Vampires on the Margins: Women’s Perspectives

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Modern vampire fiction has been shaped in large part by female authors: Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Nancy Collins, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephenie Meyer and others each played a part in establishing vampire literature as the thriving commercial genre that it is today. In terms of both authorship and readership, it is safe to say that contemporary vampire novels are a female-dominated field.

But this was not always the case. The authors who did the most to develop vampire literature in the nineteenth century – Polidori, Rymer, Le Fanu and Stoker – were men. While stories sometimes featured female vampires as characters, the most significant examples were created by male writers: Stoker’s Lucy Westenra, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Théophile Gautier’s Clarimonde. To find nineteenth-century vampire literature by women, a reader must once again head back to the margins of the genre.

Admittedly, in some cases it will be easy to see why the stories in question were forgotten. Elizabeth F. Ellet’s “The Vampyre” (1849) is a clear imitation of Polidori’s tale, borrowing its title, character names and much of its plot from that story. The main changes it makes to its model are the relocation of the narrative to eighteenth-century Scotland, and the addition of a love triangle – two alterations which, it must be admitted, do rather feed into stereotypes regarding romance, period drama and female writers. Anne Crawford’s “A Mystery of the Campagna” (1886) is also flawed, with too much of its vampiric action occurring in the background, although it does have interest as a story of a female vampire written by a female author.

Photograph of Mary Cholmondeley
Mary Cholmondeley.

There are more successful examples, however, ones that offer fresh perspectives on the vampire theme. One is Mary Cholmondeley’s 1890 story “Let Loose”, which is set in the rural Yorkshire village of Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds. Blake, an architect, visits the village in the hopes of seeing the crypt of the local church, which he intends to write about as part of a research project. A church custodian tries to dissuade him from entering the crypt, which has been locked up for thirty years, but Blake persuades the clergyman to grant access.

Once inside, he finds the walls decorated with artistic arrangements of skulls and bones. As he examines his surroundings Blake notices his dog behaving strangely and then hears mysterious noises. After this he finds one of the skulls on the floor, having somehow fallen out of the wall.

Blake returns to his lodgings and, the next morning, learns that there have been two deaths overnight: one a little girl, the other an old clerk, each with marks of strangulation on their necks. This leads the clergyman explains to Blake why he had been reluctant to allow access to the crypt – it is the resting place of a notorious individual named Sir Roger Despard, who suffered a bizarre death:

And the next day, towards evening, the pains of death came upon him, and he raved the more exceedingly, inasmuch as he said he was being strangled by the Evil One. Now on his table was his hunting knife, and with his last strength he crept and laid hold upon it, no man withstanding him, and swore a great oath that if he went down to burn in hell, he would leave one of his hands behind on earth, and that it would never rest until it had drawn blood from the throat of another and strangled him, even as he himself was being strangled.

The crypt had been closed for thirty years since Sir Roger was interred there, and the clergyman connects its opening with the recent deaths: “it is a strange thing that since the crypt was opened two people have died, and the mark is plain upon the throat of the old man and visible on the young child. No blood was drawn, but the second time the grip was stronger than the first. The third time, perchance—“

Blake dismisses all of this as superstition and again persuades the man to let him enter the crypt. But his trip is cut short: upon finding a coffin which he decides must be that of the infamous Sir Roger, he is left too shaken to continue. Then, at night, his dog goes mad and attacks him, biting at his throat. Blake is forced to kill the animal, and later finds that the marks on his neck resemble not the teeth of a dog – but the fingers of a hand.

“Let Loose” belongs more to the English ghost story tradition than to vampire literature – certainly, it has nothing to do with the Byronic vampire established by Polidori – but its depiction of a disturbed grave and a blood-drawing revenant give it a certain kinship to the latter genre, and it has been included in multiple modern anthologies of vampire fiction. It has clear similarities to M. R. James’ “Count Magnus”, published fourteen years later, which likewise stands as a halfway point between ghost and vampire stories.

While “Let Loose” may be a vampire story written by a woman, however, it is clearly not a vampire story about women. The principal characters – Blake, the clergyman, and even the ghost – are all male, while women are discussed as abstract concepts. “I am of opinion that a well-chosen companion of domestic tastes and docile and devoted temperament may be of material assistance to a professional man” says Blake, who elsewhere proclaims himself “not so effeminate as to be rendered nervous by hearing a noise for which I cannot instantly account”.

Stories by women and about women can be found elsewhere in the margins of vampire literature, two examples being “The Fate of Madame Cabanel” by Eliza Lynn Linton (1880) and “The Prayer” by Violet Hunt (1895). These stories have similarities to one another – each being about the superstitious fear of vampires, rather than anything more literal – yet they also have striking differences.

