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Blood and Regression in Two Late Victorian Novels

Tessa MacAndrew

'It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.’

(Charles Darwin, the Origin of Species, 1859) 


The Victorian Age is often regarded as a time characterised by progress and development.  Technological, industrial and scientific advances were changing the nature of British society and one important change came in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s, The Origin of Species.  In this text Darwin elucidated ideas about evolution that had been long in discussion by men such as Charles Lyell and Robert Chambers, but provided hitherto unparalleled scientific evidence to support his theory.  Darwin’s ideas, in particular the notion of Natural Selection, can be viewed as paralleling the optimism of Victorian advancement.  In ‘rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good;’ Darwin outlines how the natural world is always moving towards ‘improvement’.[1]  However, it is important to emphasize here that The Origin of Species is purely a scientific text and does not, at any point, attempt to suggest a connection between the natural and the social world.  ‘Improvement’ as implied by Darwin ‘of each organic being in relation to its organic or inorganic conditions of life’ cannot be translated directly to mean an overall perfecting process of nature or mankind, but merely highlights an adaptation of certain life forms to better suit the situation of their existence.  Never the less, the scientific accuracy with which The Origin of Species was interpreted is of less relevance here than the general concept of improvement through evolution that was explored in the literature of this period.  For the purposes of this essay I am chiefly concerned with how Victorian writers, particularly towards the later years of the period, did not share a confidence in improvement.  I will be discussing Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which I will show to be preoccupied with regression and degeneration, often expounded with the symbolic reference to blood.          


In Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy uses references to blood to show regression in the novel and to set the cruel wheels of his tragedy in motion.  The first covert reference occurs when Parson Tringham relates to John Durbyfield the truth about his family’s history.

Don’t you really know Durbyfield, that you are the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles[2] (Ch. I, p.14)


Though in this moment the word ‘blood’ is not actually used it is implicit in the idea of ancestry.  The instant that Tess’s father is informed that ‘knightly’ blood runs in his veins, there begins a chain of events that will lead to his daughters demise.  John Durbyfield views the discovery of his family’s former glory as a great improvement, immediately boasting to a passer by:

Sir John d’Urberville-that’s who I am…‘That is if knights were baronets-which they be.  ’Tis recorded in history all about me, (Ch. I, p.17)


However, the notion that this noble blood somehow advances the Durbyfield’s social position is utterly misguided.  Hardy is, in fact, contradicting the idea of improvement by demonstrating a regression from wealth and power to peasantry.  As Parson Tringham says, the d’Urbervilles are ‘extinct…that is gone down-gone under.’(Ch. I, p.15) Furthermore, this regression is not an isolated experience but a common phenomenon among the labouring classes; it signifies nothing more than the deterioration of formerly noble bloodlines.

‘And what had I better do about it, sir?’ asked Durbyfield, after a pause.

‘Oh nothing, nothing; except chasten yourself with the thought of “how the mighty are fallen.” It is a fact of some interest to the local historian and genealogist, nothing more.  There are several families among the cottagers of this county of almost equal lustre.  Good night.’ (Ch. I, p.16)


As Parson Tringham warns in this quotation the Durbyfield’s aristocratic history cannot act as a catalyst for the family to improve their social position.  Conversely, Hardy uses Tess’ family as an example of a prevalently downward social mobility.  


Additionally, almost every reference to the d’Urberville past is tainted with negative connotations: with death, decay and corruption.   The ‘skillentons’ that John Durbyfield makes constant reference to, accentuate that this family is obsolete and dead. Similarly, the legend of the d’Urberville family coach that is told to Tess twice, in part, but never finished, hints at degeneracy in her ancestors.  The first time Angel Clare begins the tale, ‘A certain d’Urberville of the sixteenth or seventeenth century committed a dreadful crime in his family coach; and since that time members of the family see or hear the old coach whenever-But I’ll tell you another day-it is rather gloomy.’(Ch. XXXXIII, p.244)  Later, Alec d’Urberville reiterates the story, adding a little more information and emphasizing its relevance to Tess, as one connected to the myth by blood. ‘It is that this sound of a non-existent coach can only be heard by one of d’Urberville blood…One of the family is said to have abducted some beautiful woman, who tried to escape from the coach in which he was carrying her off, and in the struggle he killed her-or she killed him-I forget which.’(Ch. LI, p.397)  This myth is a sinister portent of Alec’s murder by Tess, an act that highlights her moral regression and is revealed through reference to blood

