What is a vampire without fangs? Dangerous, because she doesn’t even know what she is – alright, that makes the book sound a bit YA-Twilight-y, but bear with me. Published in the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Florence Marryat takes a close look at Victorian racial science and imperialism as the reputation of the British Empire and the age of progress slowly began to crumble.
Marryat’s vampire is twenty-one-year-old Harriet Brandt, holidaying in Heyst, Belgium with her unsuspecting victims. Heyst is not exactly a paradise, but it attracts interesting company. Harriet soon attaches herself to Margaret Pullen, an English gentlewoman all too willing to take an innocent young girl under her wing whilst she and her baby wait for her husband to return from service in India, and Elinor Leyton, the New Woman with a cold exterior suffocating her internal passions. Elinor is not impressed with Harriet, who is unaware of social decorum and consistently over-steps boundaries, and leaves her with Margaret in a café. Alone together, Harriet begins to reveal some of her tragic past: whilst being brought up in Jamaica, she was ignored by her parents and left to the care of the overseer on her father’s plantation. When her parents died she was placed in an orphanage, deprived even more of the love she craved. She leans on Margaret for comfort, and in their closeness, Margaret begins to feel strange, faint, and weak. Harriet, oblivious to Margaret’s suffering, continues to weep until Margaret is retrieved by Elinor and taken to their hotel.
Harriet soon grows overwhelmingly attached to Margaret’s baby, Ethel, smothering her constantly with affection. As Ethel’s health wanes, Margaret calls for Doctor Phillips to attend from England, who arrives as Harriet and Elinor’s recently arrived fiancé Ralph are falling rapidly into a steaming love affair. Doctor Phillips sees no hope for little Ethel and confesses to Margaret that he once knew Harriet’s parents in Jamaica and believes that she is the cause of both Ethel’s and Ralph’s growing illnesses. We learn from him that Harriet’s maternal grandmother was bitten by a vampire bat whilst pregnant, and so her Creole mother was born with vampire blood in her veins which, when combined with the savageries of her racial background, make her into a monstrous, gluttonous, and bloodthirsty woman. Harriet’s father is no better – a mad scientist conducting vivisection experiments on animals and his own slaves. Her parents died after the slaves on the plantation rebelled, slaughtered them, and then burned their house. Harriet survived only with the help of the overseer and was then stashed away in a convent until she was of age. Having inherited the blood of the vampire, Harriet now draws the energy from all of those she grows close to, making them weak by her very presence.
The death of baby Ethel convinces both Ralph and Margaret of Harriet’s dangerous nature and they leave for England. Harriet however waits eagerly for Ralph’s return in Brussels, expecting a romantic getaway but having to content herself with the company of the scheming Baroness Gobelli, her feckless husband, and her young son Bobby Bates who in turn also falls for Harriet. She agrees to lodge with the Gobellis in London but is furious about being spurned by Ralph and disappointed with the Red House which falls short of hyped-up expectations. Elinor Leyton confronts Harriet about her love letters to her fiancé and by defeating her in a very British manner (staying completely calm and borderline disinterested in the presence of a passionate and angry young woman) shakes off her cold manner towards her fiancé and emerges victorious in her triumph over Ralph.
Anthony Pennell, Margaret’s celebrity author cousin, agrees to meet with Harriet at the Red House to smooth things over and ensure the end of the scandal, but is immediately taken by her beauty and intelligence. He proposes to her, secretly watched by the heartbroken Bobby, and she accepts. Bobby retires to his room and is later discovered dead, the shock of which causes Baroness Gobelli to accuse Harriet of being his murder and revealing her vampiric bloodline to her. Flustered and confused, Harriet goes to Doctor Phillips, who confirms her hereditary curse and drawing temperament, though admitting his theory has no grounds in science but is only a generally accepted fact in the medical community.
Determined to call off her engagement to Anthony to save his life, Harriet tells all to him but he reassures her that all this talk of vampirism is nonsense, and, still with her reservations, she agrees to go ahead with the wedding. They honeymoon in Europe, travelling eventually to Italy. Anthony hides his growing sickness from Harriet and one morning, without warning, Harriet awakes to find her husband dead beside her. Convinced she has killed him through her vampirism, she commits suicide, leaving her huge fortune to Margaret Pullen with a note in which she hopes that her curse will not carry itself over into the afterlife.
This book is, by Victorian standards and ours as well, a little bit mad. A vampire who doesn’t bite, everyone falling in love with the same woman, mad scientists, continuous “unexplained” deaths, fake séances, hidden engagements, and feigned interests in china – what does it all mean, if this book does mean anything at all?
Maddeningly, we simply do not know enough about Florence Marryat’s life to say what her stance was on the contemporary issues of mixed races and hereditary, but we know enough to pick out the extremely personal investment she placed in this novel. Just like Margaret, Marryat lost her only child very early and become deeply depressed for a long time afterwards. She turned to Spiritualism and séances to attempt to communicate with her daughter, and this grief drips from the pages. Marryat is also clearly very immersed in the scientific debates of the time, as is reflected in the language she uses when describing both Harriet and Doctor Phillips’ “medical opinion” of her. On the one hand, Harriet is beautiful but her deceptive exterior – she does not look like a colonial subject – hides an animalistic and childish interior, dangerous to the ruling classes and their potential children. ‘One might get a piebald son and heir’ if marrying her, Ralph says. Does Marryat agree with all this pseudoscience? At time yes and at times no, it seems. Harriet may be a dangerous beast but she is also a delicate and innocent young girl, as equally vulnerable as she makes others. Her grief and fear are just as real as Margaret Pullen’s, just as touching, and just as devastating.
Is she a killer? I do not know. Is she a vampire? I do not know. If she is, she is innocent of any mens rea, any truly murderous intention, and any savagery. As Harriet quickly and resolutely internalizes the superstitious beliefs of those who, in an age defined by scientific progress and knowledge, lead people further from concrete religious beliefs to uncertainty about the basic questions of existence, Marryat mourns for those like Harriet who are torn apart by the “advances” of the Victorian age, for those whose hopes are soiled by those who claim authority without evidence or legitimacy, and for lose trodden underfoot in the name of progress both at home and in the furthest reaches of the Empire.
To read The Blood of the Vampire is to attempt to come to terms with two parts of our disturbing past as a nation – our cruel colonialism and our cruel literary canon. Marryat was a renowned author of her day, prolific as she was popular, and yet we have not remembered her. Shining a light on forgotten authors is not just important for our cultural or literary history, but we often try to forget the literature which troubles us. We praise the works which praise our modern values or entertain our modern fancies. We purge our culture to try and purge ourselves, but if we want to understand the uncertainties we face today, the ease with which misinformation and prejudice take hold, reading Marryat can take us an important step closer to realising the roots of the shadows we live it.
This book has stuck to me from the moment I began to read it. It is a conversation, nay an argument, with itself that only goes halfway down the path but does it with such vigour, humour, and intrigue that we push ourselves further than Marryat leads us fuelled by her luminous, electric passion. A curious concoction of the society novel and the supernatural, The Blood of the Vampire is a novel not just worth the read or the study, but worth so much more love and recognition than we have given it. Forget Dracula (if only we could) and see the vampire and the Victorians in a more disturbing vision than any castle in Transylvania.