Gothic Literature – A Reflection of Social Change – 1 Religion Part 2 Vampyres, Vampires, Vampiri – Polidori’s Vampyre

ASK anyone to name a Gothic monster, the chances are that the first mentioned will be the Vampire. Will everyone have the same image? Certainly not! Research the listed standard images, all from tales of the vampiric – which would be the archetype you would choose? 

Vanrney the Vampire             Carmilla                                        Nosferatu

Bela Lugosi  Dracula               Christopher Lee Dracula         Louis Jourdan Dracula

Leslie Nielsen Dracula           Gary OldmanDracula                Kate Beckinsale Underworld

Robert Pattinson (Twilight)

Each of these depictions covers the representation of a vampire at various times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main vampire among the pictures is, inevitably, Count Dracula, though never truly twice the same! In these, however, can we see any noticeable changes in attitude, and are these reflected in the social constructs of the era they were produced?

The concept of vampirism is, as far as we can tell, as old as civilisation – there were fiends which fed from human blood in the tales of Mesopotamia, China, Greece, Rome… While not necessarily the vampire which we would automatically recognise today, they were, nevertheless creatures of nightmare which consumed the life force of their victims through draining them of blood.

The idea of the modern (perhaps better termed European) vampire, was mainly prevalent in the areas we now know as Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and into Eastern German and Hungary – what is generalised a Central Europe, though also in Greece, the Balkans and Turkey as well. It is, however, through Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula that the standard association with the area of Transylvania with the homeland of vampires was born.

“For, let me tell you, he (the vampire) is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India even in the Chersones; and in China…the wake of the Berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.” (Dracula 239)

Interestingly, the great imperial power, Britain, is apparently free of resident vampires…

How might we interpret this as a reflection of the ideas of the time?

What was Britain’s role on the wider world stage?

Why does this make Dracula’s determination to move to England, and more specifically London, all the more significant?

Why was this the chosen area? Primarily, the link is to the fifteenth century Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Ţepeș or Vlad Dracul (also known, for fairly self evident reasons, as Vlad the Impaler). Unlike Stoker’s creation, however, this Dracula was an historical figure, and one who is still regarded as a hero and freedom fighter, defender of Christendom from the Ottoman Empire when it was under threat. The only portrait of Vlad III dates from the very early sixteenth century and hangs in Schloß Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria:

vlad_tepes_002

The portrait here, when compared with the Count of the novel, is  most certainly not the vampire lord, bearing no real resemblance to Stoker’s creation, though van Helsing does intimate a link:

“I have asked my friend Armenius, of Buda-Pesth University, to make is record…The Draculas were, says Armenius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by the coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One.” (240)

Why, then, would Transylvania be chosen as the key area in the first part of the tome? An explanation is offered at the start of the novel:

“I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps of the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a noble of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wilds and least known portions of Europe.” (Dracula, 1)

It is the strangeness, the otherness, the idea that it verges on the edge of civilisation, still feudal in nature and riddled with superstition that makes it so attractive as its setting.

This is something which we find in many of the nineteenth century vampire tales. The standardly accepted first, Polidori’s The Vampyre, while starting in England, has Ruthven and Aubrey travel to the continent, first to Italy and then on to Greece, travelling eastward, and therefore, by definition, away from the rational West and to the superstitious Orthodox East, via Catholic Italy. Is this unusual for the time? Hardly! This is the standard route for the Grand Tour which involved taking in the homes of Classical civilisation, the civilisations upon which the rationality of Western Europe was grounded. Indeed, it is highly likely that Aubrey and Ruthven’s trip is based on that of Lord Byron’s creation (Byron was Polidori’s patient, and cited as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know) of a young narrator and Augustus Darvell, someone of whom the narrator was in awe, though in The Vampyre, Ruthven is most certainly Byron! Aubrey parts company with Ruthven in Rome after finding out the latter had seduced the daughter of a mutual acquaintance, heading out to Greece where he falls in love with the innocent figure of the peasant girl Ianthe who is continually distracting Aubrey from his drawings of the classical ruins with legends of vampires. The key hint of the inevitable conclusion to the sojourn in Greece:

“She detailed to him the traditional appearance of these monsters, and its horror was increased, by hearing a pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven; he, however, still persisted in persuading her, that there could be no truth in her fears, though at the same time he wondered at the many coincidences which had all tended to excite a belief in the supernatural power of Lord Ruthven.”

