It was a pretty astonishing coincidence, even by the standards of the Cambridge Library Collection. Last Friday we received (among other good things) the first copy of The Diary of Dr John William Polidori, 1816, Relating to Byron, Shelley, Etc. On Sunday, watching the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ on BBC 1 TV with half an eye, I was riveted to see a copy of Galignani’s edition of Byron’s poems, with, pasted into it, a letter in Byron’s own hand to the French publisher, denying that he was the author of that publishing phenomenon, The Vampyre, published in 1819, and in fact written by Polidori.
Disillusion (for me and the owner) quickly followed. Apparently, the letter, convincing as it appears, is a facsimile produced by Galignani from an original now thought to be lost in a fire, and pasted into every copy of that publisher’s edition of the poems. According to the website of dealers John Wilson Manuscripts Ltd, this is ‘one of the most common and notorious facsimiles’, first used in 1826 (two years after Byron’s death), and then in subsequent editions. (Why, is not clear.)
So who was John Polidori? To begin at the end, he was the uncle of the Rossetti brood (though dead before they were born), and it was William Michael Rossetti, the keeper of various family flames, who edited the diary for publication in 1911. Born in 1795, John was son of Italian exile, writer, translator and printer Gaetano Polidori, who married Anna Maria Pierce (both died in 1853). John’s younger sister Frances Mary Lavinia married Gabriele Rossetti, and was mother of the famous siblings. His fiercely ambitious father wanted him to become a physician, and after time at Ampleforth College (only two years after the boarding school’s foundation), he went to Edinburgh to study medicine. For his M.D., he wrote a treatise on sleepwalking, and was awarded his degree at the age of nineteen.
His 1816 portrait, presented to the National Portrait Gallery by William Michael Rossetti, shows a dark, handsome young man with an air at once romantic and slightly petulant. Returning to London, and as eager to continue the literary career he had begun in Edinburgh as to develop a medical practice, he came into the orbit of Sir William Knighton, physician and confidant to the Prince Regent, who recommended to Lord Byron that his protégé could fulfil the post of medical man on the European tour he was planning after the collapse of his marriage and the ensuing notoriety.
The publisher John Murray offered Polidori £500 for an account of the trip, and it was this that prompted him to begin a diary, which is the main, though fragmentary, record of the few days at the Villa Diodati when those present agreed to write ghost stories, and after which Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. By September 1816, he had been dismissed from Byron’s entourage – the two never got on, as two egomaniacs in one household rarely do – and Polidori continued round Italy by himself, meeting relatives and continuing his medical studies at Pisa, before returning to England in 1817 and starting up a practice in Norwich (where Harriet Martineau allegedly had a tendresse for him), which he quitted to study for the Bar in London.
The whole bizarre and complicated publishing saga of The Vampyre is very well explained in the introduction to the diary, which Polidori abandoned on 30 December 1816 (though Rossetti adds to it some letters sent from Italy to his father and sister). He never offered it to John Murray, and indeed it is a strange mixture of short notes (times, dates, money) alongside much longer descriptive passages. One can only assume that he had at some point intended to work it up into a narrative.
Shortage of money dogged him (he was paid only a very small fee for the best-selling Vampyre), and his always wilful behaviour became noticeably more erratic after an accident in 1817 when he was thrown out of a gig and was comatose for five days. In early August 1821 he went off to Brighton, possibly in a futile effort to solve his money problems at the gaming tables. Shortly after his despondent return, he was found dying in his rooms, and the family knew that he had taken prussic acid, though the coroner’s jury kindly returned a verdict of ‘died by the visitation of God’. He was not quite twenty-six.
Rossetti explains the later fate of the diary. It was in the possession of Miss Charlotte Lydia Polidori when he asked to borrow it in 1869 while researching for his edition of Shelley’s poems. When he returned it: ‘I regret to say that my aunt … took it into her head to read it through, … and that she found in it some few passage which she felt to be “improper”, and, with the severe virtue so characteristic of an English maiden aunt, she determined that those passages should no longer exist.’
Charlotte Lydia painstakingly copied out the diary, bowdlerising and omitting as she went: ‘she then ruthlessly destroyed the original MS.’ (One ‘peccant passage’ which Rossetti remembered from the original was Polidori’s note that, on arriving at their hotel in Ostend, ‘Lord Byron fell like a thunderbolt on the chambermaid’.) It was from this copy (some words in which remain illegible or incomprehensible) that Rossetti prepared his edition, carefully annotating Polidori’s words with supporting (or occasionally contradictory) evidence from the mass of material about the Byron–Shelley circle which had been published in the intervening ninety-odd years (and much of which we are reissuing).
Rossetti does not disagree with the world’s posthumous opinion of his uncle: ‘overweening and petulant, too fond of putting himself forward face to face with those two heroes of our poetical literature [i.e. Byron and Shelley], and too touchy when either of them declined to take him at his own estimation’. He was ‘deficient in self-knowledge, lacking prudence and reserve, and ignoring the distinction between a dignified and a quarrelsome attitude of mind’. But which of us wasn’t like that, at nineteen?