Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
John William Polidori 1795-1821
English novelist, dramatist, poet, and diarist.
Author of The Vampyre (1819), the first published vampire novel in English, Polidori is best remembered for his association with more famous literary figures, including Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The Vampyre was initially misattributed to Byron; although Polidori borrowed some plot elements from an abandoned narrative fragment by Byron, his novel is an original composition, establishing many of the literary conventions of the vampire theme that were followed by subsequent nineteenth-century authors, including Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker.
Polidori was the oldest son of an English mother and an Italian father who had served as secretary to the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri before emigrating to England. When he was nineteen Polidori became the youngest student to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. Too young to practice medicine in England, he offered his services as a private physician and was engaged in 1816 by Byron. Scandal surrounded Byron's recent separation from his wife; the poet was socially ostracized but still the focus of considerable critical and popular attention, and Byron's publisher offered to pay Polidori for a written account of the poet's activities. The pair traveled through France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, where they encountered the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had abandoned his wife and eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), ccompanied by her half-sister Claire Claremont, a former lover of Byron. Byron and Polidori leased the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva; Shelley, Godwin, and Claremont took lodgings nearby and were frequent visitors. Although scholars dispute the account of a rainy night and "ghost-story-writing competition" giving rise to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Polidori's Vampyre, most concur that both works were conceived and started at the Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816. Polidori also began a second novel, later published as Ernestus Berchtold; or, the Modern Oedipus (1819). Byron's and Polidori's letters and diaries, as well as those of acquaintances and intimates of both, record minor disagreements and serious quarrels between them. In September Byron dismissed Polidori, who subsequently traveled to Italy, returning to England in 1817. For the next four years, he occasionally worked as a doctor and published his two novels as well as two volumes of poetry. Many commentators, including Polidori's nephew William Michael Rossetti, assume that Polidori's death at age twenty-five was a suicide, but this remains unproven.
The Vampyre may owe its existence in part to Byron: Polidori based some characteristics of his cultured, urbane supernatural antagonist on his employer, and some commentators speculate that the novel was first accepted for publication because Byron was thought to be the author. Nevertheless, Polidori's novel contains wholly original elements that significantly influenced subsequent genre fiction. In particular, Polidori shifted focus from a passive, suffering protagonist to the compelling, dynamic figure of the vampire himself. Further, Polidori may have been the first author in any language to cast the bestial vampire of legend into the form most familiar to modern readers: a sophisticated nobleman who exerts a sexual fascination over both male and female victims.
Polidori remains a marginal literary figure, overshadowed by his renowned associates. Nevertheless, recent scholarship discerns much of merit and originality in The Vampyre. Genre enthusiasts still study this novel and identify it as a pivotal work of supernatural fiction.
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