The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Varney the Vampire (1845-1847)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood was written by James Malcolm Rymer. The Scottish Rymer (1804-1884) was a civil engineer and draughtsman who became a writer of thrillers and penny bloods and penny dreadfuls as well as the editor of Lloyd's Penny Weekly Miscellany. Varney the Vampire is one of the two best-known penny bloods, and despite some notable flaws it is surprisingly readable.

Flora Bannerworth, the daughter of a diminished house of English nobility, is lying in her bed one night when she is attacked by a vampire. Her screams and the arrival of her brothers and her best friend, who are armed with pistols, drive the creature off. There is blood on her neck, and the creature seemed to be invulnerable to harm, but Flora’s brothers, Henry and George, and Flora’s best friend, Charles Holland, and family friend Doctor Marchdale, have a hard time accepting the idea that it was a vampire who attacked Flora. But the vampire attacks her again (and is again driven off), and Henry, George, and Charles are forced to accept that such things as vampires can exist. The trio begin investigating and come to the conclusion that the vampire might be one of their ancestors, Marmaduke Bannerworth. When they open Marmaduke’s tomb they find it empty. The attacks on Flora continue, though always unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the Bannerworths’ new neighbor, Sir Francis Varney, introduces himself to the family and inquires after buying the Bannerworth house. But they refuse to sell it, as it is been in their family for a long time. Varney greatly resembles a painting of Marmaduke Bannerworth, and the Bannerworths begin to suspect Varney of being the vampire. Charles’ uncle, Admiral Bell, comes to stay with the Bannerworths, and he immediately begins annoying the reader with his non-stop nautical blather. Varney meets Flora during the daytime and offers to buy the house from her in exchange for peace between him and the Bannerworths. She declines, but he acts so gentlemanly toward her that she begins feeling much more kindly toward him, to the point of preventing her brother from attacking Varney. The Bannerworths notice that Varney had been recently injured, and they remember that the vampire who attacked Flora was shot by one of them, so they speak with the doctor who treated Varney, and he further confirms their suspicions that Varney is the vampire. Charles resolves to challenge Varney to a duel, but Admiral Bell challenges Varney first. Varney only humors the Admiral but takes Charles’ challenge seriously and arranges a time and place for the duel. However, Charles almost immediately disappears, and Flora and the others find letters, supposedly written by Charles, breaking off his engagement with Flora on the grounds that he cannot marry a woman who has been visited by a vampire. The Bannerworths immediately suspect that the letters are forgeries, but they have no idea where Charles is, and Varney denies any involvement in Charles’ disappearance. Varney’s denial is immediately followed by a scene of Charles, chained to a wall, in the basement of a ruined monks’ hall.

At this point a mysterious European Stranger has a short and inconclusive meeting with Varney. Varney visits Flora yet again and tells her that he has fallen in love with her. He proposes marriage, which she declines, but they talk in a friendly fashion, and he tells her something of his past and the wretched state he is currently in, and she expresses some sympathy for him. Doctor Marchdale quarrels with Henry and Charles and leaves the house. Henry visits Varney in his home and challenges him to a duel, which Varney accepts. They eventually fight, but when Henry’s shot misses Varney, Varney shoots into the sky, deliberately missing Henry and sparing his life. Varney departs, but the local villagers, who have heard rumors about a local vampire, attack Varney’s house. He escapes from the mob, and they, frustrated, dig up newly buried bodies in the local graveyard on the assumption that some of the recently deceased are vampires. The mob temporarily comes to its senses, but they eventually reform and attack Varney’s house again and confront him. He escapes from them again by running to the monks’ hall where Charles still languishes. Varney reveals that Charles is the prisoner of Varney and Doctor Marchdale; Varney wants the Bannerworth’s house and Doctor Marchdale wants Flora. Varney offers to release Charles if he will agree not to pursue a vendetta against Varney, which Charles agrees to. The mob, still in search of Varney, attacks Bannerworth House on the grounds that he attacked there once and might be still hiding somewhere inside. But the local militia arrives and drives off the mob.

Varney meets with the Stranger again, and it is revealed that the Stranger is the hangman who dug up Varney after he was hanged, and that the Stranger was indirectly responsible for Varney’s continuing unlife. Varney pays the hangman the yearly sum which Varney agreed to pay in exchange for his freedom, and the hangman leaves. Varney encounters Charles and Flora, but the mob, still after Varney, reappears, and Varney is forced to run again, though Charles and Flora try to save Varney from the mob by delaying them–Charles and Flora are well-inclined toward Varney at this point. Varney runs, but Charles pursues him and catches up to him. They talk, and Charles manages to get more of Varney’s backstory out of him. A Hungarian nobleman arrives in town in search of Varney. The nobleman is a fellow vampire, and he and Varney talk for a short while before the mob catches up with Varney. Another pursuit follows, and Varney again escapes. The Bannerworths hide Varney for several days. He finds their company restful and is touched by their kindness toward him, but he is weak from lack of fresh blood–he still hasn’t fed yet–and eventually the mob finds him and chases him. This time he is cornered by the mob, and although he fights them off for a time, they appear to kill him. He is buried, but not long after the burial he is disinterred. A long interval follows in which he pretends to be a Baron so that he can marry a young virgin (and, of course, suck her blood). His scheme is foiled. He repeats the scheme in London, posing as a Colonel, and is close to success, but on the wedding day Admiral Bell appears and ruins Varney’s scheme. Varney travels to Winchester and dies again. He returns from the grave and goes to Bath, and while on his way there helps some innocents, winning their friendship. He murders a miser in Bath and takes the man’s money, but his attempt at the marriage scheme in Bath is again foiled by the Admiral. Varney tries the marriage scheme yet again in Naples, and then again in London, but both attempts fail. Varney attends a vampire gathering and then tries to drown himself, but the Fates stymie him even there. Finally, disgusted with his unlife, Varney climbs Mt. Vesuvius and throws himself into its live heart.

