Valancourt Books, 2009
originally published 1897
To say I was mildly surprised and very pleased with this book is an understatement. Although it came out in the same year that Stoker published his Dracula, the titular vampire in this story doesn't bite anyone in the neck, nor is there any bloodletting or bloodsucking here. As I generally do with any new author (or at least anyone new to me), I went into this novel with zero expectations and quickly realized that while there are definitely commonalities between the two, Marryat's book is vastly different. And it's really, really good. I mean REALLY good. Like loved-it good. Like holy crap good. Like stayed-awake-all-night-to-finish good.
I won't divulge much more than what the blurb says to try to keep things spoiler free. The central character is one Harriet Brandt, who has lived in a convent since the age of 11. She's now out in the world, and we first meet this young woman in the seaside city of Heyst (Belgium), eating at the table d'hôte along with the other guests at the Lion d'Or. She is someone who enjoys her food, and indeed she is noted as "eating like a cormorant," the first of many animal-based references to the women in this novel. The fact of the matter is that Harriet is a bit of a curiosity -- she's beautiful, naive, and alone, and she catches the eye of everyone with whom she comes into contact. She has a beautiful singing voice which adds to her charm, but she is starved for friendship and affection. On the downside, it seems that anyone with whom she comes into close contact begins to feel ill -- as the cover blurb notes, they seem "to sicken or die." When tragedy ensues and a doctor is brought in to tend another character's very sick baby, it turns out that he's very familiar with Harriet's family history. It seems our Miss Brandt was the daughter of "a mad scientist" and a "voodoo priestess" from Jamaica (Obeah, actually, as it turns out); dad was so evil that the slaves on his plantation revolted which resulted in the deaths of Harriet's parents. Harriet was left very well off, with more money than she knows what to do with, and it is now hers since she's come of age. The doctor attributes Harriet's condition to her racial make up -- and to the rumor that her mother had once been bitten by a vampire bat, leaving Harriet's predisposition a matter of tainted blood.
|Florence Marryat, borrowed from Victorian Secrets
So far this description seems like a set up for a pretty standard vampire novel, but I can attest that this is far from the case. It didn't really take long before I figured out that there's w-a-a-a-y more going on here than meets the eye so I slowed my pace and just let the book speak to me. As it turned out, Blood of the Vampire is definitely a read-between-the-lines sort of novel -- what Marryat has done here, in part, is to reveal the prevailing attitudes during turn-of-the-century Britain dealing with (among other things) issues of race and "blood", family background, the dangers of independent women of means alone in British society and the threats posed by female sexuality. She does this very cleverly, making the focus of her story a woman who represents all of the fears held by people "in society," a phrase used time and again throughout this book. She also sets up this book so that Harriet Brandt is one of four women under study here, so that many comparisons and contrasts can be made among them. Exactly how this happens I'll leave for anyone interested, but I will say that it's not the sort of thing I'd recommend to someone who wants the standard vampire-horror novel. Au contraire, it's something I'd definitely recommend to anyone like me who is fascinated by Victorian society and how it is captured in literature, most especially by women of the time. There are plenty of online reviews & dissections of this novel, but do read it first.
Just a sort of reader beware thingy to say and then that's it. Even though I get that in Britain's imperialist heyday racial slurs and appalling descriptions of colonized subjects were pretty much how it was, there is a lot of racial negativity in this book that might bother some people.
Thanks again, Valancourt!