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Tuesday, August 30, 2011


The romantic physician who inspired Dracula        

Life of the Day on the website of the Oxford Dictionary of Biography is that of John William Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron, who was by turns his friend, his rival, and his enemy.

The son of an immigrant Italian writer, Polidori became Byron's personal doctor just a few months after being awarded his MD degree on 1 August 1815 at the age of nineteen.  When the poet went on a trip to the Continent, Polidori accompanied him.  Byron's publisher, John Murray, offered him  £500 to keep a journal of the tour, but whether Byron knew this is unlikely, as it wasn't published until 1911.

They were not happy travelling companions.  Indeed, Byron became highly irritated by the rather pompous young doctor, as witness the following anecdote. 

"Pray, what is there excepting writing poetry that I can't do better than you?" demanded Polidori during one of their altercations.

"Three things," retorted the great poet (or words to that effect).  "First,  I can shoot out the keyhole of that door with a pistol.  Secondly, I could swim to the other side of that river.  And third,  I can give you a damned good thrashing."

Byron rented a house at Lake Geneva, and they were joined by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont.  One evening, after they had been reading a collection of horror stories (Tales of the Dead) to each other, Byron suggested they should each write a ghost story.

Mary wrote the tale that was later published as Frankenstein, Shelley wrote "A Fragment of a Ghost Story," and Byron wrote "Fragment of a Novel."  This last revolved about a charcter named Augustus Darvell.  Byron thought his contribution worthless enough to be discarded and forgotten, but Polidori was so inspired by it that he used the character of Darvell in his own tale, "The Vampyre," the first vampire story ever published in English.

He sold it to New Monthly Magazine after being dismissed by Byron and returning to England.  It appeared in the April 1819 issue -- under Byron's name, much to the poet's fury.  It was an editorial decision, apparently, because Polidori was chagrined, too.  Byron even retrieved and published his "Fragment of a Novel," to try to clarify the situation, but for a long time the public was convinced he was the author -- which didn't harm sales in the slightest.

"The Vampyre" was hugely popular, leading to many imitations, both on paper and on the stage, and the creation of a new genre that is a crowd-puller still this day.  Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexis Tolstoy all wrote vampire stories.  And then there was Bram Stoker's Dracula.  And that Stephanie Meyer series.

Single-handedly, Polidori transformed what had been vague folklore into the form discernible in all of the above -- of a handsome, aristocratic fiend who feeds on the highborn beautiful.

The fiend, in his story, was Lord Ruthven, a man of mysterious origins, who enters London society, and meets the young hero, Aubrey.  Enchanted, Aubrey accompanies Ruthven to Rome, but flees to Greece after the nobleman seduces a friend's daughter.  There, he falls in love with Ianthe, who tells him the story of the vampire.  Ruthven arrives, and Ianthe is murdered.  Heartbroken, Aubrey becomes Ruthven's companion again, an arrangement that comes to an end when they are attacked by bandits and Ruthven dies of his wounds.

But lo, after Aubrey returns to London, Ruthven reappears, as hale and hearty and evil as ever.  He seduces Aubrey's beautiful sister.  Aubrey dies in a bout of deep depression, desolate because he was unable to save her, and Ruthven marries the girl.  Within hours, she is discovered dead, drained of her blood.  Ruthven has vanished into the night.

Polidori's end was strangely like that of his tragic hero. He died in London on August 24, 1821, probably of suicide by poisoning, defeated by depression and gambling debts.   

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