Dr. John Polidori’s appropriative rewriting of Lord Byron’s unfinished “Fragment” as The Vampyre has long been of interest to the field of Gothic studies for its representation of the first coherent vampire in English Literature. In recent years, the inscription of sexual rhetoric in both texts has attracted further critical attention. Featuring men who traverse the explosively tense line between compulsory homosocial relations and the culturally prohibited horrors of homoerotic desire, these texts can certainly be read in the light of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s identification of the homophobic “paranoid gothic.” However, considered together, The Vampyre and the “Fragment” reveal more than anxieties about male bonding. In this essay, I explore the nexus of concerns raised by The Vampyre, its relation to the “Fragment,” and the perceived relationship between Polidori and Byron with the aim of working towards a repositioning of these marginal Gothic works as indeed both disquieting and deeply queer. The “Fragment” represents Byron’s contribution to the now mythical “ghost story competition” at Villa Diodati in 1816 which also inspired the writing of Frankenstein. The man Mary Shelley dubbed “Poor Polidori” stands on the margins of this famous gathering, but he and his story remain a haunting presence in more than one respect. Focussing upon the way in which modern sexual discourse has helped make the author into an object of sexual interest, I propose that the production of Polidori as a strange, sexually suspect figure strikingly illustrates how the Gothic rhetoric of the sexual “unspeakable” can reverberate out from the text and into our thinking about the author.
Dr. John William Polidori has become a troubling authorial figure, a ghostly presence haunting the margins of Romanticism, his heterogeneous significance produced from both high literary and popular cultural traditions, as well as complex intergeneric networks of criticism and biography. On the one hand, the cultural impact of his work in creating the first coherent vampire figure in literature can hardly be overestimated. On the other hand, he has been marginalized and belittled by his famous contemporaries, often viewed as a victim, and his appropriative rewriting of an unfinished fragmentary story by Byron constructed as a plagiaristic, perhaps itself “vampiric” piece of publishing. In her introduction to the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull headed lady who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course” (7). Her reference draws attention to itself as a displacement, for like all monsters the “skull headed lady” represents something more than, or other than, herself.  In my view, Shelley has adeptly managed here to say something by saying something else. This anecdote about Polidori, within an introduction, which is ironically enough also a story about the process of storytelling—specifically the genesis of Frankenstein—reveals a nexus of “ghost” stories within Shelley’s tale of a “ghost story competition.” She does not here allude to Ernestus Berchtold (1819), the novel claimed by Polidori to have been written during the summer of 1816. Nor does she refer to The Vampyre, although she must have been aware of its scandalous distribution under Byron’s name in 1819. Questions of Shelley’s accuracy aside, the image of the “skull headed lady” is strangely appropriate if she stands for a story that cannot be told and which is in a sense “unspeakable.” Consigned to a figurative “closet,” Polidori and his work have come to occupy the elusive, but overdetermined space of a known secret, both famous and unmentionable, shut away on the other side of the door, dangerous to look upon, but also endlessly intriguing. To put it another way, the “skull headed lady” is a spectre standing in for the “ghost” of “Poor Polidori” himself, the man who haunted the margins of this famous gathering.
In this essay, I will attempt to situate The Vampyre and Byron’s “Fragment” as narratives that are indeed disquieting and deeply “queer,” and which do represent “ghost stories” in the sense that they are stories about what it is that haunts culture. In the “Fragment,” Augustus Darvell is a haunted, haunting figure “prey to some cureless disquiet” (247). The word dis-quiet may indirectly allude to “the unspeakable”: the meaningful discourse of silence through which the possibility of desire between men was connotatively produced throughout the nineteenth century. It certainly can be said that as Lord Ruthven and his victim, Aubrey, traverse the explosively tense line between compulsory homosocial relations and the culturally prohibited horrors of homoerotic desire, The Vampyre can be read in the light of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s identification of the homophobic “paranoid gothic” (Epistemology 186). But The Vampyre reveals more than anxieties about male bonding, and I propose the motif of “cureless disquiet” may be further appropriated to express the deeper underlying sexual disquiet which reverberates throughout this narrative and its shadow text—the “Fragment.” “Disquiet” is a doubly apt motif with which to frame this discussion. For what is queer criticism if not a means of provoking disquiet and, as Sedgwick has suggested, of investing fascination in sites where the meanings do not “line up tidily with each other” (Tendencies 3)? And as we shall see, the relationship between Polidori, Byron and their two texts, presents a site of intriguingly “untidy” sexual meaning. Developments in queer theory now offer methodological tools with which to account for the concerns raised by Polidori’s work, his problematic authorial position and relation to Lord Byron. Despite The Vampyre’s immense influence upon popular culture, academically speaking it has been largely ignored until, in recent years, the queerer aspects of its subtextual themes have attracted attention. There have been especially interesting reassessments from Ken Gelder in his book Reading the Vampire (1995) and in Troy Boone’s article, entitled “Mark of the Vampire: Arnod Paole, Sade and Polidori.” No doubt this renewed interest is a logical outcome of queer literary and film criticism’s deep interest in vampirism, but it does seem that there is something “queer” about the entire history of these two texts. It is a queerness I hope to unpack first at the level of language, specifically sexual rhetoric, and second, in terms of the representation of anxieties about the boundaries of homosocial and heterosexual normativity. However, ultimately I will suggest that what the disquieting cultural production of Polidori as an author figure most strikingly demonstrates is the way in which the gothic rhetoric of the “unspeakable” which is mobilized in both The Vampyre and Byron’s “Fragment” has insidiously reverberated into our thinking about this author.
