Wednesday, April 10, 2013
First published: 1897
Edition edited by: Greta Depledge
The Blurb: Harriet Brandt is the daughter of a mad scientist and a mixed-race voodoo priestess. Brought up on her parents’ Jamaican plantation, she is forced to flee to Europe after the slaves revolt. Although everyone is initially attracted to Harriet, people who get close to her seem to sicken and die.
Marryat’s “psychic vampire” represents both the racial “other” and the New Woman of the period, both of whom were perceived as a threat to the fin-de-siècle society. This curious novel engages with key debates, such as race, women’s rights, heredity, syphilophobia and the occult.
This scholarly edition includes a critical introduction by Greta Depledge, suggestions for further reading, explanatory notes and contextual material on female sexuality, hysteria, race, eugenics, and the occult.
The Book: Blurbs lie… so let me say that Harriet, the heroine of this curious tragedy, does not flee to Europe. Her father and mother are killed in a slave revolt and she then spends ten years in a convent before coming of age, inheriting a fortune and moving to Europe.
Florence Marryat, in her time, was the author of some seventy novels and this one is notable for being published in the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was published after Stoker and concerns a living energy vampire but I assume that Marryat was aware of Dracula both because a review in the January 1898 Speaker suggested that this was part of a “swarm of ill-conceived and ill-executed imitations by inferior writers” and also because Maryatt was aware of Stoker, being one of the writers along with (amongst others) Stoker and Conan-Doyle of the collaborative novel The Fate of Fenella.
The novel also treads some ground that Stoker’s did, Harriet represents New Woman and the racial “other”, but whereas Stoker’s “other” came from Eastern Europe, Marryat’s was mixed-race and here I have to give a warning. The language in the book can be incredibly racist, even Harriet, as she denies her heritage, is openly racist. Should that stop us reading a book? No, the language and attitude, unfortunately, is a product of its time and if we fail to acknowledge the sins of the past we are always in danger of repeating them.
Marryat was known for being an opponent of vivisection (and by that I mean human vivisection) and so Harriet’s father is drawn as a vicious vivisectionist, whilst her mixed-race mother is shown to be an Obeah priestess and drawn as a fat, sensuous woman with a vampiric taste for blood. This, it is intimated, came to pass as her mother was bitten by a vampire bat (incorrectly described as creatures that “can fan their victims to sleep with their enormous wings”). If, over a half a century on, Richard Matheson would offer his (anti) hero immunity from vampirism because of a bite from a vampire bat (I am Legend) then here the bat causes it and perhaps shows that Stoker’s use of the bat was already building into the collective psyche as a standard vampire trope.
The other thing this shows is the belief that “bad traits” can be hereditary and passed on (especially via the mother) to children. This is not simple genetics as we would know it but a movement of bad blood (three times bad for Harriet as her mother is wicked and mixed-race, her father is wicked and she is illegitimate – her parents unmarried) and – whilst the word isn’t used – is connected with eugenics. Eugenics was the belief that reproduction should occur between “good” people, whilst those with poor traits should be discouraged (Harriet is told not to marry by a doctor). The movement had much support in the UK (including Winston Churchill) and the USA (where disabled people were sterilised to prevent reproduction) and was an antecedent to the final solution in Germany.
But was Harriet a vampire? Probably, we see her first travelling companion, Olga Brimont, who is very ill after sharing a cabin with her and complained that she felt “as though some one were sitting on my chest” – reminiscent of traditional descriptions of vampiric attacks. A baby Harriet takes a fancy to dies and a young man, Bobby, also dies after spending time with her. Other people are ill after a time in her presence. But could it all be coincidence? Harriet recalls other strange deaths whilst in Jamaica but, against this argument, is the fact that Old Pete (the plantation overseer) was the closest thing she had to a parent and he never became ill. We are reminded that infant mortality was high when the book was written and Bobby, interestingly, was named as a consumptive. As a consumptive, of course, he may have been the victim of vampirism (suspected vampires were still being exhumed and ‘dealt with’ in New England as this point in history when family members succumbed to consumption) but his condition pre-dates meeting Harriet.
A fascinating book and another side to vampirism, beyond being interesting in its own right its subjects underpin the commentary in Dracula to the point that makes it essential. My thanks to the anonymous commentator that put me onto the book.