The Blood of the Vampire by Florence Marryat was published in 1897, a good year for vampires as Bram Stoker's Dracula is also a 1897 vintage. It begins with an odd and assorted group of travellers in Heyst, Belgium. The upright Miss Elinor Leyton is cool and disapproving and so proper she wants no-one to know she is engaged to married for fear of vulgar talk. Her warmer friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law Margaret Pullen is an affectionate young mother. The Baroness Gobelli is an English woman of uncertain origins (it is rumoured she had been a cook who began her social rise by marrying her master as her first husband, she claims she's descended from royalty), and more uncertain temper who alternately bullies and flatters those around her including her rather pathetic son. Her husband, a German aristocrat in trade (the manufacture of boots and shoes) is a timid man who does little to improve the social standing of the bullying Baroness.
We plunge straight away into the clashes and intrigues of this group and it is fascinating. No sooner are we introduced to Miss Leyton, Mrs Pullen and the family of the Baroness, than a mysterious stranger arrives: a very young woman, all 'colourless skin', 'heavy lids and thick black lashes', and 'small white teeth', very expensive lace and a ravenous appetite for her dinner. And so we meet Harriet Brandt.
It is not much in the way of a spoiler to tell you that Harriet is vampire. We know there must be one (the title tells us so!) and here's Harriet with her colourless (bloodless) skin, white teeth and ravenous appetite; you'd have to half asleep not to spot this in the first pages. Very quickly we also have a medical man's opinion of her (vampire fiction does like its medics). Harriet it seems is from Jamaica. Her father was a scientist, a demonic figure who tortured the natives (the former slaves) and performed vivisection. Her mother the child of a slave and a white man and was described as having terrible appetites and a half-formed brain. Most significantly she was believed to have been bitten by a vampire bat whilst pregnant with Harriet and was thought of as being Obeah. Harriet's parents were murdered when the native rose against their reign of terror. Only the child Harriet was saved. Doctor Phillips tells Margaret and us, quite plainly, that he thinks she's a vampire.
So here's Harriet in Europe newly emerged from a sheltered convent schooling and desperate for affection. She latches onto first Margaret Pullen, and then Margaret's baby. Her Jamaican friend Olga is too weak and sick to go out so Harriet spends her time with the Pullens. Margaret too feels weak and dizzy, as Harriet rest her head on her shoulders and then, after playing with Harriet, Baby starts to sicken and fail...
This is a very clean vampire story. There is no biting. No white nightdresses or dress shirts were ruined in its concocting. Just the closeness, the affection, of this independent (financially and intellectually) woman is enough, in the end, to kill at least some of those to whom she is close.
As I said with the light spoiler above. There is no real surprise in the story. You read on to find out what happens but it is in no sense a thriller, or a horror story. You want to find out what happens - you really do: this is a very readable yarn - but there is no mystery about Harriet's condition or its effects.
And this lack of mystery is what is odd. You think vampire, you think Gothic. But Gothic novels thrive on the mystery, on what reader response theory would call the gaps, the ones the reader has to fill in, and the reader can frighten himself or herself much more effectively than any writer. You know what scares you the most. So in Gothic fiction we expect gaps. Why does Henry Tilney read the Mysteries of Udolpho with his "hair standing on end the whole time"? Because he wants to know what lies behind the curtain. Literal and metaphorical is the barrier in Radcliffe's case: Gothic fiction needs its gaps, its mysteries, its curtains shielding something 'terrible' from view. How else are we to fear it?
There are no gaps to Harriet's story. We have a medical man's words. Science puts us right about her physical make up. In the end a writer Anthony Pennell puts us right about her inner being, her mind, her soul. Both sides of the Two Cultures have summed her up. There is nothing more to say except this, the 1890s, is the era of Oscar Wilde not the high Gothic 18th century and there is something more 'decadent' or fin-de-siècle than Gothic about The Blood of the Vampire at times. But look carefully: there is a little mystery in The Blood of the Vampire. We come at it obliquely. The Baroness makes several threats:
I 'ave ways and means of knowing things that I keep to myself! I 'ave friends about me too who tell me everything - who can 'elp me, if I choose, to give Life and Fortune to one person and Trouble and Death to another - and woe to them that offend me, that's all!
And once back in England, she conducts strange business out of sight. At last we have a 'curtain'.
What does Madam Gobelli do with them in that little room upstairs? I was passing one day just after some one had entered and I heard the key turned in the lock. What is all the secrecy about?
We can guess of course...
... but we're never actually told. So at the edge of our focus, which can't help but be held in the main by the lovely and blighted Harriet, we're seeing something rather Gothic after all. Something of a post-modern approach by Ms Marryatt.
I can't decide if this is an interesting tale of a young woman with Gothic edges and a Vampire branding for added sales, or a cleverer piece skirting something more complex and rather more Gothic than I'd thought. Whatever, as I said it is both a very readable tale and fascinating. A book you could talk about for hours.
I read the wonderful Victorian Secrets edition edited by Greta Depledge. It comes with a wealth of additional supporting material and is particularly strong on the race (and it is very racist) and post-colonial issues, and on ideas of hysteria, heredity and subliminal sexual aggression, all ideas with which the book is laced and I've not touched on them at all. In fact it is hard to imagine any area of Victorian fiction that you might be studying that The Blood of the Vampire would not be relevant to!
You can read more on the book by publisher Catherine Pope here, and there is a good blog review by A Rat in the Bookpile here and it is mentioned in dispatches on The University of Sterling's Gothic website here.