Florimel the Vampire in James Branch Cabell’s ‘Jurgen: A Comedy Of Justice’

Illustration by Ray Coyle of Florimel the Vampire from a 1929 Edition of ‘Jurgen: A Comedy Of Justice’ by James Branch Cabell

Florimel in James Branch Cabell’s ‘Jurgen: A Comedy Of  Justice’ (1919) is a notable appearance of a sympathetic vampire character in early Twentieth Century fiction. The episode in which she appears is possibly a comic allusion to the gothic novel ‘Carmilla’ by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) which features a female vampire as a central figure. Florimel becomes the bride of the anti-hero Jurgen during his sojourn in hell and is described as ‘a very poisonous and seductively beautiful creature.’ Something of a social climber her affection for Jurgen is based on his claims to be Emperor of Noumaria, King of Eubonia, Prince of Cocaigne, and Duke of Logreus’. She is conjured into being through the (feverish) imagination of Jurgen’s father who has consigned himself to a netherworld of his own invention.

“Jurgen met precisely the vampire of whom he had inveigled his father into thinking. She was the most seductively beautiful creature that it would be possible for Jurgen’s father or any other man to imagine: and her clothes were orange-colored, for a reason sufficiently well known in Hell, and were embroidered everywhere with green fig-leaves”.

(Her role as a seductress is emphasised by the ‘green fig leaves’ embroidered on her clothing- an allusion to the conventional image of Eve as a temptress in the garden of Eden).

The name Florimel means ‘honey-flower’ and is probably an ironic reference to a character of the same name in Spenser’s ‘Faërie Queene’, a maiden noted for her sweetness and timidity.

“My name, sir,” replied the Vampire, sorrowfully, “is Florimel, because my nature no less than my person was as beautiful as the flowers of the field and as sweet as the honey which the bees (who furnish us with such admirable examples of industry) get out of these flowers. But a sad misfortune changed all this. For I chanced one day to fall ill and die (which, of course, might happen to anyone), and as my funeral was leaving the house the cat jumped over my coffin. That was a terrible misfortune to befall a poor dead girl so generally respected, and in wide demand as a seamstress; though, even then, the worst might have been averted had not my sister-in-law been of what they call a humane disposition and foolishly attached to the cat. So they did not kill it, and I, of course, became a vampire…”

Cabell portrays Florimel in an ambiguous manner which wavers between irony and sympathy. She feels sorry for herself because of her ‘abhorrence of irregular hours’ and thinks it very unjust that she should be fated to be a vampire but feel sorry for her victims.

Then Florimel told Jurgen of her horrible awakening in the grave, and of what had befallen her hands and feet there, the while that against her will she fed repugnantly, destroying first her kindred and then the neighbors. This done, she had arisen.

“For the cattle still lived, and that troubled me. When I had put an end to this annoyance, I climbed into the church belfry, not alone, for one went with me of whom I prefer not to talk; and at midnight I sounded the bell so that all who heard it would sicken and die. And I wept all the while, because I knew that when everything had been destroyed which I had known in my first life in the flesh, I would be compelled to go into new lands, in search of the food which alone can nourish me, and I was always sincerely attached to my home. So it was, your majesty, that I forever relinquished my sewing, and became a lovely peril, a flashing desolation, and an evil which smites by night, in spite of my abhorrence of irregular hours: and what I do I dislike extremely, for it is a sad fate to become a vampire, and still to sympathize with your victims, and particularly with their poor mothers.”

So Jurgen comforted Florimel, and he put his arm around her”.

Cabell’s description of the couple’s honeymoon in the infernal region of Barathum contains a number of amusing Cabell double-entendres about a ‘cleft’, ‘a candle’ and ‘a magnificent sceptre’.

“So Florimel conducted Jurgen, through the changeless twilight of Barathum, like that of a gray winter afternoon, to a quiet cleft by the Sea of Blood, which she had fitted out very cosily in imitation of her girlhood home; and she lighted a candle, and made him welcome to her cleft. And when Jurgen was about to enter it he saw that his shadow was following him into the Vampire’s home.

“Let us extinguish this candle!” says Jurgen, “for I have seen so many flames to-day that my eyes are tired.”

So Florimel extinguished the candle, with a good-will that delighted Jurgen. And now they were in utter darkness, and in the dark nobody can see what is happening. But that Florimel now trusted Jurgen and his Noumarian claims was evinced by her very first remark.

“I was in the beginning suspicious of your majesty,” said Florimel, “because I had always heard that every emperor carried a magnificent sceptre, and you then displayed nothing of the sort. But now, somehow, I do not doubt you any longer. And of what is your majesty thinking?”

“Why, I was reflecting, my dear,” says Jurgen, “that my father imagines things very satisfactorily.”