Polidori's summer abroad

27 Apr 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Some thoughts on The Travel Journal of Dr John William Polidori and The Vampyre.

David and I went to stay with his gran over the Easter weekend, and I took the opportunity of her lovely, peaceful house to do some reading. I've been interested in the 18th- and early 19th-century roots of Gothic fiction for a while, particularly since reading Northanger Abbey in high school; it remains one of my favourite novels. I knew as well, of course, about the strange volcano-blighted summer of 1816, which Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley spent together by Lake Geneva, writing ghost stories, most notably Frankenstein. A couple of years ago, David started to immerse himself in that period of history, with the aim of writing a Lovecraftian RPG adventure set in 1817 Switzerland. (We have played two of his planned three chapters, and he will hopefully soon release it as a PDF.) Somehow, though, it had never occurred to me to investigate the other literary works produced over those weeks.

This article in the Awl takes a look at the group as a whole, but especially one of its lesser-known members, 'Poor Polidori' or Polly-dolly: Byron's physician, Dr John Polidori. It surprised me very much to learn that he was only 20 years old when he and Byron set off from England, Byron leaving under the predictable cloud and abandoning his wife and days-old daughter. The whole group was young, in fact. Byron, the eldest at 28, was the same age as me, and that is a pretty depressing thought. It was Polidori, though, who slipped and injured his foot while trying to impress Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (as she in fact was then); Polidori who challenged the pacifistic Shelley to a duel; Polidori whose plays and stories were roundly mocked by the others. He was intelligent, accomplished—a medical doctor at 19!—and ambitious both in medicine and literature, but he was also inexperienced in society and had fallen in with a crowd with whom he just couldn't keep up. After reading the piece, plus the MetaFilter thread it inspired, Polidori seemed a more interesting figure to me almost than Byron. I decided to read the travel journal he had kept of the trip, as well as his supernatural story, The Vampyre and the 'fragment of a novel' by Byron that had inspired it.

The Travel Journal of Dr John William Polidori is an odd book. Byron's publisher Murray offered him 500 guineas for it at the start of the trip, but it wasn't published until 1911, together with an introduction and notes from William Michael Rossetti, Polidori's nephew. At the start, Polidori and Byron's journey through the Netherlands, Flanders and Prussia is described in high-faluting literary prose. Everywhere is 'misery, misery, misery', 'beauty, beauty, beauty' or 'sublimity', a word Polidori loves and differentiates strongly from 'beauty'; I definitely ought to be better read in the Romantics, because the distinction escaped me. The folk they meet with have many anecdotes about the French army who had very recently been expelled from the land, and both Byron and Polidori are excited to examine minutely the fields of Waterloo. Polidori's admiration for the famous poet, as well as his knowledge of his audience, is evident in his descriptions of Byron's singing as he rode and his writing habits.

Later, once the two are ensconced in Geneva and neighbours to Shelley, Godwin Wollstonecraft and Clairmont, the entries become more like notes or jottings. At the end of the summer, they peter out altogether, and Polidori's parting from the group and subsequent (mis)adventures in Italy are covered in retrospect. Presumably still hoping to complete and polish his journal, he includes potted character descriptions that can be very funny:

Borsieri, a man of great mental digestive power and memory, superficially read ... Monti is a short, roundish, quick-eyed, and rather rascally-faced man, affable, easily fired; talks rather nonsense when off poetry, and even upon that not very good.
Then dressed, and to Odier's ... Quantities of English; speaking amongst themselves, arms by their sides, mouths open and eyes glowing; might as well make a tour of the Isle of Dogs.

The journal documents a long round of social engagements and "dissipation", as well as many evenings spent together with Shelley and the two women, writing and debating one another. There are arguments between Polidori, on one side, and Shelley and Byron on the other. On leaving Geneva, Polidori walks to Italy. He may have been hot-headed but you could never call him a slacker.

Byron's later, generous explanation for the split between the two was that Polidori, being young and unused to the world, had wished to see more of society than he himself. "His faults are the faults of pardonable vanity and youth," he told Murray, but "... I have enough to do to manage my own scrapes." Even Byron couldn't manage the scrape in Milan that saw Polidori thrown out of the city on twenty-four hours' notice, for picking a fight with an Austrian guard in a theatre. For me, though, the following passage is the one that sums up his character best in the book:

An apothecary sold some bad magnesia to L[ord] B[yron]. Found it bad by experiment of sulphuric acid colouring it red rose-colour. Servants spoke about it. Appointed Castan to see experiment; came; impudent; refused to go out; collared him, sent him out, broke spectacles. Laid himself on a wall for three hours; refused to see experiments. Saw L[ord] B[yron], told him his tale before two physicians. Brought me to trial before five judges; had an advocate to plead. I pleaded for myself; laughed at the advocate. Lost his cause on the plea of calumny; made me pay 12 florins for the broken spectacles and costs. Magnesia chiefly alumina, as proved by succenate and carbonate of ammonia.

I can just see him jumping at the chance—finally!—to show off his scientific skills, and then getting more and more indignant over a long afternoon because no one would come to see his experiment.

I've come to find Polidori a strangely sympathetic character. He is priggish and girl-crazy, true. He comes across as self-important, over-confident and lacking in self-awareness—but so were a lot of us at twenty. Luckily for me, I've reached twenty-eight and, from this vast distance (ahem), I can see the strange dents in my character starting to round themselves out. Polidori never got this far. After a series of disappointments and mounting gambling debts, on top of a personality-altering head injury from an accident, he killed himself at twenty-six.

This is also a point worth considering:

I always thought it was obvious that Polidori, being the youngest man, an employee and probably a bit awkward due to being a prodigy, was just getting the shit bullied out of him by older, wealthier men.
mobunited at MetaFilter

He wasn't an irretrievably bad writer, either, for all the others in the party mocked him. I greatly preferred his finished Vampyre to the fragment by Lord Byron. It does degenerate at the end into gothic nonsense, with its famous final line:

The guardians hastened to protect Miss Aubrey; but when they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!

I would argue, though, that Byron's work does so much sooner, when the dying Lord Darvell gives his friend a simply ridiculous list of instructions as his dying wish.

Historians seem to be agreed that both Darvell and Ruthven are representations of Byron himself, and in that light I found the description of Darvell to be a fairly obvious contribution to Byron's own legend. He is mysterious and reserved, yet his feelings are acute; despite his cold rebuffs, the unnamed narrator strives to attain his friendship. Polidori's thoughts on Ruthven, and on the deficiencies in education that made his narrator, Aubrey, so susceptible to him, were much more interesting to me.

He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.

The story continues to its genre-satisfying conclusion and gets less engrossing (to me, at least) as young Aubrey first falls in love with an uncomfortably childlike Greek girl and then, after her death and the death of Ruthven, returns home. Of course, Lord Ruthven has risen from the grave and rejoined society there. Trapped by the oath he swore not to reveal Ruthven's death for a year, Aubrey is powerless to stop his marriage to his sister.

Funnily enough, in The Vampyre it's Aubrey who must run around protecting others from Ruthven's schemes, whereas in real life—whatever the other troubles between them—Polidori did rely on Byron to get him out of difficulties several times.

I heartily recommend The Travel Journal of Dr John William Polidori to anyone interested in the people or the time and place it deals with, and The Vampyre to fans of gothic literature. After all, as nicebookrack said in the MeFi thread,

We owe the entire literary genre of "sexy brooding manwhore vampire" to Polidori's plagiarized hate-on for Byron.