Dracula’s Forgotten Sister: Florence Marryat and The Blood of the Vampire

Dracula’s Forgotten Sister: Florence Marryat and The Blood of the Vampire
We often think vampire fiction started with Dracula, but WWAC takes a look at the sister story behind the genre: Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire

Vampire fiction was crystallised in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Subsequent generations of writers in the genre have had to define their works only in relation to this novel, whether they were adhering to its example or departing from it. But if we go back in time, we see a different story, or rather, different stories. While

Vampire fiction was crystallised in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Subsequent generations of writers in the genre have had to define their works only in relation to this novel, whether they were adhering to its example or departing from it. But if we go back in time, we see a different story, or rather, different stories. While his contemporaries may not have achieved the same immortality, Bram Stoker was certainly not the only Victorian writer to tell a tale of vampires.

Florence Marryat’s novel The Blood of the Vampire was published in 1897, the same year as Dracula. It is possible that the publication of Stoker’s novel inspired Marryat to try her hand at a vampire story. Certainly, the book’s review in The Speaker characterised it as a mere rider of Dracula’s coat-tails. But as a story, The Blood of the Vampire shows no sign of being influenced by Stoker’s interpretation of the vampire theme. Instead, it is a curious relic of a time when readers had different expectations from vampire fiction.

The story opens in Belgium, where members of high society have gathered into a pleasure-seeking community, their mores described with satirical bite by Marryat. Into this milieu comes a strange young woman named Harriet Brandt:

“She was a remarkable looking girl—more remarkable perhaps than beautiful, for her beauty did not strike one at first sight. Her figure was tall but slight and lissom. It looked almost boneless as she swayed easily from side to side of her chair. Her skin was colourless but clear. Her eyes, long-shaped dark and narrow with heavy lids and thick black lashes which lay upon her cheeks. Her brows were arched and delicately pencilled and her nose was straight and small. Not so her mouth however which was large, with lips of deep blood colour, displaying small white teeth. To crown all, her head was covered with a mass of soft, dull, blue-black hair, which was twisted in careless masses about the nape of her neck and looked as if it was unaccustomed to comb or hairpin.”

Harriet is a curious mixture of the alluring and the crude. While some find her fascinating, one character complains that Harriet “had a mouth from ear to ear, and ate like a pig.” In a community whose lifeblood is gossip, this strange newcomer becomes the juiciest subject for talk.

Harriet explains that she spent the previous ten years in a Jamaican convent school. She finds her new surroundings in Belgium to be fascinatingly exotic and is prone to behaving like an overexcited child.

Margaret Pullen befriends Harriet, but Margaret’s companion Elinor Leyton fails to warm to the new girl. Meanwhile, the crass and vindictive Baroness Gobelli goes about forging a relationship with Harriet for her own ends. Finding that the newcomer shares her dislike of Elinor, the Baroness manipulates Harriet into drawing away Elinor’s fiancé, Captain Ralph Pullen. This spiteful scheme successfully leads to Harriet falling in love with Ralph, which turns out to be merely the first step in her trail of romantic destruction. The Baroness’ 19-year-old son Bobby becomes smitten with Harriet, and she leads him on, only to cruelly spurn him after a quarrel with Ralph.

But Harriet can do more than break hearts. Although she does not realise it, she is a vampire who drains the life of those around her. Margaret is the first person in the story to feel this effect:

“She had become fainter and fainter as the girl leaned against her with her head upon her breast. Some sensation which she could not define, not account for—some feeling which she had never experienced before—had come over her and made her head reel. She felt as if something or someone were drawing all her life away.”

Bobby later dies as a result of Harriet’s influence, as does Margaret’s baby. Before long, even the Baroness has turned upon this fatal girl.

In casting the vampire as a destructive newcomer to a close-knit community, Marryat was staying true to the conventions of 19th century vampire fiction. While Bram Stoker broadened the scope of the genre by opening Dracula with a voyage into the vampire’s homeland and ending it with a climactic return, earlier vampire tales—such as John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871-72), and Eric Stenbock’s “The True Story of a Vampire” (1894)—were comparatively small-scale. Such stories tended to focus on a family, or similarly restricted group of people, as it was infiltrated by the vampire in the form of Polidori’s Byronic Ruthven or Le Fanu’s ingénue Carmilla.