The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst, had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts.  It was damp, and she fancied that it was a blood stain. (Ch. LVI, p.428) 


That her tormentor and the unfortunate events in her life will drive Tess to murder is, in some sense inevitable.  From the moment she is connected to the degenerate d’Urbervilles by blood she is set upon a course that forces her downward into the abyss of despair and ruin.  It is a path she cannot alter any more than Angel can deny her resemblance to the d’Urberville ladies’ portraits, ‘her fine features were unquestionably traceable in these exaggerated forms.’ (Ch. XXXIV, p. 248) From these links to her past, to the episode in chapter LII when Tess and her family, homeless and desperate are forced to take refuge in the d’Urberville vault, the unfortunate heroine is constantly seen in light of her ancestry.  That this ancestry is ‘extinct’ (Ch. I, p. 15) contributes to Tess’ downfall as she is inextricably linked to its regression.  Angel Clare elucidates the fatality of this connection in chapter XXXV,

‘I think the parson who unearthed your pedigree would have done better if he had held his tongue.  I cannot help associating your decline as a family with this other fact-of your want of firmness.  Decrepit families imply decrepit wills, decrepit conduct.  Heaven, why did you give me a handle of despising you more by informing me of your descent!  Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature; there were you, the belated seedling of an effete aristocracy!’  (Ch. XXXV, p.264)           


Here, in Angel’s cruel words is a crucial premise for the novel as a whole.  That it is regression rather than improvement that abounds in the human condition.  Tess’s reply only enforces this notion.

‘Lots of families are as bad as mine in that!  Retty’s family were once large landowners, and so were Dairyman Billet’s.  And the Debbyhouses, who are now carters, were once the De Bayeux family.  You find such as I everywhere; ’tis a feature of our county, and I can’t help it.’  (Ch. XXXV, p. 264) 


Here Tess highlights the far-reaching nature of this social deterioration; it is not isolated to her own experience.  Hardy, however, is concerned with more than a fallen aristocratic class; the novel explores the degeneration of the human being to the point of extinction and death.  When Tess ‘put[s] her hand to her brow, and felt its curve, and the edge of her eye-sockets as perceptible under the soft skin, and thought as she did so that a time would come when that bone would be bare.’(Ch. XLI, p.314) she is, in essence feeling her own mortality and her own humanity.  It is this humanity that is weak and degenerating quickly to the grave.  Gillian Beer writes, ‘most commentators have emphasised the point of connection between Hardy and Darwin in terms of pessimism, a sense that the laws of life are themselves flawed’[3] and this would seem a far more appropriate association than any shared confidence in improvement.  A connection with Darwin can be far more readily and convincingly applied in this context.  Tess’s fate is not compelled by some higher power but is, like Darwin’s Nature, ‘only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws’ and not an ‘active power or Deity’.[4]  When Tess utters the words ‘I can’t help it’ (Ch. XXXV, p. 264) she speaks the truth. It is through no motivated, personal fault of her own that she is doomed, but through the degeneration of her bloodlines or even more broadly through the chaotic and arbitrary world in which she lives.


Another way that blood works to symbolise regression in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is through the evocation of primeval rituals.  In his article, ‘Psychic Evolution: Darwinism and Initiation in Tess of the d’Urbervilles’,[5] Elliott B. Gose discusses the way in which Hardy ‘brings together the evolutionary view of man as a product of nature with the anthropological findings about man’s attempt to control nature through primitive rituals’.[6] He argues that reference to such ritual practices by Hardy signal, what he terms a ‘psychic evolution’[7] for Tess, whereby she finds her place ‘not as a victim of society but as a human being caught in the ebb and flow of history, environment, and self.’[8]  Gose is interested in how such rituals lead to a form of evolution for Tess, which I do not deny, but for my own purposes I would like to focus on how such episodes must also support the tendency to regression that I have already shown to saturate the novel.        