The history of The Vampyre’s publication is disquieting from its very beginning. In 1816, escaping scandalous gossip about his relationship with his half- sister and his liking for young men, Lord Byron left England accompanied by his personal physician and paid companion, the twenty-one-year-old Dr. John Polidori. While staying at Villa Diodati near Geneva, they were visited regularly by the party consisting of Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their infant son and Byron’s pregnant ex-mistress Claire Clairmont—who was also Mary’s stepsister. In June the famous “ghost story competition” later recounted by Mary Shelley took place. In the meantime, Byron and Polidori’s relationship deteriorated, a fact commonly ascribed to Polidori’s jealousy. The doctor was dismissed in September. It remains a mystery how The Vampyre came into the hands of the New Monthly magazine’s proprietor Henry Colburn in 1819. Colborn noted that the tale followed the pattern of some of Byron’s poems and the name Lord Ruthven echoed another recent fictional portrayal of Byron as Clarence de Ruthven Lord Glenarvon in the 1816 novel Glenarvon, written by his vengeful ex-mistress Lady Caroline Lamb. The story was optimistically published as “A TALE BY LORD BYRON,” appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day 1819 (See Morrison and Baldick viii-xiii). It was an immediate success, but scandal followed. Polidori declared himself the author, and in his introduction to Ernestus Berchtold freely admitted to building The Vampyre upon the groundwork of Byron’s unfinished fragment. Consequently, he would never rise above the stigma of plagiarism. In order to distance himself from the tale and its author, Byron had his own piece printed as “Augustus Darvell” in an appendix to his poem Mazeppa in 1819. It was, however, already too late to prevent the beginning of a long association between Lord Byron and popular conceptions of vampirism. Whatever the truth of the matter, when considered together, Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s “Fragment” remain subject to a mutual literary haunting.
In Lord Ruthven and Augustus Darvell respectively, The Vampyre and the “Fragment” present figures who “pass,” masquerading as normal men, and “playing to an audience” with the intention to “mislead” (Friedman page 7 of 35). In an effective description of the politics of passing, it is stated that Darvell has “a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another” (247). This ability to pass is symptomatic in narratives which appear to offer a wealth of sexual connotation and which are, as Gelder has shown, queerly “coded” (58). For instance, the unnamed narrator of the “Fragment” withholds details about the “peculiar circumstances” in Darvell’s “private history” which render him such “an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard” (246). Similarly, in The Vampyre, Aubrey’s attention is initially attracted by Ruthven’s “singularities” and “peculiarities” (3). Same-sex desires and identifications have long been perceived as requiring an existence in which social survival is predicated upon passing within the heterosexual world and communicating through codes available only to those in the “know.” The protagonist’s “coded” interest in a mysterious older man echoes the discursive production of “homosexuality.” This raises a hermeneutic question: do vampires connote queerness because they pass or because we “know” historically that queers pass? In any case, to read homosexual meaning into these texts is necessarily to draw upon culturally embedded “knowledge” about how the representation of desire between men is made intelligible. If it is allowed that such queer meaning is discernible in these narratives, it should also be acknowledged that its interpretation is reliant upon the construction of such desire as a peculiar secretive history and as something mediated through a visual dynamic of the male gaze, recognition and passing. Such a reading reminds us to be aware that, as Edelman observes, “sexuality is constituted through operations as much rhetorical as psychological” (xiv). It is also possible to suggest these narratives will bear out Edelman’s theory that the cultural inscription of homosexuality has become subject to a “metonymic dispersal,” allowing its meaning to be phobically read into almost anything (6). The issue here is not to prove that queer meaning is made available in these texts, but rather to analyze the ways in which it is produced discursively and rhetorically as a figurative language.
