For anyone who has found my blog through an interest in Florence Marryat, you might like to know that I have now launched a separate website dedicated to the life and work of my favourite Victorian (www.florencemarryat.org). During the course of my research, I shall be adding plot synopses, details of recent Florentian publications, and any other bits and bobs that might be useful.
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 vodoo 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 monovalent reading. Although Marryat is certainly guilty of some toe-curling racism, this was a 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”. Thank you to Valancourt Books for reviving this much-neglected, and unfairly maligned, vampire.
Nelly Brooke (1868) is one of Florence Marryat’s earlier novels, written during the ascendancy of sensation fiction. The story tells of orphaned twins Nelly and Bertie Brooke, who live a frugal existence in the countryside with their taciturn grandfather and friendly dog, who has the unfortunate name of Thug. Bertie is an ill-tempered and ungrateful invalid who expects Nelly to be his companion and factotum. She is happy to oblige, sublimating her own needs in order to serve him.
The unexpected arrival of their wealthy cousin Nigel offers a glimmer of hope, especially when he develops a strong attachment to Nelly. However, Nigel’s mother is appalled by the prospect of a rustic daughter-in-law, although offers her a job as a lady’s companion on account of her endearing homemaking skills. Nigel disregards her views, but is forced to retreat when Bertie severs all links with him after discovering a serious family feud.
The death of their grandfather leaves the twins in worse financial straits, and Nelly is placed in a quandary when the repellent Dr Monkton proposes marriage. Bertie, imagining a life of comfort and ease commences a campaign of emotional blackmail, forcing her to accept. The Doctor silkily promises that he will look after her, Bertie and Thug, and that they shall want for nothing.
Nelly finds herself the doctor’s wife in a claustrophobic cathedral town. The Doctor’s sister, the venomous Mrs Prowse, resents the intrusion of this addition to the family and does all that she can to undermine her. As a country lass, Nelly blends in like an orange in a coal heap, and her husband is embarrassed by her failure to conform to protocol. It also becomes clear that his promises to care for Bertie and Thug were a simple ruse to get her to accept his proposal, and he repeatedly insults both and threatens to eject them from his house. Bertie, enraged at another man having legal mastery over his sister, deliberately provokes the situation, and the tension between the two men builds.
There is a dramatic showdown when Bertie encourages Thug to sleep on the Doctor’s favourite rug. Dr Monkton attempts to chain Thug, but the normally docile creature flies at his throat and then bites his hand. The incensed Doctor calls for his gun and shots Thug dead. Bertie is then ordered to leave the house immediately.
Nelly is completely distraught by the loss of all that she held dear and falls into a deep depression. A triumphant Mrs Prowse reminds her of her wifely duty, and Nelly makes an admirable attempt to resume normal activities. However, Dr Monkton’s manner towards her becomes increasingly odious and he threatens physical violence in order to make her into the wife he desires. Nelly tries her best to conform, but becomes frantic and distracted when she hears nothing from Bertie. She discovers that her husband has been concealing Bertie’s serious illness from her, and she escapes to London in order to find him.
On arrival, she encounters Cousin Nigel and learns that he has been caring for him at his house. He gets her there just as Bertie wheezes his last breath. The two cousins had enjoyed a reconciliation after the family feud was shown to have been based on a misunderstanding. Nigel and Nelly realise that she has little choice but to return to the home of her abusive husband. The Doctor, however, denies her access, and Nelly returns as an estranged wife to the village of her youth.
Meanwhile, it transpires that Thug was rabid when he bit his persecutor, who is now declining fast. The final ravings of hydrophobia alienate him from his few remaining allies, and he dies with only his sister to mourn his passing. Nelly is unmoved by her husband’s death, but still grief-stricken at the loss of her brother and beloved pet. She allows Cousin Nigel to marry her and take her off to Scotland, but insists that he cannot expect too much from her. Her melancholy persists for some time, but Nigel’s unconditional love and support encourage her to trust him, and they do indeed live happily ever after.
Although much of the plot is standard sensation novel fare, some of Marryat’s themes make Nelly Brooke interesting. It becomes apparent that the subtitle “A Homely Tale” is deeply ironic, and Marryat is clearly subverting the traditional domestic novel. Nelly is there to serve first her brother, then her husband. They both see her as their possession and, as such, to be under their control. She is denied any subjectivity until she remarries. Bertie, when the scales of self-interest fall from his eyes, realises that he made a “bad bargain” of her. Much reference is made to Dr Monkton’s legal rights over his wife, and he repeatedly reminds anyone who will listen that he can treat her as he likes.
The dominant theme of marital cruelty was what upset many contemporary reviewers, some of whom were worried it would deter young girls from marriage. Marryat denied charges of sensationalism, declaring that she wrote only of what she had herself experienced or read about in the newspapers. Monkton’s treatment of Thug is markedly a metaphorical representation of how he believed his wife should be controlled. He is repeatedly restrained, and threatened with a muzzle when he makes a noise. Marryat’s consideration of both animal and wife abuse prefigures some of the feminist debates of the 1870s, when campaigners such as Frances Power Cobbe argued that they were both manifestations of the abuse of patriarchal power.
