It was a dark and stormy night in June 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Geneva, Switzerland when a singular meeting of minds spawned the twin nightmares of Frankenstein and the literary vampire. Gathered around the villa’s hearth were the libertine George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley the poet, and his wife Mary Godwin Shelly, the daughter of William Godwin and an accomplished author in her own right. Hanging back in the shadows were Claire Clairmont, Mary’s flighty stepsister and John Polidori, Byron’s physician who harbored literary aspirations of his own.
John Polidori received his medical doctorate at the young age of nineteen from the University of Edinburgh where he studied mesmerism and wrote his thesis on sleepwalking. Polidori met Byron at a time when the poet was in need of a traveling physician to accompany him on his travels through Switzerland. Though he is regarded as one of the proverbial bad boys of English poetry, Byron suffered from a club foot, a physical limitation that never interfered with his more amorous pursuits (Claire Clairmont would leave the Villa Diodati pregnant with Byron’s child).
But while Mary was busy penning her tale of terror, Byron and Percy both struggled with the challenge. Percy, poet that he was, wrote the gloomy ode “Mont Blanc” while Byron composed “A Fragment,” a piece duly named after the fact that Byron failed to finish it.
Despite his frustrated life and early demise, Polidori is universally acknowledged as progenitor of the vampire in literature. Varney the Vampire, a penny dreadful about the adventures of an undead aristocrat, even pays tribute to him with a character named Count Polidori.
In “The Vampyre”, Polidori establishes the archetype of the vampire as a wealthy aristocrat. Lord Ruthven represents the decay of the aristocracy and can easily be read as a symbol for Lord Byron. Ruthven destroys everyone and everything he comes in contact with, giving money to beggars in search of vice and ruining the reputations of promising young women.
Just as Ruthven ghosts for Byron, the naïve young Aubrey who accompanies Ruthven on a tour of Europe can seen as a stand-in for an innocent Polidori. Aubrey becomes Ruthven’s next victim and their relationship brings him to physical, mental and financial ruin. Ruthven kills Aubrey’s beloved and marries then murders his sister.
In light of Polidori’s professional and personal clashes with Byron, “The Vampyre” can be read as a unique testament of a man whose life was destroyed by a failed relationship with his idol.
A Fragment by Lord Byron
The Vampyre by John Polidori