I spent a lot of time with Byron & Co., doing research for my one-act opera Everlasting Universe (premiered in 2007 by the Civic Opera of Kansas City). The story takes place during the summer of 1816 in the Villa Diodati, with the same cast of characters. This story is, essentially, historical fiction, only that my take on the relationship between Byron and Polidori is conjecture. But who knows what really happened? The story first appeared in American Athenaeum, published by Sword and Saga Press.
38 Great Poulteney Street
The long-awaited report of my journey to the continent has been sent off to the publisher and will appear shortly, after I am no longer to be counted amongst the living. It has been arranged. In the account the public will read I felt compelled to censor and conceal the truth about certain matters. The world is not yet ready to receive the full, unadulterated account of my intimate life with his lordship. And so I have taken it upon myself to provide here a candid history describing that memorable summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in the year 1816.
Five years have passed since those unfortunate events transpired at the Villa Diodati. It is early afternoon on a warm August day as I put ink to paper at my desk for the last time. The thin curtains flutter silently by the open window. When I have finished writing this–the unadulterated account–I will secrete it away in a locked drawer in this desk. Perhaps it will see the light of day in the distant future, a time I can hardly imagine. Perhaps then, in a more enlightened age than this one, the pain I have experienced in the past few years will be acknowledged and understood. Loving the wrong person made of me misfortune’s child. The object of my love, my devotion, was the poet George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron.
April – May, 1816
London to Geneva
Few people can claim that there was one incident in their lives that changed everything forever, that propelled the trajectory of their existence into an entirely different orbit. I, John William Polidori, remember the day, the very hour, when my life was altered utterly. I had just completed my studies at the University of Edinburgh and had received a degree as doctor of medicine the previous year. I believe that, at nineteen years of age, I was the youngest person ever to do so. Being most eager to establish myself as a practicing physician, I moved to London in the early spring. My mentor, Dr. Halford, had taken an interest in my budding career and introduced me to Lord Byron. His lordship had been looking for a personal physician, and Dr. Halford thought I would be most suitable for the position. The good doctor had no idea how this meeting would dramatically change my life.
We were invited to tea on that April afternoon. Upon entering the elegant salon I espied a covey of women fluttering around a man of aristocratic bearing. It had to be him. Eventually we approached the party and I was introduced to his lordship. Those first impressions have etched themselves in my memory. It was not merely a matter of his personal appearance (though that was certainly of merit), but that he radiated a vigor that was strangely compelling. He was an enchanter, a magician, one who drew people to him like moths to a flame. I subsequently got to observe that unique quality during the few months I was in Lord Byron’s company. It still remains a mystery to me.
While I was being formally introduced I noticed how Byron sized me up. His powers of perception seemed to bore through me, his ample brain made a thousand calculations as to my character and my general suitability to his purposes. Later we had a private meeting. He enquired about my studies and my medical experience. I shared with him the salient points from my thesis on somnambulism, a subject which was of particular interest to him. He asked if I was proficient in mixing potions. I knew exactly what he meant. It was no secret that the upper classes, and especially artists, indulged in the pleasures of laudanum, a derivative of opium. I assured him that, as a physician, I add access to every kind of medicinal substance and was adept at concocting anything he could desire. A slight smile appeared on his fleshy lips at the mention of the word. His gaze lingered on me a moment too long and betrayed an interest in me that was more than just civil. I had an inkling then that he might desire more than mere opiates.
How can one describe a personage as famous as George Gordon, Lord Byron? There are many written descriptions of him as well as a number of portraits. He looks curiously different in each one of them. The man was a chameleon. He was of moderate height, with thick, curly dark hair. At the time of our first meeting he was reasonably proportioned. Later on his weight had a tendency to fluctuate greatly. One of my duties, after I was officially hired on, was to monitor his food intake and advise him as to proper diet. It was a losing battle. Byron was a man of extremes, of unbridled passions—but more on that later. He was one of those individuals who could look entirely different depending on the circumstances: how he was turned, the angle of the light, the time of day. The very emotions that preoccupied him would dramatically affect his visage. There were times when I thought: Now there is a handsome man! Other times I thought he was less so, but always interesting to look at. He possessed superior strength in his upper body and was a proficient swimmer. A few years before he had famously swum from Asia to Europe across the Hellespont. Sometime later on he would swim the entire length of the Grand Canal in Venice.