The protagonist’s quest to unlock the “truth” about his male object of interest is both suggestively sexual and significantly epistemological. If modern sexuality is defined as the site of the most intensive detection of “truth,” and furthermore, if it is homosexuality rather than the more often uninterrogated heterosexuality that bears the burden of the definitional drive, then his desire for knowledge is implicitly (homo) sexualized. As the cryptic narrator of the “Fragment” points out, “Where there is mystery, it is generally supposed that there must also be evil” (247), and in this context, it seems not unlikely such suspicion encompasses homosexual “evil.” Aubrey’s recognition of Ruthven as “extraordinary” is dangerous because the code of recognition is charged by the homophobic logic “it takes one to know one,” a presumption carrying “with it the stigma of too intimate a relation to the code and the machinery of its production” (Edelman 7). Becoming “desirous of gaining some information respecting this singular character, who, till now, had only whetted his curiosity” (5), Aubrey’s desire is kept in play by deferral, the denied gratification and “constant excitement” generated by the “wish to break that mystery” (7). Uncanny, potentially erotic and frequently paranoia-inducing, in nineteenth-century gothic narratives recognition is dangerous when it implicates the one who sees in the same forbidden knowledge as the one who has been recognized. Aubrey pays Ruthven attentions until he “had so far advanced upon his notice that his presence was always recognised” (5; my emphasis). The dangerous gap in Aubrey’s sexual knowledge lies not only in his failure to realize a man such as Ruthven is a bad object choice, but also in his blindness to the dangers of actively recognizing and being recognized in the first place. Having formed his “object” into “the hero of a romance” (5), Aubrey is thrown off course and his progress towards a normal (i.e., married) future is arrested, as he chooses instead to invite his friend to accompany him on the Grand Tour.
In both the “Fragment” and The Vampyre, a connotative linkage between space, desire and knowledge is put into play when the protagonist’s sexual-epistemological quest is allegorically enacted through a journey of spatial discovery. In the “Fragment” the two men travel into strange marginal places “hitherto not much frequented” (246), and this journey is posited as a means by which the narrator hopes to learn more about his object. Darvell is a mystery, but one thing is known for sure, and that is that he has “already travelled extensively” (267). Recognizing his own desire to travel in the other man’s experience, the narrator admits, “It was my secret wish that he might be prevailed upon to accompany me” (248). Along a “wild and tenantless track through the marshes and defiles,” they travel past “the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent, but complete desolation of abandoned mosques” (249). If the narrative can be read as a “homosexual” allegory, it can also be said to present a sexual textuality at the level of space, drawing, as it does, upon the rhetorical production of desire between men as marginal and expelled from the mores of religion and society. At times it could be said that the “Fragment” and The Vampyre cultivate what David Greven has called a “winking rhetoric” through “coded and specific lexical devices” whereby queer content is potentially communicated to certain readers “in the know” (4). Ultimately, the road in the “Fragment” leads to an abandoned “city of the dead” (249), and insofar as sex between men has long been representationally linked to death, this space also encodes a certain queer meaning. After all, in a period when the death penalty for sodomy was “most rigorously enforced” in England, where else should such a journey end but in a cemetery (Crompton 14)? Less subtle about the general sexual implications of male travel, The Vampyre represents the Grand Tour as a rite of passage which “for many generations had been thought necessary to enable the young to take some rapid steps in the career of vice” (5). The Grand Tour can perhaps be conceptualized as what Foucault terms a “crisis heterotopia,” an “other” space, or “place without a place” in which a young man’s initiation into “the world,” and by implication sexual activity, can take place because it cannot occur at home (“Of Other Spaces” 24). Like all such spaces, this heterotopia tells us something about the culture that has made it a necessity. Polidori is characteristically vague about the nature of the “vice” to which Aubrey will be introduced, but during a period in which “Greek love” was a common euphemism for sex between men, it does not seem surprising that they eventually travel into Greece (See Crompton 11). In this most homosexually symbolic of spaces, Aubrey finds himself strangely bound to Ruthven at the same time as their relationship begins to deteriorate into murderous hostility. In a text produced at a time when particularly violent, paranoid homophobic discourses were being widely disseminated, the deviant Lord Ruthven dies and is buried, appropriately, in Greek soil from which he will return to torment Aubrey with his own unspeakable fears.
