The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 2: The Feminine Touch

The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 2: The Feminine Touch
Journey into the literary origins of the vampire myth with this special series on "The Vampyre's Legacy." Part 2 explores feminine influences in the genre.

As the decades passed, more writers tried their hands at the vampire genre that had been established by Lord Byron and John Polidori. In the process, they came up with new concepts and new approaches. One area in which vampire literature diversified was in terms of gender. Polidori and Byron were men, as were their

As the decades passed, more writers tried their hands at the vampire genre that had been established by Lord Byron and John Polidori. In the process, they came up with new concepts and new approaches. One area in which vampire literature diversified was in terms of gender. Polidori and Byron were men, as were their fictional counterparts, Aubrey and Lord Ruthven. But later stories brought a feminine touch to the genre, if not always in terms of authorship, then at least in terms of character.

1836: The Vampire as Temptress

Polidori’s “The Vampyre” and its Byronic model were products of the English Romantic movement, which had peaked by the end of the 1820s. As the following decade began, many of the movement’s key players—including Polidori and Byron—had died young. Outside of England, however, Romanticism continued to flourish.

In France, the Romantic movement did not start until decades after its English counterpart was underway. This can be attributed to the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the new Gallic establishment championed rationalism over romanticism. In her book De l‘Allemagne, Germaine de Staël argued that the literature of Germanic cultures (an umbrella under which she included England) contained a romantic spirit absent in the rule-bound and backward-looking literature of her native France, sentiments that led to her book being suppressed by Napoleon. Despite these initial delays, romanticism flourished in the literature of post-Napoleonic France, partly influenced by translations of foreign authors such as the Scottish Sir Walter Scott.

One of the most significant figures of French romanticism was the prolific Théophile Gautier. Amongst Gautier’s wide-ranging works is an 1836 short story called “La morte amoureuse,” which has been translated into English a number of times under various titles including “Clarimonde,” “The Deathly Lover,” “The Amorous Corpse,” “The Dead Leman,” “The Dead Lover,” “The Beautiful Dead,” “The Dreamland Bride,” “The Beautiful Vampire,” and simply “The Vampire.” The story engages with a concept that, fifteen years beforehand, Cyprien Bérard had mentioned in passing as a great novelty: the female vampire.

“La morte amoureuse” tells the tale of a pious young man named Romuald who, just as he is about to take up the cloth of priesthood, is suddenly confronted by an irresistible woman, Clarimonde. Sparkling with prismatic colours and swathed in purplish shadow, she strikes Romuald as being so beautiful that not even a painter who had visited heaven and captured the likeness of the Virgin Mary could have done Clarimonde justice. He cannot believe that she is descended from Eve, and theorises that she is instead an angel or demon—or perhaps both.

Clarimonde offers Romuald a different path: if he abandons the priesthood, she will allow him to become happier than God, so much so that even the angels will envy his state. He resists these agonising temptations and is formally ordained, prompting Clarimonde to depart in anguish.

But Romuald comes to regret his decision. Now trapped in his seminary, he remains haunted by the memory of Clarimonde, and fantasises about what his life could have been like had he instead become her lover and entered her world of wealth and worldly pleasures.

One night, after becoming a curate, Romuald receives a call to attend a dying noblewoman. After a harrowing nighttime journey he arrives to find that the lady in question is Clarimonde. Though she appears to be dead, she is so captivating that the distraught priest cannot resist kissing her on her lips. Like a heroine of fairy tale, his kiss causes her to return to life for a short while, just long enough to confess her love for Romuald and to announce that they will soon meet again, before she perishes.

After this, Romuald’s priestly mentor tells him lurid tales about Clarimonde: tales of the orgy worthy of Belshazzar or Cleopatra she held just before her death; of the violent ends allegedly met by her lovers; of rumours that she has previously died only to return from her tomb. “They used to say that she was a ghoul, a female vampire; but I believe she was none other than Beelzebub himself.”

One night Clarimonde appears to Romauld in a dream, caressing him and expressing her love. He responds with the blasphemous declaration that he adores her as much as he does God. Night after night he dreams that he is a hedonistic nobleman in the palace of Clarimonde. These dreams are so vivid that he becomes confused as to which of his lives is true: is he a priest who dreams of being a libertine, or a libertine who dreams of being a priest?

The story comes to treat Romauld’s sojourns with Clarimonde as physical occurrences, as though he is not merely dreaming, but being transported to another life in another place. Gautier appears to be drawing upon folklore relating to witches, whose alleged activities at night-time Sabbats likewise suggest descriptions of hallucinatory nightmares.

During one of his nocturnal visits to Clarimonde’s palace, Romauld has an accident that excites his supernatural lover: while cutting fruit, he accidentally cuts his finger, spraying drops of blood onto Clarimonde. In sudden ecstasy, she leaps at him to suck his wound with the relish of a wine connoisseur. The young priest realises that Clarimonde is truly a vampire, but this does not dissuade him from continuing their relationship. In fact, he confesses to the reader that he would have been willing to open his veins himself and let his love flow into Clarimonde with his blood.

During his daytime life as a priest, Romauld is tormented by guilt. His mentor decides to put him right by taking him to the body of Clarimonde and exhuming it. As per legend, the vampire has blood on her lips. And so, with a dash of holy water, Clarimonde is reduced to ash and bones.

Clarimonde visits her former lover in one more dream, scorning him for his decision before departing forever. The young priest is left to contemplate whether or not he made the right choice. Certainly, as portrayed in the story, the life of a priest seems dour indeed in comparison to life as a vampire’s groom. In the final lines, Romauld warns the (presumably male) reader to never gaze upon a woman, lest he also succumb to temptation.

