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Poor Polidori

Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of The Vampyre

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 400
  • Book Info
    Poor Polidori
    Book Description:

    In 1816, John William Polidori travelled to Geneva as Byron's doctor. There he took part in the famous ghost-story project that inspired Frankenstein. As the medical member of the party, he contributed some scientific information to Mary shelley's novel. As a writer, he was the most industrious of the party, producing both a novel of his own, Ernestus Berchtold, and The Vampyre, a tale based on an idea of Byron's. An unscrupulous publisher issued Polidori's tale under Byron's name, thereby ensuring great success for the book, although not for its true author. (Byron fired Polidori as his doctor soon after.) History has not paid Polidori much attention. Although he has figured prominetly in a few novels and films, there has never been a full-length study of his life until now.

    D.L. Macdonald rectifies the situation with this biography. He explains how Polidori's vampire was created as a caricature of the doctor's employer - the aristocrat, the traveller, the seducer. This version differed entirely from the vampire of folklore. It became extraordinarily influential, and remains essentially the vampire of popular culture today.

    Polidori's life, through short and unsuccessful, provides an opportunity for a new look at the Romantic period. His very lack of success forced him to engage himself succesfully in medicine, literature, law, politics, philosophy, and religion. In following his course we encounter not only a fascinating character but also a wide cross-section of cultural history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7863-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. 1 BEFORE BYRON:: 1795–1816

    • 1 Beginnings
      (pp. 3-14)

      The fortunes of the Polidori family, over the generations, are so symmetrical as to support a Lamarckian conception of heredity, or a Sophoclean conception of fate. Agostino Ansano Polidori (1714–78) was a physician and poet, who lived and practised in Bientina, near Pisa. His most notable literary work is theOsteologia(1763), a long poem on the human skeleton, written inottava rima,the metre of Ariosto and Pulci – and in English, of Byron.¹ His sons divided his talents: Luigi was a physician at Arezzo, and came to be considered an authority on typhus;² Gaetano was educated for the...

    • 2 The University of Edinburgh
      (pp. 15-24)

      In Polidori’s time, medical studies at Edinburgh took at least three years; it was not unusual for them to take four, as Polidori’s did.¹ The curriculum included Anatomy, Surgery, the Theory and Practice of Medicine, Chemistry, Botany, Pharmacy, and the related discipline Materia Medica, the study of remedial substances.²

      Edinburgh was one of the recognized centres of medical studies for Europe and the British empire,³ but the years 1811 to 1815, when Polidori was there, were not among its finest. The very success of the university had created problems. In 1750, there had been 158 students enrolled in the medical...

    • 3 Ximenes: The Modern Abraham
      (pp. 25-30)

      Though in December 1813 Polidori proclaimed his intention to win glory by wielding a sword rather than a pen, he later would claim that he had started writing poetry in his eighteenth year – that is, before September 1813.¹ And though he told his father that the Greeks and Romans, rather than Abraham or David, were his heroes, he had already chosen Abraham as a tragic hero. His account of why he decided to turn to poetry, though it presents the decision as the result of more conscious reasoning than seems likely, is nevertheless highly characteristic, particularly in its confession of...

    • 4 Oneirodynia
      (pp. 31-42)

      By 1814, Polidori was in his third year at the University of Edinburgh, but he did not feel ready to graduate. In February, he wrote to his father:

      I do not think that I can graduate this year; I would have to be examined next month, and I am not prepared – the more I read, the more I find that I do not know enough. I know the general doctrines, but there are so many things in themateria medicaand in chemistry which I don’t know sufficiently and which they always ask about, that I am not up to...

    • 5 ‘On the Punishment of Death’
      (pp. 43-50)

      Polidori had begun to think about his professional future before he took his examinations, but he was still undecided when he had finished them. He had three tentative plans. The first was to go to India, where his uncle Frederick Pierce was a general, and where his relatives the Arrows also lived. William Michael Rossetti has suggested that Polidori may have been in love with his cousin Eliza Arrow.¹ Perhaps Rossetti heard this story from his mother, Polidori’s sister Frances, or from one of Polidori’s other sisters or brothers. There is little other evidence for it. InXimenes,the lost...

