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1897: the year of the psychic vampire

Mary Going, a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield, discusses The Blood of the Vampire, a unique novel creating a female vampire that offers something different to Dracula, Lucy Westenra and Carmilla. She believes the novel deserves a place within the tradition of vampire fiction, and argues that, without Harriet Brandt, something is lost in the discussion of 19th-century female vampires.

If I asked you to think about the year 1897 and vampires, your first thought will probably turn to Dracula, Bram Stoker’s infamous, Transylvanian Count, subsequently immortalised by numerous film, TV, and fictional adaptations and reimagingings.

But it may surprise you to learn that in this same year, another vampire entered the Victorian scene of literary vampires. More important, this vampire is not a rehashed version of Dracula, but distinctly unique in her own right. Yes, this vampire is a woman. Her ancestry is not founded in Transylvania, but Jamaica and, curiously, she does not drain the blood of her victims but instead drains their life force, earning her the title of ‘Psychic Vampire.’

This vampire is Harriet Brandt, the protagonist of Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire published just mere months after Stoker’s Dracula. However, before we discuss Harriet, it is worth considering the author who created her. Following the trend set by many preceding Gothic authors, Marryat’s own life is just as fascinating as her fictional narratives. Greta Depledge writes in her book, Victorian Secrets, that ‘The life of Florence Marryat contains all the intrigue of one of her sensation fictions – marriage, adultery, separation, numerous children, bereavement, notoriety, fame and success.’

The daughter of Fredrick Marryat (celebrated navy officer, successful novelist, and pioneer of the sea story), Florence Marryat was an internationally successful author herself, publishing short stories, children’s stories, plays, as well as a vast number of novels. Many of her works were translated into several different languages.

Additionally, Marryat wrote and edited for newspapers and magazines, she acted and performed onstage and was also an avid spiritualist. In fact, some of her most well-known works were her writings on spiritualism such as There Is No Death (1891) and The Spirit World (1894), and these works are quite interesting in their own right. Marryat was, then, one of the most prolific and popular female authors of the 19th century.

Despite being married well before her first novel was published Marryat also chose to publish in her maiden name. This was an incredibly astute business decision, as it allowed her to benefit from her father’s legacy, although she quickly established a successful and popular literary reputation of her own.

Like Harriet Brandt, her psychic vampire, Marryat’s novels often prominently featured strong women, and in both her own life and the fictional lives of her characters she did not shy away from acts and characteristics deemed controversial by her contemporaries. It is perhaps odd, then, that until very recently, Marryat has been omitted from critical discussions that have overseen the revival of popular, 19th-century, female authors which has included Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Marie Corelli, and Rhoda Broughton.

Discussing this omission, Greta Depledge writes that ‘If a fictional heroine who divorces her husband can be so thoroughly condemned one can only admire women, like Marryat, for making similar decisions in their own lives and having to deal with the repercussions.’

Similarly, it is also puzzling that The Blood of the Vampire has seen a similar omission within the field of vampire studies, despite containing a female vampire who rivals her vampiric sisters Carmilla and Lucy Westenra (created by Sheridan le Fanu and Stoker). However, the omission of Marryat herself, and in particular The Blood of the Vampire, is slowly being redressed.

So, let us now turn our gaze to Harriet Brandt. [Note: spoilers beyond this point] Harriet, the Psychic Vampire on whom your curiosity has been hooked since the beginning of this post. Harriet, daughter of a mad scientist Henry Brandt and an unnamed, mixed-race, ‘Obeah woman’. Harriet, the vampiric sister of Carmilla and Lucy, but who, unlike her vampire predecessors, does not suck blood. Harriet is not a centuries old male vampire travelling from Transylvania (and his coterie of female vampires) to England, with the intention of founding and spreading his vampiric empire through the transmission of blood. Instead, she is a distinctly female vampire who appears, at first, unaware of her vampiric power.

