The poor child saw her destiny entangling her as in a net

Dear Florence,

Your book The Blood of the Vampire (1897) is not the standard vampire novel. A reader looking for blood-sucking and traditional vampires will not find any here. But he might find other sinister elements that compensate the lack of blood: the book is packed with mad scientists, spiritualist séances and many strange deaths.

The story revolves around Harriet Brandt, a mixed-race twenty-one-year-old British woman who was born in Jamaica. Harriet has lived in a strict Catholic convent since she was a child; after coming of age and gaining control over her considerable inheritance, she moves to Europe, and decides to spend her holidays in Heyst, Belgium.

There, she meets an eccentric assortment of travellers: Miss Elinor Leyton, an upright woman engaged to marry her friend’s handsome brother-in-law; the friend in question, Margaret Pullen, a young mother travelling with her baby, Ethel; Baroness Gobelli, a vulgar woman of uncertain origins, married to a German aristocrat who works in the manufacture of shoes; Bobby, Mrs. Gobelli meek son; and Dr. Phillips, a renowned physician.

Everyone seems to fall for the mysterious Harriet. However, we soon notice that there is something strange about her: people who get close to her seem to be drained of their energy, and feel as though some one were sitting on their chest. As the book progresses, Harriet is strangely followed by a trail of sickness and death.

Dr. Phillips doctor attributes Harriet’s condition to her hereditary inheritance: the girl’s blood might have been tainted by her mixed origins. Harriet’s father was a mad scientist sinisterly drawn to perform vivisection on his slaves; her mother, the illegitimate daughter of a slave and a white man, was a mixed-race Obeah priestess (a local voodoo witch), a sensuous woman with a taste for blood. Harriet’s parents had never been married, and were slaughtered by the slaves on their plantation when the girl was a child. There was a rumour that Harriet’s maternal grandmother had been bitten by a vampire bat whilst pregnant, and it might be possible that the blood of the vampire flows through Harriet’s veins.

However, it could all be just an unhappy coincidence. Harriet is an ambiguous character: she is imbued with voracious appetites and animal-based characteristics; she is unaware of social decorum and behaves like a dangerous seducer; she has a beautiful singing voice that seems to trap people; but, at the same time, she seems innocent and vulnerable; she is lonely and starved for affection; and she seems unconscious of the fact that she might be the cause of the sickness around her. The story is haunted by the question: is Harriet a dangerous beast, is she really cursed by the blood of the vampire? Or is she an outcast, a victim of prejudice? Is she a psychic vampire, or an innocent girl? Is she a monster? Or is she made a monster as a response to the social anxieties of the Victorian time?

The highlight of the book for me lies in the fact that Harriet embodies many of the fears surrounding women in the nineteenth-century: she is sensuous, transgressive and independent – a “new woman”; she is a mixed-race, coming from the colonies; she knows no boundaries when it comes to getting intimate close to her female friends; she is said to have a ‘bad blood’ (both her parents are wicked, she is illegitimate, and her mother is mixed-race); she is an outcast, standing out from the rest. Maybe even her surname “Brandt” indicates her condition as “branded”.

The novel engages many topics that haunted the Victorian imagination: the fear of miscegenation, heredity, gender roles, class, family background, the danger posed by independent women, the fears of lesbianism, the threats posed by female sexuality (and the pathologizing of female sexuality), spiritualism, vivisection, eugenics… Everything is packed in here in the elusive figure of the threatening ‘female vampire’.

Unfortunately, though, the novel falls short from challenging those fears. Rather than in-between-the-line social criticism, your book simply explores those topics, and conforms itself comfortably to the prevailing prejudices of the time. It never strikes the right balance between the comedy of manners and the sensational plot it promised to embody. Somehow, it got stuck in-between, draining itself dry in the end.

Yours truly,

J.


The Vampire by Edvard Munch.

“The poor child saw her destiny entangling her as in a net – she longed to break through it, but saw no means of escape.” – Florence Marryat, The Blood of the Vampire


About the book

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sounds like a fascinating premise, so it’s a shame the book never fully explored its potential…

    Like

    1. Yes, that’s what I feel: the book is a missed opportunity…

      Liked by 1 person

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