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John William Polidori (1795-1821)

Polidori was hired by Lord Byron in 1816 to accompany him on his European odyssey and he participated in the famous ghost writing competition that took place at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva Switzerland in 1816. The competition spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and also Polidori's The Vampyre - which was based on Byron's incomplete tale 'Augustus Darvell'.  Its central character was Lord Ruthven who was almost certainly modelled on the 'mad, bad' poet. However Polidori never managed to assert ownership of The Vampyre and when it was finally published by the New Monthly Magazine in 1819 it appeared under Lord Byron's name. The Vampyre laid the foundations for the modern genre of vampire fiction.


John Polidori

After returning from Europe, Polidori moved to Norwich and attempted to set up a medical practice. His arrival here in 1817 was prompted by an invitation from the Norwich intellectual William Taylor - who informed him that a physician (a member of the Martineau family) was about to retire - thereby creating an opportunity for a doctor in the city.

Martineau Family House

Martineau Family House, Magdalen Street

Polidori, who was of Italian origin, was a strikingly handsome young man and he entered Norwich society with gusto, joining the Norwich Philosophical Society and also becoming a regular visitor at the Martineau house on Magdalen Street. The young Harriet Martineau, who was born at Gurney Court on Magdalen Street, remembered him well:

'About this time there came to Norwich a foreigner who excited an unaccountable interest in our house, considering what exceedingly proper people we were, and how sharp a look-out we kept on the morals of our neighbours. It was poor Polidori, well known afterwards as Lord Byron's physician, as the author of 'the Vampire' and as having committed suicide under gambling difficulties.'

While trying to establish himself, it is likely that Polidori worked at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital - opening a dispensary and treating the poor.

Unfortunately however, on the 20th September 1817, Polidori suffered a serious accident at Costessey when his gig hit a tree and he landed awkwardly on his head. The accident rendered him unconscious for four days and shortly afterwards he wrote the following sonnet - subtitled 'Written in the Album, at Costessey, after my recovery from an accident, 1817' :
Hurl'd from my car I lay upon the ground,
When death, who comes with rapid step alone
To those for whom joy spreads her gleam around,
Ran to transfix the victim 'fore him thrown.
But soon I saw of two fair forms the hands
Outstretch'd in my defence - like those they seem'd,
Whose breath had caused my happiness - no wands,
No weapons in the air around me gleamed.
Yet death recoil'd - it seemed as if he bowed
Before my guardian's will - perchance he thought
He saw in them, as in the two who brav'd
Awhile his pow'r, the Godhead's image grav'd
So bright; and though majestic, mild it showed,
As if the sov'reign fiat they had bought.

The accident almost certainly affected his professional and literary life and contributed to his rapid decline. Harriet Martineau said: 'If he had (happily) died then, he would have remained a hero in our imaginations. The few following years (which were very possibly all the wilder for that concussion of the brain) disabused everybody of all expectation of good from him'.

Polidori eventually left Norwich and moved to London where he incurred  considerable gambling debts. He died on August 24, 1821 from a self-administered dose of prussic acid. It is likely that he committed suicide but the coroner declared a verdict of death by natural causes; he was only 25 years old. His body was buried in St Pancras Old Church but, as befits the author of The Vampyre, he did not rest peacefully - for in 1865 his corpse was disinterred to make way for a railway line.

The Hardy Tree

The Hardy Tree (Photograph by Peter L. Edwards, Oxford UK (bradman 334))

The architect responsible for overseeing the exhumation was the young Thomas Hardy who was working at the time for Arthur W. Blomfield. Many of the headstones were neatly stacked next to an ash tree which is now known as the 'Hardy Tree'. Hardy later wrote a poem about his experiences entitled The Levelled Churchyard. Here are the first two verses:

"O passenger, pray list and catch
   Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
   Of wrenched memorial stones!

"We late-lamented, resting here,
   Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
   'I know not which I am!'


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