Blood and Sex

There is a common misconception regarding the Victorian age: that people of the time were completely repressed about sex. While it was the case that personal discussion about an individual's sexuality was hardly a dinner-table subject, the late 19th century was a breakthough period in the examination, investigation and discussion of human sexuality. It was during this period that sociology and anthropology emerged as recognised scientific disciplines; that homosexuality and other aspects of sexuality were studied and acknowledged -- if not approved of; that the term feminism was born, and that the vampire emerged as sexual predator.

The late 19th century was one of great contradictions. Along with this increase in the willingness to explore the new realms of human sexuality, there was still a reluctance to portray it in fiction. Authors would want to look at the new ideas, but would find the way barred, so had to resort of metaphors, analogy and suggestive imagery rather than simple description. One of these outlets was the vampire.

The vampire was a powerful representation of the sexual predator. Drawing upon the body of vampire fiction that followed Polidori's seminal The Vampyre, authors could portray the romanticised, sexual vampire at the hunt and drawing blood, and the analogy was clear. The hunt; the seduction; the passing of body fluids; the bond between vampire and victim: all were aspects of this 'haemosexuality'.

In fact, in some fiction, the vampire was portrayed clearly as the 'lover'. No act in Bram Stoker's Dracula was so heinous as Dracula's seduction first of Lucy and then Mina. He lusted after the women, particularly Mina -- there is no other way to describe it -- as a normal man might lust after a beautiful women. And in turn, though Mina was horrified by his attentions (as would any good Victorian lady) she was also captivated by his charms, and succumbed to them -- the weakness of women being accepted fact in Victorian society. Dracula did not need to perform sex itself, as indeed Stoker did not need to portray it directly: it was clearly implied and if read thus, the novel takes on a tragic, sensual feel.

Between 1816 when Polidori's Ruthven captured the public imagination and 1897, when the most famous vampire novel, Stoker's Dracula, was published vampire novels were very popular. They ranged from the serious, such as Theophile Gauthier's dreamlike La Morte Amoreuse, published in 1836 and often translated as Clarimonde, to the penny-dreadfuls, as popular as modern 'bonkbusters', such as Varney the Vampire which first appeared in 1840.

The turning point, however, came over twenty five years before Dracula, when an author called Sheridan LeFanu wrote the novella, Carmilla, which was the tale of a female vampire. What was surprising was here was an adaptation of the early 18th century romantic vampire, intertwined with the more radical sexuality of the later period. The vampire Carmilla was not only a three-dimensional character as opposed to merely an monster or cypher, but was as voracious as a male: beautiful, cunning, seductive and amoral, and prepared to prey not only upon men but upon women too. And importantly (and unlike Stoker) LeFanu allowed for Carmilla to be sympathetic: perhaps the first literary vampire to receive such an 'honour'. A portrayal of a mortal woman in such a way would have been scandalous, but in a 'mere' horror story, allowable.

But it is Stoker's creation that remains in the memory of the greatest number of people, and it is Dracula that, of all the fiction of this period, has shaped the popular conception of the modern vampire. Stoker drew upon the aristocratic template first used by Polidori, added eastern-european origins from folk tales, as well as ideas from other 19th century fiction such as LeFanu. While he was not a great author or stylist, and indeed his Dracula lacked the sympathetic dimensions of Carmilla, he struck a chord in fin-de-siecle England: Count Dracula caught the popular imagination in a way that no vampire had done before or has done since, and created the beginnings of the myth we know today.

Further online reading

Carmilla, Sheridan LeFanu's novella on line and in full

(c) 1998 Helen Steele. All rights reserved.


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