Marryat locates Harriet’s vampiric nature in Jamaica, rooting it in the legends of Obeah and the barbarity of vivisection and scientific experiments. Henry Brandt, Harriet’s father, is described as cruel and barbaric: ‘You called him a doctor – he was not worthy of the name. He was a scientist perhaps – a murderer certainly!’

Originally operating in the hospitals of Switzerland, he was expelled for imposing his own scientific experiments on his patients which often resulted in their death, and thereafter settled in Jamaica. There he continued his horrific experiments upon the natives until at last they revolted, murdering him and burning his house and property.

The description of Harriet’s mother is just as vivid. She is described as ‘a fiend, a fitting match for Henry Brandt’ and physically depicted as ‘a fat, flabby half caste.’ This portrait highlights her own cruelty in watching the victims of Henry Brandt, but also emphasises her sensual mouth, her greedy eyes, her insatiable appetite, and her thirst for blood. Labelled as ‘Obeah’, Marryat explains the blood-lust of Harriet’s unnamed mother through a curious tale that, in the novel, originates from the oral narratives and traditions of Jamaica:

“They declared that when her slave mother was pregnant with her she was bitten by a Vampire bat, which are formidable creatures in the West Indies and are said to fan their victims to sleep with their enormous wings whilst they suck their blood. Anyway, the slave woman did not survive her delivery and her fellows prophesied that the child would grow up to be a murderess. Which doubtless she was in heart if not in deed!”

If we believe these stories, Harriet is the child of parents guilty of murder, torture, cruelty, and bloodlust. It is also worth noting that her parents, both seemingly godless and lawless, remained unmarried. Of course, in true Gothic-heroine-style, Harriet escapes being raised by such parents by their timely and horrific slaughter, and her even more timely rescue.

And, again in true Gothic-style, where else would she be sent to be raised and educated but to a convent. It is this Harriet, born of such horrific parents, but educated in a convent and kept in ignorance of her parentage that we encounter in the first pages of Marryat’s novel.

Through the story of the vampire bat, and the suggestions of a thirst for blood that begin with the nameless mother, but continue with Harriet, Marryat roots her female vampire in the distinct tradition of vampires that hinges on bloodsucking. However, Marryat defiantly does not depict her female vampire fulfilling this act, and in the novel Harriet does not drink blood. Rather, her vampiric quality is located in her ‘Otherness’, both as a female and racial ‘Other’.

Harriet threatens the stability of civilised, Western society and refuses to conform to it. She mesmerises and attracts those who gaze upon her, both men and women, and even destabilises relationships as her attraction is not limited to those who are single. Moreover, Harriet’s mixed race is perceived as a threat that will contaminate the purity of England through marriage and miscegenation.

Perhaps what is most threatening is that Harriet looks white, and knowledge of her parentage only serves to reveal her mixed-race identity and thus heightens the fears of black blood. ‘When the cat is black, the kitten is black too! It’s the law of Nature […] The girl is a quadroon, and she shews it distinctly […] she has inherited her half-caste mother’s greedy and sensual disposition.’

Like Lucy Westenra, too, Harriet also threatens the concept of motherhood. But unlike Stoker’s vampire, who lures children to drink their blood, and therefore must be violently killed and mutilated by a group of men, Harriet’s narrative is much more sympathetic. Early in the novel, she enthusiastically nurses the baby of Margaret Pullen, and often insists that she be the one to look after and play with the child.

However, the subsequent death of this child is the first of several mysterious and unexplained deaths that surround Harriet. Although unintentional, Harriet soon learns her own role in these deaths, and seeks out her own heritage. Like Lucy, then, Harriet’s vampiric career begins with children, but unlike Lucy she is concerned at the part she plays. The novel ends with her death. But in contrast to Lucy’s violent death in Dracula, Harriet commits suicide – choosing to end her own life with a dose of chloral.

Mary Going is PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Her research explores Judaism within Romantic and Gothic between 1790 and 1820, focusing on depictions of Jewish identities, communities, and representations of the Wandering Jew. She is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic and the Reimagining the Gothic project.

 

 

This article was first published on Sheffield Gothic, and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.

 

 

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