Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Won't Somebody Think of the Children? Problems of gender in vampire fiction, part 3:

This is the third in a series of posts about 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction, the first and second can be found here and here.

Bad Motherhood and Hungry Vampires:
Perhaps the most significant difference between male and female vampires in the late 19th Century is this: female vampires are hungry.

Oh, male vampires eat people, don't worry about that. But they are not ravenous about it. No. Male vampires may be calculating, conniving, vengeful, insidious. They may be as loathsome and inexplicable to good WASPy masculinity as any stereotypical seducer, but of the bunch only Varney approaches that desperation, that female need for his victims. Besides, even when he gets to that state of frantic single-mindedness, the object of his interest is beautiful, innocent young women. It's peculiar, perhaps, but it isn't unhealthy. Female vampires can't even manage good ol' heterosexuality. Oh, they may bite the odd, unwary man but that's more of an afterthought. Female vampires have a very particular form of sustenance.


The fear in these narratives, the terror of female sexuality is as nothing to this fear of the influence a corrupt woman might have upon the innocence of youth. As early as Varney, the Vampyre we are told that this is the peak of all horrors the vampire can bestow. When asking Charles Holland if he would wed a woman who has experienced vampiric attack, Marchdale's strongest argument is, “if you wed, you would look forward to being blessed with children—those sweet ties which bind the sternest hearts to life with so exquisite a bondage. Oh, fancy, then, for a moment, the mother of your babes coming at the still hour of midnight to drain from their veins the very life blood she gave to them.”

What an image! It calls to mind Lilith birthing monsters, of Lady Macbeth calling on the spirits of the air to 'unsex' her. A woman who walks outside the divinely ordained strictures of behaviour is, after all, made unfit for her purpose. That purpose being, of course, the nurturing children.

So these vampire-women are a monstrous inversion of the female-biology-as-destiny. Not only are they 'failed' women, rendered incapable of 'normal' reproduction - their appetites, their hunger, lead them to steal that role, that purpose from other women. Harriet Brandt – oh, unwittingly – causes the death of Margaret Pullen's baby by her smothering, off-putting attentions. Sarah, cruel, wicked, sexually deviant, steals the village children to extend her cursed life. Lucy Westernra is a siren, calling toddling East End babes from their games. Dracula's 'brides' fawn and squabble until they are handed what is generally assumed to be a baby in a bag.

The combined image of violence and motherhood – the vampire in her bloodstained shroud, clutching a child to her breast, her face buried in its neck – is such a stark perversion of breastfeeding, of a mother's kiss, that it sits uneasily even with the modern imagination. If we add to the mix the Victorian preoccupation with eugenics and social reform, we see the vampire as the 'unfit' mother, causing the death of her own, and other women's babes. In the light of the high infant mortality rates of the time, this serves to make all women deeply suspect.

Of course, male vampires also suggest an amalgamation of violence and reproductive capacity but, with women, this implication is intensified by the non-supernatural reproductive aspect of femininity. The preserve of life and death, the role of judge and creator are – in Christian iconography – male. The taking and creation of life is pre-ordained – it is God's will, God's plan.

Vampires reproduce in a way that has no divine sanction, they live through taking life. They are an attempt, by a bodily entity, to take control. It is no surprise that Dracula is an alchemist, a proto-scientist, a necromancer trying to wrest control away from divinely ordained means. In becoming a vampire, he is seeking knowledge that, properly, belongs to God. Vampire women, too are attempting to move one step up that hierarchical ladder that places men above women, God above men. They are taking agency, attempting to control their own reproduction. But, like Dracula, they merely find themselves sliding lower. As he attempted to attain the heights of knowledge, of immortality, he became instead grotesque, sub-human, effeminate. Likewise, these women become not liberated or rational, they become mindless sleepwalkers, clutching after their own failed femininity. They become desperate gluttons, furious seductresses, snatching the children they have denied themselves with bloodied hands.

By inference, of course, this warning applies to all men who would be gods, to all women who would be men, who would through sexual agency, through abortion or contraception, seek to attain the male privilege of manoeuvring in the world. By seeking to become masculine, all these women do is fail in their femininity. The men have it worse, of course, by seeking Godhead, they fail in their humanity, because what fate could be worse than becoming a woman?

The Vampire as Cougar:

Of course, if it's difficult being a young, sexually desirable female vampire/victim, if it is all always your fault on account of your weird sexual desires, your frankly alarming reproductive capability, and your inexplicable desire to be something more than a smiling supporter of the substandard men in your life, it sucks1 even worse being a female vampire if you are past nubility.

After all, the sole function of both women and sex is the divinely ordained function of reproduction, and that power is made to be legislated and controlled by men. So, if you can keep these naturally perverse women under control for long enough, then at the age of... oh, somewhere between 35 and 50... they politely disappear. God alone knows where they go, although we suspect its something to do with charity drives and hospital visits. It's not like they have anything left to live for.

