealed to Byron and an invitation was extended to the Shelley party who by this stage was essentially on the run from Percy’s creditors and the scandalous reputation they had acquired in England.

Byron was not travelling alone, his laudanum addiction provoked him to retain the services of a doctor to accompany him in his travels, one Doctor John Polidori. Literary lore and Polidori’s own account of his time with the genius poet depicts a Byron as a potential sociopath who would constantly berate and belittle his paid companion, whilst demonstrating an easy charm and playfulness with others. He enjoyed toying with the young doctor, delighting in his failures and missteps. But Polidori had a secret; he had been paid quite a large sum of money by publisher John Murray to document the trip for publication. Byron gossip was a high priced commodity, and though his motives were far from pure, it is Polidori’s notes to which we owe a large portion of what we know of the events that transpired at the on the holiday…

Listen to The FrankenPod League of Incense – The Villa Diodati now.

Or keep reading… Or both

Continue reading “The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