If Tess’s ancestry contributes to the demise of her character by creating the opportunity for her to come into contact with Alec d’Urberville, then it is the death of the Durbyfield’s old horse, Prince, which acts as the catalyst for their meeting.  This event is also an example that evokes ritual through blood.  Tess falls asleep while driving to market, her wagon collides with the mail cart, Prince is killed, and the family’s livelihood is lost.

The pointed shaft of the cart had entered the breast of the unhappy Prince like a sword, and from the wound his life’s blood was spouting in a stream, and falling with a hiss into the road.

In her despair Tess sprung forward and put her hand upon the hole with the only result that she became splashed from face to skirt with crimson drops. (Ch. IV, p. 41-42)


Here Gose suggests that the splattering of blood that covers Tess evokes ‘a common form of totemic initiation, being “smeared with blood”.[9]  As the life drains from the dying horse it covers Tess, and she is initiated into a cycle of regression.  ‘Like the d’Urbervilles Prince’s name shows him to be of noble blood, though like them he is decrepit’.[10]  Thus, as his blood soaks her clothes she becomes imbued with the fate of degeneration.  It is the guilt that arises from this incident that leads her to The Slopes and the debasing actions of Alec d’Urberville.  Following this incident Tess is forced to regress below the bounds of civilised behaviour, moving further towards a primitive state of existence.  For example, when she comes across the wounded pheasants in chapter XLI, ‘their rich plumage dabbled with blood’ (p.314) she ‘put[s] the still living birds out of their torture…with her own hands she broke the necks of as many as she could find’. (315) With this act of compassion there is also an evocation of ritual sacrifice, one that will be repeated, with far more serious implications.              


When Tess murders Alec she not only takes his life, but also gives up on her own for the sake of her love for Angel Clare.  As Gose says, ‘murdering him is the only way left to her, and to do it she has to regress as far down the human scale as Alec had in The Chase.’[11] Thus, at the moment Tess spills Alec’s blood, she also sacrifices herself.  The novel’s evocation of ritual and blood climaxes at Stonehenge, where Tess lays down to sleep upon ‘an alter’ (Ch. LVIII, p. 441) and in doing so gives up her life.  Hardy uses ritualistic symbolism to initiate Tess on a personal path of degeneration and also to suggest a broader human regression, one that looks back to primitive practices in an attempt to understand man’s place in the nature.     


In Stoker’s Dracula there is also a prevalence of blood and degeneration.  In this text blood is most obviously used metaphorically to evoke sex, but sex that is intimately tied up with death and regression.  The threat posed by Count Dracula is a sexual one, symbolically represented through the fear of being infected by his blood, but he also poses the threat of degeneration.  Like the ‘extinct’ d’Urberville family, the Count represents a stultified aristocracy that has not evolved for thousands of years.  Stoker makes reference to Dracula’s ancient ancestry early on in the novel, when the Count relates his family history to Jonathan Harker,

“We Szelky’s have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship.  Fools, fools!  What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?”[12] (Ch. I. p, 33)


As in Tess this reference to blood signifies a familial connection to a violent and degenerate past.  In contrast to the modernity of the world inhabited by Jonathan Harker and the other characters, this bloodline connects the Count to an ancient age of conflict and brutality.  It is an age, which he describes with nostalgic reverence,

The warlike days are over.  Blood is too precious a thing in these days of peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told. 

(Ch. I, p. 34)


The Count recognises that the days of his glorious ancestors are, like the d’Urberville family’s, ‘decrepit’.  However, he is intent upon propagating his own kind.  Furthermore, as an unnatural and monstrous being he has the means to do so. Through the exchange of blood between himself and his victims Dracula can be ‘the father or the furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life.’ (Ch. XXIII, p.269)  Herein lies the crucial paradox of the novel; that though the Count is attempting to ‘improve’ himself and his species, any such improvement means degeneration for human kind. The ‘improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life’ that Darwin discussed is relevant here because advancement for Dracula and his species of ‘un-dead’ (Ch. XI, p.181) is not an overall improvement in nature; conversely it is harmful and destructive for those infected by the vampire’s pure but stagnant blood.         