Bitter irony aside, even I was surprised by the number of these 'middle aged' female vampires. Oh, they have no representatives as iconic as the white whiskered Dracula, but they exist in some numbers, and the chaotic implications effect they have upon patriarchal and reproductive norms is remarkable. Not only do these cougar-vamps refuse to have the decency to remain in their places and their graves, they have the unspeakable audacity to want to cling on to life beyond their reproductive prime. Again, it's almost as though they want to be men.

They can't manage it, of course. So, we have Mrs Amworth (1922/3), a widow and gadabout who stirs up a small rural community with her whist drives and dinner parties. How are these men to cope? Especially as she refuses to do the decent thing and quieten down into respectable, invisible middle age? Yes, that Mrs Amworth, who has the audacity to look ten years younger than her actual age! I mean, what kind of irresponsibility is that? She might almost be giving the message to men that she is reproductively available! Heavens, if she looks that young, they might almost be deceived by her!

Still, she embarrasses herself as our culture tells us all mature women must do if they attempt to be sexually active. She throws herself at confirmed bachelors, makes unwelcome moves upon respectable, married women and tries to bite the boy who mows her lawn. Shocking stuff. No alternative but to drive a stake through her heart.

Or we have Lady Duncayne (1896), a withered old hag: improper, idle, grotesque. She is a contradiction, a recluse who spends her year circling the pleasure spots, she hungers after continued life long past the date that nature would have told her to be off this earth, to stop being a bother.

Hugely rich, she squats over opulence that she cannot enjoy; too much money to spend it,too much life to enjoy it, she clutters up the fictional landscape, monopolising doctors, hotel rooms, attention, refusing to move over and accept that her bit is done. She employs young women, healthy, robust, nubile young women, steals them away from families and beaus, stifles them in aged company and lack of occupation. If this weren't enough, of course, she literally steals their life, transfusing their fresh, young blood into her withered veins. There is a terrible selfishness in Lady Duncayne; refusing to accept that her day is past, that all the things her gold can buy should pass on to other, younger pairs of hands. She even tries to steal the love interest of the heroine, buying his services as a doctor so that he would be incapable of marrying, of joining the wider current of young, attractive life.

And, like the vampires that have gone before them, these women are effeminate rather than masculine. In refusing to be demure, retiring, they have cast aside what little elevation brought to them by the civilising property of being 'feminine' and are instead sunk to the level of 'bad women'. They are immoral, lacsivious. Lady Ducayne, we are told, reads French novels and laughs at them, while she sleeps through English sentimental literature. She thinks that anyone, anything can be bought. Her power of temptation is not her sexual allure, but her money - the filthy lucre offered to those for whom liquidity is a pressing need. The cost, however is either the life or the morality. She is the Marxist vampire in the truest sense, exploiting the working poor, bleeding them dry, failing even to show the 'feminine charity' expected in one of her rank.

Mrs Amworth seems harmless in comparison, a mere gossip, a mayfly, a flirt. Still, she is disturbing to the established order. She dares to be sensually aware after the death of her husband and her fertility. She speaks warmly, even lasciviously, of the caress of the earth which one feels in the grave – that perverse female sexuality at work again. When she desires a man,she will claw at his window, screeching and battling to get in. If she slips through a crack in his armour, she will stifle him with her neediness. The image – a woman-become-animal scrabbling for admittance – leaves one in no doubt as to the view of female desire or affection held by the authorial voice. To let her in, after all, is to chance damnation. It is telling that she is 'discovered' by a trope often found in the folklore surrounding witches – an injury inflicted in her transformed state being noticeable upon her human body. Like a folkloric witch, she is a mature female body out of control, in need of reprisal.

Just as male vampires defile the sanctity of female chastity and young female vampires bring corruption to the sacred role of motherhood, so mature female vampire unsettles the balance, the equilibrium of the family unit. If Mrs Amworth can get a respectable village of middle-aged rustics behaving like excitable teenagers, what hope then for the younger generations? And it is at the younger generations that she is casting her cap, barging younger, more viable, women out of the way. Who does she feed upon but her gardener? A scarcely legal boy, who is doubtless utterly overcome by the attentions of an experienced woman who looks younger than her years. And when the gardener ails, she attempts to 'trap' other men into relationships, or she displays her sexual ambiguity by attacking a woman only identified as 'the Major Pearsalls's wife.'

To a certain extent, Luella Miller (1903) can be seen in this way, although she is by no means 'aged'. She is desirable, improperly so for a married woman. She draws people in – male or female – she enchants them, makes them lose all sense of self-preservation. Like Harriet Brandt, she is suffocating, bringing on an unexplained malaise to all who are foolish enough to help her. Again, like Harriet, she seems unaware of the effect she has. However fatal, she is no femme fatal. The pain she causes leaves her hurt and bewildered – pathetically so.

