September 22, 2021

The Vampyre and The Party That Started it All

Libby West
The Villa Diodati in Geneva, Switzerland 2008.07.27, view 5 out of 6, Image Source: Wikipedia

Lake Geneva, Switzerland, June 1816

It was June of the year without a summer, when the skies were perpetually dark and the crops didn’t grow, that English poet Lord Byron took to Lake Geneva looking for an escape. There, he and his personal doctor, John William Polidori resided at Villa Diodati, where they frequently entertained the company of close friends; Percy Shelley, his fiancé Mary, their 4 month old daughter, and Mary’s step-sister Clare Clairmonte who, after a dalliance in London, was carrying the daughter of Lord Byron. It was during one such visit, that the friends' stay was dismally extended and the unrelenting weather exhausted their soirée.

John William Polidori, by F.G. Gainsford (floruit 1805-1822), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1895, Image Source: Wikipedia

The weather in Switzerland that summer was atrocious and this weekend was no exception. Tumultuous skies and torrential rain cast a shadow on the friends' getaway and as the waters of the Lake Geneva rose, so did the tension in the rooms of Villa Diodati; Claire’s unrequited pursuit of Lord Byron’s affection provoked his attitude, while Dr. Polidori’s unbecoming advances towards Mary unsettled her and left Percy with certain distaste. As the nights drew on, the party imbibed and debates over the effectiveness of galvanism permeated the conversation. On one particular evening, their entertainment was found in the candlelit reading of Fantasmagoriana and other series of ghost stories, which sparked the idea of a challenge. A challenge that would come to change literary history. Byron proposed each guest write a story, a horror story that was more terrifying than any they had heard that evening or any evening before.

As a part of this challenge, Mary Shelley produced one of the most important and influential horror stories of all time, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron's contribution was an incomplete tale titled Fragment of a Novel, in which the narrator recounts his journey with vampire Augustus Darvell in a fictitious letter to the reader. Though unfinished and hardly worth mentioning among Byron's other works, this fragment inspired John Polidori to write his own novella, The Vampyre, a harrowing narrative involving deception, seduction, and murder that revamped the folkloric villain into the aristocratic incubus that we know today.

It is rumored that the main character in this tale, Lord Ruthven, a sexually deviant, blood-lusting powerful vampire who was attracted to the virtuous and the virginal, was inspired by Lord Byron himself and his situation with Clare Clairmonte. As the summer holiday drew to a close, an infuriated Byron terminated the doctor's position and upon his dismissal, Polidori subsequently sent his writing to the Countess of Breuss to be published in an act of revenge on his former boss.

In April of 1819, The Vampyre was published in the New Monthly Magazine under the false attribution of Lord Byron. Despite the multiple attempts by both Lord Byron and John Polidori to correct the attribution, the story would go on to be published in book form with the misattribution. The first edition work did have Byron's attribution but it was removed by the second state.

Polidori, John. The Vampyre, A Tale, Paris, 1819 Image Source:

One of these 1819 first editions of The Vampyre can be found in a sale of Antiquarian and Other Books that is live on now to October 12, 2021.