This is a chapter about fictions and fantasies, about projections of freakish creatures who will to die. Such projections show the dark side of the Victorian psyche, coupling deep-seated fear of violent and willful death with irrational terror of hidden bogeys that may lurk within the mind. With its horrid and ultimately vengeful monster, Frankenstein (1818) is the romantic prototype of this sort of literature. Frankenstein's monster gradually evolves an immoral interior to match his hideous frame and eventually builds his own blazing funeral pyre to consume his own desolate life. This kind of fantasy took hold in the Victorian era, when propriety and self-denial masked a powerful sense of alienation and estrangement (see Kayser, 1996). People who did not believe that they bore monsters within eagerly sought stories of monsters without. They preferred to feel subject to dark, external forces rather than search for them as inner demons as we post-Freudians do today. Like Victor Frankenstein just after his creation of the Monster, they hid from their demons, not realizing that they might be their "own vampires," their "own spirit let loose from the grave" (Shelley, 72). Improbable worlds thus became popular worlds as Victorian readers relished tales like Shelley's and those of the brothers Grimm. Displaced fears of suicide were relocated in the realm of fantasy where ghoulish other selves became perpetrators of suicide. Meanwhile there was little conscious recognition that monsters were images or dreams of one's own self. Most Victorians could not countenance Schiller's dictum, "All creatures born by our fantasy, in the last analysis, are nothing but ourselves" (qtd. in Rogers, 3).
Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847)
The mid-century abounded in such fantastical fictions. About the time that Matthew Arnold was agonizing over Empedocles on the brink of Etna, the publishing house of E. Lloyd, Esq., Salisbury Square, London, was offering its avid readers Varney the Vampire, boldly vanishing into the mouth of Vesuvius. Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847) came to be one of the most popular mid-century "penny dreadfuls." For a single penny, Victorian readers could relish the first four parts of this feast, since parts two, three and four came free with the purchase of part one. Sir Francis Varney proved a hard man to kill, a man whose life spanned generations, and whose lengthy story needed [101/102] considerable space for its telling and eventually gained thousands of pounds for its publishers. A titled gentleman who had once died by hanging and had then been revived by a young medical student, Varney was in fact no man at all, but a freak, an anomaly. Instantly revivable when bathed in moonlight, he could not die by any natural means but was condemned to immortality. His creators tell us that "he would gladly have been more human and lived and died as those lived and died whom he saw around him. But being compelled to fulfill the order of his being, he never had the courage absolutely to take measures for his own destruction, a destruction that should be final in consequence of depriving himself of all opportunity of resuscitation" (III, 274). Like Empedocles, then, Varney became a surrogate Victorian, another self. Capable of endless resuscitation as Empedocles is of endless reincarnation, Varney fulfills the Victorian yearning for immortality. Guilty of selfishness and blood-letting, he deserves the Victorian punishment of death. Whatever the order of his being, however, Varney seems not to have had the right to take his own life.
Unlike Empedocles, Varney is a distorted, fantastical self, free from most human constraints. Through him working-class Victorians could experience the forbidden, just as Arnold's more refined readers could through Empedocles. When Varney's tedium vitae becomes unendurable, the vampire determines to destroy himself. His visionary powers reveal to him that death by drowning could put an end to his existence. Carefully, he stages his demise, throwing himself overboard from a ship with little hope of rescue. Found and presumed dead, he is carried off to a "boneyard," but, alas, moonbeams enter the vault where he has been placed, and Varney once again comes to life. Varney next puts himself in the care of a priest, hoping to be reformed. But the vampire really has no faith in religion and so devises a last, desperate attempt to die. Accompanied by a witness, Varney makes his way to the crater of Mount Vesuvius and disappears. "Tired and disgusted with a life of horror, he flung himself in to prevent the possibility of a reanimation of his remains" (III, 2).
Varney's tale ends with this event, but Varney's readers would have been left unsettled, all the same. For what Varney the Vampire is saying is really what "Empedocles on Etna" says: when the burden of life becomes too heavy, it is acceptable to lay it down. If immortality means a continuation of mental or metaphysical suffering, suicide can be preferable. This subversive message is again made safe for Victorians because it occurs in tales whose characters seem far removed from nineteenth-century England. Empedocles, as Arnold carefully pointed out, "was a Sicilian Greek born between two and three thousand years" (Allott, 591) before the [102/103] mid-Victorian day in Britain. Varney, his authors also take care to announce, is inhuman: "There are some good points about the — man, we are going to say — and yet we can hardly feel justified in bestowing upon him that title, — considering the strange gift of renewable existence which was his" (III, 2). The monstrous or uncanny, like the past, is not subject to acceptable Victorian codes of behavior. Death-wishing that can be displaced far enough from home can be fully depicted, discussed, and examined.
In the case of Varney, there was both something to remove him from the haunts of his working-class reader and something to bring him close. As a vampire and a gentleman, he seemed remote from everyday life. But in his tedium vitae, in his mixture of good and bad, and in his final despair over religion, he was akin to many. Lloyd's writers carefully stressed these points. if Varney were really immortal, they go so far as to suggest, his monstrous self could still be present:
If it were as, indeed, it seemed to be the case, that bodily decay in him was not the result of death, and that the rays "of the cold chaste moon" were sufficient to revivify him, who shall say when that process is to end! and who shall say that, walking the streets of giant London at this day, there may not be some such existences? Horrible thought that, perhaps seduced by the polished exterior of one who seems a citizen of the world in the most extended signification of the words, we should bring into our domestic circle a vampyre(Varney, vol. 3, p. 2)!
More than working-class mistrust of aristocracy underlies this passage. London's streets might conceal ghoulishness and suicide as well as treachery.
Arnold, Poems. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. Ed. Allott, Kenneth. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.
Briggs, Julia. Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story London: Faber, 1977.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative New York: Knopf, 1984.
Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature New York: McGraw Hill, 1966.
Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood, 3 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1970.
Last modified 4 July 2001