  6. II BYRON:: 1816

    • 6 Negotiations
      (pp. 53-61)

      It has sometimes been assumed that the alarm over Byron’s physical and mental health at the time of his separation from his wife was greatly exaggerated, if not created, by Lady Byron’s desire to believe that her husband was mad – a desire conditioned in turn by her inability to understand him, or, more generally, to take a joke. His friend John Cam Hobhouse, for example, ridiculed the way ‘Her Ladyship had provided herself with a volume of theMedical Journalin which she thought a case described ofhydrocephalusdesignated the peculiar malady so exactly, that she marked the most...

    • 7 Travels with Byron
      (pp. 62-72)

      Byron’s party landed in Ostend at 2 AM on 26 April. Polidori’s first impression of a foreign country was mixed: ‘We were astonished at the excellent inn and good treatment, except that I got a dreadful headache from the smell of paint in my bedroom, and that the tea was perfumed.’¹ Byron was more enthusiastic; Polidori observed that his patient’s health appeared to have improved dramatically with the change of scene: ‘As soon as he reached his room, Lord Byron fell like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid.’²

      In the morning, Polidori went to see the sights of Ostend, which he...

    • 8 A Star in the Halo of the Moon
      (pp. 73-82)

      The three and a half months Polidori spent near Geneva with Byron and the Shelleys are, to us, the most interesting of his life, and in some ways they are the best documented; but they are also among the most difficult to describe from his point of view. His surviving letters from this period are few; his journal gradually peters out ‘through neglect and dissipation.’¹ The company of three great writers seems to have inhibited his own attempt to win literary distinction. The allusions of the others to Polidori at this time are numerous, but most are cheerfully contemptuous -...

    • 9 Ghost Stories
      (pp. 83-98)

      The summer that Byron and the Shelleys spent in Geneva is best known for the ghost-story project that inspiredFrankenstein. This project itself is best known from Mary Shelley’s account of it in her introduction to the 1831 edition ofFrankenstein,an account written fifteen years after the fact, and wrong in almost every verifiable detail.¹

      It is not known precisely at what point in the summer the party began readingFantasmagoriana,the ‘volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French’ by Jean-Baptiste-Benoît Eyriès and published in 1812, which Shelley refers to in her introduction,² or when Byron...

    • 10 A Series of Slight Quarrels
      (pp. 99-104)

      The pace quickened as the summer drew to its close. On 21 July 1816, the Shelleys and Clairmont went on an excursion to Chamounix to see Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace; the trip provided material for both Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ and Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein.They returned on the twenty-seventh.

      On 14 August, M.G. Lewis, author ofThe Monk(1796), arrived for a short visit. He translated for Byron some passages fromFaustwhich helped to inspireManfred,told some ghost stories, and took part with Byron and Percy Shelley in a philosophical discussion of ghosts – in which...

  7. III AFTER BYRON:: 1816-1821

    • 11 Crossing the Alps
      (pp. 107-113)

      What distressed Polidori most about his parting from Byron was the threat to his independence from his father. Writing to his father from Thun, four days after leaving Geneva, he was careful to explain his financial position and his plans to seek work in Italy, and to add: ‘I hope I am still off your hands for 9 months’ – as if he were not making his first trip to his father’s fatherland, but returning to his mother’s womb. At the end of the letter, he returned to the question of his independence, putting it again, and even more insistently, as...

    • 12 Milan
      (pp. 114-124)

      Polidori arrived at Milan late on 30 September, and ‘Slept out of the town by the canal.’ In the morning, the boatman who had brought him led him into town ‘by a fine gate with a kind of triumphal arch’ built by Napoleon. He went to inquire for his mail, and found that he had ‘Got a letter from Brelaz; well written in composition and in letters, but badly spelled.’¹ His passion for her seems to have cooled; his response recalls his father’s critique of his own early letter from Ampleforth. He does not mention writing back to her; he...

    • 13 Travels in Italy
      (pp. 125-141)

      Polidori travelled from Lodi to Florence byvetturino,a kind of mule-cart he describes as ‘The commonest, though not the most expeditious way of proceeding in Italy.’¹ On the way, he met a student from Heidelberg, who had fought for his country in 1813 and 1814, but then had been banished ‘for slapping a Russian in the face,’ a misfortune about which, no doubt, Polidori could be sympathetic.² Polidori, typically, does not mention his name, referring to him only as ‘the Prussian,’ but they became friends, and travelled together as far as Florence. On the second day of their trip,...