In this association, we see the standard Gothic trope of das Unheimliche of Freud (1919) – the frightening supernatural brings us back to that with which we are familiar – in recognising Ruthven in the descriptions of the ‘vampyre’, Aubrey has an insight of highest importance, though he does not act to save Ianthe, and is unable to save either his sister or himself after the return to London due to an oath of silences he swears to the dying Ruthven after they are ambushed by bandits. The resurrected (or rather reanimated) vampire, Ruthven, is able, due to Aubrey’s holding to his oath until it is too late, becomes the dominant power of the tale as the oath is extracted BEFORE the ‘death’.

The role of religion in The Vampyre is minimal, though, according to O’Malley (2006):

“…this fascination with Ruthven mirrors the Gothic fascination with Catholicism as unredeemable alien, deadly and yet irresistibly seductive.” (147)

While this is debatable (the fascination could equally be with Byron and his reputation after Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1816 novel, Glenarvon, and the image of him left in the public mind), there could easily be an element of truth to the mirroring of the emotions evinced by the portrayal of the Church of Rome in the Gothic in general. Equally one can see that the Catholic would be relatively difficult to introduce as the protagonists in Aubrey and Ruthven are both English, and therefore, despite much of the supernatural taking place in Catholic/Orthodox countries, not part of the “Papal Aggression” which caused such fear among the evangelical clergy and the conservatively Protestant populace of the British mainland. Unlike later vampires, though, Ruthven does not, by his bite, infect those upon whom he feeds, turning them into the Undead as later vampire fiction will intimate.  The vampire here is part of the establishment as well, not simply part of the populace. It could perhaps be argued that he mirrors the growing influence and fear from the Oxford Movement which was to reach its heights two decades later, where the Catholic ritualism was adopted by a sector of the established church and was to develop into the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, where the infiltrator was not a foreigner, was not a stranger, but was a corrupted limb of the established social hierarchy, a canker which might fester, grow and infect the entire body of the church and state, sucking the pure Protestant faith dry: as Henry Morley (cited in O’Malley) stated in 1852:

“To ‘an honest ghost’ one has no objection; but an animated corpse which goes about in Christian attire, and although never known to eat, or drink, or shake hands, is allowed to sit at good men’s feasts; which renews its odious life every hundred years by sucking a young lady’s blood, after fascinating her by motions which resemble mesmerism burlesqued…passes all bounds of toleration.” (149)

(This is evidently based upon the early description of Ruthven:

“…it was caused by their fearing the observation of one, who by his colourless cheek, which never gained a warmer tint from the blush of conscious shame or from any powerful emotion, appeared to be above human feelings and sympathies, the fashionable names for frailties and sins. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house.” (33))

The infiltration here can easily be twisted to associate with the perceived heartlessness, superstition and corruption of the Catholic Church in the eyes of the more rabid Protestant critics, (eg the “motions which resemble mesmerism burlesqued” might be exaggerated to refer to the liturgical movements and genuflections et al of the Mass, the “animated corpse…in Christian attire” a reference to the again deemed spiritually dead Catholicism which exists though only covered in the thinnest veneer of Christianity – such heavily biased and anti Catholic ideas were commonplace at the time, as we have seen), it could be equally argued that this is most certainly a step too far, and that the corruption incarnate in Ruthven is in fact a moral corruption rather than any religious connotation whatsoever, particularly when the association of the the two nobles, Ruthven and Byron.

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