 Thus the concept of evolution through breeding is inverted in Dracula.  The sexual act, represented by the exchange of blood becomes a negative and regressive force.  This leads me to consider how sex itself is a represented in this novel as degrading and polluting.  On the surface the threat comes from without, from ‘the other’ who embodies the return to a primitive and degenerate state of being; in reality Count Dracula merely personifies man’s fear of his own descent.  As Kathleen Spencer writes, ‘the Count represents precisely those dark secret drives that men most fear in themselves,’(p. 213) [13] and in particular sexual drives.  The idea expounded by Darwin that man is ‘descended from barbarians [and] the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins’[14] is crucial here because it demonstrates how the figure of Dracula reminds the reader that, in spite of all the scientific and technological progress in Victorian society, modern man shares in his ‘barbarian’ past. 


It is not surprising to note, therefore, that those who are fighting the Count's malign power actually exchange blood: the symbol of degenerate sex.  When Jonathan Harker encounters the three female vampires in Count Dracula’s castle, for example, Stoker deliberately mixes sensation of fear with that of sexual desire and ecstasy. 

I lay quiet, looking out under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation.  The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me.  Sweet it was one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through my nerves as her voice, but with bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.              (Ch. III, p. 41)


As the ‘un-dead’ women advance upon Jonathan his terror turns to lust and the smell of blood he perceives undeniably portents the act of sexual union.  The ‘dark secret drives’ that Kathleen Spencer referred to are overt in this passage.  Uncontrollable sexuality, makes human beings regress to their most basic form, undermining the trappings of civilised behaviour in the desire to procreate and equating us with our primitive past.  Similarly, it is significant that it is Lucy who is first infected with the Count’s blood.  Not just because she has three suitors that all wish to marry her but because she says ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all the trouble.’(p. 59) and as Spencer points out, ‘She is a woman whose sexuality is under very imperfect control.  She is a sleepwalker, a habit traditionally associated with sexual looseness.’ (p. 210) In fact, Lucy’s covert desire to marry all her admirers is, in some sense, fulfilled.  In an attempt to save her life, each man offers his own blood for transfusion, as does Dr. Van Helsing, and in a grotesque sequence of medical procedures Lucy veins are filled with their blood.  The parallels between Lucy’s friends and the Count are explicit, and though they offer their blood to help her, the symbolic exchange reveals suppressed sexual desire. The relevance of all this sex and blood is to demonstrate that the Count is not just a being from outside, threatening to destroy or degrade human life, but a representation of the regression to basic and primitive desires that potentially exists within us all.  


For Hardy and Stoker the arrival of a scientific theory of evolution did not inspire an optimistic look towards an improving future, but a constant referral to what human beings had been, and how easily modern man could return to a basic and primitive state. ‘If humans could evolve’ writes Spencer, ‘it was thought they could devolve or degenerate’ (p. 204) and this is what we witness in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Dracula.  Darwinian theory in these novels does not serve to demonstrate how far we have come but how close we are to going back.  

[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, (New York: The Modern Library, 1998) p. 112

[2] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Ubervilles,1891 (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993)

[3] Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Fiction, (London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1983) p. 238  

[4] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, (New York: The Modern Library, 1998) p. 109

[5] Elliott B. Gose, ‘Psychic Evolution: Darwinism and Initiation in Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 18, No 3 (Dec., 1963) p. 261-272

[6] Ibid. p. 261

[7] Ibid. p. 266

[8] Ibid. p. 272

[9] Ibid. p.264

[10] Ibid. p.264

[11] Ibid. p.271

[12] Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897 (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993) 

[13] Kathleen Spencer, ‘Purity and Danger: Dracula, the urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis’ in ELH, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring 1992), 197-225

[14] Charles Darwin ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. By M. H. Abrams, 7th Edition, Vol.2 (London: Norton, 2000) p. 1689



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