The Vampyre can easily be read as illustrating a sustained case study in “homosexual panic”: the hatred and distrust resulting when men suspect themselves, or each other, of homosexual intentions (MacGavran 48). In a culture in which homophobia is wielded as a “mechanism of domination” over the entire spectrum of homosocial male bonds, the power to turn Aubrey’s unacknowledged homosexual panic against himself and to effectively dominate him through his own fears is readily available to Ruthven. The code appears to break when Ruthven is revealed to Aubrey as a seducer of women, but although he is undoubtedly a danger to heterosexual order, he proves equally adept in manipulating homosocial culture. Boone has also perceived Ruthven as a figure “Perfectly able to negotiate dangerously intimate relations with men” (361). Perhaps one of the most alarming aspects of his power is precisely the fact that he is not subject to homophobic, homosocial culture; rather he knows how to manipulate and wield its power over other men. Aubrey is confused and suspicious when Ruthven nurses him through an illness, and in spatial terms the close physical proximity implied by his “tender care” (14) further suggests a sexualized relationship. Aubrey’s paranoia is fuelled when he finds Ruthven’s gaze “fixed intently upon him with a smile of malicious exultation playing upon his lips; he knew not why, but this smile haunted him” (13). The malicious “smile” suggests Ruthven has a superior awareness of what it is that truly haunts Aubrey, but which he cannot articulate, because in Judith Butler’s words, it is “proscribed from the start” (25).
The Vampyre develops not only into a nightmare of the closet, but also what might be termed a “tropological” nightmare in which the protagonist finds himself locked up in a figurative language. Before Ruthven dies, Aubrey swears an oath to conceal his death and his crimes, and the narrator of the “Fragment” is likewise bound to silence by a performative “oath of great solemnity” (250). As Darvell is dying, the two men see a stork with “a serpent writhing in her beak,” and Darvell claims that she does not devour it because it is “not yet time!” (251). The stork is an apt symbol for the position of the narrator, unaware that he may be prey to a predator who has chosen not to devour him and Darvell’s “ghastly” smile equates with Ruthven’s malicious exultation over Aubrey. Historically, a stork with a snake in its beak is a sign of eternal torment (see Morrison and Baldick n250). This too is apt in the sense that any non-normative sexual identification or desire can lead to torment in an erotophobic culture. The “Fragment” ends with Darvell’s death leaving the narrator sealed in an unbroken code, but in The Vampyre Polidori expands upon the implications of the oath and Aubrey does enter a kind of hell, discovering that he has indeed sworn, as directed, by all his “nature fears” (15). When Ruthven reappears in London, it is to be expected that Aubrey will be unable to speak, while the vampire’s repeated exhortations to “remember your oath” strengthen the linguistic lock on this figurative closet. Giving himself up to “devouring thoughts” (18), Aubrey is soon deemed mad. The tables have been turned, for now Aubrey is no longer able to pass as normal and loses, as a consequence, any authoritative place to speak from. Marked by his contact with the vampire, it is Aubrey who is removed from society, locked up by his “guardians” and placed under medical surveillance while Ruthven continues to pass successfully. The sanity-eroding threat may be more specific than it appears, for as Edelman has argued, in the eighteenth century the connotative overlay in the cultural construction of sodomy was primarily an anxiety about the authority and autonomy of one’s own signifying practices (125). Aubrey’s complete loss of autonomy—his madness—might therefore figure his anxiety as a paranoid fear of sodomy. This is not, of course, to say Ruthven simply “represents” an eighteenth-century sodomite, but rather that the dispersal of potentially homosexual signs could lead him to be read as such by Aubrey—and by a “knowing” reader. In Western culture the sexual boundaries of male identity have been phobically constituted by a refusal to be penetrated by another man, and male same-sex desire has been commonly understood in terms of the gaze. Ruthven’s gaze “fixed intently” upon Aubrey therefore hints figuratively at the more complete dissolution of male subjectivity supposedly inherent in “sodomy.” In my view, The Vampyre flirts suggestively with the possibility of male penetration and the loss of autonomy in madness elicited by such a threat. This particular narrative tension is also dependent for its effect upon an “open secret”: we know what Aubrey initially does not—Ruthven is a vampire. We also know that although Ruthven appears strictly “heterosexual” in his feeding habits, until the end of the narrative there is always the possibility that he might bite Aubrey and thereby substitute another form of deadly, sexually symbolic penetration, for his threateningly penetrative gaze.