Although the plot is neatly concluded with a second, and more felicitous, marriage, Marryat allows Nelly to show her true (unfeminine) feelings. She feels no remorse for the death of Dr Monkton (much to the disgust of some reviewers), and she makes it clear to Nigel that the marriage must be on her terms. Rather than being inordinately grateful for another opportunity to bag a husband, she insists that Nigel must earn her trust and respect before they can become a true partnership.
There will be many posts on Florence Marryat’s work over the coming months and years, as she is the alarmingly prolific subject of my proposed doctoral research. Of her seventy five novels, A Star and a Heart, alas, is not one of her strongest.
It tells the tale of glamorous actress Stella Beauchamp (real name Annie Field), who finds herself in the unlikely venue of the Theatre Royal in Leadstone, a dull and dirty manufacturing town. In order to while away the hours between performances, she cynically initiates a love affair with a talented tenor, James Amory, and leads him to believe that they might one day be married. However, Stella’s interest expires with the fall of the final curtain, ans she soon returns to the bright lights of London and the attentions of her wealthy benefactor, the decaying Lord Henry Mecklington.
Amory refuses to renounce his suit that easily and pursues Stella to the Big Smoke. There follows some violent confrontations between the two men, during which Marryat is highly scathing about the apparent degeneration of the aristocracy. Sir Henry’s dyed moustache and foppish ways are compared unfavourably with Amory’s handsome visage and athletic frame. The thoroughly repellent Lord challenges Amory to a fight, believing that the man of lower rank wouldn’t dare respond. To the delight of the reader (I must confess to having emitted a squeak), Amory floors him with a well-aimed punch between the eyes. Although he has triumphed physically, the “painted and padded old donkey” with his wealth and status is the overall victor, claiming Stella as his prize. Amory slinks off with his tail between his legs.
Stella believes her only chance of escaping her life on the stage lies in persuading Lord Henry to marry her. Although she has developed feelings for Amory, she believes it more important to marry for financial security than for love. Lord Henry intimates that a marriage proposal is imminent and she therefore permits certain familiarities. It soon becomes clear, however, than she is no more than a mistress and plaything, and her reputation is in tatters. Lord Henry believes the expensive trinkets he has lavished on her are all she can expect, and the loyalty he demands from her is not to be reciprocated. He wants her to behave as a wife without enjoying the benefits of the status and protection the married state would bring. Stella refuses to be bought in this way and hurls the jewels at his feet, adding for good measure some very unladylike comments about his advanced years and general unattractiveness.
Lord Henry ensures she loses her part in the production of Husbands in Harness (I must find out whether that was a real play), and Stella is forced to adopt a quiet existence in Brighton, now that she is a woman of ill repute with few prospects. You could have knocked me down with a feather, but James Amory just happens to be performing at the Theatre Royal, and there is an emotional reunion and marriage proposal.
Although there is little to commend the plot, Marryat’s exploration of gender relations and marriage is interesting. Stella’s early abuse of her power over Amory is then reflected in Lord Henry’s subsequent behaviour towards her, showing the dangers of an unequal relationship. Stella at various points questions the appeal of marriage, believing it to be pointless unless it brings money and status. As a woman, she has been taught to believe that she should make the best possible marriage (ie a financially advantageous one) and she is able to ignore her growing love for Amory. Lord Henry thinks women are simply to be bought and treated as pets. Although Stella’s career and reputation are ruined after their unfortunate liaison, he comes out of it unscathed. The prevailing sexual double standard dictates that it is far worse for a woman to be impure. The authorial voice declares: “I don’t see why woman shouldn’t be entitled to their ‘youthful errors,’ poor dears! as well as the nobler animals.” Stella admits her imprudence to Amory and he is unperturbed. Marryat shows that only the marriage of equals can be happy and successful.
This edition of the novel also includes a short story – An Utter Impossibility – which tells the tale of Charles Lennox, a handsome aristocrat who wants to have his cake and eat it. After a disastrous affair with the married Beatrice Hilton, he impulsively marries a girlish seventeen year old, purely on the basis of her golden curls and big blue eyes. His yearns for the more mature conversation and companionship of Beatric, who is now widowed, and imagines that they can all live together in a menage a trois. In this he is to be disappointed, and his relationships with both women are unsatisfactory. Beatrice is placed in the iniquitous position of playing confidante to both parties and is forced to flee the country.
Marryat is here considering the idea of companionate marriage and asking whether men can reasonably expect women to be possess both brains and doll-like beauty. Lennox’s young wife is repeatedly referred to as a child or pet; Beatrice, however, is described as his equal. The untimely demise of the child bride allows Lennox to rectify his early mistake and embark upon a more fulfilling marriage.