Photograph of Eliza Lynn Linton
Eliza Lynn Linton.

“The Fate of Madame Cabanel” takes place in Pieuvrot, a Breton hamlet of mud-huts and marshlands where superstition is rife. The gravedigger, Martin Briolic, is considered the wisest man in the community for his folkloric knowledge:

He knew all about the weather and the stars, the wild herbs that grew on the plains and the wild shy beasts that eat them; and he had the power of divination and could find where the hidden springs of water lay face down in the earth when he held the baguette in his hand. He knew too, where treasures could be had on Christmas Eve if only you were quick and brave enough to enter the cleft in the rock at the right moment and come out again before too late; and he had seen with his own eyes the White Ladies dancing in the moonlight; and the little imps, the Infins, playing their prankish gambols by the edge of the wood. And he had a shrewd suspicion as to who, among those black-hearted men of La Crèche-en-bois—the rival hamlet—was a loup-garou, if ever there was one on the face of the earth and no one had doubted that!

The only resident to have significant contact with the outside world is the local headman Jules Cabanel, who makes regular visits to Paris – and on one occasion, surprises the people of Pieuvrot by returning with an English wife, Fanny. The residents take an instant dislike to this foreigner: “with those red lips of hers, her rose cheeks and her plump shoulders” says the gravedigger, “she looks like a vampire and as if she lived on blood.” Jules Cabanel’s housekeeper, Adèle, shows particular disdain, and welcomes her master’s new wife with a bridal bouquet of poppies, heliotrope and belladonna.

Adèle’s nephew Alphonse falls ill (“This failure of general health in undrained hamlets is not uncommon in France or in England, neither is the stead and pitiable decline of French children” notes the narrator) and the housekeeper suspects that Fanny is responsible. The gravedigger Martin gives her a tarot-reading, and comes to concur: “Broucolaque! that’s what the cards say, Ma’am Adèle. Vampire.”

and Adèle tell the other locals of their theory, which is reaffirmed when Fanny begins spending time around the graveyard – in reality, simply for its picturesque qualities. Before long, the people of the hamlet “would have been ready to accuse of atheism and immortality any one who had doubted their decision”. But Fanny herself is oblivious to exactly what is happening: “How these people hate the English”, she thinks to herself. Finally, when Fanny helps to take care of Adèle’s sickly son, her act is fatally misconstrued:

Sitting there with the child in her lap, cooing to him, soothing him by a low, soft nursery song, the paroxysm of his pain seemed to her to pass and it was as if he slept. But in that paroxysm he had bitten both his lip and tongue; and the blood was now oozing from his mouth. He was a pretty boy; and his mortal sickness made him at this moment pathetically lovely. Fanny bent her head and kissed the pale still face;—and the blood that was on his lips was transferred to hers.
While she still bent over him—her woman’s heart touched with a mysterious force and prevision of her own future motherhood— Adèle, followed by old Martin and some others of the village, rushed into the room.
‘Behold her!’ she cried, seizing Fanny by the arm and forcing her upwards by the chin—‘Behold her in the act…!’

With her husband elsewhere on urgent business, there is nobody to defend Fanny. The locals drag her out of the hamlet to a pit reputed to be the abode of evil spirits – “where the White Ladies wring the necks of those who come upon them in the moonlight” – with the intent of throwing her to her death. “A vampire cannot die unless the evil spirits take her, or she is buried with a stake thrust through her body”, the gravedigger informs them. Yet when they arrive at the pit, they find that Fanny has already died during her ordeal. Fanny’s husband returns in time to witness the scene and admonish the mob. Adèle, realising what she has done, commits suicide by hurling herself into the pit.

Photograph of Violet Hunt.
Violet Hunt.

Violet Hunt’s “The Prayer”, published in 1895, likewise deals with a character suspected – falsely – of being a vampire, or at least a vampire-like revenant. The protagonist is Alice Arne, whose husband Edward is declared dead at the start of the story. Left alone by his deathbed, the grief-stricken woman reminds her deceased beloved of a promise: “Do you remember, Edward, what we once said—that whichever of us died first should come back to watch over the other, in the spirit? I promised you, and you promised me.” Then, embracing the body, she prays to God for her husband’s return. “Of, if there be a God in heaven, and if He ever answered a prayer, let Him answer mine—my only prayer. I’ll never ask another—and give you back to me! As you were—as I loved you—as I adored you! He must listen. He must!”

When the attending doctor and nurse return to the room, they are surprised to find Edward Arne recovering from his apparent death. Alice’s reaction is to faint, and as the years pass, she remains affected by the shock: she develops a pale complexion, takes to wearing funereal black, and spends much of her time brooding indoors. Her friend Esther expresses concern for her:

’Yes, I do look ill,’ she said with conviction.
‘No wonder. You choose to bury yourself alive.’
‘Sometimes I do feel as if I lived in a grave. I look up at the ceiling and fancy it is my coffin-lid.’

