Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897) was rather overshadowed by a certain Transylvanian Count who made his debut in the same year. Although there are similarities between the two novels, Marryat’s vampire is female and drains her victims’ life force rather than their blood, making it a far less gory read.
Harriet Brandt, the daughter of a mad scientist and a mixed race voodoo priestess, is brought up in Jamaica on her parents’ plantation. Her father’s sinister tendency to perform vivisection on his slaves leads them to rebel, bludgeoning him and his wife to death. Harriet is spared and subsequently travels through Europe, meeting the eccentric Baroness Gobelli and finally settling at her home in London.
Although everyone is initially attracted to Harriet, people who get close to her seem to sicken and die. Women become deeply suspicious of her when their menfolk find her completely irresistible. They attribute her sensuality to her African heritage, and feel threatened by her apparent sexual availability. Although highly critical of her, they do not make the connection between her arrival and the sequence of deaths. This connection is made by Dr Phillips, a particularly rebarbative racist and misogynist, who believes Harriet has inherited her disposition through her maternal line. As a “quadroon”, he believes she is unable to escape her heritage. He tells her not to marry, in order that she doesn’t further pollute the British race.
At no point is there any proof that Harriet causes the seemingly inexplicable deaths; the reader is guided to that conclusion by the Doctor’s supposed medical authority. The other female characters accept his judgement unquestioningly, deferring to him both as a man and a member of the scientific establishment. The “scientific” basis for his claim that Harriet is a silent killer is that her slave grandmother, impregnated by her owner, was attacked by a vampire bat. He attempts to dehumanise mixed-race offspring, thereby expressing his fear of miscegenation. Eventually, Harriet accepts his diagnoses, leading to a tragic conclusion (which I shan’t spoil). She is a woman who wants only to love and be loved, but her “otherness” denies her security she craves.
One critic has dismissed The Blood of the Vampire as a “race-obsessed eugenic argument in fictive format,” which is a reductive reading. Although Marryat is certainly guilty of some toe-curling racism, this was an unfortunately prevalent feature of fin-de-siècle writing. There have been many obvious comparisons with Dracula, as both writers present a weak nation being invaded by a much stronger “alien” who tries to replicate itself. There is no evidence to suggest that Stoker and Marryat discussed their ideas, so it is likely this was a widely-held fear (think of H G Wells and his pesky martians). What makes Marryat’s creation different, however, is her apparent sympathy for Harriet, which is often overlooked by critics.
This psychic vampire, apart from representing the racial “other”, can also be read as the New Woman. She is financially independent, moves around freely, and is sexually liberated. It is this behaviour, as much as her heritage, that makes her appear dangerous and minatory. There is also a potential feminist reading of the metaphorical syphilophobia running through the novel. Dr Phillips is quick to diagnose Harriet as the problem, declaring that he can “tell at a glance” that she has inherited her mother’s “condition”. This incident evokes the behaviour of the medical profession when the Contagious Diseases Act were in force, where the communication of syphilis was assumed to be the fault of the prostitute – it was she who was stigmatised, rather than her priapic punter. Harriet’s stigma is clearly indicated by her surname of “Brandt”.
Like Harriet, Marryat was a strong, independent woman, with a decidedly un-Victorian attitude towards gender ideology. This made her something of an outcast, too, as did the Catholicism she also shares with her vampiric creation. Her distrust of medical authority is a leitmotif throughout her work, and the views of her fictional doctor should not be conflated with her own.
Hopefully, this new edition will make this work more widely-available for critical attention, as it deserves to be known as more than just the “other vampire novel”.