The gender dynamics of “La morte amoureuse” are very different to those of Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” While Lord Ruthven’s practice of preying upon young women has obvious erotic implications, Polidori’s decision to use the male protagonist Aubrey as the narrator of this tale meant that he was unable to explore these themes directly. Gautier, by contrast, pits his male hero against a female vampire, allowing him to portray intense seduction in the face of tortured celibacy.

Notably, Clarimonde’s temptation is so compelling that Romuald desires to join her, even with the knowledge that she is a vampire. The idea that victims of vampirism may become vampires in turn is part of folklore, but Gautier’s story is an early example of it being explored in literature. Although Romuald does not literally become a vampire in the manner of Dracula’s victim Lucy, he is granted an alter ego that serves a similar thematic role.

1849: Ruthven Revisited

While Théophile Gautier helped to establish the female vampire as a theme, he did so from a fundamentally masculine perspective. At this point, in contrast to today, vampire literature was still very much a male-dominated field.

But not quite all vampire stories from this period were written by men. Some notable female novelists used the vampire motif, if only in passing. In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley has the protagonist compare his monstrous creation to “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” Emily Brontë uses similar imagery in Wuthering Heights (1847) when Nelly asks whether Heathcliff is “a ghoul or a vampire.”

Then in 1849 came the publication of a short story by Elizabeth F. Ellet which, like Polidori’s seminal tale, is entitled “The Vampyre.” The story was not influential, as Ellet is today remembered mainly for her nonfiction work on women in the American Revolution and for a scandal involving Edgar Allan Poe. That she wrote a comparatively early piece of vampire fiction appears to have been forgotten, at least until Duane Parsons republished the story in his 2012 anthology The Night Season (retitled The Macabre Megapack for ebook release).

Set in seventeenth-century Scotland, Ellet’s “The Vampyre” tells the story of Edgar, who is in love with a maiden named Malvine. Her father Sir Aubrey Davenat adores Edgar, but reluctantly declines to allow the two to marry. He has already promised Malvine to a lord from a rival clan, in the hopes of ending a longstanding feud.

Edgar once had a friend named Sir Arthur Dumbrin, who suffered from a deathly pale complexion, ostensibly arising from a recent illness. A teenage girl known to Edgar was terrified of Dumbrin’s appearance, and was later found dead in a nearby wood with a small puncture in her neck. Upon hearing Edgar relate this tale, Malvine’s nurse exclaims that Sir Arthur must have been a vampire. This prompts Malvine to recite some verse on the topic: “Forth he has fled, to wander round/A living corpse o’er hallowed ground/From house to house he takes his way/A fair bride seeking for his prey/His chosen bride was lost for aye!”

While agonising over this revelation, Edgar unexpectedly comes across Sir Arthur in a nearby forest, fatally injured. Before dying, Sir Arthur asks Edgar to make two oaths—oaths that will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has read Polidori’s tale:

“Swear … not to reveal to any mortal—to man or woman—aught that you hast known me, or aught though shalt know—before the first hour of the first day of the coming month!”

“Yet one more boon … Bear me to the summit of yonder rock, and place me so that the moonlight will shine upon my face.”

Unlike Polidori, Ellet describes the vampire’s resurrection directly:

The moon rose higher, pouring a light more vivid, like a mantle of snow, upon the stark rock where lay the corpse. It seemed as if her silvery beams were concentrated upon the still form and upturned face. As the orb rose to her meridian, life returned by slow degrees to the upheaving breast. Arthur opened his eyes, and rose to his feet in full strength once more.

“Ha-ha!” he shouted in wild exultation—while in the darkness beneath his feet gleamed unearthly phantom faces—“who will slay the dead?”

Edgar later meets Malvine’s groom-to-be, Lord Ruthven, who, of course, turns out to be the vampire known to Edgar as Sir Arthur. Like Polidori’s tragic hero, Edgar is bound by oath to keep Ruthven’s identity a secret. But Ellet supplies a happier ending than her precursor. The clock strikes one just before Ruthven weds Malvine, freeing Edgar from his oath. At the last minute Edgar exposes the vampire, and the evil aristocrat disappears from the wedding in a clap of thunder.

It is not hard to see why Ellet’s “The Vampyre” slipped into oblivion: it is a transparent imitation of the Polidori tale. Cyprien Bérard’s Lord Ruthwen; Ou, les Vampires and James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1871-2), as crude as they are, at least took every opportunity to expand upon the story they were so clearly mimicking. Ellet, on the other hand, seems largely content to retread the earlier story, even borrowing the names of Polidori’s characters.

That said, Ellet does make a few deviations from her source, the most notable being her usage of a historical Scottish setting. Indeed, the story portrays vampires as part of Scottish folklore: “The man is a Scot, and knows not what a Vampyre is!” says one character, incredulous at such a notion. This association between vampires and Scotland, which has no folkloric basis, possibly stems from Polidori’s decision to give his vampire the Scottish name (or pseudonym) of Ruthven. Charles Nodier’s stage adaptation of “The Vampyre” was set in Scotland, a decision perhaps influenced by the popularity of Sir Walter Scott in France at the time, and the setting was carried over to James Planché’s English adaptation of the play. Ellet’s story possibly marks the last flourish of this curious literary tradition that associated vampires with Scotland.

A subtler, but arguably more significant alteration in Ellet’s story is the addition of a love triangle. Where Polidori’s hero was trying to save his sister from a marrying vampiric fiancé, Ellet has her protagonist saving the woman he loves from the same fate. Here, perhaps, we see an early glimmer of the vampire romance fiction that would flood twenty-first century bookshelves.

The twenty-first century is still a long way off, of course. The authors of the nineteenth century were not yet finished with vampires, as future posts in this series will demonstrate.

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