The Blood of the Vampire, by Florence Marryat
Valancourt Books, 2009
originally published 1897
To say I was mildly surprised and very pleased with this book is an understatement. Although it came out in the same year that Stoker published his Dracula, the titular vampire in this story doesn't bite anyone in the neck, nor is there any bloodletting or bloodsucking here. As I generally do with any new author (or at least anyone new to me), I went into this novel with zero expectations and quickly realized that while there are definitely commonalities between the two, Marryat's book is vastly different. And it's really, really good. I mean REALLY good. Like loved-it good. Like holy crap good. Like stayed-awake-all-night-to-finish good.
I won't divulge much more than what the blurb says to try to keep things spoiler free. The central character is one Harriet Brandt, who has lived in a convent since the age of 11. She's now out in the world, and we first meet this young woman in the seaside city of Heyst (Belgium), eating at the table d'hôte along with the other guests at the Lion d'Or. She is someone who enjoys her food, and indeed she is noted as "eating like a cormorant," the first of many animal-based references to the women in this novel. The fact of the matter is that Harriet is a bit of a curiosity -- she's beautiful, naive, and alone, and she catches the eye of everyone with whom she comes into contact. She has a beautiful singing voice which adds to her charm, but she is starved for friendship and affection. On the downside, it seems that anyone with whom she comes into close contact begins to feel ill -- as the cover blurb notes, they seem "to sicken or die." When tragedy ensues and a doctor is brought in to tend another character's very sick baby, it turns out that he's very familiar with Harriet's family history. It seems our Miss Brandt was the daughter of "a mad scientist" and a "voodoo priestess" from Jamaica (Obeah, actually, as it turns out); dad was so evil that the slaves on his plantation revolted which resulted in the deaths of Harriet's parents. Harriet was left very well off, with more money than she knows what to do with, and it is now hers since she's come of age. The doctor attributes Harriet's condition to her racial make up -- and to the rumor that her mother had once been bitten by a vampire bat, leaving Harriet's predisposition a matter of tainted blood.
So far this description seems like a set up for a pretty standard vampire novel, but I can attest that this is far from the case. It didn't really take long before I figured out that there's w-a-a-a-y more going on here than meets the eye so I slowed my pace and just let the book speak to me. As it turned out, Blood of the Vampire is definitely a read-between-the-lines sort of novel -- what Marryat has done here, in part, is to reveal the prevailing attitudes during turn-of-the-century Britain dealing with (among other things) issues of race and "blood", family background, the dangers of independent women of means alone in British society and the threats posed by female sexuality. She does this very cleverly, making the focus of her story a woman who represents all of the fears held by people "in society," a phrase used time and again throughout this book. She also sets up this book so that Harriet Brandt is one of four women under study here, so that many comparisons and contrasts can be made among them. Exactly how this happens I'll leave for anyone interested, but I will say that it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend to someone who wants the standard vampire-horror novel. Au contraire, it's something I'd definitely recommend to anyone like me who is fascinated by Victorian society and how it is captured in literature, most especially by women of the time. There are plenty of online reviews & dissections of this novel, but do read it first.
Just a sort of reader beware thingy to say and then that's it. Even though I get that in Britain's imperialist heyday racial slurs and appalling descriptions of colonized subjects were pretty much how it was, there is a lot of racial negativity in this book that might bother some people.
Thanks again, Valancourt!
Now that I’ve finished writing my thesis on Florence Marryat (just a few tweaks and proofreading to go), I can take a more objective view of her fiction. Having read all 68 of her novels, it’s fair to say that they are not of equal merit; in fact, some are downright dreadful. With 7 children to support, and a predilection for useless husbands, Marryat was obliged to write quickly, often completing a novel within six weeks and seldom revising her manuscripts. Her haste in evident in around half the novels, their pages yielding very little, even for this determined scholar. Every so often, however, Marryat would stun me with a novel of such originality that I was instantly reminded why I wanted to spend all this time and money on writing a thesis that perhaps half a dozen people will read.
Anyway, I’m often asked “what’s the best Marryat novel?” Of course, pronouncing on “the best” of anything is a tricky matter, as one person’s masterpiece is another’s stinker. Artistically, I think Love’s Conflict (1865) her best novel, as she took great pains with the structure, although some of its power was lost through editorial changes made by Geraldine Jewsbury. For sheer entertainment and stimulation, Her Father’s Name (1876) trumps all the others. This novel has something for everyone: murder, sleuthing, cross-dressing, lesbianism, and hysteria.
The action opens in Brazil, with heroine Leona Lacoste dressed as Joan of Arc. Flanked by a toucan and a goat, she nonchalantly rolls a cigarette, pausing briefly to deflect a sex pest with her pistol. The reader is immediately alerted to the fact that this is no ordinary Victorian heroine. Accused of murder, Leona’s father commits suicide, prompting her to embark upon an international quest to clear his name. Obviously, a young lady couldn’t just go gadding about in the nineteenth century, so Leona dresses as a man and steals the identity of Christobal, a childhood friend who is desperate to marry her. She heads for London, managing to get involved in a duel during the crossing. With Leona there is no faffing about: she shoots her opponent straight in the chest. On arrival, she sneaks into her uncle’s house, posing as a merchant by the name of Don Valera. His adopted daughter Lucilla, a hysteric who has been confined to her couch since the onset of puberty, is overcome with lust, refusing to have any truck with the handsome doctor her parents wanted her to marry. Indeed, Lucilla/Don Valera is seemingly irresistible to nearly everyone, with all the society minxes falling at her feet.
As a sensation novel, Her Father’s Name relies heavily on coincidence and other improbabilities, such as trains running on time, but its wit and exuberance are joyous. I’m not going to spoil the plot, as I hope you’ll read it for yourself. Also, I’m not going to delve too deeply into my interpretations at this stage, as I’ve written quite a lot about the novel in my thesis. No doubt other readers will find all sorts of things that I failed to spot. Of course, you might well say that cross-dressing was hardly a new theme in Victorian fiction (see also E D E N Southworth’s The Hidden Hand and George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel), but I reckon that Marryat was the first to use this theme to make a strong feminist argument. After nearly four years of writing about this novel, I still love it, and Her Father’s Name epitomises why Marryat is such an important writer.
Yes, I liked the novel so much, I published it. Our edition, complete with introduction and notes by Greta Depledge, is available in paperback and Kindle editions. I’m currently working on an edition of Love’s Conflict, which, with luck and a tailwind, will be out in the autumn.
Filed Under: books, Florence Marryat, reviews, Victorian Secrets