These are no mean feats, to be sure, but one cannot avoid mentioning his infirmity, something about which he was extremely sensitive. He was born with a malformed right foot, a clubfoot. He endured various attempts to remedy the situation, but they only caused him much pain and did nothing to help in the end. He refused to wear a brace. Instead, he learned to cope with his limp and mask it. The power of his personality was so strong that I am sure that many people who met him were not even aware of anything amiss with his physical person.
I was only twenty when I came into his lordship’s service. I was young and impressionable. Byron was already famous and infamous at the same time. Everyone in Europe knew all about his literary accomplishments and his scandalous exploits. The gossip circulated about him like brisk autumnal winds.
Despite his immense fame, Byron was hounded out of England. He had a bitter separation from his second wife just at the time I met him. The woman was angry and had been spreading horrible, spiteful rumors about his treatment of her. For all I know they may have been true. But of one rumor I am sure, Byron had relations with his half-sister Augusta, and that the child she had bourn the previous year was his. He admitted as much to me in a moment of intimacy and trust, in the days when such existed between us. Rumors of this illicit, incestuous affair flew about England. One can hardly imagine the scandal that caused in society!
My own background was decidedly ordinary. The circumstances I grew up in were a far cry from the world of wealth and privilege that Lord Byron enjoyed. My Italian father, a man with some literary accomplishment to his name, met and then married my English mother in London. She was a governess at the time. The family moved to Scotland when I was still a child. I think Byron was pleased to have a Scotsman as his personal physician and traveling companion. He himself was a Scot, but as a member of the aristocracy he rooted out every vestige of the Gaelic from his speech. I never heard a trace of it pass his lips, except in jest. Having inherited my father’s swarthy Mediterranean looks, I frequently heard it said that I was handsome. It was not such an asset when I was growing up, however. At Ampleforth, the school I attended, I was mercilessly taunted for looking different and for having a foreign name. I learned that being different was not a good thing.
On reaching adulthood everything reversed itself. It was Byron who first made me realize that my looks were something desirable. He liked women, there was no doubt about that, but he also had a weakness for men of a certain sort. His taste ran to small, youthful men. I seemed to fit the bill for him. Although I was not short (actually an inch taller than he was), because of my delicate build he perceived me as being boyish. He even made me shave off my dark chest hairs at one point. I didn’t mind. Whereas he pursued anyone who wore a skirt, he was very particular about men. During the time I was with him I never saw him pursuing another male, certainly not in the way he pursued females. Women were potential conquests to him; men fulfilled another need entirely. For a while, I was the one who fulfilled that need.
Four days after I met Lord Byron we were on our way to the continent. Everything Byron did was dramatic, unusual, eccentric. He had an enormous Napoleonic carriage built for the journey, one that could house a library, cooking facilities, a bed, and space for his menagerie of animals. It was pulled by four horses. I wondered whether I hadn’t signed on with a traveling circus. Two servants and our luggage followed in a calèche. We departed Dover on the 25th of April and landed in Ostend that evening.
I was relieved when we checked into a hotel—I didn’t relish sleeping with three large dogs, a monkey and a parrot! Eyebrows were raised when Byron asked for a single room for the both of us. He stated, with great authority, that he required the attentions of his physician at all hours of the day and night. (The concierge could not have imagined the kind of attentions he required!) As soon as we were shown the room Byron fell like a thunderbolt upon the chambermaid. She escaped his clutches that time, but he managed to have her before our departure the following morning.
That night at the hotel in Ostend was our first together. I was rather in awe of Byron and didn’t know what to expect. I could tell that he was interested in me, of course, but how that would play out remained to be seen. I had minimal experience in love making: a number of encounters at Ampleforth with other boys my own age, and a few visits to certain available ladies in London later on. That was it. I had, up to that time, never had a lover or experienced genuine intimacy. I was sure that Byron was going to take care of my deficiencies in that department. And he did. He was a wonderful lover, and surprisingly gentle. He would whisper amorously into my ear, calling me his ‘bonnie laddie’ and even his ‘pretty Johnny’. The intensity he brought to intimacy was something I would never experience again in that same way. I know from later experience that he treated me entirely differently than his female partners. As I said, women were objects of conquest for him. With me it was different. He still needed to be in total control, of course, but he also wanted acceptance. I found that vulnerability on his part remarkable and touching. It melted my heart.
