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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The First Vampire in English Prose - Lord Ruthven

This week we'll look at court cards from Robert Place's Vampire Tarot. Today's card is Lord Ruthven, the Knave of Garlic Flowers (or Page of Pentacles).

I wanted to share Lord Ruthven with you because he dispels the belief that the 'original' literary vampire is a hideous monster, and that the sexy, seductive vampire is a more modern development. Lord Ruthven (pronounced 'Rivven') comes from very early in the literary vampire world. In fact, he is the very first vampire portrayed in English prose, featuring in a novella called 'The Vampyre' by John Polidori, written in 1816 and published in 1819. That is nearly 80 years before Stoker's book 'Dracula' appeared (1897). So let us hear no more about handsome vampires being a contemporary invention for little girls in their early teens. It just ain't so.

There is no disputing, however, that Lord Ruthven is a thoroughly nasty bloke. He does not strive with guilt or long for the light. He's no Louis or Angel. He uses his beauty and charisma to prey on hapless women, and he has a vindictive streak which makes him enjoy lengthy and complicated ways to inflict mental pain on his victims. He doesn't just pounce on them on the street and drain their blood. He also encourages vice in practice though seems to abhor it in manner. There is something about his pallid skin and dead grey eyes that horrifies, but women (and men) find themselves irresistibly attracted to him despite this. He, however, is choosy.

'The Vampyre', having been written in 1816, isn't exactly effortless prose, but if you are interested in the vampire in literature, I urge you to read it. Here it is: The Vampyre. For those who are not interested, a plot summary:

Aubrey, a young Englishman, meets Lord Ruthven, a man of mysterious origins who has entered London society. Aubrey accompanies Ruthven to Rome, but leaves him after Ruthven seduces the daughter of a mutual acquaintance. Aubrey travels to Greece, where he becomes attracted to Ianthe, an innkeeper's daughter. Ianthe tells Aubrey about the legends of the vampire. Ruthven arrives at the scene and shortly thereafter Ianthe is killed by a vampire. Aubrey does not connect Ruthven with the murder and rejoins him in his travels. The pair is attacked by bandits and Ruthven is mortally wounded. Before he dies, Ruthven makes Aubrey swear an oath that he will not mention his death or anything else he knows about Ruthven for a year and a day. Looking back, Aubrey realizes that everyone whom Ruthven met ended up suffering.Aubrey returns to London and is amazed when Ruthven appears shortly thereafter, alive and well. Ruthven reminds Aubrey of his oath to keep his death a secret. Ruthven then begins to seduce Aubrey's sister while Aubrey, helpless to protect his sister, has a nervous breakdown. Ruthven and Aubrey's sister are engaged to marry on the day the oath ends. Just before he dies, Aubrey writes a letter to his sister revealing Ruthven's history, but it does not arrive in time. Ruthven marries Aubrey's sister. On the wedding night, she is discovered dead, drained of her blood — and Ruthven has vanished.

So we see a kind of cautionary tale about a deeply evil being who encourages licentiousness, gambling and other vices of dissipation, seduces the innocent and libertine alike to their ruin or even death. The vampire is the dangerous outsider, the foreigner who comes in to our orderly, peaceful system and causes havoc.

He's not a monster who climbs walls. That was Dracula, and he wasn't the first. He wasn't even the second. That was Carmilla. More about her in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, not really seeing the Page of Pentacles-y-ness in this guy. I guess he enjoys physical pleasures, but I'd see that kind of debauchery as more the King's thing than the Page's!