Whereas there are no women in the “Fragment,” The Vampyre does explore their role in homosocial culture, and within this context it is no coincidence that the text is littered with dead female bodies, the victims of what Sedgwick has called an “explosively mined” narrative closet (Epistemology 79). Ianthe, the Greek girl with whom Aubrey falls in love, initially appears to diffuse the possibility that he desires Ruthven. She represents a safe object of attachment, “while he ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits marrying an uneducated Greek girl” (10). Aubrey constructs a dichotomy between Ianthe’s “innocence” and the artificial “affected virtues” of other women (9). Sexually non-threatening, she does not even reciprocate his interest, remaining “unconscious of his love” (10). In killing her, Ruthven shatters Aubrey’s fantasies, violently re-inscribing the woman’s position as a conduit between two desiring-hating male figures. The dead female body is indirectly linked to the paranoid disavowal of male same-sex desire when Ianthe’s parents “ascertained the cause of their child’s death they looked at Aubrey and pointed to the corpse” (13; my emphasis). If Ianthe’s primary role is distraction, a “safe” object, then Aubrey’s “love” is stimulated not by heterosexual desire for the woman herself, but by his fears about Ruthven. In other words, just because Aubrey invests the promises of an idealized cultural norm in the body of Ianthe, it does not mean he desires her sexually. Instead he seems to be attracted to her because she represents what he thinks he should desire in a woman. Women may cement male bonds, or be used in battles between men, but in the world of The Vampyre male relations remain primary while women serve homosocial and homophobic agendas (see Gelder 59-60). Moreover, the extreme idealization of Ianthe’s “unaffected” “innocence, youth and beauty” (9), so different from those drawing room “female hunters after notoriety” (3), points in this deeply erotophobic narrative, to a horror of any active female desire, or perhaps indeed of any form of sexual desire.
The implication that homosocial normativity is dangerous to women is compounded when the triangle between vampire, protagonist and female sign is reconfigured with Aubrey’s sister as the doomed female principle. Unaware that Ruthven has been courting her, Aubrey opens her locket only to behold “the features of the monster who had so long influenced his life” (21). The portrait locket presents a neat symbolization, marking the body of Miss Aubrey with the feared and desired monster. In yet another nightmarish signifying overlay, the dangerous sexual sign of the vampire concealed within the locket again emphasizes the woman’s role as signing device between men. When the story’s horror reaches its apotheosis in the wedding of Miss Aubrey to Lord Ruthven, the location of marriage as a source of horror presents a dark underside to its ideologically privileged and culturally weighty status as the dominant sexual norm. It is therefore important to note that Ruthven is as skilled in manipulating the norms of heterosexual “romance” as he is in manipulating those of homosocial normativity. The shifting of marriage from something comfortingly normal to something dreadful is brought sharply into focus when Aubrey discovers his sister’s engagement. Initially the news sparks a recovery from his insanity: delighted, he “began to speak with all his wonted warmth, and to congratulate her upon her marriage” (21). His presumptive equation of marriage with happiness is undermined when he discovers her prospective husband is Ruthven: “with a frantic expression of countenance, he bade her swear that she would never wed this monster” (21). But he finds himself pitted against a tidal wave of cultural meaning because he is the only one who knows this marriage represents something very different to what it appears: “Aubrey heard, with a horror that may more easily be conceived of than described, the notes of busy preparation” (22). Ultimately, Miss Aubrey’s “guardians,” representing inadequate forces of sexual regulation, fail to protect her, arriving “too late” to find that “Lord Ruthven had disappeared and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!” (23). Ruthven’s monstrous re-appropriation of marriage also subverts received expectations at the level of reading insofar as a wedding is often expected to bring about a normative resolution at the end of gothic and romance narratives. But in The Vampyre, marriage serves only to release a monster back into society.
