Vampires and Victorians: Science and superstition in 19th-century London

When it comes to timing, I’ve had two fantastic strokes of luck as a novelist. The first was that I decided to bring my Dickens-related book, Tom-All-Alone’s, to a close at the end of November 1850. Why was that lucky? Because it meant that when I chose to follow that novel with a sequel about the Shelleys I had eight or nine precious weeks before Mary Shelley’s death on February 1st 1851, so one of my main protagonists was still alive to play a role in the story. And from that followed the second stroke of luck, because 1851 was, of course, the year of the Great Exhibition. And what better time could there possibly be to set my most recent novel – a book that explores the clash between 19th-century science and ancient superstition.

The Pierced Heart takes Dracula as its inspiration, as Tom-All-Alone’s did Bleak House, and I’m going to look more closely at how I wove my story into Stoker’s iconic text in a later blog. But for now, we’ll stick with the science. Stoker’s book was, as we all know, written and set much later in the century, when science had advanced even further than it had in 1851. Indeed, Dracula makes considerable use of scientific ‘machinery’ – in both senses of the word – from the new-fangled phonograph, to typewriters, telegrams, and the techniques of transfusion, though the pedant would argue that the characters’ apparent ignorance about blood types would have made these exhaustive and (literally) exhausting operations extremely hazardous. But despite all this modernity no-one in the book appears to have any problem believing in bloodsuckers. That such creatures could possibly stalk the streets of a London that already had the Circle Line and the telephone seems taken entirely for granted. The two worlds of science and superstition sit perfectly happily side by side, just as they do, incidentally, in modern transmutations of the vampire myth like True Blood and the Twilight Saga.

But it’s an incongruity, all the same, and by setting my own novel in Great Exhibition year I was able to force this theme out into the open and make it the driving energy of the book. It scarcely needs saying, but the 19th century was an extraordinary period for scientific and technological progress, and many of the discoveries that have shaped the modern world were either made then, or set in train by the work of Victorian scientists.

The Victorians were the also the first to understand some of the invisible – and therefore apparently magical – forces that for previous generations had been the stuff of necromancy. Electromagnetism, for example, was first discovered in the 1820s, and (as we know from Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein) Galvani was experimenting with electric currents as early as the 1790s, and this eventually led to Faraday’s work on electric motors in the 1830s.

With knowledge such as this opening to them, the Victorians really did begin to think of themselves as invincible – that all the secrets of the universe would be revealed, and all the mysteries of magic debunked. The Great Exhibition itself – that vast exposition of ‘the Works of Industry of all Nations’ – was the quintessential expression of this overweening confidence, and the number and sheer ingenuity of the inventions on display is as astounding now as it is for my young hero, Charles Maddox, when he first visits:

The Exhibition hall catches the full glare of the morning sun, glittering like some exotic Far Eastern pavilion, and although Charles has been rather patronising about this whole endeavour ever since he heard it was planned, even he cannot fail to be struck by the skill of its engineers, and when he reaches the head of the queue and is allowed inside even his breath catches a moment at the sight of the vast ironwork nave that opens before him. And ‘nave’ is the right word, for this is truly a cathedral to commerce. At the far end, a living tree stands beneath the arching apse-like glass, and galleries run like clerestories on either side, balconied with red and hung with long pennants of yellow and blue. And as for the exhibits – the sheer range and resplendence on show here staggers the mind. From where he is standing Charles can see a line of huge statues retreating into the distance, horsemen on rearing steeds, enormous bronze urns three men high, reproduction Greek goddesses, and plaster casts of celebrated samples of ecclesiastical architecture. The courts of the exhibiting nations open from the aisle like side-chapels, each bearing its flag like a saint’s insignia, and a gold name blazoned above. And everywhere, everywhere, there are people. Moving, milling, pointing, appraising. The noise booms against the glass like a revolution.

 Within a few minutes Charles is making his way up the stairs towards a sign proclaiming Philosophical, Musical, Horological and Surgical Instruments. The crowds here are much thinner, but for Charles, this is like Aladdin’s cave and a magic toyshop all rolled into one. He knows at once that he must come back – there is so much here it will take a week’s diligence to see it all. So many pioneering discoveries and so many testaments to the human capacity to turn those discoveries to practical use. From envelope-folding machines to oyster-openers, air-pumps to astronomical clocks. He would have come here for the photographic exhibits alone, and despite the urgency of his task he lingers longingly over an array of the latest daguerreotype machines, reading about a recent photographic experiment which claims to prove the “existence of luminous and actinic rays in the solar beam”.

But some of the Victorians’ scientific discoveries were not ‘scientific’ at all. There were many – Conan Doyle famously among them – who believed that Spiritualism was a scientifically proven phenomenon, and in other fields there were practitioners whose names are now forgotten who were fêted at the time for fantastic but fallacious breakthroughs.

One such was Baron Karl von Reichenbach (1788-1869), an extremely successful industrialist and inventor, and member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. After years working with those afflicted with mental disorders, many of them young women, Von Reichenbach claimed to have identified another invisible and mysterious force, a force that was akin to electromagnetism but far more powerful, and present in both moonlight and sunlight. He became convinced that  ‘lunatics’ were affected by the full moon for precisely this reason, and believed some of the ‘sensitives’ he encountered were even able to see this force emanating from minerals and metals in cold flames of different colours.  It was an ‘occult energy’ that suffused the entire cosmos, to which he gave the ungainly and unintentionally comic name of ‘Od’.

This Odic force was, in fact, a 19th-century equivalent of the theory of everything – in Von Reichenbach’s view it accounted for phenomena as diverse as ectoplasm, the ghostly lights often seen above new graves, the aurea borealis, the ‘table-turning’ performed at séances, and the human afflictions of hysteria and sleepwalking he had studied in such depth. Von Reichenbach’s experiments became so bizarre, and his conduct so disturbing, that he was known by those living near his estate as the ’sorceror of Cobenzl’ – a tall and mysterious man dressed in black, who frequented newly-dug graves, walked alone on paths hidden from view, and confined young women in his castle. And when I tell you that he believed the Od was the ‘blood’ of the universe, you will see exactly where this is going.

Von Reichenbach’s theories were first published in Germany in 1849, and translated into English the following year (another stroke of luck for me). He divided contemporary scientific opinion, with some hailing his discoveries, while others questioned his methods, and asked for more objective proof than the eyewitness accounts of subjects who were often both disturbed and vulnerable. Though Von Reichenbach eventually came to believe he could see the Odic lights himself, he was never able to provide scientific proof of his theories, despite apparently capturing images of ‘Odic emanations’ on daguerrotypes, the first of which was published in 1861. In her poem Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to “That od-force of German Reichenbach / Which still from female finger-tips burns blue.”

Von Reichenbach‘s theories have since fallen into disrepute, at least among the mainstream scientific community, and the fact that Hitler apparently responded enthusiastically to the idea of an Odic force has doubtless done nothing to help his subsequent reputation.

So for Stoker’s mythical Count, I have my own version of a real-life Baron – one whose origins are just as ancient, whose behaviour is just as inexplicable, and whose power is all the more terrifying for its origins in science. And against this darkness, a man of daylight. From his first appearance in Tom-All-Alone’s, Charles Maddox has been a thoroughly modern mid-Victorian, fascinated by science, trained in medicine, and a pioneer of what we would call the forensics of crime. He will accept no explanation that is not founded on reason, but what rational explanation can there possibly be for the serial murders that are terrorising London – the bodies headless, the hearts pierced, and the marks of teeth about the necks….


This post was originally written in 2014 as one of three guest posts for the Gothic Imagination site

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