Pathetic is the word for it: A feminist hatred of effeminacy? 
To stay with Luella Miller for a moment, it's interesting the way this discourse of good and bad women plays in to early feminist discourse. After all, much has been made of Wilkins Freeman's feminism, the way that her story critiques the society which requires women to be beautiful but useless, the way she contrasts Luella Miller's repellent babyishness with the brusque, working class practicality of Lydia Anderson. Yet however scathing a critique this is of the society that keeps women of a certain class unable to help themselves, the very vitriol of Lydia's narration establishes it as a tale of woman against woman.

Lydia's first grief with Luella is that ever popular one, the one that stems from the fear patriarchal culture drills into women from so young an age – the belief that other woman are the enemy because they are trying to steal your man. Indeed, the whole conflict of the story is framed as the struggles of a 'good' woman against a 'bad' one. After all, Luella is indolent, alluring, and callous whilst Lydia is hard-working, compassionate, practical, something that echoes the femininity/effeminacy discourse so closely that I am uncomfortable to claim Luella Miller as a feminist vampire text. Yes, it begins to unsettle that set of expectations but the demands of the vampire narrative are too strong. Luella's behaviour could easily be understood through the prism of Mrs Amsworth, Harriet Brandt. She preys on the children she teaches, the much younger men who admire her. Young women, full of hope and life, fall victim to her unnatural, widow's vanity. Rather than settle to housework and charity to her neighbours - as a woman without a man should, as Lydia did - she continues to intrigue. She even (how dare she?) marries again.

No, Luella is not the model of sedate, culturally acceptable femininity. She is a caricature of effeminacy, she is all the worst bits of which a bad woman is capable. That these are the necessary product of constructed, social femininity is besides the point. Everything she gets is got on the back of those feminine wiles of hers. A 'good' woman has no time for those - Lydia, pipped at the post on her one prospect of heteronormative life settles herself down to spinisterhood, to housework and to helping her neighbours. However, we know Luella is a bad 'un, from a patriarchal perspective, because before she married, she even worked. Shocking, isn't it?

Unsettling the misogynist discourse – where is the blame?

So, for all the questioning that Wilkins Freeman did of that model of gendered expectations (and Lydia certainly does unsettle them) the only vampire story I have found that directly addressed this culture of blame, of 'bad' women, is August Derleth's The Drifting Snow(1939). Here, the vampires are oddly helpless, revenants who have no power to leave the place where they died, no hope but to lure those who wish to aid them out to the same snowy death they encountered on the hill.

Their method of hunting is, of course, codified as feminine: their very existence draws men to them. And, of course, it is always men. The helplessness of these vampires entices the virile, the courageous to assist them, any 'feeding' that occurs is the parasitic effect of weakness upon strength. Naturally, in being drawn to this softness, the man is emasculated, is made a soft snow-vampire, is forced to wait and draw the attentions of those stronger than himself. We could expect, then, the old saw that if a woman is attractive to a man in any way, the consequences of that attraction are entirely her fault.

But Derleth undermines this, specifically and directly. “One night” the explanation goes, “[my father] found out that one of my brothers... had been very familiar with one of the servants, a very pretty girl, older than I was. He thought she was to blame, though she wasn't, and he didn't find it out until too late.”

"Though she wasn't". Three words. Three words and this story is turned on its head. The first vampire, it seems, is a woman wronged, a woman whose obvious allure meant the blame for a man's corruption was laid upon her head. But that assignment of blame is incorrect – the simple fact of her attractiveness does not excuse the male approach. The woman's death, cruel and unearned, finally imbues her with that power, that ability to draw men in to their destruction. But it is interesting that she does it not through her wiles, but through her very real, irredeemable helplessness - a self-effacement that is feminine rather than effeminate, a state to which she was already condemned by the moral laxity and prejudices of men. In under ten words, Derleth addresses the underlying prejudice of most late 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction, "He thought she was to blame, though she wasn't".

The Alchemy of the Screen Vampire:

But here, in 1939, we have a break, because here comes the screen vampire, the cinematic history. Certain expectations, certain cliches emerge from the stories and become gospel. The vampire ceases to be an almost-ghost, an almost-witch, a borderline thing and becomes, triumphantly, a genre in its own right. There come a generation of vampire writers who have not read Dracula, or at least not until after they have seen Lugosi and Langella and Lee. 

What this does to the perception of the vampire as a gendered being may go some way to explain why a woman's lust for a vampire goes from deviant to predictable, and why it becomes so much harder for women to become vampires at all. 

Part 4 will come after a short hiatus.

1Pun totally intended.

No comments:

Post a Comment