Ruthven is indeed a monster who “outs” culture. As he moves through the text, he leaves in his wake a revelation of the productive potential of Gothic literature to challenge, and in a sense to prey upon, that which (also) passes for sexually normal. What is especially frightening in The Vampyre is perhaps its insistence that norms, both heterosexual and homosocial, can be appropriated by a sexual monster who not only stands outside the forces of normative regulation, but also knows how to turn them to his advantage. He is not oppressed by the necessity of passing; he revels in it. Not surprisingly, one of Ruthven’s consistent traits is his propensity to mock, and his laughter echoes a narrative undercurrent through which the jeering monster shakes what Carolyn Dinshaw has called the “heterocultural edifice” (89). It is a mockery that expresses the monster’s ability to reflect culture back upon itself in a disturbingly defamiliarized form. I would agree with Boone’s observation that Ruthven’s “sustenance depends on perpetuating—not eradicating—the status quo” (359). However, the implications of his monstrous investment in the status quo are disturbing, especially in the revealing uses to which he puts cultural norms such as homophobia, homosocial bonding, heterosexual romance, marriage and femininity. If the status quo serves the Monster, it is implied that the status quo is itself monstrous and such constructs will most likely be inadequate to the task of fending off sexual monstrosity. This may be because sexual normativity is in fact dependent upon some form of monstrous otherness in order to demarcate its boundaries—in which case Ruthven is truly part of the “status quo.” This perspective adds another layer of meaning to his “stifled exultant,” mocking laugh, “continued in one almost unbroken sound” when he murders Ianthe because it is she who above all represents idealized male fantasies (11). Ianthe is actually only another “ghost” in the haunted text, the feminine phantom of an ideal which no woman can approximate, but which persistently haunts culture. In a striking figure of speech, the apparently virtuous women whom Ruthven has encountered are said to have “thrown even the mask aside” and “not scrupled to expose the whole deformity of their vices to the public gaze” (7). The vampire’s touch “outs” these women as something other than they appear to be: namely, sexual monsters. Aubrey’s madness is not surprising in a narrative in which almost anything can be read as encoding a homosexual threat, but at the same time, that which appears to signify stability or normality is undermined and offers no safe haven. Ruthven’s effect is, therefore, at least twofold: he mobilizes the “unspeakable,” but at the same time effects a cynical unmasking of marriage, the feminine ideal and normative homosocial relations. Gelder argues that at the end of the narrative, the code finally breaks when Lord Ruthven’s identification is uttered (or “outed”) as a “VAMPYRE” (59). In my view, however, this categorization fails to pin him down because he escapes to pass again among the unsuspecting and those who cannot articulate precisely what it is that they suspect. If a vampire is itself a code for something perversely sexual, then to name Ruthven as such only substitutes yet another sign in place of the many dangers he embodies. Furthermore, as we shall now see, Polidori has himself become a figure not unlike his shifty, coded, culturally revealing and queer “vampyre.”
If Polidori has become read as a type of patched together authorial “monster,” it may be worth recalling the etymological root of the word in the Latin verb monstrum: to show and to warn. For what he has come to represent is a construct and a projection reflecting certain cultural anxieties. The production of this particular skeleton in the Romantic closet has been informed by Polidori’s mysterious death and by the censorship to which his life was subject when his Aunt cut up his diary of 1816 (Barbour 95). A good example of the oddly portentous way in which he has come to stand for the “unspeakable” at the level of the author is given in a biography written about his niece Christina Rossetti. Here, Marian Zaturenska states, the name Polidori was “not one that delicate, refined spinster nieces could remember without a shudder. His name was never mentioned in the Rossetti or Polidori households” (qtd. in Morrill 2). Because critical responses to The Vampyre and the “Fragment” have been so rooted in biographical speculation concerning Polidori and Byron, there has been an assumption that these narratives also reflect, and by implication stand as codes for, that relationship. As a homosocial bond which developed into tense hostility, the homoerotic and homophobic possibilities of their relationship have often been implicitly dismissed, much like the doctor himself, from the poet’s presence. For instance, Macdonald details Polidori’s jealous tantrums and emotional outbursts. Then, without a hint of irony, she goes on to discuss the situation in terms of a difficult father-son relationship (71, 102). Evidently there is an implicit homophobic undercurrent in this avoidance, but even Louis Crompton in his book Byron and Greek Love omits to mention the relationship except in relation to Byron’s heterosexual exploits, citing an entry in Polidori’s journal describing the poet’s advances upon a chambermaid (241). At the same time, however, the suspicion of homosexuality and sexual perversity that followed Byron during his life does appear to have insidiously crept into the narratives surrounding Polidori. The bio-critical delicacy seems to stem from a polite refusal to become implicated in such crude and admittedly pointless speculations. But as such it fails to address the impact this unspoken undercurrent may have had, not only on the way Polidori has been read, but also within subsequent vampire fiction and its critical heritage. Film has offered the opposite extreme; Polidori appears in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), pathetically jealous of Byron’s preference for Shelley. Meanwhile, in Christopher Isherwood’s film, Frankenstein the True Story, he is characterized as an evil decadent homosexual aesthete (Lavelley 279-280). The point is not to argue over whether Polidori and Byron really were sexually involved, but to acknowledge, hopefully at a more sophisticated level, the fact that the discursive production of desire between men haunts the way in which we read the text and then go on to rewrite the author as another sexual “text.” In actuality, the “homosexualization” of Polidori and the refusal to speak about this possibility are not in any way contradictory, but proceed from the same homophobic matrix of cultural imperatives.
