John Polidori and “The Vampyre”

On 2 November, we welcomed Professor Andrew Stott (SUNY) to deliver a lecture on the life and death of John Polidori, who not only grew up in the area around St Pancras Old Church, but was also buried in the churchyard. Below is a review of Stott’s latest work on Polidori and his literary connections, which was originally published on The History Vault.

The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron
By Professor Andrew Stott
Cannongate

The latest work by historian Professor Andrew Stott may take the reader from Soho to Moscow in tracing the affairs and tragic lives of the literary legends Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, but its (broken) heart and (dark) soul remains in the parish of St Pancras Old Church in North London.

Haunting and hilarious by turns, Stott’s work thoroughly reconstructs his well-known main characters as damaged and confused individuals, burdened by their own brilliance and an attachment to ideals and celebrity they barely understand, who find themselves by a lakeside in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. It is this experience which not only shapes the trajectory of the rest of their lives – in most cases for the worse – but simultaneous cements their reputations within the literary canon, especially as regards Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre, both conceived there in the same evening.

Compellingly written, Stott is exemplary of how an academic can present an engaging history for a popular audience, while retaining a dedication to his abundant sources. The short chapters keep the exciting pace moving, punctuated by quotations from his characters’ diaries, letters and work, which give insights into their emotions, thoughts, and – perhaps most strikingly in such a work – phenomenal senses of humour, matched by Stott’s own. Nevertheless, the story is one that leaves the reader melancholy and reflective, attentive to the ways in which the misogyny and ruthless pursuit of fame remains in contemporary society.

The captivating character of the work has to be the young Polidori, who by his death at the age of 25 is doctor (though still a year to young to practice in London), renowned author (although he is not known as the author of his most famous work) and student of law (although he would never pass the bar). His life is one of such parentheses – haunted by an almost-achieved grandeur and the shadow of his employer but never friend, Byron, who by the end quite despises him. Polidori represents a wholly-sympathetic character – a man of impatient brilliance and well-mannered awkwardness, prone to passionate outbursts of temper and rage when dishonoured or mocked, which is often.

The spectre of St Pancras Old Church frames and haunts the work. It is where Polidori – along with the Wollstonecraft-Godwin family – grew up. And it is where he is buried, not far from Mary Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. But the dead are raised, as both Polidori and Wollstonecraft are exhumed from the churchyard and reburied with the arrival of the great Victorian railway. The historic moment which gives us the brilliant Hardy tree, and the image of bodies rising from the ground, upset at their disturbance.

There are no vampires in Stott’s book, and there are several. Each of his characters are marked by a living death, a suffering at the hands another who are themselves haunted and – through literary fame – eternal.

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