John Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician, and stayed with him at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland during the summer of 1816. This was the period in which Percy and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont were staying nearby, and when, having read Fantasmagoriana (a collection of ghostly tales), the group challenged each other to compose ghost stories.
Polidori had been commissioned by Byron’s publisher to write a journal of Byron’s travels through Europe, but the relationship between Byron and Polidori broke down. Polidori was clearly jealous of Byron, who in turn was dismissive of Polidori.
What does the journal tell us about Mary Shelley?
Polidori’s journal entry for 31 May records him reading Italian with ‘Mrs Shelley’ (in fact she was still not married to Shelley), and later rowing with her alone until 9pm, just two days after meeting her. Two days later he reads with her again, and takes her son for a vaccination. His conversations with the Shelleys focused on subjects of madness, patient confidentiality, idealism, and ‘whether man was to be thought merely an instrument’. The diary suggests their closeness, and how it relates to the ghost stories. In the entry for 18 June, he writes ‘Shelley and party here. Mrs. S[helley] called me her brother (younger) [she was actually two years younger]. Began my ghost-story after tea. Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly’. While Polidori maintained a confrontational relationship with Byron and Percy Shelley, he seems to have been close to Mary Shelley.
After Polidori took his own life at the age of 26, the diary was passed to his sister. She transcribed the text, removing large amounts, which she referred to as ‘peccant [sinful] passages’. She subsequently destroyed the original.