Detail from F.G. Gainsford’s portrait of John Polidori, ca. 1816, the year he would accompany Lord Byron to his Lake Geneva villa.
From that famed night of ghost-stories in a Lake Geneva villa in 1816, as well as Frankenstein’s monster, there arose that other great figure of 19th-century gothic fiction – the vampire – a creation of Lord Byron’s personal physician John Polidori.
Andrew McConnell Stott explores how a fractious relationship between Polidori and his poet employer lies behind the tale, with Byron himself providing a model for the blood-sucking aristocratic figure of the legend we are familiar with today.
Lord Byron in traditional Albanian dress, a replica painted by Thomas Phillips (in 1835) of his original painting of 1813.
“The Vampyre” is a product of 1816, the “year without summer,” in which Lord Byron left England in the wake of a disintegrating marriage and rumours of incest, sodomy and madness, to travel to the banks of Lake Geneva and there loiter with Percy and Mary Shelley (then still Mary Godwin).
Polidori served as Byron’s travelling physician, and played an active role in the summer’s tensions and rivalries, as well as participating in the famous night of ghost stories that produced Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Like Frankenstein, “The Vampyre” draws extensively on the mood at Byron’s Villa Diodati. But whereas Mary Shelley incorporated the orchestral thunderstorms that illuminated the lake and the sublime mountain scenery that served as a backdrop to Victor Frankenstein’s struggles, Polidori’s text is woven from the invisible dynamics of the Byron-Shelley circle, and especially the humiliations he suffered at Byron’s hand.
Detail from a hand-colored engraving of Villa Diodati, by Edward Francis Finden, ca. 1833, after a drawing by William Purser.