Varney – the Forgotten Vampire

Posted by Matt Foley on February 19, 2015 in Blog tagged with , ,

Varney – the Forgotten Vampire

By Lauren Owen, Durham University

Owen Varney_the_VampireWho is Varney? He is rather overshadowed by other pre-Dracula vampires like Lord Ruthven, the Byronic villain of Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre” (1819), or Carmilla, the dangerously seductive anti-heroine of LeFanu’s 1872 novella of the same name.

Varney, the Vampyre was a long-running serial probably written by James Malcolm Rymer between 1845 and 1847. (The work was also associated with Thomas Preskett Prest, who is credited with the authorship of The String of Pearls, the novel which introduced the villain Sweeney Todd.) Varney is a ‘penny dreadful’ – one of the racy, sensational, cheaply produced serials published in the nineteenth century to appeal to the urban working class.

Modern readers might well be daunted by Varney‘s sheer size – the book numbers over a thousand pages. Over the course of more than two hundred chapters, Varney takes up and forgets plot threads, changing its own continuity wildly. In one chapter Varney is a highwayman condemned to hang for “a highway robbery of a most aggravated character”, at a later point he is a treacherous supporter of Charles I. Some of the book’s questions are doomed never to be answered – for instance, however did the Bannerworth family get rid of Mr. Jeremiah Shepherd, the Quaker gentleman squatting in their new home?

In spite of enigmas like these, Varney makes a fascinating study to anyone interested in the development of the fictional vampire. The novel’s high point comes at the very beginning, where Varney breaks into the bedroom of the beautiful, innocent Flora Bannerworth, and drinks her blood. The scene is a classic moment of vampire attack which prefigures a similar scene in Dracula. It’s also vivid and dreamlike, enriched with terrifying details: Varney taps on the window with long fingernails, making a sound like hail; he has eyes like polished tin. When Flora tries to escape, he grabs her by the hair, and drags her back to the bed, where he sets about his “hideous repast”.

It’s the beginning of a strange, sometimes bewildering journey. The novel varies wildly between genres – sometimes horrifying, sometimes comic. Like modern vampires, Varney can be both malicious and sympathetic, funny and scary by turns. His first act in the novel, the violent attack on Flora, is mitigated by his later shows of bravura, quick thinking and style. Varney’s opponents are no match for his him, and though often exposed as a vampire before he can do much evil, Varney is never kept down for long. Only an angry mob of peasants gives him pause.

This mob, like the many other corrupt human characters whom Varney encounters, serve as alternative villains in the novel. Varney anticipates many vampires of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries by showing the vampire’s human opponents in a morally dubious light. Whilst Varney chooses his victims carefully, the mob strike without precision, and are terrifyingly volatile. In one vivid scene, they pursue and seize an unfortunate stranger, murdering him in mistake for a vampire. “It is astonishing what people will do in crowds”, Rymer observes.

Varney also anticipates his modern descendants is in his surprizing complexity. He is capable of feeling empathy, even respect, for the worthier of his human opponents. Rymer comments that Varney is in fact “really in his way is a very respectable sort of personage”. Sometimes the vampire even tries to make amends to those he injures.

Earlier depictions in British literature – most famously Polidori’s – depict the vampire as a charismatic, Byronic figure, glamorous and isolated. But Varney is the first vampire to really suffer:

Owen 1“No, no,” he said, “no peace for me; and I cannot sleep, I have never slept what mortals call sleep, the sleep of rest and freedom from care, for many a long year. When I do seem to repose, then what dreadful images awake to my senses! Better, far better, than my glaring eyeballs should crack with weariness, than that I should taste such repose.”

The sympathetic shudder with which he uttered these words was quite proof sufficient of his deep and earnest sincerity. He must indeed have suffered much before he could have give [sic] such a sentiment such an utterance. We pity thee, Varney!

The novel concludes with Varney’s spectacular suicide – he jumps into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, effectively ending both his life and the novel. E. F. Bleiler, in his Introduction to the Dover edition of Varney, suggests that this conclusion was dictated by Rymer’s editor’s instruction. The tale does end with Varney’s account of his life broken off, many stories still untold. Rymer could undoubtedly have continued Varney’s escapades for many chapters more, had he wished.

Perhaps it is this, more than anything else, which is Varney’s chief contribution to the vampire genre. What this long, rambling serial proves beyond doubt is the vampire’s ability to reiterate its formula over and over. For such a repetitive story, it is extraordinary how long it apparently held its readers’ interest.

During the novel, Varney attacks at least nine sleeping women. Frequently he is exposed as a vampire – escapes, assumes a new identity (a monk, a baron, a colonel) and starts again. Just as Varney’s bloodlust never fails, so apparently his readers were slow to tire of chapter one’s vivid motif, the same image which is familiar to us today through many Dracula adaptations: the sleeping woman, the predatory, trespassing vampire. Varney was capable of returning again and again in different disguises, playing out the old scene in a new costume – just as his literary predecessors do so enjoyably today.

Owen endReference

F. Bleiler, Introduction to Varney, the Vampyre, (New York: Dover, 1972), quoted by Carol A. Senf in The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, (Bowling Green. OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press,1988), p.171.




owen,%20laurenAbout the author

Lauren Owen is a third year English Literature PhD candidate at Durham University. Her research focuses upon vampires and authorship, with particular interest in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Her first novel, The Quick, was published in 2014 by Jonathan Cape.



Author portrait © Urszula Soltys

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