    • 14 Norwich
      (pp. 142-151)

      Soon after returning home, Polidori received a letter from William Taylor. It began encouragingly by congratulating him on his separation from Byron:

      Whatever reasons you may have in a pecuniary point of view to regret so early a separation from your patron, yet in a moral point of view this very separation has its value, & has certainly contributed to convince every one of your high & strict spirit of independence & correctness.

      Taylor went on to offer some practical encouragement: a doctor in Norwich had recently come into a large inheritance and seemed likely to retire. Thus there might...

    • 15 An Essay upon the Source of Positive Pleasure
      (pp. 152-167)

      The accident Polidori mentioned to Murray in his letter of 19 October 1817 had been reported in theNorfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazettefor 20 September (the report also, incidentally, suggests that Polidori was using an anglicized form of his name, presumably in an attempt to make himself more acceptable to Norwich):

      A melancholy accident happened on Sunday evening [14 September], at Costessy: – As Dr. Polydore was returning from Sir George Jerningham’s in a gig, the night being dark, and following a gentleman’s carriage which was going at a slow rate, he drove against a tree, upset and broke the...

    • 16 London
      (pp. 168-176)

      In January 1819, Polidori was living in lodgings in Covent Garden Chambers (by November, he would be back in his father’s house on Great Pulteney Street). On the thirteenth, he once again wrote to Murray to ask for work:

      My dear Sir

      Having come to London in consequence of finding it necessary to attempt gaining some thing by writing as my profession on account of my youth is without profit – I apply to you as the only one amongst my friends who have it in their power to help me – I should wish to write in some review and if...

    • 17 The Scandal of The Vampyre
      (pp. 177-203)

      ‘The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron’ appeared in Henry Colburn’sNew Monthly Magazineon April Fool’s Day, 1819. The tale was also printed in book form for Colburn by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, and entered at Stationers’ Hall on 27 March.

      TheNew Monthly Magazinehad been founded in 1814 ‘to counteract,’ in the words of its first editor, John Watkins, ‘the pernicious and anarchical designs of sedition and infidelity’; it was to be ‘a medium of literary commerce, unsophisticated by empiricism, and uncontaminated by blasphemy,’ especially as these were represented by the liberalMonthly Magazine.By 1819, Watkins,...

    • 18 Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus
      (pp. 204-223)

      Most ofErnestus Berchtoldis made up of the oral autobiography, or confession, of the younger of the two title characters. It begins in 1778, with the arrival of his mother and an elderly male companion in Beatenberg, a village north of the Thunersee (Polidori passed it on his walk to Milan in 1816). The village priest takes the travellers in. The old man, who has been wounded, dies; the woman, who is pregnant, gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and then also dies. Their only servant runs away, taking with him everything but a locket containing...

    • 19 The Fall of the Angels
      (pp. 224-234)

      The only known review ofThe Fall of the Angels(which is negative) begins by conceding that ‘the author possessed no ordinary degree of courage when he ventured on a subject which has been consecrated by the immortal muse of Milton.’¹ To suit the grandeur of his project, Polidori has given his poem an elegant symmetry of design, to which unfortunately its execution is not always equal; to show his independence of his immortal precursor, he has devised a most un-Miltonic verse form. This is also unfortunate, since the blank verse ofXimenesis considerably more accomplished than the stanzas...

    • 20 Death and Afterlife
      (pp. 235-242)

      In August 1821, Polidori spent about three weeks in Brighton.¹ He returned to London on Monday, the twentieth, and died on Friday, the twenty-fourth.

      It was in Brighton, apparently, that ‘some false friend’ took him gambling. Perhaps he was desperate to win enough money to make up for the failure of his first two careers, or to win his independence from his father; perhaps he was so desperate that he did not care if he won or lost. Perhaps his gambling spree was a self-destructive act, not a cause of his suicide but a step towards it. In any case,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 243-288)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-314)
  10. Index
    (pp. 315-330)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 331-333)