In the fight for Italian unification many patriots were forced to seek political asylum in other countries, England being a popular choice. Gabriele Rossetti was one of these émigrés; he arrived in London in 1824 and took a position as professor of Italian at King’s College. He married Frances Polidori, the daughter of another Italian émigré, Gaetano Polidori, and they had four children; Maria, Dante Gabriel, William Michael and Christina. The Rossetti surname came from an earlier family nickname, on account of the distinctive red hair of the family.
|Dr John Polidori|
Frances was the sister of John Polidori; born in London in 1795, he was educated at the Roman Catholic College of Ampleforth, Yorkshire, studied medicine at Edinburgh and received his medical degree in 1815 (interestingly, considering what is to follow, his dissertation was on the subject of Oneirodynia, or nightmares, and at this time he also wrote an Essay on the Punishment of Death, a condemnation of suicide).
The following year he took the position of personal physician to Lord George Gordon Byron, and was commissioned by the publisher John Murray, for a fee of £500, to write a diary of their European travels, (later edited by his nephew, William Michael). This diary takes two forms; the first are personal notes and aides-mémoire, possibly intended to be expanded later, the second are definite, expansive descriptions (probably written with an eye on Murray’s £500).
In June 1816, Byron and Polidori arrived at the Villa Diodati, on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where they were joined by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Shelley’s future wife), and Miss Claire Clairmont (with whom Byron would later have an affair). The summer of 1816 was extremely stormy and wet (the infamous Summer That Never Was) – on June 13th, Polidori recorded that he was returning back from a ball in a thunder and lightning storm and lost his way, on June 15th, attempting to jump a wall to aid Mary Godwin, he slipped on the wet ground and sprained his left ankle.
|Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin|
The "wet, ungenial summer and incessant rainfall" confined the party for days in the house, where they took to relating eerie stories and read aloud from Fantasmagoriana a French collection of horror stories (later translated into English as Tales of the Dead by Mrs Sarah Utterson).
|Sarah Utterson - Tales of the Dead - 1813|
On the evening of June 17th, they told more ghost stories and Byron recited lines from Coleridge’s Christabel, whereupon, in the ensuing silence, Shelley suddenly screeched, threw his hands to his head and ran from the room – Polidori threw water on his face and gave him ether. He claimed to have seen a vision of a woman with eyes instead of nipples, which had horrified him.
Byron then proposed, “We will each write a ghost-story,” and Polidori began his the following day, a story about a skull-headed woman which he abandoned soon after and began again, taking his subject from a suggestion from Byron, who also had second thoughts and began again on a different subject.
Over the next three days they worked on their stories, although Shelley and Miss Clairmont did not finish theirs; Byron’s tale was later published as a Fragment of a Novel as a postscript to his poem Mazzepa. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published her story as a three-volume novel, in an edition of 500 copies, on January 1st 1818, entitled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
|Frontispiece - Mary Shelley - Frankenstein|
Polidori’s story was published in 1819 without his permission, and attributed to Lord Byron, in the New Monthly Magazine as The Vampyre. It was the first romantic vampire novel, and was an immediate success (not least to the name of Byron being associated it. Byron was immensely popular at the time – the equivalent to a rock star (think Elvis) in our day, and the confusion was heightened as the main character of The Vampyre is Lord Ruthven, the name of a thinly-disguised portrayal of Byron in Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon).
|John Polidori - The Vampyre - 1819|
When Polidori and Byron parted company later in 1816 (on the grounds, as Polidori put it, ‘not upon any quarrel, but on account of our not suiting’), he left the manuscript with the Countess of Breuss, but an unnamed traveller obtained it and it passed into the hands of the publisher, Colburn. It appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on April 1st 1819, but an edition in book form was registered at Stationer’s Hall on March 27th 1819, by Sherwood, Neely and Jones. Polidori wrote to both publishers, demanding an explanation, that Byron’s name be removed from the work and his own used instead, and for compensation. The Vampyre sparked a vampire revolution in literature; at least three vampire operas appeared in the 19th century, Tolstoy, Gogol and Dumas wrote vampire stories of their own, Burton published Vikram and the Vampire, Kipling wrote a poem The Vampire and Polidori’s tale was the obvious precursor of that quintessential vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The interest and popularity of the vampire has never diminished – witness today’s Buffy or Twilight series, and the myriad vampire films, novels and websites that continue to be produced (for better or for worse).
Polidori’s health began to worsen following his rift with Byron, he became depressed and started to gamble. On August 24th 1821, he went to bed and drank a draught of prussic acid (cyanide), dying instantly.
|William Michael Rossetti|
There have been differing accounts of his death but his nephew, William Michael Rossetti, in his introduction to Polidori’s Diary, wrote,
“That he did take poison, prussic acid, was a fact perfectly well known in his family; but it is curious to note that the easy-going and good-naturedly disposed coroner's jury were content to return a verdict without eliciting any distinct evidence as to the cause of death, and they simply pronounced that he had " died by the visitation of God,"
an ironic end considering his Essay on the Punishment of Death from five years previous, in which examined and condemned the practice of suicide. His sister, Charlotte, transcribed his unpublished Diary and removed certain ‘peccant passages’ before destroying the original. Rossetti’s edition appeared in 1911.