The construction of Polidori might itself demonstrate the “metonymic dispersal” of homosexual meaning identified by Edelman. For not only do some of the responses to his work and life suggest that the threat of homosexuality can be read into almost anything, or anyone: the concurrent dismissal of his significance serves as a reminder of the flipside to this “dispersal” in disavowal. The production of homosexuality as a narrative code always allows for its dismissal and the double-edged interpretative weapon wielded here is precisely the shifty potential for homosexual meaning to be both everywhere and nowhere. If I were to argue that certain signs in The Vampyre prove Polidori intended a homosexual meaning, it would not be difficult to counter my assertion with an argument that I have read “too much” into the narrative. Take, for example, Aubrey’s dream in which he sees the dead, bloodied Ianthe going “in quest of the modest violet” (14). A violet may function as a sexual sign because violets are a longstanding cultural code for homosexuality. The queerly symbolic linkage between this particular flower and the dead body of a woman killed by a paranoid relation between men could therefore be worthy of note. But to other readers, the violet would be meaningless and arbitrary. Like the circling stork which the narrator attempts in vain to drive away in Byron’s “Fragment,” the question of whether Polidori was someone “in the know” returns us always to the same spot, trapped in the speculative network of biography and criticism. But the closeting of Polidori reveals the way in which “unspeakable” rhetoric and the metonymic dispersal of “homosexual” significance can reverberate out from fiction into our thinking about authorship. In the words of Sedgwick, the result is not a closet in which there is a homosexual man, but the closet of simply “imagining a homosexual secret” in the lives of Polidori and Byron (Epistemology 205). There are no real “truths” behind the codes, but it may be productive to interrogate what informs the maintenance and construction of the “secrecy” in the first place. What is at stake is not what this tells us (if anything) about Byron and Polidori themselves. Rather, it reveals how responses to The Vampyre and the “Fragment” reflect the way in which the representation and interpretation of relations between men has been haunted by pervasive cultural anxieties about male same-sex desire. Ultimately, the fact that Polidori has himself become a “queer vampyre” on the margins of Romanticism, tells us more about ourselves and our sexual culture than it does about the author.
Insofar as Byron and Polidori have together come to represent a vampire origin myth, I would suggest that this authorial mythology has contributed to the subsequent analogous, coded relationship between vampires and queer sexual desire. By this I mean that the culturally inscribed sexualization of certain rhetorical operations in these coded, anxiety ridden gothic narratives—in conjunction with the sense that there is something strange about the relationship between these texts and their authors—has produced a complex connotative overlay of “queer” meaning in successive criticism, biography and film. Although it is no doubt tempting to speculate that vampires, as we know them, are the queer children of a textual union between Polidori and Byron, there may be more productive approaches to this literary and cultural phenomenon. I would therefore put forward some final points that have been raised in this discussion and which might form the basis for further explorations. First, the question of whether gothic texts such as The Vampyre uphold or subvert dominant sexual ideology is never clear cut and I would suggest that anxieties about sexual normativity are often expressed at the same time as that ideology is apparently valorized. Second, these texts reveal something important about the rhetorical inscription of “queerness” in language and about how the textuality of sexuality can impact within the genre and its reception space. Third, in a genre in which the critical heritage remains deeply invested in “the author,” queer theoretical thinking may offer a path out of the biographical tangle through a more interrogative approach to the ways in which modern sexual epistemologies have contributed to our feeling that the author’s life must be the “original” source of the sexual meanings we find in the language of the text. Finally, I would like to suggest that the name Polidori can signify metonymically for the interdependent, haunting, and perhaps also “queer” relationship between the popular Gothic and literary Romanticism.
