I've mentioned the problematic portrayal of Flora before. Even though it's practically progressive for the time in a number of ways -- such as Flora having enough agency to attack the vampire herself -- the story is still framed around the men. The problems the vampire causes are problems because they hurt the men, and Flora, despite being the victim of the attacks, is too weak and female to worry her pretty head about it or to be informed about what's going on.
Chapter 20 (THE DREADFUL MISTAKE. -- THE TERRIFIC INTERVIEW IN THE CHAMBER. -- THE ATTACK OF THE VAMPYRE) is another one of those mixed, positive-yet-problematic portrayals of Flora. It begins with Flora, having finished reading the story from Chapter 19, hearing a knock at the door.
First we have an awkward paragraph justifying why Flora isn't nervous about answering the door as she was when Henry arrived last time, which is foreshadowing in the same way that bashing someone over the head with a large vase is a nice subtle way to get their attention. Obviously, she opens the door and it's not Henry, but the vampire!
He had drawn up his tall, gaunt frame to its full height, and crossed his arms upon his breast; there was a hideous smile upon his sallow countenance, and his voice was deep and sepulchral, as he said, --I just love that introduction. "Don't be afraid, and I'll kill you if you scream!" I think it sums up the essential conflict in Varney -- and any character of a vampire wanting to be human, really -- which is the struggle between wanting others to treat one as an ordinary human, but not wanting to give up the power and danger that comes with being a vampire.
"Flora Bannerworth, hear that which I have to say, and hear it calmly. You need have nothing to fear. Make an alarm -- scream, or shout for help, and, by the hell beneath us, you are lost!"
There was a death-like, cold, passionless manner about the utterance of these words, as if they were spoken mechanically, and came from no human lips.
This chapter is great for showing us more of Varney's character. While his dialogue has been mostly laconic during his previous appearances, here he really opens up to Flora, even implying that he loves her:
"Charles Holland loves me truly."But I said I was going to talk about Flora. Basically, Varney explains to her that he wants the Bannerworth house, and offers not to kill Charles or Henry, nor attack her anymore, if she convinces Henry to sell him the house.
"It does not suit me now to dispute that point with you. I have the means of knowing more of the secrets of the human heart than common men. I tell you, Flora Bannerworth, that he who talks to you of love, loves you not but with the fleeting fancy of a boy; and there is one who hides deep in his heart a world of passion, one who has never spoken to you of love, and yet who loves you with a love as afar surpassing the evanescent fancy of this boy Holland, as does the mighty ocean the most placid lake that ever basked in idleness beneath a summer's sun."
There was a wonderful fascination in the manner now of Varney. His voice sounded like music itself. His words flowed from his tongue, each gently and properly accented, with all the charm of eloquence.
The fact that Flora is finally in charge of her own fate is what jumped out at me. The choice Varney gives her is coerced, not free or good -- but while Flora's brothers tried to hide the reality of her attack from her, Varney gives her what she needs to protect herself from him. In a way, he treats her more respectfully, more as an equal, than any of the human men we've encountered in the story so far.
Of course, Flora falls right back into negative feminine stereotypes at the end of the chapter, screaming and fainting with little provocation because That's What Women Do. But for a moment there, things were getting very interesting.
Chapter 21: In Which Varney Clearly Should Have Been a Comedy