Varney the Vampyre – Part 3

June 10, 2009 at 1:20 am (Classical Vampire Literature, Vampires around the World) (, )

A search of the Internet often takes you to strange and interesting sites. In my research on Varney the Vampire I came across reference to the book in VICTORIAN SUICIDE: MAD CRIMES AND SAD HISTORIES by Barbara T. Gates. This book is reprinted as part of VictorianWeb.Org

The author devotes a chapter to Varney the Vampyre, pointing out that the Victorians found themselves fascinated by monsters such as Frankstein’s creature because it expressed a part of themselves that they repressed.

“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 … Displaced fears of suicide were relocated in the realm of fantasy where ghoulish other selves became perpetrators of suicide.”

During the Victorian era, the idea of suicide was repugnant, one did one’s duty, one lived lives of propriety. According Barbara Gates, Varney the Vampyre provided the middle class a look into the forbidden, especially the idea of suicide. Varney disgruntled with his immortal existence, seeks to end it by jumping from a ship, where there is little chance of his body being recovered, but it is. His body is placed in a boneyard, when moonlight falls upon it,  he is immediately revived. He later jumps into an active volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, thus ending the story. Barbara Gates points out the similarities to a literary poem of the time, “Empedocles on Etna” by Matthew Arnold (1822–88), where the hero also commits suicide by jumping into a volcano.

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.

I suspect that the choice of a volcano had little to do with exploring the issue of suicide in a way that could be accepted by society, as much as a convenient way to end the series, for which interest had dwindled or which writers no longer wanted write. If you have an immortal character that can be killed but is revived by the touch of moonlight, there is very few ways in which to definitely kill off the main character. Conan Arthur Doyle discovered the same difficulties trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls.

I think the popularity of Varney the Vampire during the Victorian period is for the same reason that Angel or Buffy captured our attention. A good story with lots of action, although Varney wasn’t as good looking as Angel.

To read T. Gates discussion of Varney, http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/books/suicide/06a.html.

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