As a story, Carmilla is noted for its lesbian subtext, and this perhaps creeps into The Blood of the Vampire:

“[Margaret] had heard of cases, in which young unsophisticated girls had taken unaccountable affections for members of their own sex and trusted she was not going to form the subject for some such experience on Miss Brandt’s part.”

Marryat departs from her predecessors in coming up with an origin for her vampire. Harriet’s backstory is conveyed by Doctor Phillips, who warns those around her that she comes from a bloodline tainted by both mortal and supernatural evil. Her father was a cruel vivisectionist named Henry Brandt, who:

“[…] matriculated in the Swiss hospitals, whence he was expelled for having caused the death of more than one patient by trying his scientific experiments upon them. The Swiss laboratories are renowned for being the foremost in Vivisection […] Even there Henry Brandt’s barbarity was considered to render him unfit for association with civilized practitioners, and he was expelled with ignominy. Having a private fortune he settled in Jamaica and set up his laboratory there, and I would not shock your ears by detailing one hundredth part of the atrocities that were said to take place under his supervision […]”

Here, Henry Brandt “decoyed natives into his pandemonium” until, eventually, his black servants revolted and killed him. This piece of backstory appears to have been borrowed from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, published the previous year, in which the titular character has a similar arc. Doctor Moreau was first driven from London due to the cruelty of his experiments on animals, then he retreated to an obscure island to continue his work, and he was eventually killed by his test subjects.

In giving Harriet a “mad scientist” father, Marryat appears to be grounding her vampire tale in some form of science fiction. This impression deepens when Doctor Phillips explains to Harriet the workings of her destructive influence and does so in quasi-scientific terms, with a reference to “magnetic power”:

“There are some born into this world who nourish those with whom they are associated; they give out their magnetic power and their families, their husbands or wives, children and friends, feel the better for it. There are those, on the other hand, who draw from their neighbours, sometimes making large demands upon their vitality—sapping their physical strength and feeding upon them, as it were, until they are perfectly exhausted and unable to resist disease […] I should certainly say that your temperament was more of the drawing than the yielding order, Miss Brandt, but that is not your fault you know. It is a natural organism.”

Yet, the novel also gives a supernatural element to its vampirism. The servants who killed Henry Brandt also slew Harriet’s mother, a woman named Careys who was similarly brutal. “She thirsted for blood, she loved the sight and smell of it, she would taste it on the tip of her finger when it came in her way.” According to Harriet’s fearful servants, this monstrous appetite was the result of Careys’ mother having been bitten by a vampire bat while pregnant.

Vampire bats, native to the Americas, have no role in European vampire folklore, but had by this point found their way into vampire literature. Bram Stoker introduced the now familiar idea that vampires can turn into bats; Marryat, meanwhile, establishes that a pregnant woman bitten by a vampire bat will give birth to a vampire child. Although presumably Marryat’s own invention, this idea also has a definite folkloric credibility. An entire body of superstition surrounds pregnancy and malignant effects on unborn children, while certain vampire beliefs give a role to animals, like the superstition that a body will rise as a vampire if a cat jumps over its grave.

Marryat does away with the conception of the vampire as a living corpse. Nowhere does the novel indicate that Harriet or any of her ancestors ever came back from the dead or required particular measures to kill. Instead, Marryat draws upon another time-honoured Gothic motif: that of the cursed family. Harriet is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with two family curses: one the secularised curse represented by her father, the other a more conventional supernatural curse originating with her bat-bitten grandmother, who was not only cursed, but also black.