Meanwhile Edward, despite his ordeal, grows into his wife’s opposite:

Where she was pale he was well-coloured; the network of little filmy wrinkles that, on a close inspection, covered her face, had no parallel on his smooth skin. He was handsome; soft, well-groomed flakes of auburn hair lay over his forehead, and his steely blue eyes shone equably, a contrast to the sombre fire of hers, and the masses of dark crinkly hair that shaded her brow.

But despite his apparent health, Edward is silent, reclusive and aloof, his behaviour disturbing to those around him. The household dog refuses to go near him, and its howls become so intolerable that the Arnes are forced to give it away. Alice, the couple’s daughter, is reluctant to kiss her father good night. Esther also finds Edward unnerving, although she rationalises her unease: “I suppose women can’t help being a little afraid of their friends’ husbands—they can spoil their friendships with their wives in a moment, if they choose to disapprove of them.”

Dr. Graham, Esther’s father, initially dismisses her concerns about her friend (“Alice Arne is only morbid—the malady of the age”) but later agrees to visit the household. He is perplexed by Edward, the basement-dwelling recluse: “He really is extraordinarily good looking,” remarks the doctor to himself. “And yet one feels one’s vitality ebbing out at the finger-ends as one talks to him.” He then finds Alice in a disturbed state, obsessively muttering to herself about death and resurrection. “Oh! I am punished”, she says. “Flesh and blood could not inherit! I kept him there—I would not let him go… I kept him… I prayed… I denied him Christian burial…”

The rationally-minded doctor scoffs at Alice’s belief that a misguided prayer could have resurrected her husband (“it seems hard to believe that every fool who has a voice to play with, and a brain where to conceive idiotic requests with, should be permitted to interfere with the economy of the universe”) But Alice sticks to her supernatural beliefs: “Oh, Doctor, tell me, if a spirit—without the body we know it by—is terrible, what of […] a body—senseless—lonely—stranded on this earth—without a spirit?”

The story ultimately takes Dr. Graham’s materialistic viewpoint. It ends with Edward explaining that, at the time of his illness, he had given up on life; his chance recovery had left him with nothing to live for and a longing for the death he had narrowly missed. “Alice, the crust of the earth seems a barrier between me and my own place”, he says to the wife whose emotional wellbeing he has so thoroughly drained. “I want to scratch the boardings with my nails and shriek something like this: ‘Let me get down to you all, there where I belong!’ It’s a horrible sensation, like a vampire reversed!” All Alice can do is poison her husband in an assisted suicide – or, as he puts it, “taking back the gift you gave”.

The authors of these two stories had very different perspectives on the issues faced by women in society. Violet Hunt, writer of “The Prayer”, was a feminist, founding the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in 1908 and exploring feminist themes in novels like The Workaday Woman (1906). Eliza Lynn Linton, by contrast, was an outspoken opponent of the early feminist movement, railing against New Women in her essays “The Girl of the Period” and “Wild Women as Politicians” while satirising women’s rights campaigners as sexually deviant in her novel The Rebel of the Family (1880).

It is debateable as to whether the authors’ differing opinions on feminism are reflected in these two stories of vampirism, but whatever their personal philosophies, they came up with two starkly contrasting heroines. In “The Prayer” Eliza Lynn Linton depicts Fanny as a passive figure who exists more as an ideal than as a character: her dominant traits are a kind nature and sweet temperament, which we know she possesses mainly because the narrator keeps telling us so. She is a pretty portrait existing to be defaced by the gossiping villagers.

But Alice in “The Prayer” is different: she is active, albeit actively destructive. Beyond the familiar structure of the wish-gone-wrong story “The Prayer” is a character study that uses the theme of vampirism – confined to the protagonist, rather than the superstitious community in “The Fate of Madame Cabanel” – to explore anxiety and the damage that it can cause.

Yet beyond their opposing philosophies about the role of women, and their stories’ contrasting themes of group versus individual delusion, both Eliza Lynn Linton and Violet Hunt hit upon similar variations of the vampire motif. Each woman uses the vampire not as a literal being, as Stoker, Polidori, Rymer and Le Fanu did, but as an idea: a figment that exists only in the minds of their characters – yet which is capable of causing their heroines just as much grief as the fangs of Stoker’s Dracula or Polidori’s Ruthven. Vampires on the margins still carry the potential to disturb, despite – or perhaps because of – their unusual guises.

Series Navigation<< Vampires on the Margins: The Black VampyreVampires on the Margins: Forbidden Desires >>
Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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