Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Strange Case of Dr. Polidori

Amusing retelling by Carrie Frye of the famous tale of the Frankenstein summer, focusing on the character of Dr. Polidori. A sample:
If you have any interest in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or vampires or Romantic poets or, who knows, Swiss tourism, you’ve most likely read Polidori’s name. He’s a curio, Polly Dolly, most notable not for what he wrote but for being nearby when other people wrote things. It’s a strange afterlife; to think you’ve landed a leading role, and then there you are, on stage, sure, and with big names too, but fixed to a mark far upstage and over to the left, near the wings, in the half-dark where the spotlight doesn’t quite reach. “Poor Polidori.” That’s how Mary Shelley referred to him, writing years later. And he was. Here is how he creeps into letters, like this one written by Byron: “Dr. Polidori is not here, but at Diodati, left behind in hospital with a sprained ankle, which he acquired in tumbling from a wall—he can’t jump.” It was John Polidori’s misfortune to be comic without having a sense of humor, to wish to be a great writer but to be a terrible one, to be unusually bright but surrounded for one summer by people who were titanically brighter, and to have just enough of an awareness of all of this to make him perpetually uneasy. Also, he couldn’t jump. Poor Polidori.

One short story he wrote, though, remains important, a vampire story that was read across Europe when it came out and led the way to Dracula. But even that story was not all Polidori’s own. In a nice bit of literary vampiricism, he fed off a sketch by Byron to write it and the story was first published under Byron’s name (hence all the attention it got), so he’s instructive, too, as a reminder of all that writers and vampires have in common.

An aristocratic vampire bored by his immortality—we’re accustomed to that creature now. But this sort of vampire is relatively new. As Paul Barber describes in his wonderful book, Vampires, Burial, and Death, the vampires that populated European folklore for centuries were Slavic peasant and villager revenants, ordinary people rising from their graves bloated and ruddy, with long fingernails and grave dirt in their hair. Polidori based his story “The Vampyre” on a “Fragment” written a few years before by Byron. In each story, the vampire is rich, lordly, weighted down by dissatisfaction.

He is, in other words, a personage not so unlike Lord Byron. In Polidori’s story, the vampire, Lord Ruthven, has cold grey eyes. He is bored. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking. He mixes in the highest society. He is well thought of, but, secretly, a predator eager to lead virtue astray. He and a young idealistic companion, Aubrey, set off on a tour by carriage of Europe. There is no mention of whether a monkey and a peacock are with them, but the rest of it sounds familiar. “The Vampyre” was first published, in 1819, in New Monthly Magazine as a story by Byron. It created an international stir. A play and then an opera were based on it, events that seem unlikely to have occurred if the story had gone into the world as the work of a London physician. It’s widely assumed that Polidori passed the story off as Byron’s in an intentional imposture, but the evidence there is murky. Just as possible is that, the manuscript having passed through several hands after Polidori wrote it, the details of its connection to Byron grew confused on the way to publication. (Byron, breezily waving it off: “… I scarcely think anyone who knows me would believe the thing in the Magazine to be mine, even if they saw it in my own hieroglyphics.” He might just as well have added: “He can’t jump either.”)

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