John Polidari and the Vampires

Figure One: John William Polidori
Figure One: John William Polidori
Figure Two: Polidori's book featuring his name
Figure Two: Polidori's book featuring his name

John William Polidori was born in 1795, the son of an Italian asylum seeker. He went onto graduate in medicine from Edinburgh University. Lord Byron employed him as his personal physician who some now say that this was a polite euphemism for a person who deals drugs as Byron was an enthusiastic user of laudanum. This position is how he came to be acquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter also called Mary. Her mother had died tragically within days of giving birth to her daughter in 1797 and so the younger Mary was raised by her father, William Godwin along with her step-mother (another Mary) and step-sister Clare Clermont.

William Godwin was a radical who today is known as the ‘father of anarchism’.  As such he attracted other radical thinkers of the day, including a young poet called Percy Bysshe Shelley who visited the Godwin home.  Shelley and Mary fell in love and, in the face of Godwin’s disapproval of Shelley, Mary’s mother’s grave at St. Pancras Church (now St. Pancras Old Church) became their regular rendezvous place.  Meanwhile, Mary’s step-sister Clare had a tricky relationship with Shelley’s close friend, the poet, Lord Byron.

Despite the two stepsisters not getting on; in July 1814 Mary and Percy eloped to France, taking Clare with them.  Shelley had abandoned his pregnant wife in London for this adventure and Mary, who was still only sixteen, passed herself off as ‘Mrs. Shelley’ throughout the trip.  Eventually, by 1816, they had travelled on to Geneva, Switzerland, where they met up with Byron who was renting the Villa Diodati, a large lakeside house, and so began one of history’s most legacy laden accidents.

The summer of 1816 was unseasonal with heavy rain across central Europe keeping the inhabitants of the Villa Diodati indoors for several days.  The small party, which Polidori was a part of, entertained themselves first by reading ghost stories to each other.  These came from Fantasmagoriana an anthology of German stories edited and translated (into French) by Jean Baptiste Eyries.

Then, following a suggestion from Byron, in a nineteenth-century version of creepypasta, the group organized their own ghost story writing competition.  This was, of course, the context in which Mary Shelley wrote the first draft of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, credited with being the first novel of the science fiction genre.  Byron’s contribution to the event was later published as Fragment of a Novel and contained the kernel of an idea that Polidori would use for his own entry.

Although less well known than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but arguably, ultimately as influential, was Polidari’s entry; The Vampyre, a story based on East European folklore.  It is credited as the first appearance in Western literature of the vampire entity and thus the beginning of a horror sub-genre that has become a major force in modern pop culture from Dracula to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight and so many other titles of books, films, games, and television shows.

The Vampyre is about an immortal English nobleman called Lord Ruthven who travels around Europe seducing and murdering women for their blood.  It has been noted that the seducing part of this process bears an uncanny similarity to Byron’s behaviour and that he probably provided the model for Polidori’s Ruthven.   The story is narrated by Ruthven’s companion Aubrey who reveals his suspicions to his sister just before his death.

The story was first published in 1819 in the New Monthly Magazine and later in book form.  Authorship was initially attributed to Byron because the publishers felt his name would ensure more interest and sales.  However following protests, not least from Byron himself who felt an injustice on the part of his friend, Polidari’s name began to appear as the author in later editions.

Despite the early success of his work, Polidari’s life was going to plan. Upon, returning to England he was still contesting the authorship of his work.  In addition among several vices, he had a weakness for gambling and accumulated large debts as a result. Eventually, debt and depression took their toll and Polidori died in August 1821 aged only 25 of a suspected suicide.  Given the shame and indeed sin attached to suicide at the time, it seems that Polidari’s connections ensured a rather improbable verdict of natural causes from the coroner.  This enabled the dead man’s body to receive a Christian burial in consecrated ground and so he was duly laid to rest at St. Pancras Church very close to where Mary Wollstonecraft lay.

However, not unlike the fictional vampires who moved from their places of burial, John Polidori would not rest in his grave for long.  In 1866, as a result of the building of St. Pancras Station and the Midland Railway which sliced through the graveyard, thousands of bodies were disinterred and gravestones moved; among these was Polidori’s.

Polidori’s family connections

Polidori was survived by his younger sister, Frances who married into another family of Italian asylum seekers, the Rossettis.  Along with her husband Gabriele, Francis had four children.  The oldest of these, Maria, became a nun, the other three made history as the founding members or associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Maria’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement which was founded in Gower Street, Bloomsbury in 1848.  He was named in honor of the Italian writer Dante Alighieri is most known for the Divine Comedy, a three-part poem written in the Tuscan vernacular (and thus laying the foundation for standard modern Italian).  The three parts; take the reader through hell, purgatory, and heaven with the first part Inferno, remaining the best known today.  It is somewhat ironic that Dante Gabriel should have been named after someone who, like his uncle was known for his interest in death, the afterlife, and the dark side.  As we shall see this would be one of several coincidences linking Polidari’s Vampyre to his Pre-Raphaelite family.

Dante Gabriel was assisted in his artistic endeavors by his brother William.  The Pre-Raphaelites were a strictly male-only fraternity but women played such an influential role that they have separately been dubbed the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood’.  William and Dante’s sister Christina remains to this day a famous poet in her own right while her mother, Frances modeled for Dante.

Another of Dante’s models was the tragic Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Siddal.  Siddal, a milliner, was plucked from relative obscurity and introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites where she became one of their regular models.  Most famously she posed for John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia.  A poet and artist herself, Siddal became the lover and, eventually the wife, of Dante Gabriel.  Although the Pre-Raphaelites painted in a traditional style and their subject matter was often based on Christian themes, their lifestyles were less traditional and often in stark contrast to the moral virtues expressed through their subjects.  The relationship between Dante and Lizzy was tempestuous, to say the least; rocked by Dante’s unfaithfulness and Lizzy’s addiction to laudanum (the drug of choice among artists at the time).  After suffering a miscarriage and falling into deep depression Lizzy died of an overdose in 1862.

Overcome with guilt and grief Dante placed a recently completed unpublished book of his poetry in Lizzy’s coffin.  Seven years after Lizzy’s death and burial at Highgate Cemetery, Dante was inspired to retrieve his poetry by his literary agent Charles Augustus Howell.

Lizzy was thus exhumed and the book of poems retrieved.  Howell reported back to a distraught Dante that even years after her death Lizzy’s body had not decomposed, indeed it remained pristine and her hair had even grown.  Howell had a notorious reputation as a liar but in this case, his motives may have been altruistic, seeking to reassure and give some comfort to his friend.  However, the story of Lizzy’s ‘undead’ state became an urban legend in its day, believed by some to confirm the folk tales about vampires.  In the decades following, Lizzy Siddal’s exhumation continued to fascinate and inspire.  It has been suggested that Lizzy became the main influence behind Bram Stoker’s character Lucy Westenra in Dracula.  Highgate cemetery became an established vampire ’hub’ up to the 1960s when Hammer Films’ Taste the Blood of Dracula was partly filmed there, leading, after its release in 1970, to a moral panic which culminated in a real-life vampire hunt the same year.

So, John Polidori’s short life introduced the vampire to Western society and his family inadvertently added some ‘real-life’ drama to the mythos.  All this beginning in the same context that Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein.

Comments about this page

  • I loved this article, it’s very informative and it was fun and engaging to read. I never knew how connected to the contribution of world culture, Newington Green Unitarian Church has been.

    By David Walter (20/11/2020)

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