Varney the Vampire: Monster or Victim?
Varney, the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood is a gothic tale by James Malcolm Rymer. It was published in the years 1845–47 as a series of weekly pamphlets known as "penny dreadfuls.” The original edition contained 876 pages, 232 chapters, and 667,000 words. As the title suggests It is a tale about a vampire, Sir Francis Varney, and it was responsible for many of the vampire stories that followed, including Dracula. It also introduced many of the facets of the vampire stories so familiar to us today, including the vampire’s fangs, the puncture wounds on his victim’s neck, the visits to various vaults, the helpless victims, usually beautiful women, and the angry mobs with torches.
The plot focuses on Sir Francis Varney’s attempts to move into the house occupied and owned by the Bannerworths: Mrs. Bannerworth and her children, Henry, George and Flora. Other occupants appear as the tale progresses: A family friend, Mr. Marchdale; Flora's fiancé Charles Holland; Charles’ uncle Admiral Bell; and Bell’s assistant Jack Pringle. We learn very early that Varney bears a strong resemblance to a portrait in Bannerworth Hall, and the reader soon becomes convinced that he is actually Marmaduke Bannerworth, the former owner of the home who, one soon suspects, desires to reside in it again. Varney himself is a puzzling and at times incomprehensible character. As one critic has suggested: “The story is at times inconsistent and confusing, as if the author did not know whether to make Varney a literal vampire or simply a human who acts like one.”
Rymer was born on February 1, 1814. As a boy he was apprenticed to a furniture maker, but ultimately became a civil engineer, and became somewhat successful in that occupation, obtaining a patent for the invention of a new kind of castor, the small wheel at the bottom of different kinds of furniture. In 1842, however, his writing career began in earnest. In that year he published the Queen’s Magazine, a publication that lasted for only five issues. Undaunted by that failure, however, he began writing a serial called Ada, the Betrayed, a work which quickly established his fame. Ada was followed by many other novels. He then became friends with the publisher George Reynolds and began to write regularly for Reynold’s Miscellany. In 1869, after a series of personal tragedies, including the death of his first wife and a five-year-old son by his second wife, he stopped writing altogether. He died in 1884.
His fame, however, rests solely on Varney, which, one has to keep in mind was a “penny dreadful” published over the course of two years. The result was a work which, as one might suspect, has many inconsistences, not only in the telling but in the character of Varney himself. The plot or story often becomes confusing, especially regarding the main character. It become clear very early on that Rhymer seems uncertain whether to have Varney really be a vampire or simply a human who is pretending to be one, perhaps the former owner of Bannerworth. In the very first chapter we are presented with what seems to be a real vampire. We are also presented with the language and atmosphere of a “penny dreadful.”
Here is an excerpt from the opening of the novel: A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window. It is the finger nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased. Intense fear paralysed the limbs of the beautiful girl. That one shriek is all she can utter – with hand clasped, a face of marble, a heart beating so wildly in her bosom, eyes distended and fixed upon the window, she froze with horror. The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon its face. It is perfectly white –perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth –the fearful looking teeth –projecting like those of stone of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang like.
With a sudden rush that could not be foreseen the figure seized the the long tresses of her hair. He drags her head to the bed’s edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang like teeth – a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampire is at his hideous repast.
This is Varney as vampire; during the rest of the novel he reappears several times. Varney as the human who from time to time appears as the vampire is a much different being. That Varney claims to be a suffering human being who has been forced to be a vampire because at one time was a traitor and another time murdered his son. At one point in the novel he appears to die and is brought back to life through “galvanism,” the same treatment by which the monster in Frankenstein is brought to life.
His “human” side is revealed when Flora and her brother are discussing Sir Francis Varney’s desire to possess Bannerworth Hall. When her brother tells her that she seems to have recovered from the vampire’s attack and seems “happier and more composed,” she replies that she is. She goes on to say, “Somehow, brother, since that interview I have not had the same sort of dread of Sir Francis Varney which before made the very sound of his name a note of terror to me. His [Varney’s] words, and all he said to me during that interview which took place so strangely between us, indeed I know not, tended altogether rather to make him, to a certain extent, an object of my sympathies rather than my abhorrence.”
Varney, after all his adventures, both as vampire and normal suffering human, ultimately commits suicide by throwing himself into Mount Vesuvius. According to scholars in the field, Varney is the first example of the "sympathetic vampire," a vampire who despises his condition but is nonetheless a slave to it. They claim that he is responsible for such characters as Countess Zaleska in the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter, Louis de Pointe du Lac in Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and Angel in the T.V show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some scholars also claim that Rymer’s novel also influenced the creators of Marvel Comics; one of the characters in the series, a vampire, is named Varnae.
The name of James Malcolm Rymer and his novel Varney, the Vampyre are not known to many today, but they crop up from time to time in unexpected ways, especially in popular culture. In light of that phenomenon, certainly it seems fitting that both the author and his work be “resurrected,”, not through galvanism but by our modern social networks. One suspects that Varney would be welcome on Facebook or Instagram.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major
interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured
widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors
of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in
The World & I over the past years.