In the Victorian Era, the vampire underwent the transformation from monster of folklore to the creature we think of today. Beginning with the publication of Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer in 1845, the vampire went from a possessed corpse terrorizing villagers to undead nobility haunting drawing rooms and upper-class bedchambers.
Varney was the origin of many tropes we still associate with vampires today, including the pair of fang marks on the victims. Interestingly, it is also one of the only sympathetic treatments of the vampire until the publication of Interview with the Vampire over a century later. Although his monstrous nature drives him to do terrible things, Sir Varney is tormented by guilt over his actions.
The publication of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu introduced the first lesbian vampire in 1872. But of course the most famous vampire of all time, the one who truly set the type for our modern conception, is Bram Stoker’s 1897 creation, Dracula. Harkening back to the ancient tales of vampire as spirit, the infamous Count causes trouble on English shores well before his earthly body arrives on a ghost ship, whose crew have succumbed already to his monstrous appetite.
Dracula’s desires focus on friends Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray. Lucy slowly falls ill, and even transfusions of blood from a cadre of robust examples of Victorian manhood can’t save her (or probably killed her faster, given that it seems unlikely they were all the same blood type). After death, she returns as a femme fatale, a creature consumed by lust: the very opposite of the upper class model of Victorian femininity, who was expected to be chaste above all else. (The vast majority of women no doubt had a very different experience of sex and sexuality, which history has largely ignored and which survives only in a few personal letters and diaries. But that’s another blog post altogether!)
Poor Lucy must be dispatched by her own fiancee; driving the stake in (no sexual imagery here, nope) by a socially-approved man restores her purity. It doesn’t save her friend Mina from the Count’s dark embrace, however, and she too begins to fall victim.
Upper-class Victorian fears of sex and aggressive women are on full display here; ol’ Bram had some issues all right. But the reason the novel still sells copies isn’t because of prudish neurosis, but because of the lure of the dark side. Even though order is ultimately restored by the destruction of the vampires, some of the characters succumb, at least temporarily, to the whisper of freedom. To doing what society forbids. To being “bad.”
Which leads us into my post for next week. 😉