This brings us to an aspect of The Blood of the Vampire that is impossible to miss: its racism. An early scene has Harriet going off on a deeply bigoted rant about black servants back in Jamaica. Here, she states that when she was four years old she was allowed to whip black children “for a treat,” causing Margaret to react with dismay. This is also the first scene where Harriet’s vampiric attributes manifest, as Margaret feels her energy draining as she listens to Harriet’s racist proclamations. A charitable modern reader could interpret this as an attempt on Marryat’s part to associate racial oppression with vampirism. But for much of the novel Marryat is clearly indulging racism, rather than satirising it.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of Harriet’s mixed-race mother Careys, who is described by Doctor Phillips in grotesquely racist terms as “a sensual, self-loving, crafty, and bloodthirsty half-caste” and a “fat, flabby half-caste,” “her large eyes rolling and her sensual lips protruding as if she were always licking them in anticipation of her prey.” In outlining heritage, the novel explicitly equates the taint of vampirism with “black blood.” Doctor Phillips states that Harriet “inherits terrible proclivities, added to black blood” and is “a quadroon and not fit to marry into any decent English family!” Ralph Pullen ends his relationship with Harriet on the grounds that her parents “were the most awful people, and she has black blood in her.” The Baroness states that Harriet has “the curse of black blood and of the vampire’s blood.” Even Harriet herself expresses dismay upon hearing that “my father was a murderer and my mother a negress.” When she lusts for vengeance against Ralph, the novel’s narrative voice associates her hatred with her ethnic background:

“All the Creole in her came to the surface—like her cruel mother she would have given over Ralph Pullen to the vivisecting laboratory if she could.”

Classism, as well as racism, runs through the novel. Ralph Pullen expresses discomfort with being around the Baroness and her husband due to their low-class backgrounds. “I confess that I do not care to associate intimately with boot-makers and their friends, but one does things abroad that one would not dream of doing in England.” The Baroness herself is a broad caricature of a working-class woman, with Marryat placing particular emphasis upon her dropped Hs (“’E seemed ‘appy enough without Miss Leyton, didn’t ‘e, ‘Arriet?”), while her petty vindictiveness suggests that Ralph might indeed have been better off staying away from “boot-makers and their friends”.

An inescapable sourness permeates The Blood of the Vampire, its racism and classism being merely the two most obvious manifestations. The steadfastly unsentimental tone starts to change towards the end, but the streak of bitterness remains. When the Baroness sees the error of her ways and begins speaking of God and Christ, her pious speeches seem no more than token gestures on the parts of both character and author.

The story’s conclusion, possibly intended to be tragic, instead seems merely spiteful. Harriet eventually marries Anthony Pennell, a committed socialist who is engaged in “a perpetual warfare against the tyranny of men over women; the ill-treatment of children; and the barbarities practiced upon dumb animals and all living things.” Pennell takes pity on Harriet, finding it a cruel injustice that she should be shunned merely for her heritage, and the two fall in love.

Lest anyone get the impression that the novel is offering a progressive message, Pennell turns out to be fatally wrong: he ends up as the final victim of Harriet’s vampirism. Distraught at her inability to prevent her loved ones from dying, Harriet commits suicide through a dose of chloral, ending her cursed bloodline once and for all.

Although a prolific author in her day, Florence Marryat was overshadowed in literary circles by the reputation of her father, Captain Frederick Marryat. The Blood of the Vampire, along with the rest of her substantial bibliography, was swiftly forgotten after her death. Its bigotry, bitterness, and rather flat narrative have not allowed the novel to age well, and it is hard to imagine the book ever being filmed (despite its similar title, the 1958 film Blood of the Vampire is not based on Marryat’s novel).

The book has been discussed in academic volumes, such as Ardel Haefele-Thomas’ Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity and Ayşe Naz Bulamur’s Victorian Murderesses: The Politics of Female Violence, where it serves as a profitable case study. In 2011, The Blood of the Vampire was republished by Victorian Secrets as an ebook. Unlike most electronic versions of public-domain texts, this is a well-produced edition with a number of thoughtful touches. Editor Greta Depledge provides an informative introduction, while multiple appendices offer historical context. These latter appendix items range from the Speaker review, which dismisses the story’s vampire as “no more terrifying to grown-up minds than would be the turnip-bogey of our childhood,” to excerpts from Victorian texts on gender, race, and the occult.

As a novel, it was never destined to join the ranks of the classics. But as a snapshot of its day, one that records both early approaches to vampire fiction and the era’s social attitudes, The Blood of the Vampire is striking in its vividness.

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