We continued on through Belgium at an indolent pace. The carriage, which was given to breaking down, lumbered from one town to another, to Bruges (which I found very pretty), Ghent and then Brussels. Not far from that town is the field of Waterloo where, less than a year before, Napoleon’s luck had finally given out on him. Byron was mostly silent as we traversed the fields. It was eerie to note that we stood on ground where 40,000 men from both sides died or were seriously wounded. There was almost no trace of the carnage left. Village urchins attempted to sell us the buttons from the uniforms of the men who had perished in the field.
His lordship was intent on avoiding French soil. After Bonaparte’s abdication the monarchy was restored in France, a development which displeased Byron greatly. We headed west until we reached Cologne, then traveled south through the sublimely beautiful Rhine Valley to Switzerland. Along the way Byron did not miss an opportunity to bed any wench who crossed his path. Some were very willing partners, others needed a measure of coaxing. His powers of persuasion were nearly irresistible and he usually got what he wanted.
On more than one occasion, I was banished from our hotel room and had to spend the night in the carriage, but I didn’t object. I knew that I would always share his bed again. Those were the happiest weeks of my life. In my youthful naïveté, for that is what I must call it, I thought this felicitous state would last forever. My lover was the most desired man in all of Europe and the greatest living poet in the English language to boot, and I was traveling to the most wonderful places on the continent. I was also keenly aware that half the females in England would have gladly changed places with me. I never thought it could end so soon, and with such finality.
I have a confession to make. Before leaving London, John Murray, Byron’s publisher, offered me a secret deal, one I couldn’t refuse. He enjoined me to keep a record of his lordship’s activities. A report of Byron’s personal doings would bring a fortune when made public in England. People always love a scandal. I was to play Leporello to Byron’s Don Giovanni, keeping a catalogue of the roué’s conquests. (What an apt analogy that is!) Murray offered me the handsome sum of 500 pounds, more money than I had ever seen in my life. Byron never learned of this arrangement. He was made aware, however, of my own literary aspirations. I had only studied medicine because my father demanded I do so; he would not hear of me pursuing a career in literature. I begged for his lordship’s guidance in my own fledgling attempts at prose and a play I was writing. I reveled in the inspiration of his work. The fact that I was now Lord Byron’s compagnon de voyage was an incredible boon for me. I thought it was a sign from divine providence, an augury for my own eventual literary success. I was proven wrong.
Finally, on the 27th of May, we reached Geneva and checked into the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Sécheron, just outside the town. Byron had made the arrangements beforehand with the intention of staying a while. Our arrival in Geneva that day was to mark the beginning of the end for me. The nature of my relationship with Lord Byron would soon change profoundly, due to events I could not have foreseen. Neither Lord Byron nor I was aware that Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (they were not yet married), and Mary’s half sister, Claire Clairmont, had been residing at the hotel for several weeks already. Byron greatly admired Shelley’s work but had never met him. He knew Claire very well. In the months before his departure from England he had had an affair with her. Claire was so determined to become his mistress that she went after him like a lynx after the fox. Byron would have offered little resistance to bedding the black-haired lass, but he soon tired of her. Claire was superficial, gossipy and demanding. What is more important, she did not possess the intellectual accomplishments that would have sustained any long term interest in her. He dropped her, but the shameless hussy was not to be thwarted in her plans. She knew that Byron was headed for Switzerland and she managed to find out the name of the hotel in Geneva where he was going to stay. Shelley and Mary were cajoled into accompanying her to the continent. Claire (as I learned later) thought that, by offering Byron an introduction to Shelley and to Mary, his estimation of her would improve. Unbeknownst to all of us, Claire had another surprise in store for Byron, one that she would reveal only later.
When we checked in at the hotel, his lordship found a note from Claire waiting for him At first he made every attempt to avoid Claire, but that proved impossible. It didn’t take long before Byron gave in to Claire’s dogged entreaties and he began sleeping with her again. I could tell that it wouldn’t last long—and it didn’t. Once again, he grew weary of her. Later on he would even forbid her from coming to the villa alone; she could only do so in the company of Shelley and Mary.