As Reiger puts it, he has been “unfairly branded a pirate, parasite, and liar” (462). For the most complete analysis of this issue, see Skarda’s “Vampirism and Plagiarism: Byron’s Influence and Polidori’s Practice.” Arguing that in depicting Byron as a vampire, Polidori did not realize “Byron’s literary and personal influence” had made him one of a different order” (265), Skarda concludes that he has indeed been “vamped not only by Byron but also by his own publisher, reviewers, and by critics of the past and present” (269).
My understanding of monstrosity here and throughout this essay is indebted to Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” As Cohen observes, “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy [. . .]. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. [. . .]. [T]he monster signifies something other than itself: it is always a displacement” (4). I will suggest that over time, Polidori has taken on precisely the “monstrous” qualities here identified by Cohen.
The text cited here is reprinted as “Appendix C” in Polidori, The Vampyre (246-251).
With narratives commonly featuring “plots where one man’s mind could be read by that of a feared and desired other,” Sedgwick defines the “Paranoid Gothic” as “the literary genre in which homophobia found its most apt and ramified embodiment” (Epistemology 186).
My thinking has been influenced most by Gelder’s short but effective analysis, and this essay is in part an attempt to build upon the issues raised in his work, especially with regard to queer connotation, homosocial culture and its effect upon women (58-60). Boone offers a different approach, engaging Foucault to consider The Vampyre’s place in the nineteenth-century “deployment of sexuality,” concluding that the text “erects a powerful heterosexual norm by unearthing homoeroticism” (362).
I have here very briefly summarized a complex and convoluted train of events. For an in-depth analysis see Macdonald (177-203). Frayling and Rieger’s accounts present upfront attempts to defend Polidori’s position against his past detractors. I have also found Baldick and Morrison’s introduction to The Vampyre usefully informative and succinct (vii-xiii).
As Reiger observes, “Polidori’s immediate protest that the work was his own touched off a dog-fight which, even by the standards of the Regency publishing world, was exceptionally savage. From a free-for-all involving Colborn, his editor (who promptly resigned), John Murray, Messrs. Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, and Byron himself, only Polidori emerged with his reputation very much the worse for wear” (462). For more detail, see “The Scandal of The Vampyre” in Macdonald 177-203.
In terms of vampirism, Richard Dyer has argued that “The analogy with homosexuality as a secret erotic practice works in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, the point about sexual orientation is that it doesn’t ‘show’, you can’t tell who is and who isn’t just by looking; but on the other hand, there is also a widespread discourse that there are tell tale signs that someone ‘is.’ The vampire myth reproduces this double view in its very structures of suspense” (58).
I am here drawing upon Sedgwick, and the full context reads, “modern sexuality itself is so intimately entangled with the historically distinctive contexts and structures that now count as knowledge, that such ‘knowledge’ can scarcely be a transparent window onto a separate realm of sexuality: rather, it constitutes that sexuality.” Sedgwick is working with Foucault’s definition of “modern sexuality as the most intensive site of the demand for, and detection or discursive production of, Truth” (“Gender Criticism” 8, 19). Foucault considered sex to have become inscribed “in an ordered system of knowledge,” and as a consequence we “demand that sex speak the truth [. . .] and we demand that it tell us our truth” (History of Sexuality 69).
Sedgwick conceptualizes homophobia as a “space” and a “mechanism of domination” used to divide and manipulate the entire homosocial spectrum (Between Men 87, 90).
As Leo Bersani writes in his groundbreaking work “Is the Rectum a Grave?” anal sex contains “the terrifying appeal of a loss of the ego, of a self-debasement” (220). In an essay upon vampirism and homosexuality entitled “Undead,” Ellis Hanson has usefully linked this “appeal” to his concept of the male gaze as a form of “penetration.” “Is the gaze the gays?” asks Hanson; “What could it mean for a man to engage the gaze of another man? In psychoanalytic terms, such a gaze would be a form of madness, an embrace of narcissism and death” (328).
The monstrum is etymologically “that which reveals,” “that which warns” (Cohen 4).
The text quoted from Christina Rossetti: A Portrait with Background (1949) says that the name Polidori was “not one that delicate, refined spinster nieces could remember without as shudder. His name was never mentioned in the Rossetti or Polidori households—but his portrait hung in Christina’s house and was in the room where she died. What memories of sin, of unbridled passions, and suicide, that sin for which in her mind there was no expiation, flowed down from the wall?” (Morrill 2).
Evidently, this essay would not have been possible were it not for the background of postructuralist work on the function of the author in Western culture. See especially Roland Barthes “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”
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- Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988. 167-172.
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