Varney the Vampire is in some ways archetypally representative of the penny blood form. Varney has the most obvious flaws of the penny format. It is clearly written by an author who was paid by the word. Many of the chapters are filled with padding. Much of the dialogue is redundant. Scenes tend to repeat themselves with only minor alterations. Rymer takes a few storytelling detours whose content has little bearing on the main story and whose only purpose is to extend Varney and earn Rymer more money. The plot is too long by a third. Flora’s function in the story is to be the love object of Charles and the fainting, screaming victim of Varney. The “comedy” of the Admiral is not likely to amuse the modern reader. (Quite the opposite). Rymer overindulges in coincidence and too obviously pulls the plot strings to delay important scenes. And Varney does not make use of the simplest tactics to help himself: the screaming of his would-be victims continually prevents him from feeding, but he never thinks to make use of a simple gag.

All of the preceding being true, however, Varney also has several of the virtues of the penny format, and to a greater degree than usual. Rymer’s style has only slightly aged, and Varney is generally readable. Rymer’s descriptions are more than adequate, and the dreadful’s padded, glacially-paced lulls are offset by action scenes in which Rymer maintains a good pace and often achieves a sustained, feverish, intense atmosphere. Although the dialogue sometimes veers toward the turgid, there is also the occasional flash of humor, and the irrelevant and padded dialogue is easily enough skimmed. Varney has several dull chapters, but more often it is a page-turner. The modern reader will want to keep reading to the end of Varney. The reason for this is not the love story between Flora and Charles, who are bog-standard penny blood characters and whose scenes are generally uninvolving. It is Varney himself who grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. Perhaps surprisingly, Varney is a compelling character. He makes his first appearance as a monster, one of the few actual supernatural monsters in Gothics or penny bloods or penny dreadfuls, but he is soon introduced as Sir Francis Varney, and it is in that identity that the reader gets to know him. Varney is given a surprising depth of characterization by Rymer–surprising not just for penny bloods, whose authors usually lacked the ability to give their characters more than a first dimension of characterization, but also surprising for nineteenth century horror novels with similar monster characters. Varney is more fleshed-out, more emotionally recognizable, and even more three-dimensional than Sweeney Todd (see: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), than White Fell in “The Were-Wolf,” than Carmilla (see: “Carmilla”), than the Centenarian (see: The Centenarian, or the Two Beringhelds), and even more than the Creature in Frankenstein and the protagonist of Dracula. Varney stands as the most complex and emotionally identifiable monster character of the nineteenth century.

Varney is suave, genial, well-bred, honorable, courtly, smart and has great self-possession. He is also guilt-ridden because of his past, tormented at what he has become, and disgusted with what he must do to survive. In broad terms his personality is not original to Rymer. Varney is a mid-century version of the Gothic Hero-Villain. However, the application of this character type to a monster character was Rymer’s innovation, and the resulting portrayal of the vampire is an obvious precursor to the twentieth century evolution of the vampire character type. Varney the Vampire is not as well-written as Dracula or “Carmilla,” and shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as “Clarimonde,” but Varney is historically important and deserves inclusion in their more esteemed company.

The modern reader will find a few other aspects of interest in Varney. After the first attack on Flora her brothers and Charles Holland refuse, for a short while, to believe that she could have been the victim of a vampire, because they do not believe that God could allow such creatures on Earth, and “we disbelieve that which a belief in would be enough to drive us mad.”1 This is the nineteenth century version of the motif of twentieth century horror fiction, the knowledge which drives its possessor mad. This passage also gives the modern reader a glimpse into the mindset of Rymer and his readers. The modern reader, exposed to generations of horror novels and radio shows and television shows and movies, may react to this unwillingness to accept the obvious with scorn, but it is clear that Charles and Flora’s brothers both believe that vampires are myths and that the God of the Bible would not let such creatures live. This is a significantly different attitude from one that most modern readers will have.

Although the Gothic genre proper is considered to have ended soon after the 1820 publication of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, later writers made use of the motifs and themes of the Gothics, and they can often be found in the more supernatural- and horror-oriented penny dreadfuls. Varney is a good example of this and is nearly as Gothic as Dracula. Among the Gothic motifs in Varney is the maiden in peril, the sleepwalking maiden, the hidden family secret, and the mansion with a dark past, as well as the Hero-Villain character in Varney himself.

Varney the Vampire is the first vampire novel in the English language. Varney gave the vampire genre the motifs of the vampire as the Romantic hero, the emphasis on the sexual aspect of the vampire’s feeding, the Eastern European background of the vampire, the pseudo-scientific explanations for vampirism, and the scenes of the mob hunting for and chasing the vampire. Rymer’s version of the vampire is superhuman but is relatively weak compared to other nineteenth century vampires. Varney has hypnotic ability, is just as active during the daytime as he is at night, and is superhumanly strong. But he is only as strong as three men, and he can be weakened by heavy exertion, such as an all-night chase across the countryside followed by several fights with angry peasants. Varney neither eats nor drinks, but instead needs the blood of beautiful young virginal women to survive, although he needs their blood only once a season. He can be wounded by bullets and swords and can be killed. But moonlight revives and heals him, so he has a functional immortality. (Sometimes, when he is in danger of being killed, Varney asks those who may kill him to expose him to the moon after he dies. And sometimes, when he is hoping to remain dead, the Fates, the cruel, cruel Fates, do not cooperate and expose him to moonlight despite his wishes).

Recommended Edition

Print: James Malcolm Rymer, Varney the Vampire. Crestline, CA: Zittaw Press, 2008.



1 James Malcolm Rymer, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood, 13.