An introduction to Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood.

by Michael Holmes

In the early years of the last century, a new and sensational type of literature for the poorer classes arose in England. At first they were nicknamed "Penny Bloods" or, "Blood and Thunders," then later the more familiar title of "Penny Dreadfuls."

To the collector of Penny Bloods Varney The Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood is regarded as a treasure! Down through the years it has been sought and revered by collectors around the world making it a very rare book indeed. Only a handful of copies are thought to exist. In 1996 a copy came up for acution in England and fetched 1700 pounds (\$3000).

Written 50 years before Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was published, it was a work of great imagination and influence in its time yet nowadays it is an obscure oddity. Who wrote it and why?

To answer that question we have to go back to the first quarter of the 19th century when the most popular reading material was the Gothic novel, full of castles and spectres, melodramatic heroes and villains. These books were far beyond the reach of the average worker and could only be afforded by people of higher means. A dramatic combination of events changed this situation and put thrilling fiction into the hands of the common man.

Reforms in government education meant all children were taught to read; a new type of steam-powered printing press was introduced along with paper making machines. This meant reading material could be turned out at an unprecedented rate for a fraction of the cost and with a rising tide of literacy the way was open for a new breed of fiction.

One of the first publishers to successfully exploit this market was Edward Lloyd. Born in Thornton Heath, England in 1815 he moved to London with his parents while still very young. According to some sources he had set up his own shop and began to publish serials by his teenage years. Lloyd tapped the working class thirst for sensational literature perfectly when he published his serial "Lives of the most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads etc" (1836) in 60 weekly numbers. The instant success it brought prompted him to follow quickly with "History of the Pirates of all Nations" (1836) 71 numbers. For the average wage slave trapped in a grinding routine, these dramatic stories of adventure were a wonderful escape from the workaday world. The fact that they championed the rise of the common man by fair means and foul while putting down the rich may have added to their success.

The serials consisted of roughly 8 standard book-size pages with text in two columns. The front cover usually had a woodcut or engraving featuring a lurid image of some sort. Quite often the illustration would represent some action from a forthcoming instalment just to whet the reader's appetite. Occasionally the drawing would have nothing at all to do with the story, being an old woodcut the publisher had lying around! The weekly parts often finished in mid-sentence as the device of leaving a "cliff-hanger" for the next number hadn't been hit upon. The price was a penny a number with part 2 given free with the first instalment.

Lloyd had no qualms about cashing in on the success Charles Dickens was having at the time. He set his writers to produce imitations of Dickens's stories and issued them with slightly altered titles e.g. "David Copperful," "Oliver Twiss," "Nickelas Nicklebery," "The Penny Pickwick" etc. Plagiarism in publishing was rife at this time as the existing copyright laws were inadequate.

Lloyd's publishing business grew dramatically thanks to the prodigious output and fantastic imagination of two writers in his camp -- Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer. Prest was said to have been a fine composer and musician who had written and edited a variety of publications before joining Lloyd. Rymer was a Scottish civil engineer who successfully turned to writing popular fiction. The two writers rivalled each other in speed and output and it is recorded they were both capable of writing up to ten serials each at the same time! It is often impossible to establish which writers wrote which serials as Lloyd would publish titles with no authors given. Prest is identified as having written the following legendary works: "The Maniac Father; or, The Victims of Seduction," "Vice and its Victims; or, Phoebe the Peasant's Daughter" and "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" under the mild title of "The String of Pearls." Rymer's famous titles include: "The Black Monk; or, The Secret of the Grey Turret," "Ada the Betrayed; or, The Murder at the Old Smithy," "The First False Step; or, The Path to Crime"

His most enduring tale was the legendary "Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood." The serial was first issued in 1845. Issue 1 contained issues 2,3 and 4 free! If a story was going badly Lloyd would terminate it in 6 or 8 instalments, but if it was running well he would keep the writer employed in spinning it out. When its popularity waned, the unfortunate scribe would be ordered to complete the tale with the next instalment. It must have been a particularly hellish task for a writer to work in this way and it lent a certain style to the stories in that they were often a sequence of sensational events. In this way a sudden halt to the tale was possible without the problem of tying up half-developed areas of the plot. There's evidence of this towards the end of Varney when the action becomes a series of attempts by the Vampire to find a bride. We must however forgive it its sins considering the conditions it was written under! These serials were the soap operas of their day and each episode had to have plenty of allure to maintain public interest. A writer turning out weekly numbers for several different stories didn't enjoy the scope or leisure a standard novelist had.

Varney had a great success. There was even a stage drama of the serial in 1846. The serial ran for two years completing in 1847 with 220 chapters in 109 penny numbers. The story itself is well written, particularly the dramatic opening which is excellent, but the action that follows is not what the modern reader would expect from a vampire tale. I suspect this is due to being conditioned by the Dracula/Horror movie genre. Instead, a tense mystery is built up as the Bannerworth family and friends play a battle of wits against Sir Francis Varney. The plot is wide-ranging but loses pace and interest around the halfway point when Varney disappears from the tale. A series of comic episodes with Admiral Bell and Jack Pringle ensue, but things quickly pick up when the Vampire reappears. Inevitably the tale ends rather abruptly when Sir Francis Varney throws himself into the boiling lava of Mount Vesuvius! One memorable scene occurs in chapter LX where Varney responds to the challenge of a duel by Admiral Bell. He suggests they use a chamber in his house fitted for scientific purposes as a dark room. Both would be armed with scythes and locked in for one hour in which time they would do their best to cut each other in two!

Edward Lloyd is credited with having published over 200 bloods from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. The profits they brought him helped establish a newspaper empire that continued well into this century. Lloyd died in 1890 a millionaire by today's standards. In his later years he was ashamed of his lurid start in publishing and had agents go around bookshops and lending libraries buying up all his early publications which were then destroyed. Luckily one of these agents secretly hoarded a good amount which he sold after Lloyd's death for a handsome profit, the old bloods having become collector's items by this time. As for his two most notable writers, Thomas Prest died penniless in a shabby room in Islington in 1859 while James Rymer died in Shepherd's Bush in 1884 aged 70. On his death certificate his profession is given as "Gentleman" and he left money and property amounting to 8000 pounds.


John Medcraft, a famous collector and author of "The Penny Bloods of Edward Lloyd" (1945) rated Varney the Vampyre as "a classic." At first I had difficulty with such a high rating. However, having read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein as a comparison I now agree with Medcraft. Shelly's tale bears little resemblance to the horror movie creation we know. In fact it is a bizarre book by comparison with some ridiculously far-fetched moments, e.g. the creature hiding in a shed adjoining the family's cottage for several months and learning to speak and read by peering at them through a hole in the wall! Both of these tales are classics in that they were works of great imagination in their day although now they may seem creaky and melodramatic. Their merit lies in the inspiration they gave to subsequent writers and their success in becoming part of our everyday lives.

Michael Holmes, May 1997.
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