When Byron and Shelley met for the first time they bonded immediately. Here were two of the greatest intellects and poets of the age. They were in many ways opposites, but they complemented each other. Shelley was the idealistic dreamer who floated through the empyrean on the magic carpet of his ideas. There were times when I wanted to laugh out loud at his fantastical blathering, but I didn’t dare. Lord Byron was the pragmatic cynic, and the ultimate narcissist. He molded the world through the potency of his words—and how easily they came to him! The more time he spent with Shelley, the less interest he had in anyone else. The intellectual stimulation he received from the other poet seemed to satiate his esurient soul.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was, apart from Lord Byron himself, the most unusual man I ever met. He was only twenty-three at the time, five years younger than Byron, but he had already established himself as a formidable figure in literary society. Scandal pursued him like it followed Byron. In 1816 Shelley was still technically married to his first wife, Harriet. He had run off with Mary Godwin and left poor Harriet to contend with their two children alone. He was able to marry Mary only when Harriet conveniently took her own life by throwing herself into the Serpentine in Hyde Park. As I look back at it now, I realize that these high-minded individuals could be quite appalling in their behavior.
At first glance Shelley seemed to be more of a schoolboy than a poet/philosopher. He even cultivated the impression of a youthful persona by the clothes he wore. But when one engaged him in conversation it quickly became evident that he was possessed of an extraordinary intellect. Shelley was blond and blue-eyed and had a rather high-pitched voice. One might have thought that he was the boy/man of Byron’s ideal, but I don’t believe they ever indulged in any kind of carnal behavior. Their relationship was of a different sort.
Byron was gradually losing interest in me. All of us observed a shift in his personality; his unpredictable mood swings were of much concern. He could be gentle and caring one moment, then fly into a rage over nothing the next. I learned to navigate through those stormy waters and was careful not to provoke him. His displeasure often expressed itself in biting sarcasm, and I was often the object of his scorn. He became more demanding and relied more heavily on the medicines I could provide. His long conversations with Shelley must have over-stimulated his brain. Frequently, Mary sat in on these discussions of art and literature, philosophy and life. She rarely said anything, but absorbed a great deal. When I attempted to contribute anything to these conversations my opinions were immediately dismissed. Mary was a handsome women. Byron took an interest in her, but only in a platonic way. She was one of the few women he considered an intellectual equal. He even entrusted her to make the final copies of his works before they were sent off to Murray in England. Mary was the only one of the party who showed any interest in me, who was kind and helpful. I am grateful to her for that.
When the arrangement at the Hôtel d’Angleterre proved to be no longer satisfactory Byron decided to rent a villa. The Shelley party had already taken a cottage in Cologny, on the south side of the lake, and Byron opted to rent the nearby Villa Diodati. It was a superb location, with a view of Lac Léman (as it is properly called) and the Jura beyond. A meadow abounding in wild flowers sloped down to the water’s edge. I lived in the villa with Byron, of course, but I had become little more than a servant at that point. I was no longer his ‘bonnie laddie’. I was now addressed as Polly and was ordered about as if I were an ordinary retainer. It was a difficult time for me. Anger, resentment and, yes, jealousy steadily grew within me. Every once in a while his lordship would show me some attention, even affection. He might run his fingers though my hair, or even kiss me. But I see now that this was calculated on his part to keep me minimally under his control. He was a master of manipulation, he knew just how to make people do what he wanted. Like so many others, men and women, I had fallen under his spell.
It was a wet and unsettled summer. Because of the daily thunderstorms, we were forced to spend a great deal of time indoors. To amuse ourselves we read and discussed various issues. Byron proposed a plan: each of us would write a ghost story. It was really a friendly rivalry between himself and Shelley—the rest of us came along for the ride. Byron did begin a story, but he soon abandoned it. The same thing happened to Shelley. I suppose they both found it difficult to create a sustained narrative: they were poets, not writers of fiction. Mary’s imagination was fired by the talk of ghosts and the newly discovered powers of electricity. She had a frightening vision and shared it with Byron. He encouraged her almost daily to use that nightmare as the basis of a story and to continue working on it. At times Byron could be the best of men. I thought Mary’s idea would come to nothing. Frankenstein? What a ridiculous name. I have since been proven wrong in my initial estimation of her talents. Her book has become the rage in Europe.
Claire had nothing substantial to contribute. I, on the other hand, had been hard a work writing a story. Although it was not yet finished, Byron insisted it be read aloud to everyone. He took a condescending tone in his recitation, something which did not put my work in a good light at all. When he had finished he flung the manuscript onto a table with a gesture of utter disdain. I have not forgotten what he said: “This is rubbish, not worth the paper it is written on. Polly, stick to making your potions!” I was humiliated and boiled with anger. I craved his approval, just a kind word of encouragement. Instead, he saw fit to demean my literary efforts in this fashion. At that moment my admiration and love for him turned into pure hatred.
