John William Polidori: The Man Who Wrote ‘The Vampyre’
John Polidori was a promising writer who died tragically young. His reputation has suffered at the pens of the Byron circle, of which he was briefly a member, and their biographers. He is best known for his story ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), which created the modern myth of the aristocratic undead that endures to this day. In terms of the recognisably modern vampire archetype, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven set the standard almost eighty years before Count Dracula landed at Whitby.
Born in London in 1795, John was the eldest son of the immigrant Italian writer and publisher Gaetano Polidori, former secretary to the poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, while his sister, Frances, was the future wife of Gabriele Rossetti. Polidori attended Ampleforth Catholic College, and set aside military aspirations to study medicine at Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1815. While in Edinburgh, he befriended the radical scholar William Taylor of Norwich, who helped edit Polidori’s doctorate and introduced him to German Romanticism. At the recommendation of Sir William Knighton, Polidori was engaged as Byron’s personal physician in 1816, and when Byron went into self-imposed exile, he took ‘Pollydolly’ with him. Polidori had already published a play and a discourse on the death penalty, and his literary promise and oft-noted good looks, youth and flattery undoubtedly appealed to Byron. There might have been some sexual tension, but this is largely conjectural; Polidori’s diary also indicates a huge, heterosexual crush on Mary Godwin.
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