It was about this time that Claire informed Byron that she was pregnant with his child. He later learned that she had known of her condition in England, but did not share the news with anyone, not even Mary and Shelley. His lordship was not pleased to hear it. Inexplicably, he later forced Claire to give up the child. Allegra (so she was called) was brought to him in Venice a few years later. What did he want with a young child? I suppose he thought he could do more for her considering his wealth and position—an altruistic notion on his part—but, typically, he could not follow through with the plan in a reasonable fashion. The poor child was placed in the care of an older couple he had found and later shunted off into a convent school where she died of a fever. Poor lamb. Those who had seen the child thought it curious that she was blue-eyed and fair, just like Shelley. He adored Allegra and was grieved to part with her. She didn’t resemble Byron one bit. One can draw one’s own conclusions on the matter.
Byron and Shelley were both enthusiastic boaters. They had purchased a sailboat together and decided to take a lengthy tour of the lake on their vessel. Lac Léman is quite large, extending forty-five miles from east to west. I expected to be asked to join the party. Byron ignored my hints and I was crushed when it became clear that I was to be left behind. They were gone for two weeks. When they returned we had a bit of a celebration on the terrace. It was the first fine evening we were able to enjoy outside in a long time. Byron held forth, recounting anecdotes of their trip. Shelley was mostly silent, gazing on Byron in admiration and devotion. I was asked to prepare the libations.
My subsequent behavior was reprehensible, I will readily admit, but dear reader, you cannot imagine the rage that seethed within me. As a master of potions I concocted a special brew for his lordship and made sure he picked up the glass intended for him. I took my place on the balustrade and watched calmly as he took a sip of the doctored wine. It was not meant to kill him, of that you can be assured: I wanted to cause him some pain, just as he had aggrieved me. Byron threw the glass to the ground and exclaimed, “Polly, what have you done!” He staggered to the doorway, coughing and choking violently. I must confess that I felt some satisfaction at that moment. The sense of triumph was not to last long, however. Byron recovered by the next morning, as I knew he would. He berated me in the most violent terms and then told me to clear out. I couldn’t even feign remorse. I had none. It would be the last time I ever saw him.
The following morning, before daybreak, I left the villa forever. I headed north, into the highlands. The fog-enshrouded forests enveloped me in their gloom. I realized what I had lost. Byron, for better or for worse, had been my anchor during the past few months. My own existence had been absorbed into his. Now I had nothing at all. I was an outcast. I wept bitterly.
My wanderings eventually took me to Italy, the land of my father, but nothing seemed to work out there for me. Back to England I attempted to establish a medical practice in Norwich. It failed. I drifted back to London. In 1819 I did manage to publish a story, The Vampyre, which some attributed to Byron. That should have flattered my vanity, but it didn’t. The memory of him was still too raw. I had loved him once and he treated me abominably. I should have known better, I see that now, but it is too late. Who among us can control the passions of the heart? Byron was not a man who could be loyal to anyone. He used people for his own purposes and then discarded them when it suited him.
August 24th, 1821
Excessive drink has taken its toll on me. I have accrued substantial gambling debts and have no means of repaying them. My twenty-sixth birthday approaches, but I don’t think I shall see that day. I have nothing to live for. The man I loved will never be mine again, and I shall never find another like him. I am weary. Once I have completed writing this account I will install myself in the well-worn armchair in the corner. There is a glass on the side table next to it, filled with a certain amber liquid. It beckons to me. I know the effects of the potion I have concocted; it will afford a quick, nearly painless end. I have ordered the maidservants not to disturb me on any account. It is dusk; the light is fading fast. I shall finish this, my last manuscript, lock it away, then drink from the stream of Lethe, my skillfully prepared brew of forgetfulness, and enter into a long and peaceful rest.
[Author’s note: John Polidori did succeed in taking his own life that day. His story, The Vampyre, became the prototype for all subsequent vampire stories; Byron died of a fever in Greece three years later, lending his support to the noble cause of Greek liberation from the Ottomans; Shelley drowned in a boating accident off the Italian coast the following year; Mary Shelley lived a long and productive life. She never remarried; Claire worked as a governess in Russia and Germany. She outlived all of her Villa Diodati compatriots and died at the ripe old age of eighty in Florence. To the end of her life she remained embittered about her experience with Lord Byron and the loss of her child.]